The Quest For Dry Land
The game Waterworld – The Quest For Dry Land was released in 1997 for the MS-DOS PC home computer. This was an officially licensed title to tie in on the blockbuster film of the same name released two years earlier.
Before I move onto details about the game itself, here’s a little history about the evolution of PC games. Hopefully, you’ll understand why back in 1997 video cut scenes in games were big selling points.
When PC gaming first started the data was supplied on floppy disks. At first, this was on 5 ¼ inch floppies which over time evolved into 3 ½ inch size disks. They could hold 1.44mb of data per disk.
During the early 1990’s computer games were getting larger and being supplied with an increasing number of disks. The advent of the CD-ROM format was a new cheap form of storage that was easy to mass produce and provided a whopping 650MB of storage.
This was like heaven to the games industry that now had seemingly infinite space to create games as large as their imaginations. Whilst games back then relied on gameplay rather than fancy graphics, something today’s industry I think has largely forgotten, the introduction of this new format swapped priorities around.
Games developers realized they could now provide film sequences or pre-rendered video which normally the humble PC couldn’t calculate in real-time. An example of this was LucasArts first CD-ROM release of the game, Star Wars: Rebel Assault.
The video looks crude by today’s standards but back in the day, this was amazing, especially if you were a Star Wars fan.
Based on the success of games like Star Wars: Rebel Assault, Interplay was to make a game based on Waterworld. Much like Rebel Assault, the game would have comprised of CGI pre-rendered backgrounds (essentially a video file played as the background) with sprites as playable characters overlaid on top much like many of the first CD-ROM games of the era.
The game was in development for both the original Sony PlayStation and the short-lived 3DO Interactive Multiplayer computer console for at least a year. Two British video game designers John and Ste Pickford who go by the name “The Pickford Brothers”, wrote about the experience on their web page stating that the game was almost complete at the time of cancellation.
“I had just completed whichever project I was working on at Creations, and hanging around chatting early one evening, before heading to the pub, when Richard Kay came upstairs to the office I was in and said, “Who wants to go to Hawaii?”
A week later I was on the other side of the world taking a tour of the Waterworld set, at Interplay’s expense, to help me design a game based on the movie. I think me and the Interplay Associate Producer I was working with were the only game developers there – all the other people on the trip, from various video game companies (Ocean, Nintendo, and several others), staying in our 5 star hotel, were senior management. Funny that.
Interplay wanted us to copy a Lucasarts Star Wars game which was big at the time, which was all based around streamed FMV with sprites moving over the top (Rebel Assault?).
This was a truly terrible idea. At least the Star Wars game had you flying down canyons, which both looked interesting, and justified the fact that your movement was completely on rails (otherwise you would hit the canyon walls). But it was still unplayable.
Waterworld was set on the open sea. Making the background a pre-rendered movie of a flat ocean, with no ability to change direction, was destined to result in a dull looking, unplayable mess.
But the customer is always right, so we made the game that they wanted, with a 100+ pages game design, a big team of artists rendering a CD full of movies, and brave coders trying to make a decent game out of it all for about a year of all of our lives, and it was a dull looking, unplayable mess.
So they canned it.”
The video below is from a promotional 3DO disc that shows the only known footage of the game.
Several companies went as far as trying to create interactive movies. Scripts were written with several branching options allowing the player to make several choices along the way and alter the story. While this kind of title was exciting to play the first few times, several plays later it was obvious, that there was only one true path through the game.
An example of this type of game was based on the popular television series The X-Files. Fox television shot hours of original footage that used the shows actors to create an adventure game that spanned six CDs!
Waterworld – The Quest For Dry Land was a ¾ top down perspective real time strategy game. You played a character called “war chief”. It was your job to manage resources, supplies and to arm your men with the required weapons for the twenty-two missions the game contained.
I remember playing a demo which was cover mounted on a PC magazine at the time. The demo was rather uninspiring and playing the game now I still have the same feelings. Unfortunately, the game crashes after completing the first level due to backward compatibility issues, so I cannot comment further on the game-play.
What interested me though was the following advertising line from the back of the box.
“Experience and interact with original Waterworld footage.”
The US packaging contained this variant with more of an explanation.
“Experience never-before-seen footage from “Waterworld” the movie and interact with its characters via original video scenes featuring the actual cast, costumes and sets.”
As a young film nerd who has a guilty pleasure for this film, that last line drove me nuts. I really wanted to see it but I didn’t want to pay out for a mediocre game.
As the years went by I forgot about the game and wasn’t until I started reading about McFly89’s adventure to create the Ulysses edit, that I started looking for the unseen footage from the game.
I even suggested to MacFly89 that it could be included as an extra on his DVD set. While it was agreed this was a good idea, the game was already ten years old and copies were hard to come by. Despite my research over the years and for this very article, it was still nowhere to be seen.
However, recently I struck lucky and managed to get hold of a copy of the game. On the CD, the video cut scenes were all nicely numbered in a separate folder marked “video”. Even better was that despite these videos being compressed by Interplay’s own unique format, one of the most widely used free piece of video editing software, FFMpeg, can decode these videos.
At last, after fifteen years of searching, I can finally view these videos at last and share them with others. Apart from the intro, I don’t think any of these has appeared online before. This could be an exclusive for The Unheard Nerd!
Waterworld – The Quest for Dry Land obviously followed a similar narrative to the film because it’s a licensed product. The game starts out with you defending an atoll from a smoker attack and as the story progresses you discover a strange unit that some believe can talk to the gods.
As you’ll see from the videos, it’s a bizarre and huge satellite navigation device that will hopefully lead them to dry land…or not. One of the video clips looks like the result of failing a vital mission and Gregor laments that their chances of ever finding dry land are lost.
I’m certain that some of the footage is unused material from the Waterworld film whilst the rest was specially shot for the game. These video segments don’t look like they were shot on the original Waterworld sets because none of them look very familiar, although they are definitely using props and costumes from the film.
Several cast members from the film reprise their roles here for the game.
R.D. Call (Enforcer)
The biggest cast member to transfer from the film, he played a keeper of the justice in the film and here he does the same. Enforcer advises the war chief and gives him mission briefings.
Zakes Mokae (Elder)
Both here and in the film Mokae plays one of the elders of the atoll. In the extended version of Waterworld you see him die during the attack on the atoll.
Jack Kehler (Tallyman)
The tallyman was Waterworld’s version of a banker. He is the accountant of the atoll in Waterworld.
John Fleck (Gregor)
Here we have a rather strange casting choice as Fleck was in the original film but he played the Deacon’s (Dennis Hopper) doctor. He gives the Deacon the pathetic fake eyeball and is easily recognized as he was always wearing an oxygen mask.
Gregor in the film was played by the late Michael Jeter. So we do have the same character but different actor.
Vincent DeNardo (War Chief) – As this character represents the player, he is always seen from behind or from just over the shoulder. From my research, DeNardo has a history of working on many games during the 1990s whilst working at Interplay. This was a lucky member of staff who managed to get his presence on screen for change rather than behind it, albeit in a small way.
These videos were directed by Michael Conti (Pictured) and I was lucky enough to be contacted by him after he saw my YouTube video of his live action Waterworld cut scenes,
“Thanks for sharing my directing work on this live action video game 🙂 It was an interesting effort combining footage from the film, and recreating scenes on a soundstage in Hollywood.”
Michael Conti had produced and directed on three live action games for Interplay, and Waterworld – The Quest For Dry Land was the second.
His first was Sim City Enhanced CD-ROM, the classic strategy game of building and managing a city and its infrastructure. The third, Cyberhood, never made it to the stores although costing over a $1 million dollars.
Despite never being released, some pre-release material does exist such as this short piece that aired on CNN’s Showbiz Today.
Also, a pre-release trailer for the game also still exists online.
But before the ill-fated Cyberhood, Michael directed the live action elements for the Waterworld game. He initially commented,
“It was an interesting effort combining footage from the film, and recreating scenes on a sound stage in Hollywood…it is important to note that these videos were being played using software delivered on the CD-ROM and not through the computer OS and hardware. There was a bunch of testing the camera, seeing how movement affected the look, and then the encoding processes to deliver the videos to the game. Things we totally take for granted today, but at one point, it was a new world.”
I emailed Michael in return and discovered he was happy to answer my questions about his time at Interplay and specifically working on the Waterworld game.
What is your brief background as a director?
I made my first 16mm film, Public Fixture, a poetic journey of everyman, in 1986 as I graduated from The Colorado College. I quickly discovered thinking you are a director, and getting work as a director are too different things!
After doing production assistant work in Colorado on commercials and features, I took a PA job working in Hollywood with Roger Corman in 1989. Several jobs later I was working at Paramount Studios for the British director, Bruce Robinson, on Jennifer 8, as a director’s assistant.
I was learning the process of filmmaking from the ground up, from working the set to behind the scenes at a major Hollywood studio. I also worked for Metro Light Studios for the Academy Award nominated effect producer, George Merkert, who had pioneered some of the early CGI work on Total Recall.
Right after that, I was at Philips Interactive working on some of the first interactive titles being developed for the CD-I player. I later realized that I was becoming a producer so that I could create the opportunities to direct my own work which I did when I got hired by Interplay. I am still making videos, thirty years later, with The Unruly Mystic: Saint Hildegard through my company, Michael Conti Productions.
How did you end up at Interplay?
I was recommended for the job by one of my colleagues at Paramount who worked on the licensing side of Star Trek. The game industry was going through a massive transition from a one-person show of the programmer doing everything to more of a studio based model, and I was hired to support that new model.
I brought in talented Hollywood writers, actors, composers and artists into the mix. In 1994, I won two Interactive Arts and Science Entertainment Awards at Cybermania for the work done on Sim City Enhanced CD-ROM.
Were you a director for hire or a permanent member of the Interplay team?
I was on staff at Interplay as a producer for three years until 1995. As a producer for Interplay, I was responsible for team management, design and direction of all-live action elements. When I was hired, Interplay issued a press release:
“My vision for Interplay is to make multimedia more fulfilling through stunning computer graphics, experienced talent, and compelling stories. Good entertainment should engage both the heart and mind,” said Michael Conti.
Did the Waterworld game license just give you the usual computer game rights? I imagine someone had a great idea for the game and you had to go back to Universal and ask permission for props and actors.
Universal Interactive Studios was interested in working with Interplay on WaterWorld based upon their success with the Star Trek license from Paramount. The studios were becoming aware that their products could have an extended shelf life as a game. This occurred before interactive entertainment became a bigger ticket than the box office!
Did Universal say “help yourself!” to props or were you only loaned so much and the rest was created in-house. (It does look like you raided the Universal Studios prop store, it’s quite impressive)
Basically Universal Studios did say “help yourself!” While we didn’t film on the Universal Lot, I remember having full access to the props, sets and footage used in the movie when making the live-action cut-scenes.
I was also able to hire one of the uncredited writers, Steve Colberg, to work with the game designer on the dialog. We also had on the crew a couple people that had worked on the film, specifically in the props, wardrobe and make-up departments to help with the continuity. It was a dream come true opportunity.
Was there anything you were forbidden from doing? For example, an idea that was too far beyond what could happen in the film.
Because it was an interactive game, there were scenarios which didn’t occur in the film that we could explore in the game play. There could be an unhappy ending of sorts! There wasn’t a lot of restriction other than honoring the look of the film. We couldn’t bring in props that weren’t part of the world created in the film like a nuclear bombs.
The only casting choice I find strange is that for whatever reason Michael Jeter didn’t return to reprise his role of Gregor. Instead of maybe using a lookalike, John Fleck was cast who played someone else in the film. Any particular reason for this change?
Michael Jeter wasn’t available for the dates that we had picked for shooting, so we had to find an alternative. This isn’t untypical in Hollywood as actors are freelancers, and sometimes there are schedule conflicts if they are out of town on a feature.
Was there anyone from Universal looking over your shoulder or did they have to approve the final footage? Were they protective of their license?
We were working directly with the newly formed Universal Interactive Studios, and they were our gate keepers. They provided the access to everything seen in the film including previously shot footage that we were able to use with our live-action scenes.
There was an extensive post production process where I worked with a colorist to match the footage we shoot with the footage from the film. Considering we were shooting on video at that time, and the film was shot on actual 35mm film, it required a fair amount of precise matching so that you couldn’t tell.
Finally, are there any particular memories you have of working on this project?
One of my memories from the filming had to do with getting the dialog to sound real. Game play dialog can really be long winded, and the actors probably said more in the game than they did in the movie. Just getting them to say those lines with the same authenticity as the movie was hard, both from the amount of stuff to say and how descriptive it had to be.
The experience was definitely a highlight of that point in my career with everything happening to tie together the movie franchise with interactive entertainment.
Unfortunately, the movie didn’t take off with the audiences, and that hurt the future prospects of the game. Also, the approach of producing live action cut-scenes eventually lost out to animation which is still true today. We were able to do everything in those cut-scenes on a budget of $40K US.
I’d like to thank Michael Conti for generously responding to my offer of an email interview and for discovering my YouTube video in the first place! You can find out more about Michael by visiting his company website Michael Conti Productions. More examples of his work are also available on Vimeo.
Written by John Abbitt | Follow John on twitter @UKFilmNerd
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