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Video in Video Games: The Past, Present, and Future of FMV

Full-Motion Video (alternatively referenced as "Live Action") has been a part of video games for a long time, with a bizarre history. I aim to analyze and categorize its usage in games, and offer some creative possibilities for the future.

Full-Motion Video (alternatively referenced as "Live Action") has been a part of video games for a long time, with a bizarre history. As a genre, FMV-games are arguably most known for Dragon's Lair (1983), Night Trap (1992), the Command & Conquer series (starting in 1995), and the recent indie darling Her Story (2015) by Sam Barlow. The above list includes a Don Bluth animated classic lampooning the classic "save the princess" plot; a campy horror game with a needlessly negative reputation considering its production value and relative tameness; a series of Real-Time Strategy games that have cutscenes such as Tim Curry as a Russian general going back in time to assassinate Albert Einstein; and a game made of reviewing police interviews with a young woman in the middle of a complex mystery.

From this basic, not-exhaustive list of FMV games we get several types of usage of Full-Motion Video in games, which I want to look at in detail:

  • Video as Artifact

  • Video as Bridge

  • Video as Result

Video as Result is the most simple implementation, and the ideology of it is extended to many games outside the typical FMV genre. Games Critic Chris Franklin would refer to games that utilize this as "Content Munchers", where the player completes an action or a level and is "rewarded" with a cutscene, sometimes indeed shot in Full-Motion Video. He coined the term when talking about The Last of Us (2013), while he lamented the game's structure:

"For all of its modern influences, The Last of Us, at a higher-structural level, is an oddly retro game... it's very driven by the traditional 'complete a gameplay section and be rewarded with story chunks' mentality that games have been trying to move away from for years."

It could be said that this particular usage is a bit trite, and perhaps irritating for the player because it stops their playing for a result that they may or may not agree with, or they are shown something incredibly cool that they would have preferred performing themselves to being shown, or simply the ratio of gameplay to cutscene is off, as seems to be the case with recent remedy title Quantum Break (2016), which has live-action segments that are twenty-two minutes in length.

Video as Bridge refers to the idea that the footage or cutscene is used to bridge sections of gameplay, and is not truly the result of the player's intention, though they did play successfully to reach the video. The best example I have of this is Nina Freeman's Cibele (2015), where the footage is reality, while the gameplay happens inside of the recreation of Nina's laptop. The player does not play with an objective in mind of completing the level to get to the next cutscene, as it is not mechanically reinforced to do so; instead the cutscenes create bridges from one section of gameplay to the next. In Cibele's instance, it is entirely from an emotional perspective - the mechanics and environment don't change much from one section to the next, but the emotional context does, immensely so. Compare this to The Last of Us, or the Command & Conquer series, or many games, where the cutscenes may sometimes have emotional through-lines or threads (sometimes problematically, as these emotions are not resolved through gameplay), but they also serve the mechanical functionality of getting the player from Point A to Point B, introduce the next conflict, and give them the next objective.

Video as Artifact is the most recent translation of the genre of FMV games, and with great success—Barlow's Her Story received critical acclaim and has re-vitalized interest in the FMV genre. (Indeed I probably wouldn't be writing this article were not for being reminded that the genre exists, and is viable, because of Her Story.) Meanwhile Cloud Chamber (2014) has received "Mixed" reviews on Steam, but earned itself an entire episode of game-design educational webseries Extra Credits:

"By putting puzzles and mysteries into our video, we can create video that is fundamentally interactive, without having to resort to cheap gimmicks or immersion-breaking menu choices. Cloud Chamber helps take that idea to the next logical level, not only by building its videos entirely around this concept, but by creating a system within the game that encourages players to discuss the videos and piece together the narrative as a group."

Both Her Story and Cloud Chamber use video as Artifact, as the digital evolution of newspaper clippings or photographs strewn about. However I would submit that while video as Artifact is immensely compelling, it has a very narrow range of applications. One can only really create mystery games with this technique, games about re-arranging pieces of information via changing the context with other pieces of information. It also relegates all the action into the past tense—the video in question must be recorded, edited, and filed for access.

The question becomes: what other uses are there for live-action video in games? Does it deserve a place, or is it continuously trying to fit a square peg in a round hole? Many designers have lamented the idea of games becoming too "Hollywood", and many critics lament the use of the word "cinematic" in reference to play; are they right?

I would say no. Video is another tool in the game designer's toolkit, and just like any other tool there are ways that are proven to work as well as there is new territory to chart. Will it always work? No, but experimentation is key.

With that in mind, here are some ideas of how to use live-action in games that might be fun or interesting. If you end up using or wanting to use any of these feel free to tweet at me (@wickedlyethan) and let's chat!

  1. Video as Comedy. FMV by nature can be pretty hilarious, and there's a long history of taking "game logic" into the real world. Imagine a game where the player is directly controlling real-life consequences through a choose-your-own-adventure structure, specifically for comedy. College comedy, mumblecore rom-com, surreal farce, or "douche bag classic" are all film genres that could be adapted to this structure with possibly great results. Bonus points if the main character is "controlled" by the player, and knows that they are. Comedy is often the result of good intentions gone wrong, so let the player choose a character's good intentions then show how it goes wrong. In this way reality becomes the system the player is submitting commands to.

  2. Video as Set Decoration. Imagine you are making a game about being stuck in an MMORPG, or MOBA, and in-game there are television screens broadcasting the "real world" that the player is trying to reach. This kind of implementation would be to deliberately create thematic dissonance - perhaps the player is seeing live-action video of fictional real-world events, as their character is trying to be blissfully ignorant and play an online game. Going back to Video as Comedy, this could be in a surreal comedy game like Jazzpunk (2014), with live-action news anchors delivering headlines from inside the game, furthering blurring of lines between reality and fiction.

  3. Video as Result, but in a literal sense. Imagine a game where the player performs a feat of hacking, then watches live-action security footage and must make decisions based on what they are seeing. Or, furthering the hacking theme, they see a live-action video depicting the results of their actions in cyberspace—a person's life ruined, their data stolen, news headlines right of Mr. Robot, etc.

These are just some ideas, my point being to try and explore some new and different uses for Full-Motion Video (which as a name for both the genre and the object of video in games itself is rather silly) in games. If you have any other ideas feel free to leave them in the comments!

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