When film and TV merged into games: the 90s rise of FMV

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When computers finally had the power to run games with video footage included, developers headed to films and TV shows for inspiration – with mixed results.

In the early 1990s, home computing acquired a new form of storage media, the compact disc (CD). This new medium allowed for over 460 times the amount of storage capacity of the standard floppy disk, up until then the standard way for computer software to be delivered.

Game developers jumped onto the opportunity of using digitised video in their games, also known as Full Motion Video (FMV). Games could utilise proper video sequences lasting minutes at a time rather than the short GIF like animations that we are used to sending to friends on social media today.

Software publishers obviously wanting to capitalise on this new medium often courted the stars of Hollywood to appear in their games, reprising roles they had previously played. And that led to some big star names making their way into computer games in video form.

Demolition Man was, of course, one of the big action films for 1993, headlined by Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes. Whilst the home consoles of the time would receive the standard 2D side scrolling platform game adaptations, the ill-fated Panasonic 3DO machine received something a little different.

That’s because during production of Demolition Man, Stallone and Snipes both filmed extra footage for use in the game that would only be available to the 3DO. This included short video sequences to be shown in between levels to keep the games narrative flowing. Stallone even gives a video reaction as you select the modes of gameplay difficulty on the main menu.

Stallone and Snipes were also filmed in full length profiles to be used as in game sprites for sequences very reminiscent of the game Mortal Kombat. A game famous for using this technique for one on one fighting.

Star Trek video games have been in existence since the 1970s but here was a chance to enrich them even more with authentic new filmic material.

In 1997, Interplay Productions released Star Trek: Starfleet Academy. In this one, you play a young cadet, David Forester, who must make his way through Starfleet Academy by completing the many starship simulation missions,  including the famously unwinnable Kobayashi Maru scenario. In between the simulations, you would talk to the other cadets in your team and try to keep their personalities from clashing by choosing the right dialogue options during live action video segments.

But what pushed the game’s presentation up a notch was the inclusion of several of the original Enterprise crew, who would introduce each mission as guest Starfleet instructors. William Shatner, Walter Koenig and George Takei reprised their famous roles as Captain James T. Kirk, Pavel Chekov and Captain Hikaru Sulu respectively. This wasn’t a small game by any means either: it arrived across five compact discs, and the video sequences alone run for just over two hours.

An add-on pack would be released afterwards, Star Trek: Starfleet Academy – Chekov’s Lost Missions which would see Walter Koenig, and George Takei return again in more video sequences.

Interplay Productions followed up with a sequel with the same premise but from another perspective: Star Trek: Klingon Academy. Narratively set before the events of the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, both David Warner and Christopher Plummer reprised their film roles for the video game.

With the ability to store several hours of video across many compact discs, several publishers then tried the next step, to create the interactive movie. A simple concept where the player watches a film and then at certain points must make a decision that alters the plots course. While this might sound fun at first, the games, bluntly, weren’t. It all soon becomes repetitive with repeated playthrough revealing the limited choices available to the player. What’s more, the wrong answer usually bringing the whole adventure to an abrupt end.

It didn’t stop people trying. Software publishers Simon & Schuster tried this approach with the Star Trek franchise in 1996 across two games. The first, Star Trek: Klingon, had you learning about the Klingon culture via a program run on the starship’s Holodeck. Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine regular Robert O’Reilly plays the Klingon Gowron who would lead you through this experience. The video for this game was directed by another well known Star Trek actor, Jonathan Frakes.

The other interactive movie was Star Trek: Borg where John De Lancie returns as the God-like omnipresent being known as Q. In this tale, Q allows you to time travel in order to save your father many years earlier from a conflict between Starfleet and the deadly Borg.

The X Files was another huge success of course in the 1990s and Fox Interactive wanted a slice of the interactive movie market. What it created was a point and click adventure, a game where you have to solve puzzles and study clues to advance the story, across a whopping six CDs.

Traditionally, these games would use hand drawn sprites and locations to represent their environment but here, everything was photographed with real actors.

In the game you played as Agent Craig Willmore who is tasked by Agent Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) to find Mulder and Scully who have disappeared in a story that was devised by the show’s creator Chris Carter. The X Files adventure featured several of the shows regular characters including The Smoking Man, X, The Lone Gunman and of course David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as Mulder and Scully who bookend the game’s plot.

Back to the movies, though, and Waterworld: The Quest For Dry Land was a  three-quarter top down perspective strategy game where you played a character known as the War Chief. Your job here being to protect the inhabitants of the atoll from the deadly smokers. The game is based on the Kevin Costner-headlined film from 1995, Waterworld wasn’t a huge commercial success but as with any big blockbusters of the time, software companies bought licences hoping to have games launch at the film’s release and sell on just the name alone.

However, The Quest For Dry Land wouldn’t arrive until two years after the film’s release. On the plus side, the video segments between levels had some fairly high production values utilizing several of the films original cast along with props and sets from the production. R.D. Call, Zakes Mokae and Jack Kehler all returned to reprise their roles as atoll inhabitants in a plot in which you are trying to find dry land with the help of an old GPS satellite.

The role of the old man Gregor in the film, as played by Michael Jeter, couldn’t make the schedule to come back and film his sequences for the game, John Fleck replaced him in that role.  Fleck was also in the film, although in the movie he played the Deacon’s (Dennis Hopper) doctor.

Hiring mainstream actors to star in your game was not cheap and this trend started to phase out in the early 2000s because the format was so limited. Having big name stars in your game was also no guarantee of success, especially if the end result – bluntly – wasn’t very good to start with. Instead, software companies would turn to the ever improving technology of CGI to create the in game story segments.

However, there was still the odd game now and then that still tried to use the format with varying levels of success. One of the most well known was Infogrames’ Enter The Matrix. Released in 2003 on the same day as The Matrix Reloaded movie, Enter The Matrix has you playing as either Niobe (Jada Pinkett-Smith) or as Ghost (Anthony Wong). Many of the secondary characters from the Matrix sequels, such as The Oracle (this was the first appearance of actor Mary Alice in this role. The original actor Gloria Foster had passed during production of Matrix Reloaded), Seraph, Commander Locke, The Key Maker and Persephone, all make an appearance in this game.

The reason? Approximately an hour of footage was written and directed especially for the game by the Wachowski siblings, whilst the two Matrix sequels were in production.The downside to this is that many of the plot points of the game are missing from the film which in my opinion, needed them. For example, you’ll find out how Niobe and Ghost infiltrated the power plant and managed to help The Key Maker and Morpheus as part of the freeway chase. In fact, fan edits of the films turned up online with footage spliced in from Enter The Matrix to try and make things a little more cohesive.

Still, this was probably the last of the games to feature actors reprising their big screen roles for our small screen entertainment.

Honourable mentions that didn’t make this article go to:

Star Wars: Rebel Assault II – The Hidden Empire (1995) which featured the first live action filming of a Star Wars title since production finished on Return Of The Jedi in 1982.

Johnny Mnemonic: The Interactive Action Movie, a point and click adventure that originally wanted to use the same sets as the film of the same name starring Keanu Reeves. Unfortunately contractual issues and the overrunning of production on the film prevented this. The game was reviewed very poorly when released has been mostly forgotten.

Remember the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Eraser? Even that got an FMV based game where you play as John Kruger, Arnold’s character, where you have a few hours to try to stop a terrorist strike in a story set as a sequel to the film. Unsurprisingly, Eraser: Turnabout did not feature Schwarzenegger in any way and was released to poor review scores.

If you are interested in viewing any of this material, just as a fan of the relevant actor, franchise or just to watch some poor acting from a cheap production for a 90s video game, you can easily find it all on YouTube…

Lead image: Moby Games


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