Overall Score 70%
Roswell, New Mexico, in the 1950s. Ted the Reporter stumbles across Area 51, an alien spaceship and a whole lot of trouble. There's a secret service agent, a doctor and a little girl around the place - and a real, live alien. Is the alien a prisoner, or an invader? Who can be trusted? How will it all end? That's up to you. For none of this is actually real - it's all a film set.
Some time ago I reviewed an intriguing concept called The Restaurant Game, designed to explore human interaction. This week we have a similar concept in a rather different style. Two players take on the roles of a Lead Actor and a Director in a science fiction B-movie with virtually no budget. The Director chooses the scenes, the settings and the special effects, and directs the supporting cast; the Lead Actor controls the main character in the film, Ted. Between them, the aim is to deliver an Oscar-worthy performance, and provide data on how human drama interactions work.
The tutorial (new players must go through this before they can try their own productions) takes the player through the bigger of the two roles - Directing - and is very comprehensive, covering how to make characters interact with the environment and each other, how scenes are put together, and how to work the numerous special effects (including incidental music). The Lead Actor, of course, will only be able to do the first of these. One aspect that the players themselves have to provide is the key part of any movie - the drama! Players are free to type any dialogue they wish as they play.
Controls for operating your characters are entirely mouse driven, with a menu appearing when clicking on things (or on nothing). Useable items are highlighted with a green ring as you hover over them. Due to the wonderfully low budget, all the items in the sets are made of cardboard, giving them a bizarrely two dimensional look! The characters themselves are portrayed by cardboard masks, which can (rather neatly) be switched if you want a character to be "disguised" as another. Keyboard controls are mainly for entering your dramatic dialogue but also allow movement with the arrow keys.
The 3D graphics are deliberately cheap looking, which has a certain charm - even the special effects (like the tanks bombarding the spaceship) are decidedly hokey! The aim isn't visual effects, however; it's the performance that counts, and keeping things simple helps to focus on that. I did, however, find the menu a little complicated at first (thankfully the tutorial covers most of it quite comprehensively) and the cardboard cutout style sometimes makes it hard to tell what objects are from certain angles. Often it's not clear what something is until you highlight it.
Improviso's sound is what you make it. There's a range of special effects and incidental music available, to be used at the discretion of the director. Many actions (such as picking things up or using them) also produce sound effects, but these tend to be fairly minimal - I suppose cardboard sets wouldn't be overly noisy!
I had a fair bit of fun with Improviso, exploring the set and playing around with the objects, but unfortunately I was unable to find a partner. The limitations of my working hours and the review deadline made it difficult to coincide with other players. I had the same problem with The Restaurant Game, the forerunner to this offering, and was limited to playing by myself. This meant I was unable to experiment with the filming options as filming obviously cannot begin until both the Lead Actor and the Director were available. If I'd had the time to do so, I would have arranged for a friend to play at the same time to try out the interaction, but as it stands I can only comment on the playability of the scenario itself. And it's pretty good! As with The Restaurant Game, players can interact with virtually everything in some capacity. Nothing really does anything - shooting someone with a raygun won't do anything unless they then "die" (an option in the menu!), because it's all just acting. It's a giant sandbox. But with aliens.
It's difficult to really summarise Improviso. It's a game, but it's also an experiment. It's fun, but largely because you invent it. You won't get a huge amount out of it just by yourself - what you get from it with a friend (or even a random stranger on the internet) is entire up to the two of you. But give it a go if you can. You'll have a bit of fun, and you'll be helping research better AI for future games. And who knows? Maybe that Oscar nomination isn't so unlikely...
Keywords: improviso review, mit media lab reviews, mit media lab games, improviso scores, pc game reviews, indie game reviews, independent gaming.