Tim Curry has stolen my heart and he’s taking it into Communist space.
Full-Motion Video games were a mid- to late-1990s fad that were either semi-playable movies (where you shot at bad guys running on screen) or incorporated live-action cutscenes into otherwise animated games. Think Who Framed Roger Rabbit? but on your grandma’s PC. They’re usually all as silly as you’d imagine, either aimed at a younger audience delighted to watch some over-the-top fantasy or an older audience wowed by the possibilities of technology. It seems like the perfect home for character actors and infomercial escapees to camp it up with little career risk and some quick cash, right?
The weird thing is how many A-list actors – or at least people you’d never expect – appeared in these games. What’s even weirder is how crazy most of their roles were. Nobody’s a heartfelt dramatic lead, they’re all chewing the digital scenery and revelling in this new media frontier. It’s a delightful embarrassment, like going through old yearbooks, and I hope you’ll join me on this trip down Random Access Memory lane.
1. Tim Curry – Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3
This is the motherload, so I’ll spoil you by dropping it on you first. The Command & Conquer games are notoriously batty – the Red Alert offshoots even moreso, taking place in an alternate war torn past. Curry’s edition (as he co-stars alongside Jonathan Pryce and George Takei), features the Soviets, led by Premier Anatoly Cherdenko (Curry), facing defeat versus the Allied nations. So of course they go back in time to kill Albert Einstein. Curry’s performance is, at its dullest, a Gwen Stefani song in terms of banana-ness. His best lines are in the clip below, which features Curry’s hilarious Russian accent, the director’s choice to keep a take that has him audibly and visibly laughing at the lines, and the multisyllabic elongation of the word “space.” Enjoy.
2. Christopher Walken – Ripper
Back in 1996, the hot thing to get into was video game acting. Apparently. Why else would Christopher Walken agree to be in a schlocky point-and-click detective game? He plays Detective Vince Magnotta, a hardboiled cop that simply doesn’t know what to do with his arms. This was before some movies were entirely green screen, but this acting was as stilted and strange as that similarly unnatural environment. Walken’s best delivery in the game, is when fed up with those around him: “Theeze gaiz! Are un-fucking-believable!”
3. Christopher Lloyd – Toonstruck
Speaking of things being, well, unbelievable, another 1996 game with live-action acting starred Christopher Lloyd as an animator that gets Cool World’ed into his own cartoon. Sucked into the animation, he squares off against a malevolent count (played by patron saint of hamminess Tim Curry) whom he must find and defeat in order to go back home where things have depth and non-primary colors. Another adventure game, Lloyd’s wild-eyed acting actually keeps pace with the wacky creatures around him, making this oddball game one of the better uses of the “real life person in a cartoon world” premise.
4. Clive Owen – Privateer 2: The Darkening
That’s right, a pre-fame Clive Owen starred in an amnesiac sci-fi space combat simulator alongside John Hurt, Christopher Walken, and Brian Blessed. Hearing the classically trained Shakespearean actor deliver the line “He was….reading my email?” as a musical sting signals nefarious activity is a joy to behold and a wonderful time capsule for how movies and video games have slowly collided over the years.
5. Brian Keith – Under a Killing Moon
Brian Keith, who played everything from The Wind and the Lion’s President Theodore Roosevelt to the excellently cranky (and excellently named) judge on Hardcastle and McCormick, appeared in a detective game as the main character’s cranky mentor. Gameplay technology hadn’t quite caught up with the storytelling ability of PC video games at this point, so it make sense these games would focus on questioning characters with pre-recorded phrases accessed by options like “investigate facts” or “investigate vibes.” Keith’s performance is one of the most understated on this list, but he also gets stabbed to death in an office by someone named The Chameleon, so let’s not pretend that’s normal.
6. Rob Lowe – Fox Hunt
Fox Hunt was a painfully unfunny razz of spy movies that stunt cast the loneliest Bond (George Lazenby) as its attempt at establishing a bona fide. But the best part is Rob Lowe, cast as a high-strung infomercial mogul with an army of clones. That you have to shoot. While freefalling from 20,000 feet. This is real and I’m disappointed its existence isn’t brought up regularly in interviews.
7. Joe Piscopo – Multimedia Celebrity Poker
The first thing Joe Piscopo does in a seemingly docile poker game is wave his hands magically at the camera while making a Three Stooges nyuck-nyuck-nyuck. Costar Jonathan Frakes bottles his shame inside his tasteful turtleneck as he and Morgan Fairchild just try to maintain some dignity as they sit in front of a pixelated window dealing cards. I’m not sure Piscopo ever did any acting as sophisticated as developing a poker tell, but he tells a variety of long-winded jokes at the same level of insufferability while bugging his eyes as widely as the Windows 3 engine could render.
8. Mark Hamill – Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger
I could go into the lore of Wing Commander and its tenuous connection to the game Clive Owen appeared in earlier in this list, but I think I’ll just leave this clip of Mark Hamill calmly discussing wartime tactics with a crazy Sesame Street lion-man right here:
9. Mark Wahlberg and Seth Green – Make My Video: Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch
I just couldn’t decide who to pull out of this one, so I gave this music video creation game dual headliners. Marky’s undeniable charisma and complete shirtlessness couldn’t make up for the game’s limited song selection or lack of primary music video clips (it’s mostly stock footage), but Digital Pictures, the company behind the series, produced Kris Kross and INXS versions of the same concept. That is, until they all tanked and the company went out of business. “But wait,” you may very soundly and astutely ask, “why is Seth Green here?” He’s the teen leading the story before you make any music videos at all. In fact, he berates his sister’s objectification of Marky Mark’s shredded bod with the rebuke that he is “a serious musician.” The ’90s were a strange time.
10. Darren Aronofsky – Soldier Boyz
That leads us to the strangest (and cheating-est) entry on this list. Darren Aronofsky isn’t an actor, no. He merely directed the video segments of this game. Which, since it’s an FMV game, is almost everything. I’m sure he was told what to do and, seeing as it was a year before Pi debuted at Sundance, he really didn’t have many bargaining chips to make aesthetic choices. Regardless, the sheer insanity of his involvement with a game revolving around some pre-xXx bad boy recruitment by the military for a top secret mission (that later allows the player to go to a woefully offensive Asian brothel) demands that I keep it on this list.