Well here’s a remarkable thing – it’s been long enough since the sheer horror of the 90s FMV (Full Motion Video) adventure for the whole thing to finally feel nostalgic. But has someone finally made a game to go with it? Canadian team Zandel Media have tried with Missing: An Interactive Thriller's first 'episode' [official site]. Here's wot I think:
Anyone who had to live through the dark days of the launch of the CD-ROM will remember how it was no laughing matter. FMV games were monstrosities born of reveling in the luxurious freedom of 650MB of raw space. Where once misguided developers had to pack a cardboard box with twelve 1.44MB floppy discs in order to subject their ambition on the player, now suddenly thirty-eight times more space was available on a single shiny surface. With it came unforgivable evil like Dracula Unleashed, Frankenstein: Through the Eyes of the Monster, Ripper, and lest we ever forget, Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties. And I’m pretty sure they all starred Tim Curry.
Yes, admittedly there were also the lovely Tex Murphy games, and even the charmingly odd Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective trilogy, but the odd petal will get blown in by the illest of breezes. FMV games (or “interactive fiction” as it so oxymoronically called itself) were a disease. But... I find myself able to imagine a modern era of such games without the old scars starting to ache. With the average game now thirty times bigger than a CD, there’s ample room for HD video, strong acting, capable direction, and most of all, some higher quality green-screen. Which eventually brings us to Missing.
Originally released on mobile late last year, this is the first chapter of an FMV adventure, featuring a kidnapped man attempting to escape a peculiar prison, and the cop trying to find him. It is a sign that FMV could have a future. It’s also a sign that if it’s to work, then it needs to escape its past.
The quality of the filming here is pretty good. Decent actors, no hamming it up, and shot on location rather than in crummy CGI green-screen. And there’s a decent eye behind the hand-held camera work. While obviously very indie, it doesn’t look at all cheap, and that makes a massive difference.
The setting works well too. Clearly that adventure games have puzzles at all requires a necessary contrivance, so having a captured man attempt to escape a grimy industrial building filled with the deliberately contrived puzzles of his captor makes a kind of sense of it all. “PLAY WITH ME” read the painted words on the first door you encounter, letting you know this is a sort of Saw-lite situation. The photo of the captive’s family tells you the situation’s a serious one. Then flipping over to the grumpy old cop trying to find him before time runs out gives a dose of variety, as well as fleshing out the narrative.
However, what you do as you play couldn’t be more stuck in the worst cliché of 90s claptrap. The first puzzle: sliding tile Klotski. The second: a torn note. It even features a bloody wordsearch. Despite the presentation, this is as drearily banal as adventure games get. You’re in a room with nothing but some pipes missing their valves, and four valves to find. Oh, and a piece of paper with a diagram showing what pressure each pipe should be at. What an intriguing mystery!
So of course there’s a keycode for a door, a bunch of pipes that need restoring, and levers to be pulled. Despite the wealth of opportunity here, there’s not a single original idea. In fact, the only puzzle that offers anything is right at the very start, and gives some false hope for what’s to come.
The chapter is extremely brief – you’ll finish it in around 45 minutes – and despite the six or so months since it first appeared on handheld devices, there’s no sign of the second part trailed at the end. With chapters this brief, they’d need to be coming out monthly at the very longest. That there’s no immediately obvious release date or even mention of its possibility on their website is increasingly troubling.
And gosh, what a shame, because it’s impossible not to imagine the potential while laboriously clicking through its decrepit collection of museum puzzles. Imagine if the game lived up to even the name Zandel Media borrowed from Lexis Numerique, and their nearly incredible Missing: Since January (or In Memoriam, depending on territory). Deep, tricky puzzles, requiring you to work hard, struggle to combine all the elements, and outwit the criminal mastermind that is holding you. Rather than mindlessly master the criminal halfwit holding you.
Unfortunately, what we’ve got here is something that achieves the peculiar – it demonstrates that FMV can look great, even be a worthwhile pursuit in gaming, while being a singularly dreadful waste of it all.
At £2.80, they’ve tacked on more than a pound over the iOS asking price (albeit with one extra non-puzzle). For a game that lasts less than an hour, that’s a reasonable price. However, it’s not for a reasonable game.
Missing: An Interactive Thriller is out now on Steam.