The iOS game The Act is the product of nine years of work and a small army of former Disney animators. Image courtesy Electronic Arts
Edgar, a mild-mannered window washer, is daydreaming of the girl he loves. In his dream, they meet in a nightclub straight out of Casablanca, flirting from across the room.
The scene, lovingly rendered in hand-drawn animation on an iPad, is controllable: By swiping your finger right or left, you can control the boldness of Edgar’s flirting. Swipe too hard and Edgar will gyrate wildly, causing her to recoil in terror. But swipe slowly, and Edgar will ease on the charm, pantomiming some smooth dance moves that win him the girl of his dreams.
The Act, released last month for iOS, is a game with a remarkable history. Development on the game began over nine years ago and involved dozens of former Disney animators that had worked on films like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Its animation was created the old-school way: pens and paper. And after The Act was completed, it came very, very close to never coming out at all.
The seed of The Act was planted in Omar Khudari’s mind in 1986. A computer programmer for an educational gaming company, Khudari was looking for the next big thing. He was fascinated by Dragon’s Lair, the arcade game that used animation by Don Bluth stored on a LaserDisc. But the game didn’t live up to his expectations.
“It looked like a movie, but it didn’t seem like [one] when you were playing it,” said Khudari. The player wasn’t involved in the story, he just pressed buttons to make Dragon’s Lair‘s hero jump and dodge.
That year, Khudari went to Seattle to attend Microsoft’s First International Conference On the CD-ROM, where technology innovators gathered to discuss what might be done with the exciting new medium. One of the keynote speeches was delivered by Stan Cornyn, a legend in the music business. He was one of the first employees of Warner Bros. Records upon its founding in 1958, and had won multiple Grammy awards for the liner notes he penned for Frank Sinatra. Of late, he was the founder of its fledgling Warner New Media division, which was soon to introduce the innovative but ill-fated CD+G technology that embedded computer graphics onto audio CDs.
Cornyn spoke of the future of media convergence, the possibilities of interactive storytelling that would be enabled with this new technology. Khudari, sitting in the audience, was struck by one particular turn of phrase: “It’ll be like going to the movies with a steering wheel.”
The Warner executive was speaking metaphorically, but Khudari thought about it literally.
“My favorite movie was Casablanca,” he said in a 2008 interview. “That was about love and honor and faith and betrayal. How could you turn a wheel and make love and honor and faith and betrayal happen?”
It would be a few years before Khudari got to answer that question. In the meantime, he made money. He partnered with another employee of the educational software company to form Papyrus Design Group, a game development studio that he sold to Sierra On-Line in 1995. He invested the money and made more. In 2003, he decided to open the game studio that he’d use to create his emotional love story with a steering wheel. He named the company Cecropia, after a type of tree that has a habit of spreading rapidly in otherwise barren places.
The Act, as Khudari envisioned it, would be an arcade game cabinet with a single control — a dial that could be turned left or right; Cornyn’s metaphorical “steering wheel” made physical. It would be a linear love story without branching paths, which Khudari calls “a novelty that the world pretty much doesn’t want.” Linear stories, he thought, were more satisfying.
The game would allow players to adjust the on-screen character’s behavior by twisting a knob either clockwise or counterclockwise. The first scene that Khudari and his team designed was the flirtation at the bar. Players had to watch the girl’s facial expressions and body language, backing off when she appeared hesitant and turning on the charm if she seemed receptive to Edgar’s goofy come-ons. Other scenes were more complex: In one, Edgar had to alternate between encouraging his slacker brother to keep washing windows while placating his boss on the other side of the screen, the player gently turning the dial back and forth with the correct timing, but not too hard or soft.
Work on the game progressed slowly. While Cecropia had enough software engineers to build the program that would flip between the different loops of animation, he didn’t have enough animators who could work at the level of quality he needed. Hand-drawn 2-D animation was becoming a thing of the past.
Fortunately for Cecropia, that’s exactly what Disney was beginning to think.