The rise and fall of interactive movies

Adults-only gaming

Violent content was usually taken care of by the game's setting – sci-fi laser guns and similar offering the side-bonus of not having to deal with the safety issues surrounding even stage pistols, or having to pay to fit the actors with exploding squibs.

Only a handful of interactive movies brought out the tough stuff, notably Harvester (a woefully misjudged game in which the player is supposedly being trained to become a murderer via a VR simulator) and Spycraft – another genuinely good interactive movie - where players were invited to take part in an interactive torture sequence.

Needless to say, if developers balked at violence, sex was right out. We have to wonder how much of this was down to restraint on the part of writers, and how much came down to programming teams simply not having the guts to ask actors to drop their pants for the sake of digital art.

Either way, they rarely delivered. Sony's Voyeur may have had a steamy name, but a couple of women in their knickers and a guy pretending to be a dog were about all you actually got to see.

Even more ambitious games like Riana Rouge, entirely sold on the sex appeal of Playmate Gillian Bonner, proved oddly reluctant to fully deploy its, ahem, built-in special effects for the benefits of players who didn't realise they'd bought a game 'driven by themes of female empowerment and integration' instead of the world's most expensive way to not see boobies.

There were exceptions to the rule, such as the cryptically titled Latex: The Game, but not many. And it goes without saying that whatever fan service and erotic content that did slowly seep into the genre was aimed squarely at men. The idea that women might be playing these games was alien to most of the writers, even in games where your character's gender was irrelevant.

Kat in Critical Path would still tease your faceless soldier about the possibility of doing a shower scene. Spycraft spent the entire game calling the player 'Thorn' specifically to avoid the question, only to accidentally drop Game Overs when Thorn is clearly thrown into a men's prison. Oops.

Feminine clout

With all this in mind, it's amusing that the games that really shook up the status quo were all from female designers: Roberta Williams, Lorelei Shannon, and Jane Jensen. Roberta Williams produced Phantasmagoria, which featured some of the most shocking violence seen on the PC up to this point – mostly committed against innocent women, including a (pretty tame) rape scene involving the game's heroine.

Its sequel, designed by Shannon, made new main character Curtis Craig's growing obsession with sadomasochism into a plot point, although in a story as badly written and confused as the dimension-hopping Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle Of Flesh, it didn't really matter.

Jane Jensen's Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within, however, was another of that shortlist of genuinely good interactive movies. It was an excellent supernatural mystery, weaving together werewolves, Wagner, and the 'mad' King Ludwig II of Bavaria into a superb original story.

It was filmed using bluescreen technology, but it used real-world places, including Munich and the castle of Neuschwanstein for backgrounds, with so much background detail, it was almost like playing edutainment. Its most impressive feature however was the growing bisexual undercurrents between the womanising main character and the game's villain, von Glower.

There was nothing explicit about it, no erotic scenes or anything similar to push that side of the story to the forefront. It was simply brought out in the subtle moments of quality acting that contemporary sprites and 3D models could never have managed.

It was this ability to do more than basic graphics that ultimately cemented FMV in the gaming world for several years, even after it was clear that full-on interactive movies were going to be too expensive to make, too much trouble, and just plain not worth the effort.

This didn't mean the end of live actors at all, and certainly didn't kill rendered cut-scenes. The same problems that had made the idea of movie games so compelling in the first place were still around, and wouldn't be going anywhere for several years.

FMV comes home

What changed was that FMV took its rightful place in the game – behind the gameplay.

Command and Conquer is an excellent example, because it's one of the few franchises still bothering with live action at all. Filmed mission briefings. Tactical strategy fun. Expensive rendered cut-scenes. More film of people telling you how great you are. That's the kind of ego boost we can get behind.

However, when it comes down to it, the only real reason that C&C still bothers is that the hammy acting is as closely associated with it as anything else it brought to the table. Fans expect to see Joe Kucan chewing the scenery as Kane, or Tanya vamping it up in a croptop. Most games have simply moved beyond it.

Rendered scenes, especially in-engine ones, offer so much more freedom and flexibility, with the bonus of never breaking you out of the world the creators are offering. Why struggle to make everyone believe that the latest big name is actually wandering around the post-apocalyptic future when you can create your own Alyx, or Farah, or Dogmeat, or some other character that will always be 100 per cent yours. It doesn't make any sense. It never will again.

But just for a while, it almost did.


First published in PC Format, Issue 223