Virtual legality

For an up-and-coming Dallas multimedia company with a hot lawyer game, life imitates CD-ROM

Shyster! is a multimedia computer game that outrageously lampoons the American legal system. The interactive satire casts the player in the role of a shady lawyer as either the defense or prosecution. In playing the game, you select minute details about your alter ego: your gender, race, clothing style, and even fetish accessories like cell phones. As the game progresses, your character's mental state worsens from the stress of the trial, which will require psychotherapy, hypnosis, or chemical mood enhancers to rectify. All of these elements affect the way jury members and the judge react to you, and their decisions about the case.

The cases themselves are thinly veiled parodies of recent infamous ones--lawsuits inspired by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Rodney King beating, and the McDonald's lava-hot-coffee-scalding are a few examples. The game unfolds as a series of interactive video segments featuring professional actors in mock courtroom settings. To say that these actors' performances in this digital production are pure ham is an understatement. Shyster! is such a cavalcade of stereotypes and caricaturish overacting that "bad acting" and intentionally bad performances become one and the same. "Sophomoric" and "infantile" come closest to describing the game's humor and dialogue--which doesn't even rise to the level of Jim Carrey's schtick. Think Ernest Goes Legal.

But juvenile and asinine humor is what the game's creators, a small Texas firm called Museworthy, intended. From their modest offices in Addison, the three started work on Shyster! just over a year ago. They were certain then, as they still are now, that there's a market for a computer game that viciously pokes fun at lawyers. After all, as Jim Freeman, the 27-year-old CEO and president of Museworthy, enthusiastically claims, even real lawyers that they've spoken to love the idea behind the game and want to play it. Selling the game specifically to them, in fact, is part of Museworthy's marketing plan.

Whether lawyers or anybody else will get to play Shyster! is up in the air. The game that spoofs the absurdity of the legal system has itself become ensnared in a legal battle between its creators and their publisher, an L.A.-based company that's one of the major brands in the computer-entertainment industry.

"It's amazing--here we were lampooning the justice system, making fun of it, saying how most lawsuits are frivolous, how we can't believe how much money is spent in it, what a ridiculous system it is. But now, it turns out, we really need it," admits Freeman.

Museworthy's painful brush with the big time sounds familiar: A small group of talented young men get signed to a major label, but soon come face to face with--depending on your point of view--cynically broken promises, or just the harsh economic realities of the business. It could be the story of a local band signing to a major label only to have things go bad. Appropriately enough, the original members of Museworthy--Freeman, Jason English, 26, John Kelly, 27, and Joe Moseley, 27, even look like rock musicians.

Now, the whole legal mess that has resulted from this soured relationship--byzantine enough for an episode of Shyster!--could make Museworthy's second game its last.

"What the hell is Comdex?" John Kelly asked his partners after he got off the telephone. It was the summer of 1994. Kelly, Freeman, Jason English, and Joe Moseley were working on finishing post-production for their first game, Paparazzi!: Tales of Tinseltown.

Founded five years ago by Freeman as a "specialty" ad media company, Museworthy worked on various ad campaigns primarily for radio and TV. Its duties involved designing TV-spot animations and composing music jingles for other local advertising firms to use. It also devised entire marketing strategies for Dallas-area businesses such as Magic Rent-To-Own.

In early 1994, Freeman and English, the only fully employed members of the company at the time, decided to steer toward another venture. Even though their ad work remained profitable, Freeman says, he and English grew tired of spending their creative energies on promotional work. They wanted to create something that was entirely their own--something more fun than advertising.

Making a CD-ROM game--specifically, one that would use lots of video footage--seemed the way to go. The two's skills in desktop video production made it a natural, and Freeman had always yearned to direct a film.

Plus, multimedia software was hot at the time. The CD-ROM had finally come into its own as an economically viable means of software distribution and production. With a CD-ROM's enormous storage capacity, game and reference software could pack in several minutes' worth of video and audio. Most of this, however, would soon be overshadowed by the promise--real or imagined--of online connectivity. These were the days before the hype for the Internet and World Wide Web exploded and eclipsed nearly everything else in the computer industry.

English already had an idea for a CD-ROM game. Called Paparazzi!, the player would be cast as a photographer on the hunt for celebrities in compromising situations. The game would parody famous people in the entertainment business. It unleashed what would become the Museworthy trademark of interactive entertainment--outlandish satire with garish acting performances.

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