For this month’s RETROspective, I thought I’d focus on another subject dear to my heart – interactive movie games. Ask any gamer what springs to mind when mentioning the genre, and you’ll generally hear a laundry list of negatives – grainy footage, quick-time events and linearity. These criticisms are actually the things I enjoy most about interactive movie games; I love getting caught up in the storylines and having clear objects, as I have the attention span of a hummingbird with open world games – obsessing over side missions rather than the main story, and forgetting the plot.
My earliest experiences of interactive movie games came from spending my school summer holidays at the seafront arcades in Southend, where I stumbled across a Dragon’s Lair cabinet – having been drawn to it by it’s incredibly loud attract mode. The game was made by Cinematronics and was co-designed by former Disney animator Don Bluth. The game centred on the adventure of Dirk The Daring, whos task was to rescue damsel in distress Princess Daphne from the clutches of the evil dragon Singe. Dragon’s Lair was presented as a playable cartoon, with QTE arrows flashing up on screen for what felt like nanoseconds. I remember Dragon’s Lair being the most expensive game to play in the arcade, so most people shied away from it – whilst I would happily pump my pocket money into the machine. Over the twenty-odd years since its release, Dragon’s Lair has been ported to nearly every single platform, including smartphones and an interactive DVD.
Interactive movies became more prevalent with the release of Sega’s Mega CD add-on for the Mega Drive. The platform was famous for its FMV (Full Motion Video) games, the majority of which were released by Digital Pictures. I remember unwrapping the Mega CD one Christmas and dashing up to my bedroom to hook it up. As the format was CD based, the footage was kinda grainy and the actual footage only took up a small portion of the screen. Some of my fondest memories come from playing these games; looking back the games plots were paper thin and the acting was overly wooden, performed by largely unheard of actors.
This era marks a significant incident in the history of video gaming, namely the United States Senate’s hearings on video games violence, which focussed on Night Trap amongst others. Night Trap casts the player as a member of Sega Control Attack Team (abbreviated to S.C.A.T), and were tasked with saving a group of teenaged girls from the clutches of vampire-like beings called Augers. The player flicks round the house the girls are staying at, setting off traps to ensnare the Augers. The game was labelled “vile and shameful” by a committee of old men that had never played the game; and believed that a game that a game that “encouraged the player to trap and kill women” should be removed from sale. The committee zeroed in on one particular scene – where one of the group Lisa, wearing a nightgown, is attacked by two Augers whilst in the bathroom preparing for bed (unless the player triggers the trap). Director Tom Zito attended one of the hearings to defend Night Trap, but was apparently shut down by the committee. The uproar over the game eventually led to the games ratings systems that we have today.
Although Night Trap gained notoriety, there were plenty of other FMV games developed by Digital Pictures at the same time, such as Sewer Shark and Ground Zero Texas. Sewer Shark was an on the rails shooter set in a dystopian future, one where the human race has been forced underground by environmental destruction. The aim was to pilot a craft to the last safe location above ground – Solar City – whilst despatching mutated sewer-dwelling animals. I remember the game being impossibly hard at points, and when I did eventually complete the game I did a victory lap through every room of the house.
Ground Zero Texas was a shoot ‘em up where the player had to fend off an invading alien race called from a small town on the Tex-Mex border. Based in a control centre, the player had control over four battle-cams that were equipped with weapons capable of stunning the aliens. The aim was to repel the enemy before the U.S. government nuked the town off the map. I remember the game being even more frustrating that Sewer Shark, with an almost impossible difficulty level. As soon as you left a location open, it’d come under heavy enemy fire whilst you were dealing with another attack elsewhere.
The more playable games were released later in the Mega CD’s life cycle, such as Tomcat Alley, the Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detectives series and the third wave of Digital Picture releases that were compatible with the Mega 32X. Tomcat Alley was a Top Gun-like shoot ‘em up by Code Monkey where the player took control of an F14 Tomcat – engaging in dogfights and taking out ground based enemy targets. The graphics were still grainy, but it was pretty much full-screen and had a halfway decent plot. The only issue I remember is that the footage of an enemy aircraft exploding were obviously Airfix models suspended from strings – in fact I vividly recall one of the downed jet’s wing hovered in mid-air before the screen cut back to the gameplay.
The Sherlock Holmes series, developed by ICOM solutions were obviously puzzle based, with three cases per volume. The footage was the same quality as Tomcat Alley, and came with an accompanying in-lay that resembled the layout of a broadsheet newspaper. The player had to interview witnesses and suspects, and use the in-lay to solve the mysteries. The only issue was that if you lost the in-lay, you were pretty much screwed as the puzzles were way too abstract to be able to figure out without it.
Aside from the Mega CD games, a notable PC game released around the same time that utilised the interactive movie formula was Spycraft: The Great Game by Activision. The game deals with the attempted assassination of The President of The United States, and the CIA’s attempts to save him. The game had some excellent puzzles, such as working out a bullet’s trajectory in order to locate an assassin; Spycraft managed to mix the puzzle sections with some great FMV action shooter sequences, all in glorious full screen due to the greater power of a PC’s graphics processor.
Today, interactive movie games use computer-generated graphics rather than full motion video, have Hollywood calibre plots and generally attract A-list stars. Until Dawn had the interactive movie tropes – QTEs and a linear environment, but the unique hook of being able to save all, some or none of a group of teens over the course of a fear-filled night on a remote mountain top. I played the game numerous times, as I was dead set on seeing if I could save the entire group.
Developer Quantic Dreams specialise in interactive movie games – Fahrenheit, Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls. As with Until Dawn, the games have quick time events and linear plots, but all have branching storylines based on the players decisions. There must be a demand for these type of games, as Quantic Dreams have not only remastered Heavy Rain and Beyond for the PS4, but they are also way into development on Detroit: Become Human – a sci-fi game dealing with androids, which looks absolutely gorgeous. Interactive movie games may be niche, but it looks like they’re here to stay.
Do you have fond memories of interactive movie games? Did I miss out your favourite? As always, let us know in the comments section below.