The contemporary rise of “massive multi-player online role-playing game” (MMORPGs, or MMOs) subculture has birthed a phenomenon of emergent gameplay called machinima. A portmanteau of “machine cinema“, machinima refers to the generation of new video art based on manipulating particular game animations, graphics, and characters in order to craft a story.

What started out as straight in-game storytelling with pioneers like The Ill Clan and series like Red Vs. Blue eventually jumped off the computer screen and into the realm of live action.‘s hit series Arby ‘n’ the Chief – where action figures from Halo3 argue about the intricacies of playing Halo3 – takes the quip-laden, gamer-culture ethos of its animated predecessors and applies it to the real world.

The Purchase Brothers have taken machinima a step further, combining ridiculously realistic in-game sequences with live-action shots that create one helluva good-looking story.

David and Ian Purchase‘s Toronto-based design outfit just released Half-Life: Escape From City-17, the machima/live-action (I’m unsure if this qualifies as machinima since it features human actors instead of pure CGI) web series based on the video game Half-Life 2.

Contrasted with the snarky lampooning found in Arby ‘n’ the Chief, this series is a straight-faced action flick premised on a dystopian future. It’s like the Halo shorts, but on a very limited budget.

It’s clear from that clip that the Purchase Brothers have a firm understanding of machinima, whether or not their work here qualifies as such. The blending of CGI into the real – though anonymous – Eastern European cityscape of “City-17” is nearly seamless and surpasses most of what has lately made it to theaters. At the same time, the fictitious gadgetry (hovering warships, futurist “helicopters”, enhanced firearms) culled from the game are shockingly believable in their menacing “real-life” presence.

So far, the Purchase Brothers have shot two episodes of Escape From City-17 for under $500 and only posted part one online (possibly, in hopes to garner some funding from Valve, the producer of Half-Life). There’s no doubt that outsiders, like myself, will miss the finer details that are second-nature to avid gamers. However, that does not make the execution any less impressive. In fact, credit to the directors who have transformed what is essentially an esoteric phenomenon into an eminently watchable series pilot.

Despite my near-total lack of prior engagement with the video game, the brothers fashioned an engaging story. And it’s these types of web series – the ones based on insider culture, but also palatable to the masses – that are the most fun to watch.

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