Like hidden treasures, there were items of great beauty to be found amid all the blaring sound, oversize video screens and frantic promotionalism that is the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the vast trade show that took place last week at the L.A. Convention Center.
Actually, a respectable number of the games and other digital pastimes on view at the show were impressive, at least technically. But the industry is at a stage in which it is copying itself. There were hundreds of Doom clones, Myst wannabes and Rebel Assault descendants on display, almost none of which matched the innovation, technical expertise and artistry of their forebears.
Still, the creative spark that created this industry just a few years ago could still be seen at a few product demonstrations that were truly breathtaking.
Here's the top of the E3 crop for home computers:
1. The Last Express. In 1993, Jordan Mechner was not yet 30, but he had created two of the biggest hit computer games of all time: Prince of Persia and its sequel. Since then, little has been heard of Mechner except that he was working on a secret project.
At E3, officials from Broderbund, Mechner's distributor, gave The Times an exclusive look at a few still-unfinished scenes from that project, The Last Express.
The wait was more than worth it. These scenes from the CD-ROM set on a luxury train modeled after the Orient Express are breathtakingly beautiful. The interior of the animated train is sumptuous, with rich woods and incredible attention to detail. The characters are out of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting.
It's too early to tell how intriguing the narrative and game play will be, but one thing is for sure: This is a CD-ROM you'll never tire of looking at.
The Last Express is scheduled for release early next year.
2. Galapagos. This CD-ROM, developed by a small company in Colorado, is one of the most endearing ever.
It begins with the birth of Mendel, a four-footed computer-animated creature who tentatively takes his first steps around a computer-generated landscape. Being newborn, he knows nothing of his world and almost immediately gets into trouble, stepping behind a moving wall and getting bent out of shape.
Mendel learns from his mishaps, and your job is to try to help him along his life journey by figuring out how to get him across treacherous terrain. In other words, you learn together. Only a few minutes into the game, you find yourself feeling parental toward little Mendel.
Galapagos' creators hope to have a distribution deal soon.
3. Obsidian. The Rocket Science company of San Francisco was founded in 1993 amid much hoopla--its founders were a dream team of video game and Hollywood talent. The company's first batch of games were most disappointing, but with Obsidian, it looks as if they finally have a winner.
This CD-ROM, scheduled to be out in time for Christmas shopping, borrows heavily from the Myst model, but with a twist. The strikingly beautiful world to be explored in Obsidian is a dream, and the game player isn't restricted by real-world physics.
4. WarBirds. This is one of the first multi-player action games that can be played easily via the Internet. You download the software, from Interactive Creations of Grapevine, Texas, for free (it's available in Windows and Macintosh platforms) and are charged $2 an hour to play.
It puts you in the cockpit of a vintage plane, which you take off and fly using your joystick. On your computer screen you can see the sky ahead of you dotted with planes being flown by whoever else is online at the moment. The idea is to get close, outmaneuver the other planes and shoot them down.
5. Neverhood. DreamWorks Interactive will debut its first product in the fall, and unlike many other start-ups, it may well have a winner right out of the blocks.
Neverhood, created by animator Doug TenNapel, is the claymation story of Klay, a clumsy character who fights the evil ruler of his clay universe while also searching for the meaning of life. It's too early to tell how engrossing the CD-ROM will be, but the clay sets and characters (made out of literally tons of clay in TenNapel's studio) are impressively whimsical.
* David Colker can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com