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In the early 1990s, video games were about to embark on a magical and frightening journey. This would take place on a new storage medium—the CD-ROM—and would be hyped to deliver film-quality acting, production quality, and storytelling. It would spectacularly fail on every count. But the era of FMV (Full Motion Video) gaming and its inability to deliver even one of its many promises is certainly intriguing to consider and discuss.
Prior to the advent of the CD-ROM, home video games were cartridge-based, and you certainly couldn’t put a movie on one of those. At best you could have a couple of sprites flying around the screen with some barely comprehensible flavour text thrown on there to provide something like a cinematic experience. So when news of a way to present games that allowed over 100 times more content—including actual moving video—worked its way down to gamers from developers eager for the next new gimmick to keep 14-year-old boys trapped inside their houses endlessly throwing their parents’ money away, the now hilariously dated marketing machine spluttered into full gear. Meaningless tech catchphrases about numbers of colours, frames, and a raft of other insanity filled the pages of every Gamepro and EGM for a few months prior to the first artifacted monstrosity being pumped out. If only they could have thrown in “PROTIP: These games have acting unacceptable in an optimistically called ‘low-budget’ soft-core porno, resolution that brings to mind a bunch of pink Legos being thrown at each other, and gameplay akin to a broken, constantly bleating Simon.” If there is anything that could be said in the support of FMV games, they deftly trained Generation X in the art of dealing with constant, mundane disappointment.
Before FMV gaming was considered reasonable fodder for game development, the cost of creating a game was somewhat reasonable. Creating a game was still somewhat of a gamble with the memories of the great Atari crash (look it up, kids) still fresh, and recouping losses could be an issue, but on the whole, costs boiled down to paying Japanese guys to produce thousands of sprites, lines of code and bleeping noises. FMV gaming caused game companies to haemorrhage money like James Caan in The Godfather. There were bloated marketing campaigns, paying for film, digitisation of the film, actors, catering, a director, film crew, use of locations, and huge delays caused by the inherent nature of film shooting and trying to haphazardly cram badly compressed video into whatever Frankenstein code your anxiety-ridden programmers had managed to vomit out. Of course, the pitch was always that because of the sheer spectacle of FMV, gamers would be unable to stop themselves from buying prohibitively expensive consoles using still-new CD-ROM technology and the subpar games to go with them. But stop themselves they did, and FMV games generally faded into deep obscurity before the 90s were beginning to end. Here are a few that managed to have lasting value, either in their own right or through rediscovery by the internet in the past couple of years.
Harvester is a personal favourite of mine. It fits the mould of the point-and-click adventure, but with digitised actors and occasional bursts of hilariously amateurish FMV. Set in a Twin Peaks-esque 50s Middle America town, Harvester’s main conceit is its constant attempts to shock. Incest, blatant homophobia, and a lot of really unnecessary splatter and gore abound as you attempt to figure out something—anything—about the game and why you shelled out $100 to watch a dumpy guy in a plaid shirt wander around a heavy-handed parable on video game violence.
Phantasmagoria 2 tries for a similar goal but takes a much more psychological bent. Written by a bad Southern Gothic horror novelist, you pilot an unlikable Steve Jobs impersonator through the dark shadow world of who gives a shit. It’s another FMV point-and-click shenanigan with S&M clubs and sub-Skinny Puppy industrial music. The 1990s!
Sewer Shark is a whole different kettle of fish, and was produced as a launch title for a notable black plastic train wreck: the Sega CD. A lot of FMV games were originally rail shooters, which is to say a sequence of videos would play and you would shoot at anything that moved. For a couple of hours straight. While an angry man was always yelling at you. Sewer Shark was, unsurprisingly, set in a sewer. You shot rats in a sewer. That’s the game.
Eventually enough attention was not paid to these games that FMV gaming as a whole is but a distant memory. It’s somewhat of a shame that some interesting and well-made games sunk with the ship (the Tex Murphy series), but thanks to Web 2.0 you can YouTube almost any of these titles and get the full experience. FMV games embody a kind of endearingly crap 90s charm, and I beseech anybody interested in old games or even 90s television or film to check them out.
Arts Editor’s note: Anyone interested in checking out Harvester should type http://lparchive.org/LetsPlay/Harvester/chapter1.html into their chosen internet browser. It’s much more enjoyable than actually playing it.