Oh, the glory days of FMV in video games. When adventure games were suddenly coming on six CDs packed with video so tightly compressed it looked like you were viewing the world through a tennis racket covered in Vaseline. This was a phase of gaming that was an unexpected side-effect of CDs becoming the data storage medium of choice. Suddenly there was a lot more space available, but before polygonal graphics started taking off, most games wouldn’t have use for more than 50 Mb. Developers had to start using their imagination as to how to fill the leftover space. A lot of adventure games previously released on floppy disk were re-released on CD with full voice narration, but that apparently didn’t feel like enough, so FMV games began.

I said in last week’s video that there was a curious trend for FMV games to lean towards having ‘mature’ content, which attracted the usual moral panic. Night Trap was famously targeted, somewhat arbitrarily, as it wasn’t even particularly gory, compared to games like Phantasmagoria or Harvester piling the guts on with a trowel. But it occurred to me later that games, especially PC games, had a weird relationship with gore even before then. Wolfenstein and Doom treated gore like a big jolly lad’s party, and some of the death animations in the bright and colorful Space Quest games absolutely beggared belief. In Space Quest 3 you can die of explosive decompression and see all your low-res guts wobbling out of your chest, while the game narration is rolling its eyes tolerantly like you’ve only spilled juice down your front.

Space Quest

That’s what happens when there’s a new artistic medium without much in the way of scrutiny. When a work indulges in ‘mature’ content it’s often to consciously shock and put a middle finger up to the censor, but when there is no censor, it can be separated from that and indulged in with a sense of… innocence, almost. But that perhaps depended on graphics being colorful and cartoony, and once the same attitude was extended to FMV, with the gore being as unflinchingly live-action and real as fake blood spurting from the stumps of bad actors can possibly be, it started throwing things into sharp relief.

Perhaps the FMV period of games helped video gaming get a lot of stuff out of its system, and that it was only from the sight of watching cheap fake blood drooling down the pancake-looking tits of a softcore porn actress could gaming really start to mature, in the truer sense of the word. Now I am reading too much into it.

Tesla Effect

FMV has acquired a bad reputation from all that murder porn and terrible acting, but I think, if nothing else, Tesla Effect indicates that there’s no reason it couldn’t make a comeback. Especially considering all those indie games that do the deliberately retro pixel art thing. I think it’s a perfectly tenable option for video games with linear stories, if all you want to do is use it in place of cutscenes of 3D models interacting, which is a hell of a lot harder to do. I think of something like L.A. Noire. There was so much of that game that felt completely unnecessary and obnoxious, like most of the action sequences and the sandbox driving, but if you dropped all of that and kept it to cutscenes, investigating rooms and interrogations, I see no reason why they couldn’t have done it in FMV, Tex Murphy style. Nothing would have been lost. Although it might have made the developers feel a bit stupid, having put all that effort into facial mocapping technology that produced a look that went back and forth across the Uncanny Valley like it was dowsing for water.

You see, FMV games weren’t inherently garbage. A lot of them were, but there are exceptions: I’d say the Tex Murphy series was the best of the lot, pioneering first-person 3D investigative gameplay and avoiding the mature content trap in favor of pulpy fun with likeable characters. Otherwise, Realms of the Haunting I remember liking. And Bad Mojo wasn’t too bad, an almost totally unique game in which you play as a cockroach scurrying around the floor and fittings of a slum dwelling, and whose cutscenes illustrate the problem FMV games had finding decent acting talent.

All of these games have something in common, and that’s that they actually had gameplay. The shitty FMV games rarely took it much further than ‘click on thing to see next video’, and it only took a few years for the highly compressed video to start looking like wank, so without gameplay the games have nothing left to stand on. Tex Murphy games and Realms of the Haunting both had pioneering pseudo-3D adventure-exploration to break up the movies, and Bad Mojo had all that cockroach business.

realms of the haunting

The lesson one should take is that a game that relies upon the spectacle of new graphics technology almost always ages horribly. Bad FMV games bought into the myth that FMV represented the exciting Next Big Thing, and had nothing to say except “Look, we’ve put video in it now, bet Nolan Bushnell never saw that coming”. After a few years of them, perhaps we’d all gone sour on spectacle, because PC gaming instead turned to first-generation polygonal 3D. Which, and let’s not mince words, looked like ass. But this whole era, from around Quake 1 to the first years of the new millennium while the PS2 gathered strength, was something of a golden era for PC games. Half-Life, Thief, System Shock 2, Deus Ex. All great games, all look like ass.

So my next rhetorical question would be, is there anything about that whole scenario that sounds familiar? A time when people have gotten a little bit too excited for fancy graphics technology, and made games that became more and more about raw spectacle and set pieces and things to look at, while actual gameplay and depth shrank, shunned for spoiling everyone’s fun? Yes, I’m afraid it looks like somebody has been forgetting the past, and is undergoing the usual punishment of being condemned to repeat it.

Which is gratifying, because that means we’re about due for another gameplay golden age. I don’t know if it’s started yet. Maybe after all the next-gen consoles explode from the pressure of my unyielding dislike.

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