Remember FMV - the stuff they put on television ads to make your parents buy you a Mega CD? Would you like to see it return, or should it be consigned to the garbage bin of video game history to fester and rot for all eternity? Darren Wells, Editor of OXM Australia has a soft spot for FMV; I want it to be cast into a fiery pit of sulphur until the end of days.
DARREN: I’ve got a confession to make: I have something of a soft spot for FMV in games. Growing up in an era when audiences were invited to believe that a red block on a black background was an intergalactic battleship cruising through the vast expanses of space, the introduction of full-motion video stood out to me for its more realistic representations. Here were people that looked like actual people! They moved, they spoke, they did stuff! All of a sudden, games looked like they could take on the likes of film and TV head-on, and with every title that managed to rope in an actual name-worthy actor, things were gearing up for an intriguing kind of media warfare.
But then, something happened. As FMV evolved from being merely a component in established genres (Under A Killing Moon, Wing Commander III) to a genre unto itself (Quantum Gate, The X-Files Game), it fell out of favour. Audiences realised that what little gameplay was provided was simplistic and repetitive, as the novelty of watching a scene unfold diminished upon each forced viewing. Even the packages themselves felt bloated – seven discs for a single game was not uncommon. Thus, the FMV genre faded into history, and as real-time 3D graphics and gaming hardware became more and more powerful, it was no longer called upon when it came to injecting realism or visual flair into a title.
Which leads me, finally, to my question: given the limitations – and, I would argue, the benefits – of full-motion video, as well as the current state of games technology and the expectations of today’s audiences, does FMV have a place in modern gaming?
MARK: FMV always bothered me. Perhaps it was because, as a teenager, I had a Nintendo 64 instead of a PS1. I remember seeing the Final Fantasy VII commercial and responding with my best adolescent impression of an arrogant sneer. Even at the peak of FMV's success, I always preferred my gaming experiences to be as seamless as possible, especially in terms of art. I didn't necessarily enjoy being ripped out of my game universe into a world that was entirely static - it felt insincere. I would like to answer your question with a question - in what way could bringing back FMV be a positive thing? Considering the visual leap we've seen since its demise, in what way do you think FMV could provide new, meaningful experiences to gamers?
DARREN: Oh, there’s no denying the divide between gameplay and cut-scene was jarringly awkward – those blocky arms and legs of real-time polygon characters were worlds apart from the soft, detailed curves of their pre-rendered counterparts. And given that today’s gaming tech has evolved to a stage where the former now has the finesse of the latter, perhaps there’s no longer a need to utilise FMV in this sense. But that’s not to discount it altogether – games can craft original real-time characters, but what about humans that already exist?
For all their bells and whistles, the human brain can still pick out a phony person a mile away. All the bump mapping and self shadowing in the world can’t hide the fact that this is but a digital approximation of a living thing. There’s just no getting around it. But actual video footage of an actual person? Now there’s realism. Instead of watching a zombie puppet of Laurence Fishburn investigate a case in the next CSI game, what about shooting new footage on the set of the show? What about using that talent and those production values to make a game adaptation look like its source material, and to make its characters look less... creepy? Characters that originate in the digital realm – Marcus Fenix, Duke Nukem, Generic Bald Guy In Random Action Game – work because there’s no real-world equivalent, but perhaps those that began life on our movie and TV screens need to be treated a little differently if we’re expected to accept them.
Me, I don’t see any harm in using FMV as an element, rather than the game. Why shouldn’t we explore the idea of mapping, say, footage of a rising sun onto a painting in an art gallery of the future, Harry Potter style? Why can’t games integrate video into its 3D world? If The Darkness can pack the entirety of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the off chance a player flicks on the TV to see what happens, other titles can investigate similar ways in which the technique can work for them, rather than shun away from the stigma of video. Likewise the broadcast segments featuring actual news anchors in Fight Night Champion lend a similar air of authenticity to the Pay-Per-View stylings of Rocky’s final fight in Rocky Balboa – it’s how audiences consume this media in the real world, so why shouldn’t cinema, a medium with its own mis-en-scene, adopt that of television if the requirements call for it, and the message can benefit from it?
The FMV genre, however? That’s another kettle of cheese...
MARK: I'm happy to admit that FMV has its place. I really enjoyed those Fight Night Champion sections - it really added to the experience. You make a great point - it really grounded the story in a level of realism that a designed from scratch polygon model would struggle with. It gave me that rewarding feeling that I was participating in an event that was real, with real consequences - such a great addition.
I guess in that context FMV is worth using.
I also love the idea of using FMV liberally, in a more abstract manner. You mentioned the idea of a sunset - I like that. Imagine a very real captured sunset being layered over a rendered universe - in the right context that would look tremendously surreal.
It's all about the way it's implemented. In my mind using FMV for traditional cut-scenes is a relic and I'm glad to see the back of it - but used in a creative responsible manner, in an attempt to create a unique, dazzling art style? That would be interesting.
DARREN: The way I see it, that’s where FMV would best be suited today. We’ve seen the downsides of creating pure FMV-driven games, and given their limitations and what today’s audiences expect and respond to, I’m not sure there’s ever a hope – or a need – for that genre to be revived. However, I do acknowledge its role in gaming’s timeline. Over the weekend, I approached former HyperBole CEO Greg Roach, a man who in the mid-90s oversaw the creation of a number of FMV titles such as Quantum Gate and The X-Files Game. I asked him: what’s your post-mortem on The X-Files Game, and on the whole FMV movement in general?
He responded: “I think FMV posed the questions that real-time 3D is now answering – how to get emotion, connection, and believability. I’m quite proud of The X-Files, flaws and all. By now I guess it’s considered something of a milestone. I’d love to remake it in 3D.”
Yet even he acknowledges the role of FMV has changed: “In the right context, interactive FMV has a place – probably not in games, though. Lots of great I-FMV happening on the web.” Perhaps, given the popularity of video-based sites like YouTube, that’s where devotees can ensure it lives on – as a fun diversion, a curio. A project that anyone with a camera and an internet connection can throw together, available to be played for free. Same way that people still code their own text-based adventure games while the industry focuses on making its next blockbuster shooter. Those who want it will create it.
So, where have we landed on this? As a technology, it seems that we’re cool with FMV being used and integrated into today’s polygon-based worlds – video used as set dressing, as garnish, or as a backdrop. But the era of video cut-scenes (pre-rendered prettiness as a reward) or FMV adventure games is one we won’t be replaying anytime soon.