The early 90’s were a landmark era in the evolution of home video game consoles. The Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis were brand new and bringing graphics into the living room that were nearly as vivid and colorful as those in the arcade. Console gaming was finally coming into its own, designers were refining and expanding the gaming experience, and utilizing the new generation of consoles to develop new types of gameplay.
When the Genesis was first released, bundled with the game Altered Beast, I remember it as a revelatory moment. The graphics were so spectacular that I was willing to completely overlook the fact that the game wasn’t actually fun. The sprites were huge and detailed, the characters had musculature, and I had spent the past five years playing as a big-nosed pixelated plumber. Now that I was a werewolf with the frame of an Adonis, there was no turning back. I was undeterred by the fact that the game had just five levels, that the controls were terrible, and that it was nearly impossible to beat.
This story is important because it’s an object lesson in the history of gaming. It was that very mentality – that graphics could supercede gameplay – that gave rise to the short lived Full-Motion Video (FMV) Game craze of the early 1990’s.
FMV has its roots in an arcade anomaly called Dragon’s Lair. Released way back in the summer of 1983, it was a huge departure from the standard video game format. The game was read from a laserdisc rather than a circuit board, and instead of using standard digital graphics, it used real hand drawn cel animation created under the supervision of former Disney animator Don Bluth, director of The Secret of N.I.M.H. and An American Tail.
The gameplay in Dragon’s Lair was also unlike any game that preceded it. Since it was animated, video would play, and the player would have to move the joystick or press the sword button at key moments to advance. Make the right move at the right time, and you will continue to the next snippet of animation; make a mistake, and an animati0n plays showing the main character’s death. While the game discreetly beeped when it was time to move or swing your sword, it gave no indication of which direction the player should be moving or what button to press. The gameplay was fast and disorienting, and mastering the game required a significant investment of both time and money.
Dragon’s Lair was visually stunning, unlike anything that came before it, and, at least initially, massively popular. Released during the great video game crash of 1983, the game attracted throngs of amazed onlookers, and was consistently popular in spite of being the first arcade game that cost 50 cents. It was so popular that arcades took to mounting a second monitor to the cabinet so that the gathering crowds could watch while the game was being played without crushing the player against the cabinet.
However, the game’s popularity also worked against it. The laserdisc players used in the cabinets were meant for standard playback, but Dragon’s Lair required the laser to jump quickly to different parts of the disc to queue up the next scene, causing the players to quickly wear out. Additionally, the timing in the game was, at best, imperfect, making it incredibly frustrating to players. Angry jostling of the cabinets led to frequent alignment issues with the laserdisc player, massive upkeep investments from arcade owners, and a lot of “out of order” signs.
Dragon’s Lair was also extraordinarily expensive. Laserdiscs were a relatively young technology and hadn’t made any real in-roads in the home video market yet. While the average cabinet game at the time cost about $2,500.00, while Dragon’s Lair cost about $4,000.00. “We’re riding on a horse we can’t get off of, ” said video game distributor Andrew Loewinger in a 1983 Washington Post article about Dragon’s Lair. “We end up putting all our money back into the machines. ”
A slew of lesser known imitators and a second game by the same creators called Space Ace came and went, but none of them enjoyed the same success as Dragon’s Lair. By the end of 1984 the novelty of the gameplay was wearing off, and the game was costing more to maintain than it brought into arcades. Dragon’s Lair cabinets were being sold off at a fraction of their purchase price. A home console that played laserdiscs called the Halcyon came out in 1985, but it retailed for $2,500.00 and the developers, RDI Video Systems (founded by Rick Dyer, co-creator of Dragon’s Lair) went bankrupt after releasing only two games. By 1986, it appeared as though this novel form of gaming was coming to an end.
In late August, 1989, the Turbografx-16 console was released in America. The system mostly flew under the radar in the United States, running a distant third to its competitors, the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis. It is important, however, as the first game console that had an add-on CD-ROM component. The CD-ROM made available an unprecedented amount of space; where the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis cartridges ran out of space at about 5 Megabytes, some CD-ROM games were several hundred megabytes. On the Turbografx, this extra space was mostly utilized to beef up cut scenes, and improve the quality of music in the games.
Around the same time the Turbografx-16 was being developed, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell was working on a console with the board game company Hasbro that would run on VHS video cassettes instead of cartridges. Called NEMO, the system was to utilize the same gameplay mechanics as the laserdisc games, but would employ actual filmed content as opposed to animation. In spite of years of development and plenty of hype, the system never came to fruition and was scrapped just shy of its proprosed release date. Two games developed for NEMO by a company called Digital Pictures, Night Trap and Sewer Shark, later became lightning rods for both praise and criticism of FMV games.
FMV finally gained some traction a few years later by way of the Sega-CD, a CD-ROM add-on to the Sega Genesis console, released in America in 1992. Sega of America decided to pin its hopes for the Sega-CD to FMV gaming, and ported Night Trap and Sewer Shark from the NEMO to the Sega-CD as launch titles. Advertising and interviews from around the release of the Sega-CD prominently feature FMV games to the exclusion of almost all other titles, save huge properties at the time (like Batman Returns) or reliable franchises (like Sonic the Hedghog.)
The technology shocked even industry insiders. Steve DeFrisco, gaming industry veteran and programmer for Digital Pictures, remembers being completely blown away by the technology. “Nothing had really been done like that before,” says DeFrisco. “Yes, there were games that had video sequences in them, but to interact with the video on such a granular level was pretty cool.”
These games enjoyed the same initial surge of interest that Dragon’s Lair experienced. Sewer Shark got strong reviews when it was first released and the video game press focused heavily on FMV games. On the interest that these games initially received, more consoles such as the Philips CD-i and the 3D0 were developed with FMV gaming in mind. Digital Pictures went on to produce fourteen FMV games for a variety of consoles, becoming the the most prominent, though by no means only FMV developer.
A big selling point of these games was verisimilitude. No longer did players have imagine a few pixels on a screen into their favorite action hero or movie star; they could play a game where they controlled an actual person. The producers of these games were even able to pull in some B and C-list actors and actresses, including Yasmine Bleeth, Walter Koenig, Debbie Harry, Corey Haim, and Dana Plato. Yet, while the combination of recognized talent and state-of-the-art graphics brought players to the games, it quickly became apparent that these games were simply not any good.
The problems that plagued the Dragon’s Lair gameplay experience persisted in this new medium. The games were comprised of short segments of filmed content. In a game like Prize Fighter, a boxing simulator from the first-person perspective of the boxer, every time the player landed a punch, the CD player had to queue up the shot of the opponent getting punched, which made for incredibly disjointed gameplay.
In addition, the Sega-CD only had a range of 512 colors, and it could only display 64 of them at once. “The limitations of the game systems, and the compression techniques used to reduce the data size really hurt the quality of the images on the game machines,” says DeFrisco. To improve the frame rate, the games typically displayed the video in a window roughly 1/4 the size of the screen, so most of the screen was just a frame around this small swatch of action in the center. Even then, that action was very pretty pixelated, and the limited color palette made the games seem washed out.
Still, technical limitations were not the only problems plaguing FMV games. A game starring actual people is only as good as their performances, and FMV games are notorious for both bad acting and ugly, low-budget productions. Some of the games played up a low-budget B-movie aesthetic, like It Came From the Desert, but most of the games took themselves very seriously. Since the selling point of FMV was the cut scenes and video, these games were chock-a-block with painfully bad acting. The cost of producing a game that also has a filmed component required that the developers budget for actors and for programming. FMV games were incredibly expensive for the time, with an average budget of about three to five million dollars. In order to see the game to completion, there was a willingness to cut corners on the filming production.
an example of the acting in Sewer Shark
Some FMV titles barely qualified as games at all. The Make My Video series in particular were designed less to entertain than to showcase the platform for which they were built. Each of the games contained three music videos by a particular artist that the player was supposed to re-edit. Artists included Kriss Kross, Inxs, and Marky Mark & the Funky Bunch. The games established nearly nonsensical and arbitrary narratives in which characters requested specific images and effects in a music video. The player then had to re-edit one of the the videos by splicing in some simple video effects and a couple of streams of public domain stock footage. Once the video was edited together, you got to watch the playback in a single screen in the center.
And that was it. You got to watch the video you had just edited together using the three available buttons on a sega genesis controller. Since each of the Make My Video games came with only three videos, the gameplay, which started out boring, quickly became unbearable. Players immediately had a strongly negative reaction to them, and they were commercial failures. These days, the Make My Video series are often shortlisted on “worst video game of all time” lists.
The same verisimilitude that made these games popular also brought them some unwanted attention that ended up changing the gaming industry forever. While there were plenty of games out at the time that contained extreme gore and violence, FMV brought a level of realism to them that caused even non-gamers to pay attention. The fact that there were real actors in the games rather than sprites made even moderate violence seem both more real and more dangerous.
Two months after the release of the Sega-CD, the Senate Judiciary and Government Affairs Committee held a hearing on video game violence. The hearing, co-chaired by Joesph Lieberman and Herbert Kohl singled out the FMV game Night Trap (as well as Doom, Mortal Kombat, and a few others) as everything that was wrong with the gaming industry. The following week, Night Trap was taken off shelves at Toys R’ Us stores across the country.
To hear it described, Night Trap sounds extreme: a gaggle of young co-eds get together for a slumber party at a strange house in the middle of nowhere. Unless the player can save them, they are picked off one by one by some evil vampires (called “augers”), who kill them by through use of these collaring mechanisms that drill into their necks and drain their blood. There’s enough in that brief synopsis for someone to find objectionable, and for the media to sensationalize. To actually watch the video, however, tells a far tamer story. The augers look less like vampires than they do men with limps lumbering around in fumigation suits, and the blood draining mechanism was designed to look ridiculous enough not to be taken seriously according to the filmmakers. The following was the scene singled out by congress as being particularly objectionable.
Not only is the footage pretty tame, but the game was built so that the player was likely to miss most of the more extreme scenes. The premise of Night Trap was that the player was in a control room viewing video cameras set up throughout a house. At the precise moment, traps had to be sprung to capture the augers. However, the game took place in real time, and it was only possible to view one camera at a time, so most of the gameplay was flipping through empty rooms looking for the action.
All of the attention surprised and confused the team at Digital Pictures. “There were plenty of other games that had far more gore than Night Trap,” says DeFrisco. “I mean, the finishing moves in Mortal Kombat – ripping out someone’s skull and spine – were far more intense than someone sucking your blood out with a machine. But it was the first time live actors were used in a video game.”
in an interview with Gamasutra, Night Trap co-creator Rob Fulop describes the debacle as cynical political posturing. “The subsequent witch hunt led by Joseph Lieberman regarding Night Trap was just politics, plain and simple,” says Fulop. “He never personally saw Night Trap, nor did anybody on his staff bother playing the game. I know this because I met him and asked him if he had ever seen Night Trap and he said, ‘no’!”
The battle for market share between Nintendo and Sega during this period was intense. After dominating the console market for years with the Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega had just edged Nintendo out of the top slot. Nintendo’s chairman Howard Lincoln took advantage of Sega’s negative publicity to try and promote their system as family friendly by taking the stand during the congressional hearings to say “A game such as Night Trap will never be produced for a Nintendo system.” The following year, Mortal Kombat II was ported to the Super Nintendo, with all of the dismemberment and gore intact.
Debates about game censorship raged, with bloviating senators making hyperbolic declarations about how “sick” and “twisted” these games were. Lieberman claimed that games like Night Trap “are no mark of a civilized society” and said that he wished that they could be constitutionally banned. Digital Pictures founder Tom Zito argued that the game was meant to be satire. In the end, the hearings resulted in the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, an industry self-regulation organzation that parallels the the MPAA. The rating system that the ESRB created closely mirrors the one devised by the MPAA up to and including an “Adults Only” rating, which, being the equivalent of the MPAA’s ‘X’ rating, precludes those games from being sold for most consoles. Most chain stores won’t sell games that bear the ‘M’ rating, which corresponds with the MPAA’s ‘R’ rating, to children without parental consent.
Ironically, the creation of this rating system had the same unintended consequences as the system created by the MPAA. By creating a framework in which there was a place for violent or suggestive video games, the ESRB rating system legitimized more extreme games and allowed them to make their way onto the consoles and into the mainstream gaming market.
For a while after the Congressional hearings the popularity of FMV games skyrocketed, but the surge in popularity was temporary. The 3D0 and CD-i were both spectacular failures, and even though Digital Pictures continue to produce games for a couple of years, eventually attempting to incorporate more traditional light gun style gameplay into games like Corpse Killer, they went out of business in the 1996 (Tom Zito, founder of Digital Pictures, declined to be interviewed for this article). Developers eventually abandoned the genre, and by the end of the 90’s FMV games were a thing of the past.
DeFrisco thinks that the games were just too divisive among gamers and too hard to market. “Gamers don’t like them because there is not enough interaction, and movie watchers don’t like them because there is interaction. So, they are, ultimately, a niche-market. Not a very large fan base. But we could not have known that without actually producing the games to see how they did.”
In the past decade, computer emulation of old video game consoles has renewed interest in the Full-Motion Video genre, and a few unreleased FMV oddities have made their way into the lore of gaming history. While not entirely an FMV game, Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors, a complete and unreleased game for the Sega-CD, surfaced on the website The Lost Levels in 2006. The game was basically supposed to be a trick that the owner can use to play on his friends, and quickly became infamous for a mini-game called “Desert Bus.” Desert Bus required the user to drive a bus from Tuscon to Los Angeles, and the whole trip took 8 hours of real time play to complete. Penn Jillette explains on the website GameSetWatch:
You saw nothing. It was just desert stuff going by…and there was a little green tree hanging from the rear-view mirror, one of those things that makes your car smell better? And it would just kind of drift in slowly to one corner of the screen. And you couldn’t take your hands off the controller, and if you did…it didn’t have a spectacular crash, it just slowly went into the sand, and then overheated and stopped, and then the game was you being towed backwards all the way back to Tucson.”
It is notable as the only in-game appearance of Lou Reed, who blew up Penn & Teller when the player tried to play the game on the “Impossible” setting. Note the obnoxious midi version of “Sweet Jane” playing in the background.
In the late 90’s, a website for another FMV game called Duelin’ Firemen appeared on the internet, with very little information other than a reel with in-game clips. The game, produced by a Chicagoan video production company called Runandgun, Duelin’ Firemen was to be about two teams of firemen racing around Chicago in an attempt to outdance one another while the city burned to the ground. The game starred 70’s blaxploitation staple Rudy Ray Moore, as “Chief Crispy” and featured a host of underground luminaries including Tony Hawk, Timothy Leary, Mark Mothersbaugh, Ivan Stang, David Yow, Steve Albini, King Buzzo. The final boss fight in the game was to be against the Japanese psychedelic noise band Boredoms.
I spoke to the creators of the game in 2006 for an article about the game that never ended up getting published. Director Grady Sain told me that on top of overreaching as filmmakers, trying to make a video game without any programming experience, they had the misfortune to be developing for the 3D0 console. “[3D0 was] all set to be hot shit, but basically, as soon as Sony announced the Playstation, [3D0], in a period of about 3 or 4 months, were no longer in the hardware business at all. This title, Duelin’ Firemen, was slated to be one of the flagship titles for the original launch of the 3D0 console.”
On top of the 3D0’s failure, the gaming industry very quickly realized the limitations of FMV and shifted away from it. “Interactive movies kind of had their heyday right around there,” says Sain. “Night Trap and Sewer Shark. Night trap was the real big one. It got in a lot of trouble, but it was good press for us. That shit dried up so quick. It was like a year later when I was like ‘What happened to all of that?'”
Sain told me that even after the game fell apart he hoped to cobble together the filmed components of the game to make a short film, but the events of September 11th put that idea to bed. “After 9/11,” says Sain, “there’s just no way without completely re-writing it that it could ever be taken seriously. . . It’s just too ghoulish and bizarre.”
In the end, what doomed Duelin’ Firemen was what put FMV games down for good. Video games were coming along at a clip too rapid for FMV to keep up, and while these games seemed technically amazing in 1992, by 1995, they looked archaic and obsolete. “Even if movie watchers were interested, they didn’t want to go out and buy a game console just to watch a movie,” says Steve DeFrisco. “3-D first-person shooters were just hitting the market as well. They promised better, more immersive worlds with far more interactivity.”
These days, gamers tend to look back on the FMV era with a mixture of bemused curiosity and sometimes vicious derision. Most of the gamers who missed the FMV era were weaned on 3D platforming and first person shooters, both of which offer quite a bit more immersion, so FMV games look anachronistic and ridiculous in comparison. Even though FMV’s legacy is as one of gaming’s great missteps, for a few years in the early 90’s, they were considered both the future of gaming, and dangerous influence on young gamers.