"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Chris Roberts is the first computer-game developer to direct a Hollywood studio movie based on his own game. The 30-year-old Roberts is the maestro behind the Wing Commander games, which from their 1990 debut featured “cut scenes” played between the action to narrate their saga — a futuristic space opera in which the player pilots a starcraft to battle brutal, feline-ish aliens called the Kilrathi. To date, Wing Commander, its sequels and various spinoffs have generated more than $110 million for their publisher, Origin Systems.
The first two Wing Commander games used simple cartoon animation for the “cut scenes.” But starting with the second sequel, Roberts directed real actors like Mark Hamill and Malcolm McDowell. It seems appropriate, therefore, that Wing Commander — the computer game best known for its movielike quality — is now coming to a movie theater near you. Shot for $27 million (a modest budget for a science-fiction feature), the “Wing Commander” movie, which opens this weekend, stars Freddie Prinze Jr. (“I Know What You Did Last Summer”) and Matthew Lillard (“Scream”).
Born in Northern California, Roberts made a name for himself as a game designer in England (where he was raised in Manchester) before returning to the United States in 1988 to work for Origin in Austin, Texas. In 1996, Roberts started his own game development company and special effects house, Digital Anvil, in Austin, where he still works today.
As he and Wing Commander fans await the premiere of his first movie, Roberts recently spoke with Salon about his take on the two entertainment businesses his work straddles.
Why have most movies based on video games sucked?
I think the ones up until now have tended to be from games that don’t really have a story or characters. Mortal Kombat is pretty much about guys kicking each other in the head. When you’re adapting something to film, as long as the source material has a strong story or strong characters, then I think you’ve got a pretty good shot. Wing Commander happens to be a game where the whole basis is story and character.
Lots of people paid admission just to watch the first trailer to the “Star Wars” prequel when it premiered in November — then walked right out of the theater before the feature presentation. Since the second trailer will probably premiere before “Wing Commander” (both films are to be distributed by 20th Century Fox), I imagine you’re excited about this but a little anxious, too?
No, my dream would be to get the “Star Wars” trailer in front of “Wing Commander.” It would obviously help the box office. We’re opening, by the way — they put the [first] trailer on films that were already opened. So I don’t think a lot of people will walk out. It may not be “Star Wars,” but it’s going to be science fiction. I think that’s actually good for the film, because it may widen our audience.
Science fiction in movies and television is in transition now, somewhere between waning interest in the “Star Trek” franchise and high anticipation for the “Star Wars” prequels. Where do you see the “Wing Commander” movie fitting in all this?
People like science fiction, and there really aren’t a lot of science-fiction [movies for those] who love them. Take a look at something like “Men in Black.” I don’t call that science fiction — I just call that movie “effects-driven.” For me, “science fiction” is spaceships flying around, ` la “Star Wars” and “Star Trek.” And there’s an appetite for that. Even when a not-very-good science-fiction film comes out, people go see it.
Did you originally conceive the Wing Commander game as a movie-style
experience first, with game play as a secondary concern?
I deliberately set out to make a game that felt movielike. I love
classic World War II films and things like “Star Wars.” I never had that
[cinematic] experience playing a game. It was all very cut-and-dried to me:
You weren’t “in” the experience — it was high score-based. So I wanted to
make a game that made you feel like you were Luke Skywalker.
Multimedia gaming, with its promise of mixing up movie drama and game
excitement, was all the rage in the early ’90s. Then it went bust. The
success of Wing Commander aside, why did multimedia gaming fail to attract
A lot of the production values sucked, the acting sucked and it wasn’t
very engrossing. Luckily, at the point when CD-ROM [technology] came along
for [the third installment of] Wing Commander, Electronic Arts [Origin's
parent company] was willing to give me enough money that I could avoid
those pitfalls and do decent production values.
Do good movies and good contemporary video games share anything in
common — a good story?
It depends. In the case of something like Wing Commander, yeah, I would
say it’s the story, the emotion people feel. On some video games, the story
is not relevant as far as the game play is concerned.
What are some of the creative influences for the “Wing Commander”
“Das Boot” heavily influenced the film in terms of its look. Films like
“Tora! Tora! Tora!” [and] “Midway” — I tried to make my film in a sort of
old-fashioned World War II sense.
You’re a movie director now, so why continue making games?
Because making games is fun, too. I like both because they have slightly
different goals: When you’re making a game, what you’re trying to do is
build a compelling environment in which people want to get lost for a long
period of time. So it’s more about the world-building than the
storytelling. The cool thing about film is that you tell a very focused
story in two hours and the big bonus is that everyone doesn’t have to have
a Pentium on their desk to play it. I respond to the escapism that both
But isn’t “going Hollywood” more alluring?
I’ve been involved in that scene for a while now. I have a place out in
L.A., but I live here in Austin. There’s a certain amount of Hollywood that
I don’t like. It’s pretty narcissistic, and it doesn’t seem to be very
focused on telling good stories.
It’s difficult for me to describe: I love the thrill of making a movie.
But it’s incredibly intense, and it’s a lot more stressful than [making] a
game. A film is a huge amount of pressure, but it’s also very rewarding. A
lot of times a director will make a film and then “detox” for six months or
a year because he’s burned out from being so stressed out on the film. For
me, detox is working on a game, I guess.
Besides “Wing Commander” sequels, are there other movies you’d like
Definitely. I don’t think anyone’s done a great fantasy film yet. I hope
“Lord of the Rings” turns out really well — I’m actually quite jealous of
["Rings" director] Peter Jackson. I love swashbuckling and sword fighting,
like “Zorro,” and I love World War II. [Directing] a “Saving Private Ryan”
kind of thing would be cool. I’d like to not get pigeonholed as the guy who
does science-fiction stuff.
What do you think about the current state of video games?
I have to say I’m very disappointed on the computer gaming side. I don’t
feel there’s been a lot of innovation recently. It doesn’t feel as exciting
to me as it used to. It’s like the video-game business is “going
Hollywood,” where everyone is recycling the same ideas and not taking a lot
of chances. It’s like [there are] 800 first-person shooters or 800
real-time strategy games. I used to think computer games were edgier
compared to [console] video games. But right now some of the best design in
terms of gaming is happening on the PlayStation and Nintendo 64.
What does Digital Anvil hope to offer in the video-game industry to
set it apart from other developers? Anything similar to Wing Commander in
terms of using live-action footage?
We are working on a game that’s similar to Wing Commander, but at this
point we’re not doing any live action in any of our games. Real-time 3-D
with characters has become advanced enough that we can do the storytelling
inside the game engine. A good example is Metal Gear Solid [by developer
Konami] on the PlayStation.
I’m working on a game called Freelancer, a first-person 3-D game where
you go planet to planet. You can be a pirate; you can be a bounty hunter.
And it’s set in a really intricate world where all the storytelling and
characters are [in] real-time 3-D. Hopefully, when we get the full
multiplayer version up and running, a thousand people can wander around in
the same universe, fighting other people, trading with other people.
You described the stress involved in making a movie. So is making a
video game an easier thing to do?
I think a movie is easier. It’s a lot more work, but you can schedule
[its production] and you know what you’re doing.
The problem with games is that a lot of times the game relies on
technology or code that no one has written. And you kind of make guesses
that you can do it, and it’s very unpredictable. It’s a joke in the
industry that anyone knows how to schedule a game. That’s immensely
frustrating. The only thing that makes it less stressful than a film is
that it’s a slower process. OK, you screw up and you’re six months late,
but you got these 10 guys working for six months. Instead, on a big-budget
movie, you’ve got 200 people working.
The thing that’s stressful with a film is the scale. The good thing is
you pretty much know how long it’s going to take [to make]. In terms of a
process, films are much easier.
Which is more fun to make?
I would say right now I enjoy the moviemaking process. Games take a lot
longer to get to where you want them to be. With film, you get there closer
and quicker. I also enjoy it because it’s new for me.
How are the two fields most alike?
You need to keep a pretty clear vision of where you’re going. You have
to be able to communicate that with the people working on the project. Even
on a game, where you don’t have 200 people working, you still have to
communicate that vision to make sure that they’re going to work towards it.
That was the one thing that helped me when I started to direct.
Are you currently considering taking on another movie project?
I would like to be in preproduction on another film by the end of the year.
It probably won’t be based on a game. There’s more than one option at the
What piece of unsubstantiated, made-up gossip about you as a movie
director would you not mind people spreading on the Net?
George Lucas offered me the directing assignment on Episode Two.
I had a feeling you’d say that.
I like to develop my own material. But, yeah, that’s pretty much every
sci-fi geek’s dream: To get to direct a “Star Wars” film.
Howard Wen writes frequently for Salon Technology.More Howard Wen.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)