Doing It Live: The return of FMV

Doing It Live: The return of FMV
Matthew Jarvis

By Matthew Jarvis

May 12th 2016 at 11:53AM

A woman sits alone at a table. “You have no murder weapon,” she says, before insisting, forcefully: “You have nothing.” She tilts her head and smiles.

It could be a scene from a BBC drama or silver screen thriller, but instead it’s a video game – Sam Barlow’s multi-BAFTA-winning Her Story. What might throw you off is that the woman isn’t a computer-generated character, she’s real-life actress Viva Seifert.

Such a scene is becoming more ubiquitous, as developers increasingly explore the use of full-motion video (FMV) in games.

This isn’t limited to lo-fi indie efforts, either. Remedy’s Quantum Break breaks up traditional third-shooter gameplay sections with full-length live-action TV episodes, with X-Men’s Shawn Ashmore, Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen and The Lord of the Rings’ Dominic Monaghan making appearances both in person and as their virtual dopplegangers.

“Games have become more and more like movies over the years – titles like Heavy Rain and Telltale's The Walking Dead series are all about strong, compelling narratives with interesting characters and they’ve found huge audiences,” observes Allan Plenderleith, writer and director of Splendy Games’ upcoming FMV title The Bunker. “There’s something powerful about real performances from actual actors that you get in movies which resonate with audiences.”

Game designer Nina Freeman chose to incorporate short live-action films into Star Maid Games’ independent release Cibele, which explores a semi-autobiographical sexual relationship established through a fictional MMO.

“The FMV is there to ground the player and give them context as to who they are, in addition to the layer of the game being about bodies and sex and the humans involved in that scenario,” she explains. “I didn't think animated bodies would have the same impact, because I was already using real pictures and stuff on the in-game computer desktops. There was already a lot of real ephemera in it, so using real people lined up with that as well.”

With feature-length cinematic releases now shot entirely on mobile phones, the ability for game creators to utilise live video has similarly opened up – and even save on their development costs.

Sam Barlow

“I come from the triple-A studios, where high-end 3D characters can become very expensive to make,” says Simon Tremblay, founder, producer and creative director at Missing: An Interactive Thriller studio Zandel Media. “You can get much higher production values and real emotions for your money with live-action. The biggest downside is you don't have any iteration – what you film is what you get, and you cannot tweak the animation or change the line of the actors. Good pre-production is key.”

Dan Teasdale (pictured, below), co-founder of No Goblin, which included comedic live-action inserts in its 1970s-set game Roundabout, reiterates the ‘one and done’ mentality of video.

“The biggest challenge for FMV is also its greatest strength – once you’ve filmed, there’s only one revision of your source assets,” he says. “If you decide in beta that you need to change how the story works, it means you have to book a whole new shoot and call actors in – which is kind of a rude shock if you’re used to how iterative everything else in games is.

“The scariest part of the development process on an FMV-based narrative is that one day your narrative isn’t in the game, and the next day it’s in and 95 per cent done. It’s an unnerving shock if you’re used to the usual ‘slowly rise everything up from graybox to final’ model that most cutscenes are done in, but it’s also pretty nice just having a big part of your game just pop into existence.”

Barlow himself suggests that the proliferation of live footage in the modern world makes the medium a natural fit for games, and asks whether the format could even bring into question players’ acceptance of established mechanics.

“We consume so much video and in different ways – on demand, on the go,” he states. “Our devices and our internet connections are now powerful enough that we can throw video all over the shop, so it's natural that we start to re-appraise it as something that can be the core of an interactive experience.

“As well, the uncanny valley isn't going away. CGI is just getting more expensive and more complicated – so the complexity and cost of a live shoot doesn't seem so bad. Finally, we're at a point where we can question the assumptions about what gameplay is important; do we need to move an avatar around in a 3D space? There are some things that are hard to do in video, and if we don't need to do them... the things that video does enable become that much more attractive.”

Feature article image

While FMV may seem like a shortcut to the holy grail of graphical achievements – realism – the format presents its own unique challenges for devs.

“Modern game engines aren't necessarily tooled up for handling video,” Barlow highlights. “That continues to be problematic as I try and hit up more platforms. Unity is the most useful and platform independent engine out there for independent developers, but its support of video is not robust and varies from platform to platform.”

Freeman (pictured, right) also experienced difficulty when selecting a foundation on which to build Cibele’s video elements.

“We had to switch around platform a bunch of times because not all of them support using video files,” she reveals. “There's definitely a constraint within the technology for using films – we had to use Flash, which isn't great but it supports video, so we had to use it. There are ways to get games into your videos without being a super genius graphics programmer.”

Outside of technology troubles, Plenderleith notes that transitioning to a new medium – whether from film to game, or vice versa – can be a hurdle for teams.

“The biggest challenge was planning the live-action production based on a non-linear story, and explaining that narrative to the crew,” he says of The Bunker’s production. “Our team are all highly experienced filmmakers but had little to no experience in making games – everyone was doing something they had never done before, but that’s what makes it exciting.”

Melding the worlds of film and games together can be a tricky task in terms of gameplay mechanics and flow, too, as Tremblay points out.

“Do storyboards with placeholder VO until the game feels good,” he advises. “It's a tricky process. If the story sucks, then the game is just a sequence of puzzles, and if the gameplay sucks, then the puzzles are in the way of the story. It's a balancing act.”

Teasdale highlights the indie resurgence as a key factor in the return of live-action video in games, thanks to its cost-friendly nature.

“FMV works for certain game budgets that weren’t feasible until the last few years,” he suggests. “Even 20 years ago, the idea of shipping a low five-digit amount of copies was grotesque failure. For some developers today, that counts as success, which means niche stuff like FMV suddenly is doable again.

“Combined with that, the technology for playing good quality video with zero latency has been weirdly expensive and out of reach for smaller devs – video middleware like Bink costs $8,000 per platform, which is insane considering that our entire video shoot cost less than that.”

But while video may be a better fit in some cases, Freeman offers a reminder that it’s not always the easier or cheapest route.

“I was lucky I was in school at the time with access to the right equipment because I definitely couldn't afford to buy any of it,” she recalls. “Making films is, like games, very hard and expensive. It did add a layer of production cost, which would hard to do again now that I'm not in grad school. But if it helps tell the story, I would do it again. Story always comes first.”

The interactivity has to complement the narrative.

Allan Plenderleith, Splendy

The last few years aren’t the first time FMV has been at the front of the games development zeitgeist. Throughout the ‘90s, live-action video was commonplace – from entirely interactive films such as Phantasmagoria to inserts seen in titles such as Red Alert and Wing Commander. Although, the recent spate of well-received titles stands in stark contrast to the often laughable efforts of decades past.

“There was a lot of cheese when the original FMV game explosion happened,” Barlow reminisces.

“There was a lot of running before people could walk. Those old FMV games often felt a need to include a lot of 'game' elements, and this exaggerated the cheese. There was a lot of bad writing and acting; there was a lot of gore, and a lot of trial and error.

“But, in all honesty, FMV games as a whole probably weren't that much worse than most games of the era. Try judging the 3D platformer by all the dross on PlayStation 1. FMV games were just missing their Mario 64.”

Regardless, even today, using FMV can be a risky move – among the YouTube commenters on Her Story’s debut trailer are those who dismiss the lauded title as ‘boring’, criticise it for apparently having ‘no gameplay’ and compare it to a Sega CD game. Clearly, FMV’s reputation is yet to be restored.

“There are very few examples of good FMV so it will take some time before that perception changes,” admits Plenderleith. “A good FMV needs to have what every game has – a unique original story with characters you care about and root for. The more FMV developers work with filmmakers, the more this genre will start to flourish and create truly unique experiences which genuinely have an impact on audiences.”

Teasdale suggests that an altered consideration of video as secondary to gameplay – rather than the other way around – has helped modern-day developers to use the format sparingly.

“The big transformation is that in the ‘90s, the FMV itself was the selling point,” he recalls. “Games like Sewer Shark existed because of the novelty of video playback. This time around, the FMV is being used in a supporting role for narrative and mechanics. If you look at some of the great second wave FMV games like Her Story or Guitar Hero Live, they’re games that are enhanced by having great performances – not games that wouldn’t exist without FMV.

“The big thing is treating FMV like any other tool in your narrative toolkit. Think about what kind of stories you want to tell, the look and feel of your game, and whether cutting between gameplay and FMV – or combining them – is something that isn’t jarring.”

Freeman similarly encourages developers to simply stick to the medium that they feel reflects their creative vision best – regardless of what others may think.

“I never really played a lot of those old FMV games, so they weren't a part of my purview,” she says. “I don't think that knowing about them would've really changed it, because, for me, the short films are necessary to support the mechanic itself. My use of the short films was very purposeful and I'm not sure that any method that replaced it would've been as impactful.”

“The old FMV games from the ‘90s suffered from a lack of good actors and good directing,” Tremblay suggests as direction for recovering the medium’s good graces. “The only way to overcome this is to work with professionals of the film industry.

“We'll need to see a bigger successful game to change the perception. Gamers like it; most recent FMV games get really good user scores, but they need to do better to change things. I do believe there is a place for this type of product sitting in-between TV series and video games. I cannot believe the media is set in stone in such a way it's not possible to create new industries.”

Feature article image

More types of games are being made and thus more games with strong stories and writing, because more people are making games and more people with different interests and goals in games have access to making them.

Nina Freeman, Star Maid Games

With interest in FMV riding high in the wake of games like Her Story, Quantum Break and Cibele proving its viability as a serious medium, there are sure to many devs considering the format for their next release – and it’s never been easier.

“Now, there are lots of accessible game making tools, so people have a little more flexibility in what they want to make,” praises Freeman. “With that, you start to see more types of games being made and thus more games with strong stories and writing, because more people are making games and more people with different interests and goals in games have access to making them.”

Yet, Plenderleith offers a warning to creators to make sure the format fits – rather than just jumping on the bandwagon.

“Just like movies you need a great script and a talented cast,” he opines. “There has to be a reason why it is FMV and why your story is a live-action game. The interactivity has to complement the narrative and draw you further into the story, making you feel more immersed and a real part of the character’s journey.”

“I have experienced some incredible drama and emotion in games over the years, and this is only going to get better as studios hire good writers and spend time on the narrative. It all starts with the script – just like movies, no amount of special effects can detract from dodgy writing.”

Barlow celebrates the marriage of live-action video and gameplay – when implemented correctly – as a potentially revolutionary step for development that could finally bring virtual worlds in line with their cinematic cousins.

“It's clearly changing – the availability of devices, the way technology is becoming integrated in allof our entertainment media – it's making a difference,” he observes. “But we still need to do our bit. Better writing. Better design. Make stories that invite and make good on the interactivity. Throw out the baggage from decades of video games and invent new mechanics or focus on mechanics that provide a condensed, rich experience. Think about the ways in which 90 minutes spent with a game can be more surprising, more moving, more insightful than 90 minutes spent with a TV series or movie.

“As an industry we need to give more money to storytellers and allow them to genuinely create, rather than just polish dialogue. We need to empower and encourage storytellers to embrace interactivity. Story should be the genesis of a game idea and the core of the experience. There are other things that need more shaking up – like expectations around game price and length. But we'll get there.”


You’ve got the lights, the cameras – ready! Wait, what about the actors? Well, unless you fancy yourself a virtual Laurence Olivier, you’ll need to find someone up for the task.

“Actors want a good story and to play a well developed character,” Tremblay advises on the best way to attract the right talent. “If you don't feel confident enough to direct an actor you should rely on a director. Otherwise, the scene will suck and you'll be disappointed.”

The Bunker (pictured, above right) stars Adam Brown, best known as Ori in the Hobbit series of films, as John. Plenderleith comments on the effect successfully matching characters to their real-life counterparts can have on the final game.

"The actors certainly brought a lot of their talent to the characters, and added a huge layer of depth to the story, bringing real genuine emotion to scenes, sometimes in a very unexpected way. The scene at the beginning where John is being born turned out to be much darker and powerful thanks to the performances of the actors – it really was quite moving to watch.”

For Her Story, Barlow worked with Viva Seifert, who was awarded the 2015 Game Award for her portrayal of Hannah.

“Clearly, you want to capture some element of performance, so make sure the story, the writing, the way your interactivity is supporting the story, the characters... make sure it's all strong enough,” Barlow says of working with live performers. “If the writing isn't there, if the point of the thing isn't there, there's not a lot any actor can do. If you have a great script, you can find the right actor.

“The relationship is important. You need someone you can work well with. So invest in casting – make sure you have the right people. If you're making an FMV game there's very few things worth spending the money on more than the cast. They're your game! Then once you have them, rehearsal is the key to everything. Time spent in rehearsal is worth ten times the time spent anywhere else. Think about the atmosphere you want when you're shooting and how to help the actor get into their role.”

But professional actors aren’t essential – developers themselves are often willing to help out.

“If you’re a smaller developer, look for actors outside of the traditional SAG system,” Teasdale advises. “For Roundabout, we asked our friends if they’d like to be in the game and jammed them in the back seat. We asked Kate Welch, a fellow game developer with on camera experience, to be Georgio, and she delivered a performance that easily outshone any acting performance I’ve seen in triple-A performance capture.”