Full motion video! In the nineties, it was both a blessing and bane of gamers everywhere. Though if you talk to some, it might be more bane thanks to some horrifically bad acting, cheesy production values, and just an awkward juxtaposition between sleek CG and inexperienced thespians — or direction.
But CD-ROMs held their spell over designers as visions of blending Hollywood and silicon together in an oftentimes hideous sandwich. Surely, games can get better thanks to this strange science of plastic and laser-scored pitting? That’s still up for debate. Sometimes they worked reasonably well as in Origin’s Wing Commander III, or went down in embarrassment as they did in Microforum’s Maabus. But it was clear that the “age” of interactive movies had arrived.
Studios like Sierra On-Line and Presto Studios would embrace FMV in more than a few of their projects, but it also proved alluring to bring in star power to promote the mystique of the medium and prove to the public that a new era of Hollywood movie-making and game design was here.
Take-Two Interactive, a company umbrella under which familiar labels such as 2K Games and 2K Sports thrive under, jumped right into the interactive movie ring with Ripper in 1996. Ripper had a star studded cast – John Rhys-Davies, Burgess Meredith, Paul Giamatti, Karen Allen, and Christopher Walken whose face is glaring at players from the ad above.
The game centers around a series of horrifying killings in a future noir setting where someone is mimicking Jack the Ripper and has made you their go-to guy for the lulz. Your girlfriend was on the verge of figuring out who the Ripper was before she was nearly killed and ended up in a coma. So it’s up to you as Jake Quinlan, ace reporter, to finish the job.
Vincent Magnotta, the police detective heading the official investigation, isn’t happy to have you interfere in police business especially when it’s Christopher Walken doing the acting. Unfortunately, his acting is actually one of the negatives that a number of critics have taken to pointing out along with the gratuitously numbing use of the word “fuck.”
So yeah, not one of Walken’s better performances. Other critics have praised the acting of Scott Cohen who plays Quinlan, on the other hand, which actually does look good in the clips I’ve seen like the one above. He seems comfortable in the scene and plays it off like Mark Hamill did in Wing Commander III. Walken just seems uncomfortable in this scene, apparently, plays out relatively the same way throughout the game.
As for the gameplay, Ripper featured multi-pathed dialogue and a ye olde adventure game attitude where everything that isn’t nailed down ended up in your inventory of clues for solving puzzles. The problem was that some of these puzzles could also be fairly esoteric and the game also made use of real-time action episodes, such as when you entered cyberspace to battle your way through its defenses to reach the info you need. Fortunately, an adjustable difficulty scale could make these as easy or as hard as possible.
Ripper also boasted four different endings that were about as weakly executed as one more recent game was criticized for. In this case, Ripper swaps out a line at the end to point the finger at a different culprit to encourage replays, but from what I’ve read, it sounds like the game still plays the same way regardless of what you do. Just a few puzzles change and a name swap is done to make it seem as if it were a dramatic reflection of Quinlan’s efforts.
Still, it wasn’t a terrible game as far as FMV titles go although not all of the acting is as good as Cohen’s. The puzzles, while they can be a little too dependent on bizarre solutions, were tough challenges and the futuristic look of 2040 is decently done. But as far as its impact on FMV games go, it didn’t register too much of one.
By the mid-nineties, FMV titles were slowly on their way out especially as adventure games began to decline in popularity in the face of challenges from both a growing and vibrant console market and an emphasis on action gaming on the PC front with games like id’s Quake series and the games built atop their engines. That, and FMVs were simply unable to shake their reputation for the cheese served with bad acting.
In the end, live actors onscreen were eventually replaced with CG replacements with voice-overs in increasingly elaborate cinematics — or modeling. Ripper might not have been the worst FMV title out there, but remains as a curious memento of a time when CG wasn’t yet “good enough.” And of when the earnest belief that live-action FMV in gaming was a key element in riding the wave into an interactive future.