The brilliance of Tommy Wiseau is not that The Room is transcendent smut but that it intended to be Citizen Kane. Only sincerity elevates it out of the VHS tapes in your weird uncle’s sock drawer and into a masterclass of awkwardness equivalent to spending two hours watching your sister kiss her boyfriend through a keyhole. Such is its abuse of the language, not only of the camera but of English, that an alien race could have made a more convincing pantomime of humanity if all they knew of Earth was a single issue of Cosmo and the first season of Survivor. Video games do not generally make disasters of this kind, possibly because few are well-meaning, but likely because interaction deflates the enjoyment we might get from the passive badness of a film. With a video game, you have to take too much responsibility for your time. For a game to be The Room of games, it could not simply be a revolution in terribleness, but terrible and a revolution. It would have to be insightful and catch all its insights in the amorphous glob of its failed execution. Everything about it would have to be broken, except the amusement we get from playing it.
Jurassic Park: Trespasser is so complete in its portrayal of this rare event that it actually becomes immersive, despite being boring in every conventional way.
We always take a game’s parameters as reality when we’re playing it – we have no choice but to do so. But mechanics have become so homogenized that all games seem to account the same rules in the same broad extended universe (the journey from Medal of Honor to Call of Duty to Battlefield to Overwatch is just not that far). Video games themselves have adopted a unified theme of realism that makes aiming and jumping and looting bodies always the same within a genre (some of this is owed to Blackley himself, who designed the influential physics engine on System Shock). Video games have forgotten that they can set the terms of their reality with their mechanics, changing how physics work, how movement occurs, how things react to other things in their universe. When done right, a unique engine can force a player to solve problems with something they know can’t be the answer, but is, to let them break through the walls of the game and move between the limits of the map and our expectations of it. This never happens in Call of Duty but it’s Portal’s whole medium of expression.
Trespasser contains much of what we now value as immersive tweaks of reality in indie experiences: its mechanics are an elemental force in defining the terms with which the player interacts with its universe. It achieves with its unpredictable, non-functionality a sense of such comprehensive danger that even Big Daddy is formulaic by comparison and similar in spirit. The dinosaurs in Trespasser have no prerendered movements: they are entirely reactive to the player’s actions and sometimes to each other. The plan was to immerse the player in a world of behaviors and eventualities, forcing stealth and action into situations of which even the developers may not be aware.
But like everything else, it just didn’t work. The plan was to have the dinosaurs emotionally intelligent with degrees of attention, aggression, and calm, separated by organic responses to stimuli. The game couldn’t handle it, so DreamWorks had to reduce their ambitions: the organic A.I. is still in place in Trespasser but it’s locked on the highest aggression setting. This makes it essentially like any game where the odds are stacked against you to begin with, with the distinction that enemies are always aggroed and clump aggressively together, irascible in being re-routed or distracted (even Dark Souls enemies give up eventually).
An organic sound generator still more advanced than the engines of most games makes pipe on wood sound different than wood on flesh, the sounds being created from the interaction out of the procedure of the program, rather than a preset. Trespasser generated the entire island at once, was one of the first examples of the kind of natural detail and texture popping that Skyrim has become so famous for, and was the very first game to use ragdoll physics. Half-Life would take the physics and do it with class. Weapons reacting to walls and arms being real objects pushed back by other models would become the entire schematic for Mirror’s Edge, a game made ten years after Trespasser, based on only one of its failed ambitions, and still hailed and chided alternately as a functionality revolution.
Trespasser is not simply a bad game – its aspirations to genius are so sincere they’re adorable. Imagine these people – artists, physicists, a certain film director – not many of which are experienced in game design, coming together to generate something new in honor of a film that changed their lives. This should have had a happy ending, and for a little optimistic post-script there’s a whole blog devoted to the cultish fans of the game and the remake they may finish someday. But the game conducts itself as a child with tools and dreams but no knowledge. Playing it is sublime hilarity, to see the blueprints for so much ambition incubating in such an indulgent and ignorant design, to see our power as content creators yield before the digital intelligences we cannot comprehend.
Wiseau beneath his shoe-shine hair and paleolithic brow could not have made a sincerer failure, nor one worthier of sadomasochistic enjoyment time and again. John Hammond would have seen the potent irony in the ghosts of uncontrollable programs rising up against design ambitions and player power and crafting an experience of total digital naturality, a living game. And to testify his belief, Trespasser contains tons of prerecorded story from Hammond’s avatar in the real world, the late Richard Attenborough, offering the least sassy of my reasons to play it again. I am always of the mind that tremendous failure is more spectacular and more fun than moderate success. Perhaps I got that way sitting in my room, tapping away on my Windows 98, wondering whether the raptor coming at me would simply eat my face or, by the sheer will of laughing at my ambitions to power, break the game.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org