‘Her Story’ did wonders for reviving a seemingly dead gaming genre—and since then, many more developers have been having fun with real actors.
It's the Game Awards, early December 2015, and the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles is buzzing. It's the show's second year, the first dishing out wins to titles both behemoth-like of budget and those produced on relative shoestrings. Then, Shovel Knight and Valiant Hearts rubbed shoulders on the non-existent winners podium with Destiny and Dragon Age: Inquisition, so many in attendance and watching the ceremony's stream are anticipating further indie(-styled) successes.
Nevertheless, when Sam Barlow's Her Story wins in two categories, best narrative and performance (the latter going to actress and musician Viva Seifert), it feels like a moment, distinct from previous independent triumphs. Here's a game not only created from the ground up by, essentially, one person, but also set within a genre that many in the industry, and the worldwide gaming audience, had thought consigned to the past: full-motion video.
Her Story is a non-linear puzzle game, of sorts, in which the player must thread together numerous video clips of Seifert, playing the role of Hannah Smith, in the flesh rather than CGI, recorded during police station interviews, to determine her involvement in the disappearance of her husband. There's a lot more to it than that, as Hannah proves more than she first seems, but spoilers.
Barlow wasn't in LA—Seifert collected the heavy trophies for both wins—but he managed to send some words to his game's star performer, who read them out. He talked about 2015 being a special year, and all the great support he'd received from family, friends, and industry bodies. He also referred to the game as "my silly idea".
"I'd been exploring the police procedural space for years, but no publisher was ever willing to bite," Barlow tells me, in late 2016, around a year after his Game Awards win. "As I went deep into my research—and a good 50% of my dev time was spent just doing that—I found myself wallowing in hours of real-life interrogations. That's when the idea popped into my head, and stole my heart—perhaps I could do the game with video. As that would be true to how we consume much of our crime narratives in the 21 st century.
"It also answered a nagging question I had, which was: How do I do character-driven narrative as an indie, if I don't have a $2 million mo-cap budget?"
"I missed the FMV wave when it happened, but when I realized Her Story was accidentally an 'FMV game', I went back to learn up on the genre." — Sam Barlow
Barlow was keenly playing video games when, in the early to mid-1990s, FMV briefly threatened to change the way the medium told its stories, and deepen immersion in interactive experiences through the use of real actors, rather than computer-drawn avatars with voice-overs. But he never truly engaged with titles like Digital Pictures' Night Trap, Cyberdreams' Dark Seed II and Trilobyte's The 7th Guest, considering his move into the genre with Her Story more of an accidental one, than a by-design decision.
"I honestly missed that wave when it happened," he recalls. "I was vaguely aware of Night Trap, and Sewer Shark, and I saw light gun FMV games in arcades, and was excited for the digitized Police Quest; but I never spent any time with those titles. But when I realized Her Story was accidentally an 'FMV game', I went back and tried to learn up on the genre.
"What stood out were the titles that were sensible about how they used video, acknowledging the inherent properties of it, rather than using it in place of more dynamic game elements. So, despite their actual execution, I now think titles like Night Trap and Voyeur are great ideas. They play on the idea of looking as a mechanic, and encourage a kind of pacing and interaction that feels natural around video. But then they ruin it by throwing in trial and error, and more 'challenging' game elements on top."
FMV games rather fell away once PlayStations and, later, Xboxes took command of televisions with impressive computer-generated cutscenes and quality voice-over work. Look up "FMV games" and soon enough words like "fad" and "outdated" appear. But as Barlow rightly comments, there were elements of the best FMV games, of the 1990s, that could easily transfer to contemporary game making.
Her Story is a fine example of this, even if it wasn't explicitly based on FMV games of the past. Its switching between video tapes, trying to find a "right" sequence of events, is almost like Night Trap's multi-camera house surveillance set-up. Only Digital Pictures' game played out in real time, meaning that the player only learns the correct pattern of snooping and trapping after a handful of playthroughs (and, if they're like me, copious note-taking). And for Ohio-based indie developer Tyler Hogle, Night Trap's charms haven't dulled all that much at all.
"I think now is the perfect time to bring FMV back." — Tyler Hogle
"I think now is the perfect time to bring it back," Hogle says. "I'm a firm believer that the technology just wasn't ready at the time. Today is a different story, and FMV is starting to make a small comeback. The idea of controlling a movie at 12 frames per second sounds horrible, and those 1990s games haven't aged well in terms of how they look. A lot of gamers will say that graphics don't matter, but in the case of FMV, they really did."
And he's put his time and money where his mouth is, to support his comeback conviction. In early 2016, it emerged that he'd been working on bringing Night Trap to mobile devices—this coming two years after former Digital Pictures employees had attempted a Kickstarter for a new version of the infamous game (the whole Congressional Hearings thing is another article entirely—and one that you can read here), which fell woefully short of its target.
Hogle's version was more than just a remaster, adding live thumbnail previews for each camera and rebuilding the game's footage from scratch in a program called SCAT, using the 32X version as a starting point. Waypoint contributor Chris Scullion took the prototype for a test run and came away impressed. "It's very, very pleasing, and exciting, to see one of my favorite bad games treated in such a way," he said in his preview. "It's brilliant."
Above: Chris Scullion previews Tyler Hogle's version of Night Trap.
"When you hear the idea of Night Trap running on a phone, it honestly sounds absurd," says Hogle, who's also brought a refurbished version of the Mega/Sega CD (and Saturn!) FMV "classic", Double Switch, to the App Store and Google Play. "But once people saw it playing on Android, the response was usually, 'That's awesome.' Or something along the lines of being surprised that it's playable. Night Trap is fine the way it is, but when it's adapted for mobile, it works in a way that I think is better than the original."
Night Trap's designer, Rob Fulop, was impressed, too. "They were excited to see it on a phone," Hogle says, of the reaction from original Digital Pictures staffers; but Fulop later made a more ambivalent and less-heartening statement. "I'm in two minds," he said. "I'm in favor of seeing Night Trap preserved and playable. That said, the businessman in me can't condone anybody copying and distributing something they don't have the legal right [to]." Which could explain why Hogel's revision, made under the studio banner of Screaming Villains, isn't out yet.
But several FMV-featuring games—several new FMV-featuring games—have crept out since Her Story emerged to wow awards bodies and players in search of something else alike (not that it won over the "not a game" crowd, as a cursory scan of YouTube will tell you). And they've done so from big studios, too.
Above: the reveal trailer for Guitar Hero Live, which I will argue is a terrific game, forevermore.
Activision's Guitar Hero Live made FMV a core part of its presentation, and for the most part it looked fantastic. (It played brilliantly too, making its failure to "do the business" all the sadder.) EA's Need for Speed reboot cast real actors to play its supporting cast, captured on film; and Remedy's Quantum Break took FMV cutscenes to a new level, with four TV-style episodes complementing the video game's story. (Which was actually a lot of fun, until the end at least.)
And in the indie sector, small teams are working out ways to bring FMV to the forefront of the player experience, aiming to do what Barlow said the best older games did: make the video a natural means of interaction, and measure the pacing, the action, accordingly.
Waypoint/VICE has already profiled Zoë Quinn's experiment with the genre, code name "Project Tingler", here. (I reached out to Zoë for this piece, too, but despite her enthusiasm to contribute, we never quite got that time locked in.) And in the next few months of 2017, Late Shift and The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker will ask players to direct their plotlines, based on the actions and feedback of real, human actors.
The latter, a "Lovecraftian murder mystery FMV game", is in production at D'Avekki Studios in Cambridgeshire, England. It casts the player as a psychiatrist, treating the former patients of the titular doctor, who has recently been bumped off. A little like Her Story, a primary means of interaction is typing into the game—do so, and the actors will respond, so long as the right words have been presented (some 1,600 "response" clips have been recorded). And the words you type, that you "speak", have impact, altering the course towards one of several endings, the point being to deduce the circumstances of the late doctor's murder.
Late Shift, meanwhile, is sold as "the world's first cinematic interactive movie" (not sure about that, personally), with 180 points of narrative either/or decision-making. Following a limited cinematic run in 2016, it's released for Mac, PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in April. Writer Michael Robert Johnson, who worked on the 2009 Sherlock Holmes motion picture, says of the Wales Interactive-published movie-with-more:
"The outcomes of each path through the story are strongly influenced by the morality of the viewer's decisions, and the viewer is free to interact in whatever way they see fit, ethical or otherwise. Unlike many console games, you can't simply crash through the story with impunity, and not at some point be faced with the consequences of your actions. Just as in life."
Note the use of "viewer" there, rather than "player", which might set off some alarm bells. But Wales Interactive has some previous form here, in the blurry world between filmmaking and video game development. In late 2016 it put out The Bunker, a co-production with Hertfordshire's Splendy Games, a studio founded to create "ground-breaking, narrative-led video games".
The game received a mixed critical reception, but I liked a lot of it—possibly because it really did feel like a throwback to the more memorable FMV games of the 1990s. Like them, it was a bit stiff about the edges, not quite as compelling plot-wise as its aspirations would have aimed for. The whole thing felt a little too low budget for what it wanted to be. But I enjoyed its mix of light puzzle solving and horror-tinged suspense, controlling the protagonist, John (played by The Hobbit and Pirates of the Caribbean actor Adam Brown), through an underground—you guessed it—bunker, revealing its awful secrets.
"We filmed The Bunker first, before we began to build the game," says Allan Plenderleith, writer and director of the game and co-founder of Splendy. Allan's a children's author, too, and cut his scriptwriting teeth on Thomas (the Tank Engine) & Friends, meaning I like him before we even talk.
"We filmed The Bunker first, before we began to build the game. All the time, we were hoping that Unity could handle what we needed it to." — Allan Plenderleith
"We had a very limited time to film, just 15 days, and we had to do it in December 2015, because the actors were all booked to do other things—Sarah (Greene) was filming Penny Dreadful in January, and Adam had some pick ups on Dead Men Tell No Tales," he continues. "All the time, we were hoping that Unity could handle what we needed it to. We didn't have much time for R&D, to test everything and get it done calmly—we storyboarded the entire game in one block, shot it and stuck to it. Once we had those elements, we couldn't go back."
Which goes some way to explaining why The Bunker is as, I think, pleasingly imperfect as it is. It's a single sit-down experience, movie length, and fun enough for that time frame. "It was a massive, and complicated task," Plenderleith says. "We said, 'Let's do something mature and deep and narratively complex.' And see if we could pull it off. Because a lot of this is about the technology—can Unity do this? And that's always been the case with us."
Like Barlow and Her Story, Plenderleith says that he never really regarded The Bunker as an FMV game, specifically. "We never thought of it that way," he tells me, adding that Splendy isn't set exclusively on producing interactive experiences shot entirely on film.
"We want to keep exploring how to blur the lines between reality and CGI, and take CGI in games up to the level of movies, and maybe blending the two. In our next game, we want to explore using CGI, because I love it—I'm certainly not against it! But, sometimes, reality and that believability you get with real actors and real locations, that takes you over the edge in the emotional factor—making you feel more sad, or frightened, or more empathetic towards a character. I do love the performance of a real actor, and to combine that and CGI into a game is really interesting."
Splendy's "M.O.", if you will—"where movies and games collide" is the welcome message on the studio's website—is evocative of the words of Digital Pictures' president Tom Zito, way back in 1994. "We're going to create the movie studio of the 21st century," he said, in a documentary (slash promo tape) available on YouTube. Evidently, that way of thinking about the relationship between video games and movie production is best left in the past—when Corpse Killer's director of photography, Anthony Palmieri, says in the same film, "if you ask me the difference between shooting a video game and a movie, there isn't any", the sigh that'll rise up from within is deep enough to threaten your eardrums.
"The old FMV era is fascinating, because it created such an influx of genres, and characters. We'd not seen them before, and rarely have since." — Sam Barlow
"Those old FMV games definitely felt gimmicky," says Plenderleith. "Though I thought they were awesome. I remember playing a game with Tia Carrera on the Mac (that'll be The Daedalus Encounter), and she was running around a spaceship, telling me how it was going to explode—and then you had to do a puzzle. I loved it! I played the whole thing. But if I look back at it now… Yeah, it's not so great. So it's nice now to explore the possibility of doing something more serious, and dramatic."
Sierra Online's co-founder Ken Williams might have been on better lines when he said, in a 1994 interview, that the studio—responsible for FMV titles Phantasmagoria and Police Quest: SWAT—had the goal to "prove to the world that this truly is a different medium, not just movies with a computer or something". Different enough that it went down after the boom years without taking video games en masse with it—but Barlow looks back on the years of Sierra and Digital Pictures, and many more besides, as a massively important period for game development, for progression in the field.
Above: Phantasmagoria trailer from 1995
"That era is fascinating, because it created such an influx of genres, and characters," he says. "We'd not seen them before, and rarely have since. These games that felt more human to me, and more widely encompassing of the kinds of stories we tell in other entertainment media. There were legal thrillers, murder mysteries, spy stories, and psychological horror—genres where having a real person on screen helped, or was necessary."
Barlow is following Her Story with two more FMV-based projects. One is a direct-enough sequel, following a new, original story, that, the director says, "expands on the ambition of that format, and the types of story we're used to seeing interactively". The other is WarGames, which he's making with Eko, based on the Matthew Broderick-starring 1983 movie. (Which I loved. You know the one: "Shall we play a game?") Obviously its presentation, its tech, will be modernized—but the concept, that you're playing a "war game" on a computer which has consequences for the real world, remains intact.
"I'm going to keep running with this," Barlow says. "I want to keep pushing in this direction, and see how much we can grow the audience. I think that production values and acting talent is one way of signalling to the wider world that these new FMV games are important, interesting projects. Her Story opened a lot of doors, and I'm excited to see how much further we can blow them open!"