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An interactive movie, also known as Movie Game or VCR Game is a video game that features highly cinematic presentation and heavy use of scripting, often through the use of full-motion video of either animated or live-action footage. In modern times, the term also refers to games that have a larger emphasis on story/presentation than on gameplay.
This genre came about with the invention of laserdiscs and laserdisc players, the first nonlinear or random access video play devices. The fact that a laserdisc player could jump to and play any chapter instantaneously (rather than proceed in a linear path from start to finish like videotape) meant that games with branching plotlines could be constructed from out-of-order video chapters in much the same way as Choose Your Own Adventure books could be constructed from out-of-order pages, or the way an interactive film is constructed by choosing from a web of linked narratives.
Thus, interactive movies were animated or filmed with real actors like movies (or in some later cases, rendered with 3D models), and followed a main storyline. Alternative scenes were filmed to be triggered after wrong (or alternate allowable) actions of the player (such as 'Game Over' scenes).
An early attempt to combine random access video with computer games was Rollercoaster, written in BASIC for the Apple II by David Lubar for David H. Ahl, editor of Creative Computing. This was a text adventure that could trigger a laserdisc player to play portions of the feature film Rollercoaster (1977). The program was conceived and written in 1981, and published in the January 1982 issue of Creative Computing, along with an article by Lubar detailing its creation, an article by Ahl claiming that Rollercoaster is the first video/computer game hybrid and proposing a theory of video/computer interactivity, and other articles reviewing hardware necessary to run the game and do further experiments.
The first commercial interactive movie game to be released was the 1983 arcade game Dragon's Lair, featuring a full-motion (FMV) cartoon by ex-Disney animator Don Bluth, where the player controlled some of the moves of the main character. When in danger, the player was to decide which move or action, or combination to choose. If they chose the wrong move, they would see a 'lose a life' scene, until they found the correct one which would allow them to see the rest of the story. There was only one possible successful storyline in Dragon's Lair; the only activity the user had was to choose or guess the move the designers intended them to make. Despite the lack of interactivity, Dragon's Lair was very popular.
The hardware for these games consisted of a laserdisc player linked to a processor configured with interface software that assigned a jump-to-chapter function to each of the controller buttons at each decision point. Much as a Choose Your Own Adventure book might say "If you turn left, go to page 7. If you turn right, go to page 8", the controller for Dragon's Lair or Cliff Hanger would be programmed to go to the next chapter in the successful story if a player pressed the right button, or to go to the death chapter if he pressed the wrong one. Because laserdisc players of the day were not robust enough to handle the constant wear placed on them by constant arcade use, they required frequent replacement. The laserdiscs that contained the footage were ordinary laserdiscs with nothing special about them save for the order of their chapters, and if removed from the arcade console would readily display their video on standard, non-interactive laserdisc players.
The world's first interactive movie was Kinoautomat (1967) which was written and directed by Radúz Činčera. This movie was first screened at Expo '67 in Montreal. This film was produced before the invention of the laserdisc or similar technology, so a live moderator appeared on stage at certain points to ask the audience to choose between two scenes. The chosen scene would play following an audience vote.
The first arcade laserdisc video game was Sega's Astron Belt, an early third-person space combat rail shooter featuring live-action full-motion video footage (largely borrowed from a Japanese science fiction film) over which the player/enemy ships and laser fire are superimposed. Developed in 1982, it was first unveiled at the 1982 AMOA show in Chicago and released the following year. However, the game that popularized the genre in the United States was Dragon's Lair, animated by Don Bluth and released by Cinematronics shortly after. Around the same time, the laserdisc games Bega's Battle and Cliff Hanger were also released.
Several laserdisc-based interactive movie games followed Dragon's Lair's format, with slight variations. Bega's Battle, released by Data East around the same time, added "branching paths" to the formula, in which there were multiple "correct moves" at certain points in the animation, and the move the player chose would affect the order of later scenes. Space Ace, another Don Bluth animated game released by Cinematronics the following year, also featured a similar branching formula. In 1984, Super Don Quix-ote, Esh's Aurunmilla and Ninja Hayate overlaid crude computer graphics on top of the animation to indicate the correct input to the player, which the 1985 games Time Gal and Road Blaster also featured.
Because Dragon's Lair and Space Ace were immensely popular, they spawned a deluge of sequels and similar laserdisc games, despite the astronomical cost of the animation. To cut costs, several companies simply hacked together scenes from anime that were obscure to American audiences of the day. One such early example was Stern's Cliff Hanger, a 1983 game released around the same time which used footage from the Lupin III movies Castle of Cagliostro (directed by Hayao Miyazaki) and Mystery of Mamo. Another example released around that time was Bega's Battle, which used footage from Harmagedon, though it used a different approach, introducing a new form of video game storytelling: using brief full-motion video cutscenes to develop a story between the game's shooting stages. Years later, this would become the standard approach to video game storytelling. Bega's Battle also featured a branching storyline. Time Gal (1985) added a time-stopping feature, where specific moments in the game involve Reika stopping time; during these moments, players are presented with a list of three options and have seven seconds to choose the one which will save the character.
In 1988, Epyx announced three VCR games including one based on its video game California Games. They combined videotape footage with a board game. In the late 1980s, American Laser Games started to produce a wide variety of live-action light gun laserdisc video games, which played much like the early cartoon games, but used a light gun instead of a joystick to affect the action. Meanwhile, Digital Pictures started to produce a variety of interactive movies for home consoles. When CD-ROMs were embedded in home computers, games with live action and full motion video featuring actors were considered cutting-edge, and some interactive movies were made. Some notable adventure games from this era are Under a Killing Moon, The Pandora Directive, Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within, Voyeur, Star Trek: Klingon, Star Trek: Borg, Ripper, Black Dahlia, The X-Files Game, Phantasmagoria, Bad Day on the Midway and The Dark Eye. Others in the action genre are Brain Dead 13 and Star Wars: Rebel Assault.
Due to the limitation of memory and disk space, as well as the lengthy timeframes and high costs required for the production, not many variations and alternative scenes for possible player moves were filmed, so the games tended not to allow much freedom and variety of gameplay. Thus, interactive movie games were not usually very replayable after being completed once.
From the time of its original introduction, the DVD format specification has included the ability to use an ordinary DVD player to play interactive games, such as Dragon's Lair (which was reissued on DVD), the Scene It? and other series of DVD games, or games that are included as bonus material on movie DVDs. Aftermath Media (founded by Rob Landeros of Trilobyte) released the interactive movies Tender Loving Care and Point of View (P.O.V) for the DVD platform. Such games have appeared on DVDs aimed at younger target audiences, such as the special features discs of the Harry Potter film series.
Later video games used this approach using fully animated computer generated scenes, including various adventure games such as the Sound Novel series by Chunsoft, Shenmue series by Sega, Shadow of Memories by Konami, Time Travelers by Level 5, and Fahrenheit. During many scenes, the player has limited control of the character and chooses certain actions to progress the story. Other scenes are quick time event action sequences, requiring the player to hit appropriate buttons at the right time to succeed. Some of these games, such as the Sound Novel series, Shadow of Memories, Time Travelers, and Heavy Rain, have numerous branching storylines that result from what actions the player takes or fails to complete properly, which can include the death of major characters or failure to solve the mystery. This idea was even further realized in Telltale's The Walking Dead series, where player actions can drastically change future games, for example, different characters may be alive in the end depending on choices made by the player in The Walking Dead season 1, but those same characters have an impact on The Walking Dead season 2.
Interactive movies were popular during the early 1990s as CD-ROMs and Laserdiscs made their way into the living rooms, providing an alternative to the low-capacity cartridges of most consoles. As the first CD-based consoles capable of displaying smooth and textured 3D graphics appeared, the full-FMV game fad vanished from the mainstream circles around 1995, although it remained an option for PC adventure games for a couple more years. One of the last titles released was the 1998 PC and PlayStation adventure The X-Files: The Game, packed in 7 CDs. That same year, Tex Murphy: Overseer became the first game developed specifically for DVD-ROM, and one of the last "interactive movies" to make heavy use of live-action FMV. In 2014, the Tex Murphy series continued with a new FMV game, Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure.
Specialized hardware formats
A laserdisc video game is a video game that uses pre-recorded video (either live-action or animation) played from a laserdisc, either as the entirety of the graphics, or as part of the graphics. The first arcade laserdisc game was Sega's Astron Belt, an early third-person space combat rail shooter featuring live-action full-motion video footage (largely borrowed from a Japanese science fiction film) over which the player/enemy ships and laser fire are superimposed. Developed in 1982, the game's unveiling at the 1982 AMOA show in Chicago marked the beginning of laserdisc fever in the videogame industry, and its release in Japan the following year marked the first commercial release of a laserdisc game. However, its release in the United States was delayed due to several hardware and software bugs, by which time Dragon's Lair had beaten it to public release there.
The first laserdisc game to gain popularity in the United States was Dragon's Lair in 1983. It contained animated scenes, much like a cartoon. The scenes would be played back and at certain points during playback the player would have to press a specific direction on the joystick or the button to advance the game to the next scene, like a quick time event. For instance, a scene begins with the hero falling through a hole in a drawbridge and being attacked by tentacles. If the player presses the button at this point, the hero fends off the tentacles with his sword, and pulls himself back up out of the hole. If the player fails to press the sword button at the right time, or instead presses a direction on the joystick, the hero is attacked by the tentacles and crushed. Each move of the joystick, however, would produce a few moments of black screen, when the laserdisks switched between either a successful outcome or the death of the character, which interrupted the continuous flow of gameplay found in other videogame graphic systems of the time; this was a common criticism of some players and critics.
Despite the high cost of the animation, a deluge of similar laserdisc video games followed Dragon's Lair because of its immense popularity. To cut costs, several companies simply hacked together scenes from several Japanese anime movies that were obscure in America at the time, creating games like Cliff Hanger (from Hayao Miyazaki's Castle of Cagliostro and from Mystery of Mamo) and Bega's Battle (from Harmagedon), both of which were released roughly around the same time as Dragon's Lair. Later arcade laserdisc games include Freedom Fighter, Badlands, Space Ace, and Road Blaster.
Other laserdisc video games followed the lead of Astron Belt by integrating more and more computer graphics with the pre-recorded video. For example, Funai's Inter Stellar in 1983 was a forward-scrolling third-person rail shooter that used computer graphics for the ships and full-motion video for the backgrounds. Similarly, M.A.C.H. 3 and Cube Quest were vertical scrolling shooters that used the laserdisc video for the background and computer graphics for the ships. The Firefox arcade game included a Philips Laserdisc player to combine live action video and sound from the Firefox film with computer generated graphics and sound. The game used a special CAV Laserdisc containing multiple storylines stored in very short, interleaved segments on the disc. The player would seek the short distance to the next segment of a storyline during the vertical retrace interval by adjusting the tracking mirror, allowing perfectly continuous video even as the player switched storylines under control of the game's computer. This method of seeking was noted for being extremely strenuous on the player and frequently led to the machines breaking, slightly hindering the appeal of laserdisc arcade games. In the 1990s, American Laser Games produced a wide variety of live-action light gun laserdisc video games, which played much like the early laserdisc games, but used a light gun instead of a joystick to affect the action.
Bega's Battle, released by Data East in 1983, took a different approach and introduced a new form of video game storytelling: using brief full-motion video cut scenes to develop a story between the game's shooting stages. Years later, this would become the standard approach to video game storytelling. Bega's Battle also featured a branching storyline.
A DVD game (sometimes called DVDi, "DVD interactive") is a standalone game that can be played on a set-top DVD player. The game takes advantage of technology built into the DVD format to create an interactive gaming environment compatible with most DVD players without requiring additional hardware. DVD TV games were first developed in the late 1990s. They were poorly received and understood as an entertainment medium. However, DVD-based game consoles like the PlayStation 2 popularized DVD-based gaming, and also functioned as a DVD video player. In addition, the format has been used to import some video games to the DVD format, allowing them to be played with a standard DVD player rather than requiring a PC. Examples include Dragon's Lair and Who Shot Johnny Rock?. The PC/console game Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness was released in 2006 as a DVD game entitled Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Action Adventure. Japanese games such as visual novels and eroge that were originally made for PC are commonly ported to DVDPG (a term that stands for DVD Players Game). Instead of standard save methods, DVDPGs use password save systems. Similar game types include BDPG (Blu-ray Disc Players Game) and UMDPG (Universal Media Disc Players Game).
Although interactive movies had a filmic quality that sprite-based games could not duplicate at the time, they were a niche market— the lack of direct interactivity put off many gamers. The popularity of FMV games declined after around 1995, as more advanced consoles were released.
Another issue that drew criticism was the quality of the video itself. While the video was often relatively smooth, it was not actually full-motion as it was not of 24 frames per second or higher. In addition to this, the hardware it was displayed on, particularly in the case of the Sega CD, had a limited color palette (of which a maximum of 64 colors were displayable simultaneously), resulting in notably inferior image quality due to the requirement of dithering. Game designer Chris Crawford disparages the concept of interactive movies, except those aimed at elementary-school-age children, in his book Chris Crawford on Game Design. He writes that since the player must process what is known and explore the options, choosing a path at a branch-point is every bit as demanding as making a decision in a conventional game, but with much less reward since the result can only be one of a small number of branches.
Some studios hybridized ordinary computer game play with interactive movie play; the earliest examples of this were the entries in the Origin Systems Wing Commander series starting with Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger. Between combat missions, Wing Commander III featured cut-scenes with live actors; the game offered limited storyline branching based on whether missions were won or lost and on choices made at decision points during the cut-scenes.
Other games like BioForge would, perhaps erroneously, use the term for a game that has rich action and plot of cinematic proportions—but, in terms of gameplay, has no relation to FMV movies.
The term is an ambiguous one since many video games follow a storyline similar to the way movies would.
- Web documentary
- List of interactive movies
- Interactive cinema
- Interactive video
- Interactive art
- Art game
- Full-motion video
- Adventure game
- Halcyon Game System
- Astron Belt at Allgame
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- The Interactive Movies Archive
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- The Dragon's Lair Project: A repository of information about laserdisc video games
- "Laser Daze", from The Dot Eaters: Videogame History 101