Interactive movies make their glorious return
In the 90s, games grasped at maturity with "real" video and actors. It was a weird but cult-beloved wrong turn—and we found a game that's revived it beautifully.
It was the 90s. Games had their big chance. Personal computers had surged into homes and schools, promising education and entertainment innovations at our fingertips. Iridescent, futuristic CD-ROMs were suddenly everywhere: You could have an entire color encyclopedia on a single disk. You could get hundreds, no, thousands of free America Online minutes on a CD. And you could have a serious, adult computer game with real-world actors and blood and sex and all kinds of grown-up stuff—even if it took 5 discs.
When the Sierra On-Line horror adventure Phantasmagoria (7 discs!) made it into my family home, I had just gotten my first period. On the sight of the package—abstract curtain-wings embracing a beheaded woman—I knew things were about to change. Although I had enjoyed the adventure tales of King Graham and his family in Sierra’s previous King’s Quest game, this, I felt sure, was a game for grown-ups. My best friend and I huddled around it after school, delighted to view such illicit and terrifying material.
It had lots of things we hadn’t seen before up to that point. A chilling lullaby lures you to a rocking chair that moves on its own! Every chapter, the fortune-telling mannequin gets a little bit scarier! It has truly gruesome death scenes, a part where you have to hide in a coffin from your possessed husband, and even a rape scene—to my mind at the time, just more squicky adult stuff to alternately giggle and thrill at.
Phantasmagoria, like many contemporary titles, just seemed to be fundamentally more "mature" at the time thanks to its real-world actors and full-motion video. Replaying those games today, though, you see an ill-fated detour of game history for what it is: an idealistic millstone.
The things that are creepy to me about Phantasmagoria today have to do with its dissonance: The blurry wisp of a video actress hangs numbly greenscreened against gooey computer-generated objects, occasionally repeating idle movements as she waits for your command. You repeat the same letterbox film of her leaving one room, entering the next, every time you want to navigate the house.
You make the actress march around all the screens, tediously, for something that has changed. There is an unsolicited thirty-second video of her looking around, petting the bed curiously. You click on a faucet or a mirror: Usually nothing happens, except you get to watch her use it, self-consciously and dutifully. Later you research the actors and actresses of the FMV game age and find that with the exception of some notable celebrity cameos (recall John Hurt as a comedically-unscrupulous, fourth wall-breaking psychiatrist in the clunkily psychosexual Tender Loving Care), a good many of the performers’ backgrounds are in softcore.
It’s a problem that the video game industry has had for some time: the conflation of "realism" with maturity. The more plausible your graphics are, the more dignified your stupid ghost slime murder boobs story will be. Much as it is today, many of these plays for "realism"—especially the hunger for a legitimacy that might come with expensive Hollywood actors—actually makes worse games out of unsustainable development budgets. There’s a reason that "FMV games" never 'stuck'.
But lots of fans remain profoundly fond of that era, the way we love our teenage selves for trying so damn hard, fumbling for our way. The combination of naivety and ambition, of "adult" aims with clumsy adventure-game interfaces, or the video avatar pulling, say, a fireplace poker out of the thin air behind them when the player clicks the "inventory". Games are a medium young enough that some of today’s fans were around to see the first ones made. We all love our cult stuff, our cheesecake.
And while the use of video might be only dubiously compatible with what we understand to be conventional game designs, there’s nothing inherently frictive or inaccessible about video itself. Recent mystery release Her Story relies on video recordings of an actress partially as a "retro" tactic; the whole game has a pleasantly-textured ‘90s throwback feel. But it’s also about searching a database and reviewing police interviews, and watching videos is the most natural, accessible mechanic to offer a player.
Quirk, nostalgia and ease of use are three decent reasons not to shut the door on the possibilities for video in games, particularly when it comes to the mystery genre, to which video is especially well-suited—it not only conjures the creepy voyeurism of late-night crime television, but the game can use realistic human behavior and movement as a mechanic, engaging the player to read body and facial language to look for suspects’ lying behavior (an entire tech company was sprouted to create the same effect for Rockstar’s dubiously-received L.A. Noire).
I tell an absolute truth: Lately, a video murder mystery served up the best time I’ve had of any computer game recently. Some friends and I spent a weekend at a country house recently, and next to an actual fireplace, we decided for some reason to try Contradiction: Spot the Liar, a video murder mystery we expected to be terrible and hilarious and the perfect thing for us all to shout at while we became persistently less sober on our holiday.
It was all of these things. And it was also particularly impressive because it managed to marry all the things we loved about old FMV adventures—goofy character performances, the beloved awkwardness of some of the conventions—with actual mechanical innovation.
The central convention of Contradiction: Spot the Liar is that to solve the mystery—a student has died under mysterious circumstances in a small town—you must catch the characters you interview in contradictions with themselves. That’s all. While random events may occur that give you further inventory items or information, you mostly unveil the story by interviewing people; the things they tell you become statements you can call them on later, and you’re listening for the times they say two things that cannot both be true.
Someone could be overtly lying to you, but unless they have contradicted themselves, you can’t advance the story. As such there is the repetition people tend to dislike about adventure games—visiting and revisiting areas carefully when you get stuck, looking for what you missed—but there’s none of the infamous pixel-hunting, screen-searching, or combining objects in absurd and frustrating ways. And the constraint can actually be delightful, inspiring creative play—when you can’t call out a liar, you look for other ways to call out the untruth by talking to someone else. It has the expected slow and frustrating bits, but it also has a "cheats" system (we’ve never had to use it) and a "current tip" (we use it liberally).
It’s streamlined and good for groups, especially for parties where people don’t normally play video games. It serves up cheesecake from the moment its gilded logo first comes shimmering onto the screen (is that the Contra font?). You play a hero detective, Jenks—actually, we’re not sure if he’s really a detective. He wears a broad-brimmed hat and shiny shoes with curly toes, and he often phones up a nebulous "chief", but he never shows anyone a badge, and in the brief exposition all we’re told about him is that for some reason he has "until first thing tomorrow morning" to solve the week-old crime.
The actor is wildly expressive and wonderfully anti-charismatic. It’s as if the game knows that any leading man would gain an inherent absurdity, being directed by the player to plod around knocking on doors and windows multiple times per hour, presenting dozens of objects and facts to tolerant strangers. Therefore why not eschew the chiseled detective in favor of casting an incredibly absurd person; his performance is inescapably glib, funny and gleeful—"what would you say… if I showed you this," he will deadpan sincerely, brandishing a flyer or a packet of herbs or, no word of a lie, a set of devil horns, with admirable flourish.
All the other actors carry their weight admirably: They are just ridiculous enough, just suspicious enough, giving facial performances that are alternately vaunted and sincere, believable but also easy to laugh about. Contradiction is just perfect at what it wants to be: A retro tribute with some modern conveniences, all the best and weirdest parts of an ambitious bygone age with none of the impracticalities.
When you become an adult, you learn that "maturity" has little to do with realism, or blood, or salaciousness, or grit. It can mean populism and playfulness; graduating from being kids hushed guiltily around the Night Trap "bathroom scene (content warning for sexualized violence)" to being a party of adults flocked in earnest good humor around an utterly unpretentious "video murder mystery". Try this game, drink a bunch of wine and laugh together about old times. That’s one of the things playing games is really great for.
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