Men From g.o.d.

Bill Wisener's right index finger is stained a ghoulish shade of orange. It gleams almost Day-Glo against the starched white of the Carlton cigarettes he chains together in one seamless series of puffs. To his right is a black-and-white monitor with the screen broken into four quadrants, his eyes on the vulnerable points in his record store.

And that it is, stocked with the real thing. Bill's Records has long aisles, seemingly as long as football fields, patched together by crude benches tacked out of 2-by-4s and plywood. They support cardboard boxes hacked to form beds for the stacks of LPs. Artist names and record categories are scrawled on floppy cardboard dividers--everything from Rolling Stones picture disks to bands with names like Agnostic Front and Christian Death. There's a record of authentic machine gun fire and artillery explosions and Jane Fonda's workout record--five of them.

This is just a tiny sample of the vinyl Wisener has collected over 21 years. "Little kids come in here sometimes and don't even know what they are," Wisener says, pointing to his rows of vinyl records. "They ask their parents, 'What is that, a big CD?'"

The story of how Wisener came to this place is so long and arduous he won't even go into it. But he lives in this Dallas record store 100 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, because it's the only way he has to make ends meet, he says. "I didn't ever aspire to do this at all," he admits. "When I was young I wanted to be an architect...But I like doing this, and I can't think that I would have enjoyed anything any more than this."

Max Payne is a good-looking New York cop with high cheekbones, a Chris Isaak eraser-head 'do and a tight-fitting suit that gives him a suave grimness. He has a cigarette, but swears it's his last one. "It's bad for the baby," he says.

Payne lives in New Jersey and works in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen. "Life was good," he says in a voice cured with hard-boiled noir. "Sun setting on a sweet summer's day. The smell of freshly mowed lawns...A beautiful wife and a baby girl."

Payne comes home to find his wife and baby slaughtered by hopped-up addicts. And then he does something digital action figures never do: He sobs.

From then on, Payne takes out his revenge on the New York underworld, going undercover with an array of gadgets including a pump-action shotgun, a slew of Molotov cocktails and an uncanny ability to decelerate the world around him to a crawl while he discharges his weapons in real time. Payne's only weakness is his intense bouts of chronic pain, for which he swallows painkillers that give him pause before resuming his fury.

Wisener and Payne have little in common. Wisener is a legendary grizzled Dallas shopkeeper; Payne is a cool, slick trigger finger starring in one of the most violent and explosively successful video games of the past year. But both characters are featured on a pioneering publishing venture, a digital video disk magazine, launched by some of Dallas' most noted computer gaming hotshots after they decided games were too shallow a life's pursuit. Both characters, too, haunt opposite poles in this digital coming-of-age drama, one littered with glitter, bitter fighting, riches and an untimely death.

Jeffrey Liles' brown hair is pressed into bed-head form; his shirt and pants hang like ruffled bags. A big-screen television to his left flashes pictures of Mexican professional wrestling. He turns down the sound. "I've always had this weird, Forrest Gump-like way of being in the right place at the right time," says the 39-year-old, almost marveling at how he has come to be in the company of high-tech hotshots such as Mike Wilson, Jim Bloom, Rick Stults, Jeff Smith and William Haskins, all one-time heavy hitters at GodGames, the video/computer game publishing company Wilson founded as Gathering of Developers (g.o.d.) after a contentious split from the game developer Ion Storm. G.o.d. is also the publishing company that released Max Payne, the video game that fast became an action hit after their exit from the company.

Liles seems an odd soul to be linked with a group giving birth to a revolutionary DVD video magazine called Substance TV that celebrates culture. But he linked with the men from g.o.d. a few years ago when, he says, he served as a DJ for their booth at a gaming trade show. He kept his ties to the group since then.

When he heard about their current DVD venture, Liles, who describes himself as an avid consumer of television, jumped into the risky DVD gamble with both feet, incessantly bringing the former computer gamers his ideas for content and structure. One of those pieces, the film Liles and his girlfriend Perla Doherty created about the idiosyncratic world of record merchant Bill Wisener, was distilled into a 10-minute clip--the first feature in the inaugural issue of Substance TV--from more than 35 hours of film shot over a three-year span. The clip is a tiny peek at Wisener and the eccentric urchins who cling to him and his store. "Bill has always been an engaging person," says Liles, who worked at the store as a teen-ager. "He ended up being the voice of reason in the middle of all of these people. They're all a little crazy in their own way. But once you get to know Bill, he's the rock. He's the one person in the middle who's really stable."

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz