A Brief History of FMV Games

Full Motion Video games are a bit of a fascination of mine; specifically for me it is the PC adventure genre of FMV games that excites me the most. Combining the asinine and obtuse puzzles of PC adventure games with limiting full motion video graphics and often terrible writing and acting is something I can earnestly enjoy. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though, let’s start with defining what exactly an FMV game is.


FMV games cropped up originally in arcades due to the introduction of Laserdiscs. Popularized here by Dragon’s Lair, which was essentially a cartoon where at a couple points you would pressed a button to not die. They were flashy and drew your attention and often ate all of your quarters because they were built to kill you unfairly and were often very expensive to play. Other well-known arcade FMV releases were Mad Dog MccRee and Time Traveler. All of which were essentially the same only really differentiated by the interaction. In Mad Dog Mccree you shot at the screen and in Time Traveler and Dragon’s Lair you pressed a button. Time Traveler was unique in its Hologram premise. The machine was built in such a way as to appear like you were playing a hologram. Of course the game itself was atrocious as with almost all FMV games, but it was flashy and unique.

The next big boom in FMV games came again from a jump in technology. The introduction of CDs to hold games meant that they could hold video. A lot of games took advantage of it most notably the Myst series and many games by the famous Adventure Game designer Roberta Williams. She used pre-generated backgrounds with recorded idle animations for your character all sandwiched with FMV cut scenes. A common aspect of the PC games also was incredibly small video. In order to fit the data onto the small sized discs of the time, they had to compress it greatly. This led to very small windows in the middle of your screen and heavily pixelated video. Again the major draw here was not quality but the novelty of having video in a game. Generally even Roberta Williams’ games such as Phantasmagoria were plagued by terrible acting and bad camera work.

This brings us to modern day and the release of the uncalled for and completely out of the blue Dark Star: The Interactive Movie. Dark Star shares all the qualities of 90’s FMV games and very few improvements. The video looks significantly less compressed but the pre-generated backgrounds make a return in lieu of sets. These backgrounds don’t look much better than the old games and generally have a very clean look to them. It is the perfect storm for a game that can only truly be enjoyed as either a nostalgic throwback or a downright train wreck. Whether or not the developers knew what they were doing when they made this game is not clear to me, but either way it is masterpiece of bad game making. The puzzles are obtuse, the acting is terrible, and the story has some hints of being interesting only to be destroyed by the acting. It mirrors almost all of the qualities of the 90’s FMV adventure game.

Other than the odd release of Dark Star,  FMV in games has been almost entirely abandoned. Twisted Pixel is known for implementing it for comic effect in their games but other than that no one else seems to be making use of it. I would really love to see someone take a real crack at how to use it to make a great game, but I doubt anyone will ever attempt it. The closest I have seen recently is Heavy Rain and Asura’s Wrath, both games focused on story with only occasional gameplay segments to break it up. Essentially they are the extension of the FMV game.

Overall FMV games are a disaster, but they signified major changes in technology and led to a lot of modern takes on adventure games. I genuinely think that games like L.A. Noire, Heavy Rain, and Asura’s Wrath are borrowing from the formula that these games created. I don’t anticipate them seeing resurgence beyond comedic effect in a few titles, but when you look closely you can see that it had an effect on the adventure games that are coming out today.

Correction: Removed mention of Roberta Williams working on the Gabriel Knight series, as it was headed by Jane Jensen. 

4 thoughts on “A Brief History of FMV Games”

  1. Awesome article! I’ve always been a fan of the FMV game niche.

    One nitpick, if I must. The only Gabriel Knight game that was FMV was GK2 (The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery). In the article you say it was GK3 (Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, but that one was 3d animated.

  2. I thought Jane Jensen was behind Gabriel Knight rather than Roberta Williams? (Who later went on to make the incredibly offensive Gray Matter)

    Also, Darkseid

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