Return of the Full Motion Video Game

Night Trap

When you think of the full motion video game genre, there are some immediately negative associations which spring to mind. This includes questionable acting, terrible green screen environments, and less than stellar picture quality.

But over the last few years, we have seen a renewed effort to reclaim the genre and act on its full potential, with titles like “Her Story,” “The Bunker,” and “The Late Shift” giving players a higher quality of interactive experience and further blurring the lines between filmmaking and game development.

To understand the future of the genre, however, you first have to look into its past. “Night Trap,” which was recently re-released onto modern consoles, is arguably the most popular game from the first wave of FMV titles and was created mainly as a proof of concept for new technology. It was the brainchild of Rob Fulop, Tom Zito, and Digital Pictures and was originally planned for Hasbro’s cancelled VHS-based Control-Vision console in the mid-1980s, before eventually making its way to the Sega CD in October 1992. It was cheesy b-movie storytelling at its finest and was at the cutting edge for its time, capitalizing on the widespread popularity of CD-ROM technology.

“The real idea behind it was, how do you make television interactive?” Zito told Variety. “How do you put programming on television that allows people to interact with what they’re seeing on TV? From our standpoint, the technology was allowing us to deliver to the consumer a new type of TV.”

Unfortunately, technology moves fast and very soon video game developers became enamoured with a new type of innovation. As consoles began offering developers the ability to create fully-3D video game experiences, full-motion video started to look more and more dated and became more challenging to justify producing. Zito uses the example of ‘wallpaper games’ to demonstrate the point.

“Let’s assume you have these beautifully printed images on a roll of wallpaper and you roll that paper from the top to the bottom and then you have in the foreground some kinds of elements that you can move around on top of the wallpaper,” said Zito. “The problem with FMV games, fundamentally, is you were limited to that piece of wallpaper. The player couldn’t go anywhere they wanted to go in that environment.”

In recent years, a number of factors have contributed to the rise of a new wave of full-motion-video games. These include the growth of indie development, the arrival of digital distribution platforms like Steam and GOG, and the greater access to camera equipment and robust game development tools. These not only give a whole new group of creators the ability to create FMV games but have also increased the overall quality of the games.

Contrary to what you’d might expect, though, nostalgia isn’t the main motivation behind this trend. Instead, these creators have a genuine interest in the narrative potential of the format and the opportunities that are presented by working with real actors outside of motion capture. For Sam Barlow, the creator of “Her Story” and lead designer on “#WarGames” — which returns to viewers to the universe of the 80s classic movie “WarGames” — and the upcoming “Telling Lies,” he didn’t even realize that he was making an FMV experience until he started showing the game at events and hearing feedback from the press.

“For me, [making an FMV game] was completely unplanned,” said Barlow. “I remember I showed [“Her Story”] at a festival and a journalist asked me, “What are you doing bringing back the FMV genre?” And that was the first time I realized it was technically part of that genre.”

Regardless of his intent, Barlow’s work and the success of “Her Story” (the game won multiple game of the year awards from publications) has inspired many others to venture into the genre.

“I think “Her Story” was really a landmark title,” said Jamin Smith, one of the creators that Barlow influenced and the lead designer on the FMV game “Headspun.” “It was at that point that I really started to see the potential of what this emerging genre could do and how it could start breaking down barriers between mediums.”

“Headspun,” much like “#WarGames” and “Her Story,” is a more serious take on the genre. It ditches the cheesy acting and the cheap sets for more natural performances and authentic environments.

“That sort of corniness, the almost deliberately bad acting, and all this kind of thing, I think it is time to re-establish what the genre can start doing again, essentially giving it a facelift, revitalizing and rejuvenating for a new generation and starting to bridge that with a lot of this high-end HBO, Netflix-style series, what they are doing” says Smith. It is believed performance is key to achieving that goal.

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Whereas early attempts at FMV often featured actors delivering disconnected lines in front of green screen environments, there is now a genuine feeling that actors are not only interested in working in the video games industry but are familiar with the processes and the context of what they’re doing.

“It helps that the dialogue I have now with actors is completely different,” Barlow stated. “When I think back to working with actors on games I was making ten years ago at big studios, the idea of a video game and doing acting for a video game, there was a whole different set of actors who would do that. Now moving over to performance capture and motion capture in say the last five years, suddenly you now have actors who are suddenly more aware of what this process is.”

“There has also just been a shift in what kind of a performer or what kind of an actor you [can] be,” explained Smith. “Traditional TV and film is only one aspect of that career path now. And as that awareness has grown and more people have become familiar with these interactive experiences — and FMV of course — people are more up for taking a punt and gambling on a role in something like a game.”

It is not only the working relationship with actors that has changed for the better. The tools available to developers have also expanded. When Barlow first set out to make “Her Story,” he struggled to find a traditional game engine that would let him incorporate video in the way he intended, having to use several plug-ins and alterations to Unity in order to make it work. This was incredibly frustrating, he said, especially when he considered the accessibility of the contemporary video platforms available at the time.

“It felt perverse to me that you had the popularity of YouTube and the ease of just uploading a video to YouTube and just sharing it,” he said. “All these different video apps everywhere, but in these different game engines I was not able to have much control over video.” He added, “With ‘Telling Lies,’ I’m back in Unity again, but now it feels the world has slightly caught up. I’m not going to attribute it to “Her Story” – but I think there’s definitely been an acknowledgement on behalf of the platform owners that video is a very useful part of their tools.”

As well as traditional game engines, there have also been a number of bespoke toolsets made available too. The developers of “The Late Shift,” for instance, created CtrlMovie to allow filmmakers to create their own interactive experiences, and have since licensed the technology to Fox for their “Choose Your Own Adventure” movie.

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Courtesy of Chooseco

Likewise, Eko is another company allowing for seamless integration between video and interaction. Yoni Bloch, CEO of Eko, created the toolset initially for personal use, but has since allowed other creators from the film and games industry, including Barlow, to use the technology. This has resulted in ambitious projects like “#WarGames” and more light-hearted interactive media like Sandeep Parikh’s comedy “That Moment When.”

“Empowering the independent creator with free, user-friendly tools has always been at the center of our vision,” Yoni Bloch, creator of Eko, told Variety. “Given how slow the industry historically has been to respond to rapid changes in how people consume entertainment and communicate with one another, we think handing over our own personal means of production is the only way to go.”

But with FMV games pushing more and more into the realm of film and TV, there are some necessary and uncomfortable conversations that need to take place, both among journalists in the entertainment industry and the creators themselves, to ensure that the genre sustains this growth. At the moment, for instance, it’s still unclear who these projects are actually for, and therefore who should be financing or covering them.

“One of the things that makes what we do so hard to market is that it’s both, right down to the creators we work with,” said Bloch. “We regularly pair video game writers, designers, and directors with folks who have a more traditional film and TV background, and vice-versa. Although it’s a completely new genre of entertainment, we very much see it as a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario.”

In the case of Barlow’s recent title “#WarGames,” the gaming press for instance showed a certain level of wariness while covering the project, with a number of video game reviewers constantly referring back to the level of interaction or the lack of player feedback as evidence of the game’s shortcomings. Some believe this misses the point.

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“I don’t think we should be trying to create an experience where you can control the character you’re following in this type of game,” said Smith. “I don’t think that it is the right medium for that. FMV is not designed for that. It shouldn’t be. It’s not economical. It’s not efficient. It’s getting the right blend of genre and the right story. I don’t think it’s perfect for every story. But, certainly, some stories are told better through this lens.”

In spite of the many challenges that FMV and interactive movies still face, the genre is once again going strong. What’s surprising too is that the people buying these games this time around aren’t the same people who were playing them in the 90s.

“If I speak to people who sought out ‘Her Story’ or discovered it and got particularly excited, the reasons they give are here is a type of story they haven’t seen interactively or they have passion for this kind of story already and here is a novel and interesting way to explore that story,” Barlow said.

Smith agrees. “I’m sure there are a small subset of people returning to the genre for nostalgia, excited to see what can be done with it twenty years down the line. But, for me, and again this is my take on it, that is a very small subset. I think the resurgence isn’t tied to nostalgia. That’s not why we’re seeing it. We’re seeing the resurgence because of advancements in technology, design, and access to equipment. All these things are leading to this resurgence.”