It’s one of the more unforgettable moments in recent film history: The opening shot tracks slowly up a cliff face, so tight you can’t tell what exactly you’re looking at, until it reaches the top and reveals two sci-fi soldiers clad in futuristic armor standing at the edge of the precipice, laconically discussing the eternal question “Why are we here?” You know this style, this mood, but you can’t quite place it; could be Beckett, could be Tarkovsky. Then it hits you: This is Halo for the fucking Xbox. And bam, like that, you’ve entered the world of machinima—movies made not about video games, not to look like video games, but inside video games, using the built-in characters and code to shoot sub-shoestring “live action” films, occasionally to brilliant effect.
Luckily you’ve chosen an exceptionally brilliant port of entry: The faux-absurdist classic “Why Are We Here?” is episode one of Rooster Teeth Productions’ long-running Halo-based comedy series Red vs. Blue, whose first season took Best Picture at the 2002 Machinima Awards (the Mackies). Season three—continuing the adventures of a dozen rocket-toting slackers trapped in the rote and pointless existence of game characters—has a prime slot at the upcoming 2005 Machinima Festival (November 12 at the Museum of the Moving Image) and looks good to take the top Mackie again. Not that it’s a lock: Competitors like The Journey (an artily retouched Euro-toon built with the Unreal Tournament game engine) and Game: On (a slick Volvo ad that cuts between live film and Grand Theft Auto) push hard at the medium’s potential as a low-budget Pixar for the people. But whatever its promise for filmmakers, for film lovers the best machinima still follows the Red vs. Blue lead, striving not so much to transcend as to extend the limits of the video game experience.