Later this week EA will release Conviction, a live-action short film set in the world of Bioware’s upcoming shooter Anthem. It’s not unusual for games to arrive with ads that imagine them as big-budget movies, but most of those aren’t made by Oscar-nominated filmmakers. Conviction, though, is the work of Neill Blomkamp, whose first full-length feature, 2009’s District 9, was nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. He’s a director who’s proven he can underpin special effects-heavy sci-fi films with the real human stakes that drive successful drama, and that shines through even in the brief three-minute running time of Conviction.
The Vancouver-based Blomkamp has been attached to some of the biggest properties in Hollywood, from a scrapped Alien film that would’ve brought Sigourney Weaver back as Ripley, to an upcoming Robocop continuation that aims to pick up where Paul Verhoeven left off. Although he’s not especially into videogames (“I think the only games I really participate in playing would be like first-person shooters, to just wind down some evening,” he tells us), Blomkamp was immediately interested when EA came to him with the Anthem offer.
Bioware’s a studio known for its focus on storytelling, so Blomkamp worked with them to capture the right tone and look for Conviction. “I sat down with Bioware in Edmonton and spent an entire day with them walking me through all of the history of [Anthem] and all the designs and the mythology of everything that they’ve come up with,” he says. “And then I kind of went away for a couple of months and I wrote a couple of things. I wrote something that I thought was far longer than what we would be able to shoot, so that we could edit that down and it would feel like a trailer for a film. I would send it to Bioware and then the guys at Bioware would be like ‘90% of this is cool but we have issues with these three things,’ whatever they might be. ‘They violate THIS in the mythology.’ So I would go and adjust that. And that was kind of a process. So it was creative and fun and not that restrictive.”
That kind of world-building is what Blomkamp likes about videogames. “I don’t think I have a normal relationship with games,” he says. “There’s a kind of world creation, immersive quality to them that is the thing that draws me in. I’m not really there to play them the same way that other people, I think, play them, generally speaking. The games that I do play—for me to go and explore and walk around in a new game, in something like Anthem, where they’ve put this much effort into it, it really is a simulated small version of reality to some degree. I find that really fascinating.”
Building a world like Anthem, as Blomkamp sees it, is a lot like building a world for a movie. It all comes down to storytelling, the basic precepts of which are universal across mediums. “The process of getting to the point where the thing you created becomes either interactive or it becomes a narrative, passive piece of entertainment, i.e. a film, the process getting there, either before the camera starts rolling or it gets turned into a game level, is almost identical,” he says. “You’re writing characters and the setup and the mechanics of the world, the physics of the world, the history of the world, and once you have all of that figured out you have to design everything. They’re very similar. In the case of Anthem my job was only to turn that into live action. Bioware had done the work I would’ve done on something like Elysium. I just had to flesh it out to some degree.”
Conviction operates as a true trailer, showing just enough of Anthem’s world to get us interested, and then pulling back without revealing too much. Actually, compared to modern trailers, which tend to give away twists, surprises, and at least the first two acts of a film, Conviction actually shows remarkable restraint. It’s an almost impressionistic series of images, establishing a distinct atmosphere and hinting at some of the broader mythological notes of Anthem, but without giving away any concrete information. It accomplishes the goal of a trailer: it gives us a glimpse of what we can expect from Anthem, in hopes of making us want to experience the full story. It feels like a major Hollywood production because it’s made by a creator who knows how Hollywood looks, thinks and acts, as you’ll be able to see for yourself later this week.
Conviction will be released on Thursday, Feb. 14, and can be viewed here. Anthem comes out on Friday, Feb. 22. The game will be available for PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He also writes about music, travel, food, theme parks and more. He’s on Twitter at @grmartin.