Tic-Tac-Toe: Phantasmagoria, Met Before, Lume

Jake Spencer
11 March 2012

Hot Lavy draws a line through three different applications of Full-Motion Video visuals in games.

  Phantasmagoria
One of the seminal works of the mid-nineties FMV adventure craze, Phantasmagoria places live-action actors atop static computer-generated backgrounds. It had a high budget for a game of its 1995 vintage ($4 million), but the technological limitations of the time (in terms of special effects, computer graphics, and video compression) leave it looking laughably dated today.

Phantasmagoria was written and designed by the master of the graphical adventure genre, Roberta Williams. This was her first and last game to use FMV visuals.

    X     In order to ensure that the player can choose multiple actions on each
            screen, the actors must start and stop each movement on a neutral
            pose from a neutral position. This means the main character,
            Adrienne, will step precisely on her mark and very deliberately
            straighten her hair before placing her hands at her side and
            expressionlessly looking forward at the end of each action. It's
            
awkward.

    X     Actors never quite look like they're a part of their environments. It's
            obvious they're acting in front of a blue screen, and, rather than
            creating a sense of realism, it hurts suspension of disbelief.

    X     Unlike animation, which can still be tweaked late in development if it
            interferes with playability, the only way to adjust slow or otherwise
            problematic character motions is to shoot new footage. The time
            and cost required reassemble the cast and crew, adjust sets and
            lighting, get costumes and makeup, and shoot and edit the footage
            may be prohibitive, and the design and playability of the game may
            suffer as a result.

    O     The uncanny stiffness creates a simultaneously campy and unsettling
            atmosphere - perfect for a horror game like Phantasmagoria.

    O     In a point-and-click adventure, players spend most of their time
            examining the background, looking for interactive objects and clues.
            This graphical style provides far more expressive characters than
            
traditional video game visuals while ensuring that the environments
            are perfectly framed to guide the player's attention.

            (Phantasmagoria doesn't always play to this strength, but it is a
            strength, nonetheless.)

    O     It's possible to fast-forward right to the end of any movement with a
            single click. It's an inelegant solution to the
            mark-hitting/hair-straightening issue described above, but after an
            hour of watching Adrienne reach for her bangs, it's hard not to be
            grateful for this concession to an unfortunate reality.


Met Before
Not strictly a game, Met Before is an interactive music video for a song by the band Chairlift. The video always begins at the end of a college lecture on the idea that we live in a reality based on only one possible sequence of events. As the students leave the class, we are invited to press either the right or left arrow key, causing the video to branch in one of two directions. This happens several more times throughout the duration of the song.

The video is shot like an ordinary music video, with tight shots of real actors in real environments.

    X     This is an interactive video; not a game. While the playstyle could be
            adapted to fit a more challenging or goal-oriented application, going
            too far in this direction would likely result in something more closely
            resembling Dragon's Lair, which is appealing in its own right, but not
            for the same reasons as Met Before. In short, this is a narrow genre.

    X     The video doesn't provide much feedback. In Super Mario Bros.,
            tapping 'right' immediately makes Mario take a step to the right.
            Pressing A immediately makes him jump.

            There's significant delay after choosing a direction in Met Before, and
            even then, it's unclear what the player's effect on the story was.
            Perhaps the video could better telegraph the result of each possible
            action, but as it is, the only way to play is through trial-and-error.

    X     A scene in one timeline won't occur in another. Therefore, the amount
            of writing, shooting, and editing required to make a video like this
            increases exponentially every time the player is asked to make a
            choice.

    O     Met Before is neither a game nor a movie, and it doesn't try to be. It
            is a music video, and the layer of non-linear interactivity encourages
            you to listen to the song multiple times. The intuitive left/right
            interface (which defaults to left if the player doesn't act) makes it
            accessible to anyone.

    O     This is shot like a music video - not a game, and not a movie. There is
            no need to maintain a clear view of a player character through every
            shot. It's not necessary to write branching dialogue. It's even possible
            to jump across locations and time, as long as the visuals continue to
            match the music in some way.

    O     Although you have to start over from the beginning to see other
            outcomes, you also know that going from start to finish will
            always take exactly the length of the song.


Lume
An adventure/puzzle game in the vein of the Professor Layton and Dr. Brain series, Lume takes place in an environment made of painted cardboard. Characters and some objects are computer-generated, although their style is meant to emulate the rest of the game's painted cardboard look.

    X     The main character's movement speed is limited to the speed at which
            the camera moves across the background. In this case, sloooow,
            especially during transitions. Like Adrienne in Phantasmagoria, the
            camera must carefully settle on a neutral position each time it moves.

    X     Because any change in the position of background elements would be
            jarring, and the camera must be able to move to any of several
            locations at a time, the physical elements in the environment are
            necessarily static.

    X     The game looks its best when it takes advantage of the 3D space. Most
            shots, however, incorporate few layers of cardboard, and feature little
            depth-of-field.

    O     The handcrafted visuals lend the whole affair a remarkably charming
            and relaxed tone. The world is warm and inviting.

    O     The textures and lighting are exquisite. Despite being a low-budget,
            
low-tech indie game, Lume looks far more real and detailed than the
            most expensive polygon-based production.

    O     The CG-actors-on-FMV-backgrounds technique promises far greater
            versatility than the techniques explored in Phantasmagoria and Met
                Before
. Imagine a platformer or a driving game that tracks along a
            camera's path through a physical environment.
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