Project NEMO and the Demise of FMV Games

This post is dedicated to Ken Melville, a co-founder of Digital Pictures and writer-designer of the legendary FMV game Sewer Shark. Melville passed away in February 2014, aged 65.

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There’s a collaboration between the Film and TV world when it comes to the Gaming industry. Production companies shoot real actors on real sets, and programmers incorporate these clips into computer games. But there was a short time when entire games were interactive Full Motion Video, and not just clips.

The first FMV games were actually born in the 80’s, inspired by an interactive play that was shown in Hollywood, California. The play, called Tamara, had parallel storylines acted out at the same time across multiple rooms. The audience were encouraged to physically move around all three stories of the building, to watch and observe the nine different storylines from different angles, playing out in thirteen different rooms. The understanding of the storyline was dependant on what the audience saw. Time and time again people came back (at $80 per ticket!) in order to fully piece together the story.

In 1986 Hasbro were developing their own VHS-based games console called Project NEMO (“Never Even Mentioned Outside”), later renamed Control-Vision. The console was to be billed as a cheaper alternative to rivals Nintendo and Sega. A groundbreaking demo game with parallel storylines was created in order to further push the development of the console.

Produced by Robert Fulop and directed by James Riley, a four minute Full Motion Video Game demo called Scene Of The Crime was made. Shot in a Hillsborough house over a single weekend, the demo shadowed the concept of the Tamara play, with parallel storylines and multiple rooms to view.  It was a groundbreaking idea in the realms of gaming. Hasbro seemed happy with the (rather adult orientated) demo and ordered the go-ahead for full titles;

This is great. Now go and make it for kids.

A video clip of the Hasbro executives watching the Project NEMO demo of Scene Of The Crime was a hidden Easter Egg on one of their future games releases. You can see it below;

Who’s Norman?

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Three months later, in 1987, with a budget of $1’000’000 and a 250-page script, the first FMV Game was put into production. Shot over a three week period on a soundstage at GMT Studios, California, the game Night Trap (eBay link here) became a reality. The cast and crew shot their scenes, and one by one each scene was reset and shot again with a different outcome. The variation in outcomes would eventually allow the player to interact and choose storylines to follow.

Night Trap augers

 As a member of the Sega Control Attack Team (SCAT), you have control over the CCTV system and a series of traps within a house. The house owners are hosting a second sleepover for their daughter. Mysteriously the girls from the first sleepover disappeared. Amd its your job to monitor the house, find out what happened, and protect the girls.

Night Trap became world-renowned politically, albeit for the wrong reasons. Video game violence was brought to light in Congress as a legitimate debate. But Night Trap was tarnished as a violent and bloody game unfit for children. Although Night Trap was designed predominantly as a fun vampire game, and showed no violence or blood at all.

Nevertheless, the debate over game violence caused serious damage to the games industry. And Night Trap is the reason there are now Ratings on all video games. The game was later censored and re-released.

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Off the back of Night Trap came another FMV Game called Sewer Shark (eBay link here), directed by John Dykstra (Visual Effects operator on Batman Forever, Stuart Little, Spiderman and X-Men First Class). The game would allow the player to became a pilot in the sewer tunnels, shooting “ratigators” and interacting with their co-pilot “Ghost”, on a mission to reach Solar City.

Sewer Shark Ghost David Underwood

Ignition on three… Ready? THREE!

Shortly  after completing the shoot for Sewer Shark, Hasbro stopped developing Project NEMO. The entire idea was shelved, and the rights to the two games sold off. Tom Zito, who later created Digital Pictures, bought the rights to the two games.

It appears only one thing killed Project NEMO; the rising popularity of Personal Computers at the time meant the cost of VRAM hardware chips needed for the console went through the roof, as retailers bought out entire batches of stock in advance of manufacturing powerful PC’s. The games console would no longer be a cheap alternative to Nintendo or Sega. Cutting losses, Hasbro pulled the plug entirely.

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It wasn’t till 1992 when Sega released their Mega CD games console that Night Trap and Sewer Shark would see the light of day. Digital Pictures used the archived 1987 footage to finally port the games from Project NEMO to Mega CD.

With the money made off the back of bundling Sewer Shark with the the purchase of a Mega CD console, Digital Pictures created their “second generation” game, Ground Zero: Texas (eBay link here). With a budget of $2’000’000, the game used a full Hollywood crew to shoot the 110 minutes of footage required for the game. The production of FMV Games appeared to be ramping up.

Ground Zero Texas

However, the overall cost to hire a crew and effectively shoot a Hollywood blockbuster became one of the underlying reasons for the rapid demise in FMV Game production. Not to mention the lack of divergence in the games, with minimal level of choice leading to the same outcomes. Quality was also an issue;

All our video had to be tortured, kicking and screaming, into the most horrifying, blurry, reduced-colour-palette mess imaginable in the Mega CD. I shudder to think about it.

Ken Melville – Digital Pictures co-founder

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Two other FMV games were created by Digital Pictures; Double Switch (eBay link here) and Corpse Killer (eBay link here).

Double Switch Corey Haim Eddie

With its high production value, Double Switch had the potential to be a blockbuster game. Starring Corey Haim (Lost Boys), Deborah Harry (Blondie), R Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket), the player switched between six cameras in an apartment block to trap “mobsters” and “hitmen” as a plot unfolded around the apartment tenants and a mysterious egyptian statue.

Fun Fact: The Thugs and Intruders in Double Switch were mostly stunt men and women, who went on to do stunts in movies such as Mortal Kombat, Con Air, Timecop, Face/Off, Strange Days, Spiderman, Avatar, Vanilla Sky and Pirate Of The Carribean.

Unfortunately by the time these games were released, the want for FMV games had already declined. One other Digital Pictures FMV game was eventually scrapped; Citizen X. With the still-bubbling political rage started in Congress over the contents of Night Trap, and the unfathomable high cost of shooting video, the production of all FMV Games came to an unglorified end.

However. With todays technology, a revival of FMV games wouldn’t be a problem. Perhaps with the help of Kickstarter or IndieGoGo we could re-ignite the love once had for FMV games.

You will still find sealed original copies of Sewer Shark, Double Switch, Ground Zero Texas, Corpse Killer and the legendary Night Trap on eBay and other online auction sites.

Come back, Digital Pictures. We miss you!

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Footnote:  This entire blog came about because I was searching the internet for information regarding the production of Double Switch, after I got hooked playing it again. I recently discovered I was able to play Night Trap on my Sony PSP thanks to a clever emulator called PicoDrive! It’s still one of my favourite games.

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