Live Actors Didn’t Work for 90s Games. Can They Work for the New 'Guitar Hero'?
FMVs are back. Yay?
Image: Guitar Hero Live
Let's conduct a little experiment, I am going to post three links, and I want you to identify which one of them is the trailer for the recently revealed Guitar Hero Live and which one is footage from the basketball-esque Sega CD game Slam City with Scottie Pippen.
No, this isn't a trick question. Look closely. Closer. Do you think you've figured it out? Are you sure? This may come as a shock, but that third link is in fact a different video. That one is the new Guitar Hero's trailer, and not at all Slam City with Scottie Pippen.
I know they look very similar, with cheesy actors yelling at you to play the video game better, and that's confusing, and I'm sorry. This is because Activision, a game publisher best known for making money, has decided to bet the Guitar Hero franchise on game tech largely discarded in the mid-90s. The charming, the embarrassing, the weird, and the antiquated full motion video, aka FMV.
FMVs were adapted by a few PC games, arcade games but especially the Sega CD and 3DO. Every considered FMV classic could also be described as infamous. Take the very loud Sewer Shark. Or Night Trap, which had a congressional appearance for its "violence." Or Phantasmagoria, the genuinely violent FMV game they probably wished they had in that congressional hearing. Or that old-timey Mad Dog McCree. At the time, FMVs seemed like a way to bridge interactive games with the engrossing magic of cinema. Instead it created a misfit mutant hybrid, stiffer than other games and nowhere nearly as well produced, or acted, as most commercial movies. Don't get me wrong, I love these games, but it's the same love I have for a dog with its head stuck in a pumpkin.
Limited use of filmed actors worked very well for games like Myst, Area 51 and Mortal Kombat, but you don't exactly see real humans plucking out each other's eyes in the new Mortal Kombat X. Games that went beyond using filmed segments in lieu of pixelated or CG cutscenes were mostly worse versions of the at-least-visually-stimulating Dragon's Lair. FMVs faltered because it's a guarantee that the player will have limited options, their greatest aspiration is being laughed at 20 years later. In which case, what the hell is Guitar Hero doing?
The pitch in Guitar Hero's reveal isn't entirely a wad of bad ideas. A platform that combines a Spotify-y music streaming service and Twitch-y game streaming service? That's novel. Casting a room full of fake British accents and canned musicians playing in front of a similarly hired audience? That is crazy goofy, Activision. That's just out there.
FMVs are the Live part of Guitar Hero Live. In the past Guitar Hero's visuals were cartoon band mates playing in similarly wacky-land arenas. Guitar Hero Live swaps polygons with real actors pretending to play and a big crowd who reacts to you playing or bailing Fall Out Boy songs with cheers and boos. Hopefully they'll still be enthusiastic for the umpteenth sad attempt at Miserlou, just like in real life.
Even if the transition from happy crowd to angry crowd is as smooth as the trailer proposes, it feels like pursuing the wrong part of rock n' roll wish fulfillment. I've always imagined players would be more interested in entertaining other humans in the room, or online, than the virtual pre-recorded ones. Plus having to film multiple reactions of crowds and musicians to each of the available songs seems like an inefficient use of time. But there's an opportunity to be proven wrong, I suppose, it's just strange to wonder where the awkward FMV fits in 2015.
This isn't the only appearance of FMVs in the last few years, just the most commercial. Smaller games, either artistically minded or generally more self-aware of what FMVs look like have taken real actors out for a spin. The upcoming Her Story finds an interesting way to use found-looking footage in a narrative about a woman being interrogated about her missing husband. As for the silly side of things, the most notable recent example is Roundabout, a PC and console game, which not only used FMVs for all the charm and silliness they're worth, but were heralded for it. The Tex Murphy revival recruited Mystery Science Theatre 3000's Kevin Murphy to gag over it (that's a lot of Murphys). Troma even made a downloadable, playable Mad Dog McCree parody for Microsoft's The Gunstringer called The Wavy Tube Man Chronicles.
With documentaries already being tailored for virtual reality devices, an interactive experience that weighs on live actors feels inevitable. FMVs aren't a modern death sentence despite their notoriety, but their use has to be tonally on point, or no one's going to buy it, with their faith or their money. Guitar Hero could play up the absurdity, easily done with some rented spandex and permed wigs, but instead it looks more in-line with your normal, modern, youthy smart phone or snack chip commercial.
An indie game or Oculus experiment can probably juice a lot of fun out of the FMV relic, but something as big as Guitar Hero feels like a very silly gamble. Almost as silly as asking you to fill your apartment with more fake instruments.