My friends over at Adventure Classic Gaming have a great interview up with Dean Erickson, the actor who portrayed Gabriel Knight in the second game of the GK series, The Beast Within. As you may recall from my review of the game, I didn't think Erickson did the best job, but now, after reading the interview, I'm feeling a bit more forgiving. Obviously, one of the great challenges of being an actor in a FMV game is trying to "act natural" in a FMV studio, because the end product may turn out so much different than a movie or TV show would. People tend to forget that all of the pioneering FMV games were working without established precedents and tried techniques; they were experimenting and, in my opinion, were abandoned before they grew into their own. What I want to do here is address some issues with acting in FMV that may account for hits untimely (and hopefully not permanent) demise in the mid 90s.
For instance, a FMV game might require that the same bit of video be shown on several occasions. GK 2 tended to recycle lots of small parts into multiple scenes, such as Gabriel sitting down at a desk or leaving. Likewise, the continuity was often lacking between shots, so that it looked like they were out of order. This was particularly problematic in the menu-based conversation sequences. Of course, an actor can build up dramatic tension if he knows what lines will be delivered in what order, but disrupting this flow for the sake of interaction results in some pretty stilted acting. I'm not sure what the resolution would be for this, but obviously a snappier pace is necessary. Some guys try to simplify dialogue by just having simple responses available (like yes or no), but I've yet to see a dialogue system that really satisfied. There is massive room for innovation in this department. As silly as it sounds, perhaps the best dialogue-based game I've played is Cinemaware's King of Chicago! At least that game had great pacing, and I'm sure it would've worked great with quality FMV.
Another problem with most FMV is the inevitable rupture between the "in-game" graphics and the FMV takes. Sierra tried to resolve this issue in GK 2 by having even the in-game graphics set against photographed backgrounds and using animated, digitized footage of the characters in the in-game scenes. The result? Well, the backgrounds looked fine, even though a few looked quite odd because they weren't moving at all (particularly problematic when water or trees were shown). Worse, though, were the clunky, tin-man like motions of the people. Again, Sierra tried to resolve the issue by placing obstacles in between the characters' legs and the camera, but they obviously couldn't keep this up at all times. The result was some pretty comical effects that ended up breaking the "suspension of disbelief" necessary to get into a story and not be distracted by the machinery behind it.
What I'm wondering is whether the time is ripe to try it again. While most modern GAGs have taken the CGI rendering approach, with photo-realistic images and real-time 3-D rendering, I'm still holding out for a great FMV game. Surely, with the added polygon counts and what-not available today, GK 2 could be made to look smoother and much more realistic.
You might wonder why the heck this is important when we have CGI looking as good as Lara Croft. My answer is that to create the high-level of dramatic tension you see in good television, movies, and stage plays requires the kinesthetics of a great actor. Great actors can communicate more to the audience with a subtle, almost indetectable facial expression or gesture that will forever elude the rendered polygon. What I'd like to see is a Half-Life 2 approach taken to the next level with actual digitized footage, so that we'd be left with a great-looking game featuring actors who could really move us.
In researching the possible acquisition of the Japanese-only NEC PC-FX console (released December 1994, last new game of only a handful, roughly mid-1998), the pseudo-successor to the wildly successful (over there) NEC PC Engine series systems (known as the Turbo-Grafx/Duo here), I took note that most of the games were FMV-based. In fact, it was an NEC mandate that all the action-y and related stuff (traditional sprite-based, polygon-based) be pretty much left for the PC Engine systems, I think. In any case, my point is, is that one of the first games for the system, Battle Heat, intrigues me in that it's a fighting game based around the use of FMV, in this case anime'. While obviously this has been done before, specifically in games from Digital Pictures like Prize Fighter (Sega CD, 3DO, etc.), among others, this apparently was one of the few times, if ever, where true real-time interaction with video was achieved (anyone who's played games like Prize Fighter or Scotty Pippin's Slam City know what I mean about the sluggishness). Yes, a one-on-one fighting game that uses animation cells and is apparently just as responsive as any Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat-like game. Hopefully I'll be able to acquire it at some point, though it's a VERY Japanese system and I tend not to like those considering I can't play games with heavy Japanese language/text for obvious reasons.
The couple of recent "Need for Speed" games (I believe the latest two in the series) use an interesting mix of FMV and CGI, sort of making the FMV actors look a bit computer generated. It's a stylized effect, but certainly one of the very, very few mainstream games of any remotely recent vintage to use actual FMV video footage of real people in their cut scenes instead of FMV that's CGI-based.
So, what's my point? I think if a game as "old" as 1994 on a system from 1994 can do REAL-TIME FMV interaction and Electronic Arts (the publishers of the Need for Speed series) is selectively bringing back FMV actor-based cut scenes, is the marriage of the two in the modern age in a mainstream game far behind? It would certainly be interesting to finally see what FMV can truly achieve rather than the hints from games of the past (like "Thayer's Quest" (arcade) and "A Fork in the Tale" (PC))...
Well, one of those "wow" moments that occured for me was playing a hologram game in an arcade at Gatlinburg. The game was called Time Traveler, and it blew me away. The gameplay was simplistic to the point of embarrassment, but the game really set my mind ablaze with possibilities. What I kept imagining was a new type of CRPG that would use this technology to really let you see battles and the like in a new way, sort of like the famous chess game played by Chewbacca and C3-PO in Star Wars.
Apparently, the whole "Time Traveler" machine wasn't really a hologram projector, but it was convincing enough to make for some very interesting possibilities that were later dismissed as part of the "laser disc era."
What I tend to think about when I stretch my imagination is games not being played on a flat screen monitor, but rather projected onto a board in three dimensions. Again, I realize this is strictly "Star Trek" for the time being, but ultimately it's more practical than "VR" and definitely more feasible than a holodeck. Perhaps one solution might be for the "board" to be encased in a glass or plastic case and flooded with some type of gas or ions that would respond to electrical impulses in a predictable, controllable way, in some ways reminiscent of an aquarium.
The precedent for this type of display has existed far longer than a flat screen. Ancient plays and gladitorial bouts, for instance, took place in a defined, three-dimensional space. Indeed, the 2-D limitation of flat screens is a relatively recent innovation. I think the hold-up is because futurists keep insisting on "immersion" and somehow transplating the player directly into the virtual world. This is a worthy goal, but I think an in-between step is necessary--not placing the player in the world, but just offering it as a perspective.
What's really sad to me is that we've lost that sort of "dare to do it" spirit of the early 90s that led to games like Dragon's Lair and Time Traveler. Now, we're content to make tiny steps forward in the forms of enhancements to existing paradigms--i.e., a few more pipes, faster polygons, etc. What we really need are more of those grand attempts to shatter the paradigm completely and leap out with something totally new.
In short, I think it's time we went back to some of these earlier attempts at revolution and made another go at it with today's advanced technology. My guess is that we've got a much better shot today at something that will stick than back then.
I was dissapointed that the 3D displays built into a select batch of laptops several years ago never really took off (Though I guess they're still available: http://www.sharpsystems.com/products/pc_notebooks/actius/rd/3d/ ). Basically it layered several screens on top of one another, creating a great 3D effect without needing glasses. Why they stopped selling or receiving press, I don't know, but that's the ideal first big step in my opinion, 3D without the USER changing his viewing environment...