The Act


I’m in Boston for the holidays, and today I did one of the few things you can do in New England that you just can’t do in California–I went candlepin bowling. While I waited for my friend Deb to arrive at the alley, I checked out its video games–and found that one of them was The Act, an “interactive romantic comedy” which I’d read about on Cartoon Brew earlier this year.

The Act is tough to describe, but virtually every reference I’ve seen to it brings up Don Bluth’s Dragon’s Lair, and that’s as good a frame of reference as any, although this new game is vastly more interesting than the Bluth one. It’s an arcade game done in full character animation–amazingly, maybe the first since those Bluth laserdisc games of the 1980s, even though the technology is far more practical these days. But while the Bluth games’ themes were pretty much exactly the same as other early arcade games, The Act is indeed a romantic comedy, involving a klutzy window washer, a sexy nurse, an unpleasant boss, and other characters. I’m not sure if the parallels are intentional, but it reminds me a lot of a Harold Lloyd film. (In part because there’s no dialog–or at least I didn’t hear any during the section of the game I was able to get through before losing.)

Dragon’s Lair was a game with a simple input device (a joystick) and game play that was almost beside the point (you thrashed the joystick around, but it didn’t seem to have that much impact on what happened). The Act has an even simpler input device (a rotating knob, not unlike the one from Pong), but the game play is surprisingly subtle. Basically, you rotate the knob to control the hero’s behavior, and the idea is to keep him active without forcing him to go over the top. So in the first bit of game play, in which he’s flirting with the nurse in a Casablanca parody, you’ve got to turn the knob with a lot of finesse–rather slowly, precisely, and sporadically–to avoid scaring her off.

Between the nicely-done animation, unusual premise, and unique game play, I found the game pretty absorbing, and was playing when Deb arrived. She was intrigued, but when I asked her if she wanted to have a go, she said “No!” I should have asked her why, but didn’t.

Back at my folks’ house, I looked into the story behind The Act, and found that I’d lucked into being one of the first people to play it. It’s the product of a Boston-area company called Cecropia, and is in a test rollout at seven Massachusetts and New Hampshire locations through January, including the bowling alley we’d gone to. The animation, directed by Broose Johnson, was done by laid-off veterans of Disney’s Orlando studio, and it’s good, funny stuff; even the backgrounds are well done.

(The Cecropia site has more background on the game.)

The Act has almost nothing to do with the barely-alive industry that arcade gaming has become–it’s low-key, free of violence other than the slapstick kind, and rewards restraint on the part of the game player. Most players of arcade games–who seem to be a pretty lonely bunch of pre-teen boys these days–probably wouldn’t like it; most people who might like it probably haven’t played an arcade game in years.

I have no idea whether it stands a chance as a business enterprise, but I hope so–it’s a new idea, and one which makes excellent use of hand-drawn animation. If you find yourself near any of the test locations in the next few weeks, check it out. And if you don’t find yourself near them, stay tuned: Apparently, Cecropia has plans to release a home version at some point.

I hope it’s a success, one way or another–I’d like to see its makers get a shot at continuing this experiment with further games…

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