Once upon a time—1993 or so—game developers were granted a lovely, dangerous gift by the computer and hardware engineers working on new ways to store and transport digital data: the CD. The developers were quick to find uses for the new space the medium afforded them, as it was exponentially larger than the cartridges and floppy disks they’d contented themselves with in the past: lush Redbook audio, fully voice-acted stories, and the granddaddy of them all, a technology that would (hypothetically) put their works on par with the cinematic presentations of movies or TV—full-motion video (FMV).
A grandiose term for inserting live-action footage of actors into a video game, FMV quickly spread throughout the industry, as studios everywhere rushed to book studio time or hire C-list Hollywood actors to stand in front of a greenscreen and mumble dialogue hastily scribbled down by writers more comfortable with puzzle design than human interaction. From the modest ambitions of The 7th Guest or Myst, to the high production values and Mark Hamill-level acting talent of the Wing Commander series, FMV was everywhere in the ’90s. And most of it was crap.
Part of it was sloppiness. When people who aren’t directors hire people who aren’t actors to perform dialogue not written by writers, you’re going to get a phenomenal amount of Sewer Shark-level junk. On a deeper level, though, FMV often just clashed with the game it was meant to complement, with players alternating clunkily between playing the game and watching snippets of a low-budget movie that played out between levels in one-minute chunks. Attempts to steer into the technology’s issues and produce “interactive movies,” meanwhile, usually resulted in messes like the Rob Schneider-starring A Fork In The Tale, which pared playability down to a Dragon’s Lair-style guessing game—with the added insult of endless Schneider mugging, instead of gorgeous Don Bluth art, as reward for perseverance.
With a few commendable-if-still-poorly-acted exceptions—Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within, The Pandora Directive, the goofy delight of the Command & Conquer games—gaming as a whole was soon forced to face the truth: Its flashy new toy wasn’t meeting the needs that it had been devised to address. And as game engines became more powerful and capable of telling stories—and as companies like Square and Blizzard started pioneering the art of highly detailed computer graphics for their most dramatic moments—FMV died a slow, deserved death, while designers found better, less embarrassing ways to tell their tales.
And now, suddenly, it’s back. Initially inexplicably, the last year or two has seen the rise of multiple FMV-based games—Her Story, Contradiction, Roundabout—even as the major game companies like Activision (which also released the FMV-based Guitar Hero Live last year) are busy spending untold piles of money to push their graphics toward ever-more Kevin Spacey-capturing levels of verisimilitude. The Call Of Duty creators presumably shelled out a lot of cash to get their own digital Frank Underwood to growl and drawl at audiences, an outlay that raises a pointed question: Why, then, did one of the most talked-about performances of 2015—Viva Seifert’s turn in Her Story—appear in a game with a fraction of Advanced Warfare’s budget, and why was it done with FMV?
To answer that question, it’s instructive to look at the genres of these recent FMV successes. With the exception of Roundabout, which trades on nostalgia and camp, these are games that could best be described as mysteries—Contradiction explicitly, with its focus on searching for clues and interrogating suspects, and Her Story implicitly, with its invitation to discover the truth. In both cases, they’re games about discovering what people are thinking and trying to figure out when they’re lying, sometimes with only a hunch to go on. There’s a sophistication to those psychology-heavy aims that hadn’t yet developed when FMV had its heyday, one that suggests why designers like Her Story’s Sam Barlow might be rooting around in the full-motion bathwater to rescue the baby in danger of being thrown out.
Consider L.A. Noire, a game that represented a peak in the industry’s attempts to digitize the human face. Team Bondi’s period procedural is all about determining guilt, with the suspects’ lovingly—and expensively—crafted faces sometimes acting as the only thing the detectives have to go on as they navigate interrogations. But for all the care and time that went into devising those artificial miens, the process is still imperfect, imprecise, and abstracted. When a suspect lies, you’re not seeing what guilt looks like on a human face; you’re seeing an artist’s interpretation of the emotion, as filtered through a motion-captured performance. It places obfuscating layers between the player and the meaning of the expression, and in a game that’s all about instinct and intuition, those layers are the difference between understanding and failure.
Compare that to Her Story. Using a search engine, players sift through video clips of a woman talking to the police and slowly unravel the story behind the disappearance of her husband. Here, Seifert’s face, enigmatic as it may be, is always giving away information to the perceptive watcher/player. When her character is stoic, the player sees stoicism; when she’s distraught, distress. And when she lies or dissembles, the evidence is there for all to see. By using actual footage of the actress, though—give or take a bit of VHS-style post-processing—Her Story allows the player access to an investigate tool that L.A. Noire’s Detective Phelps only wishes he could get his hands on: The human face.
Because for certain tasks—primarily those associated with emotion and intent—there’s no level of technical wizardry that can match an image of a real person, any more than digitized speech can replicate the nuanced inflections of the human voice. Our brains are hard-wired to read faces in a way that they can’t yet replicate for digital avatars; after all, most of us spend hours every day looking at other people, guessing at what they’re thinking via body language and the smallest changes in their facial expressions. FMV lets designers tap into that same organic emotion-detecting computer for both the player and designer’s benefit, and it’s in this arena that this long-derided technology can finally excel and outpace the computer graphics that had long shoulder-checked it into the dustbin of gaming history.
Obviously, not every game needs FMV. It remains an almost completely unfeasible and impractical method for any moment in which the player needs direct, interactive control of the action on the screen (which is to say, most portions of most games currently on the market). But as certain designers continue to look inward—as games become as interested in psychological and social challenges as they are those of dexterity and skill—it appears this resurrected art is finally finding a niche where it can thrive.