This article is part of our History of PC Gaming series.
In 1983, FMV games introduced us to the future. At a time when graphics were defined by sprites and basic polygonal models, the arrival of the first FMV (Full Motion Video) games felt like a gigantic technological leap forward for the industry.
The genre’s earliest pioneers, Sega’s Astron Belt and Cinematronics’ Dragon’s Lair, showed how you could use new innovations, such as the LaserDisc, to integrate pre-recorded videos, often of real actors and sets, into games to make them more immersive. But these ‘80s arcade cabinets were just proofs of concept. By the early ‘90s, developers began to embrace the CD as their format of choice on PC and consoles, and the golden age of the FMV genre was born.
Three schlocky horror games defined the genre in the ‘90s. Night Trap (1992) and Phantasmagoria (1995) were noteworthy in that they presented the gameplay primarily in full motion video and played like interactive movies. The third, The 7th Guest (1993), which emphasized puzzle-solving inside a haunted mansion, sold over 450,000 copies in the first year of release, and Bill Gates lauded it as “the new standard in interactive entertainment.”
“Back then, I was kind of an ‘oldie’ in a young person’s field,” The 7th Guest co-creator Rob Landeros says of the games industry at the time. “Children played games more than adults, but I wanted to do drama and introduce adult themes into The 7th Guest.”
Unfortunately, while FMV games seemed to be on track to change the landscape of the industry in a big way, the hype train was derailed by technological limitations related to limited storage space. FMV continued to be used for in-game cutscenes in subsequent years, but full FMV games became a passing fad.
Beyond technical limitations, you also have to consider gamers’ general affinity for gameplay over story. Most video games–even those involving great stories–have traditionally revolved around the concept of winning and losing, succeeding or failing, with narrative playing a secondary role.
But in recent years we’ve seen a paradigm shift. Experiential, story-focused games such as Firewatch, Gone Home, and The Stanley Parable are more prevalent and popular than ever before, while modern consoles and PCs have all but shed the tech limitations of the past. All of this progress has opened the door to a new wave of FMV titles, such as Sam Barlow’s award-winning investigative drama Her Story (2015), which signaled a reawakening of the genre.
Her Story tasks players with solving the case of a missing man by examining police interrogation tapes of his wife (British musician Viva Seifert). The concept was groundbreaking at the time of the game’s release, but considering that the FMV genre has long been associated with B-movie horror and cheesy acting, there was a potential danger of audiences dismissing Her Story as just another campy FMV title not to be taken seriously. But what happened was just the opposite — the game was an overnight success, selling over 100,000 copies in just over a month.
“I got a lot of mileage out of ‘It’s an FMV game—but good!’” Barlow says of the initial reactions to Her Story. “In making the game, I honestly wasn’t thinking about [the FMV genre]. I was more focused on the fact that it was a crime fiction story, that it was not about causal action, that it had this mechanic that was very different. It was only once it was out—and far exceeded my hopes—that people started to ask me questions about the FMV genre.”
With his latest title, Telling Lies, Barlow scales up Her Story’s concept by focusing on four characters instead of one. Actors with TV and film experience, including Alexandra Shipp (X-Men) and Logan Marshall-Green (Quarry), were cast in the lead roles, and for Barlow, live-action performance as a storytelling technique is as powerful as it is nuanced, and he could have told his story no other way.
“Actors are magical,” Barlow explains. “They can take hundreds of pages of character backstory and facts and stuff and boil it all down into a facial expression, the way they sip their coffee, a bit of business with a tea towel. I think it’s hard to make games that focus specifically on character interactions and plots that are internal as well as external if you don’t have this.”
Her Story and Telling Lies are prime examples of FMV games thriving in the modern gaming landscape. But there are plenty of other artists and storytellers harnessing the power of video as well: Flavourworks’ Sony-produced PS4 thriller Erica blends cinema and gameplay in a streamlined package; Remedy’s sci-fi thriller Quantum Break (2016) featured a live-action TV show in between chapters of the game to tell its story; Tobias Weber’s interactive film Late Shift broke barriers, releasing on all gaming platforms as well as screening at film festivals across the world.
Even Netflix has thrown its hat into the ring. ts wildly popular interactive special Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, in which viewers make decisions for protagonist Stefan Butler, is essentially an FMV game. The one-off episode was such a success that in a keynote speech in Mumbai this past March, Netflix VP of product Todd Yellin announced that the streaming service is “doubling down” on interactive storytelling moving forward. If there was ever a sign that we’re in for another FMV boom similar or perhaps even bigger than what we saw in the early ‘90s, it’s this.
The high-art ambitions of Netflix, Barlow, Weber, and others indicate a bright future for the genre, but what of the old style of FMV? While the more serious tone of modern FMV games shows that the genre is maturing, there’s still value in creating new experiences in the vein of the classics.
“We played a lot of FMV games in the ‘90s together,” says Lynda Cowles, who, with her husband Tim Cowles, founded D’avekki Studios, releasing FMV murder mystery games The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker in 2017 and The Shapeshifting Detective in 2018. The Cowleses’ work echoes the sensibilities of games like Phantasmagoria and The 7th Guest but are elevated by modern production values and gameplay mechanics, like the ability to interact with the onscreen characters by typing questions to them.
Each of the couple’s games is a passion project, and while they haven’t found the monetary success of a mainstream project like Bandersnatch, they’re quite happy creating games in the indie-sphere.
“For me and Lynda, it’s a love thing, doing FMV games,” Tim says. “The key thing when we’re designing our games is, ‘Is it fun for people to play?’ not, ‘Will this make us tons of money?’ As an indie studio, we get to do that.”
Almost 30 years after the FMV boom of the ‘90s, the collective work of indie FMV storytellers like the Cowleses, Barlow, and their mainstream contemporaries at Sony and Netflix acts as a next step in the evolution of a once struggling genre. In Barlow’s mind, it’s easy to envision a day when games like Her Story and Telling Lies could be played right alongside Bandersnatch in your Netflix queue.
“We can do so much more!” says Barlow of what’s on the horizon for FMV. “Right now I’m exploring ideas from the games side, but it’s not hard to imagine that at some point it might make sense to hit it up from the TV side. And at that point it will be hard to make a distinction between the two worlds.”
Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.
Read our complete History of PC Gaming series at the links below:
Part 1: 25 PC Games That Changed History
Part 3: The Legacy of Baldur’s Gate