April 23, 2008Glenn Turner

The full-motion videogame is back.

I'm not talking about a new-found nostalgia for Phantasmagoria or Night Trap, I'm talking about the pre-rendered real deal: Games that cast flesh-and-blood (albeit, usually unknown) actors as visual participants in their scenery. Image compression and artifacts litter the screen, and the real actors either cast no shadow or lack a proper sense of weight, giving away the matte properties of the scene's background. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet and Macromedia (now Adobe), everything old is new again: Full-motion videogames are back and better than ever, and nothing illustrates that better than the brilliant ad-venture game Bow Street Runner.

Bow Street Runner, based on the Channel 4 TV series City of Vice, concerns the criminal investigative talents of the 'Bow Street Runners', a true-to-life rendition of London's initial attempt at a police agency during the mid 1700s. As Flash adventure games go, it's extraordinarily adept – visually striking, shot with an ample budget, decent acting talent, a mostly intuitive interface, compelling cases and a successful episodic structure – it's well worth setting aside a few hours for.

But while the production values and interface certainly place it a cut above many Flash-based games, I'll remember Bow Street Runner because of its slaps. Yes, the slaps. Occasionally, while talking to a suspect, you're given the option to physically coerce more information from them. Specifically, you can slap them. Sometimes you can even punch them. And while I normally opt for the non-violent paths in a game, I couldn't help but constantly gravitate towards slapping my partner in discourse. Why? Not because it was hilarious (although it was), not only because it was necessary to advance the plot (again, it was), but because of the nature of full-motion videogames.

When viewing FMV dialogue tree options, I don't see conversational subjects but instead see an index of scenes to view. With FMV games, the illusion of interactive causality is non-existent – I'm simply far too aware that each scene has been painfully scripted ahead of time. And because filming scenes is costly and incredibly inflexible, each piece of filmed dialogue within the greater context of the scene usually won't infringe upon the others. Instead of following a natural, flowing evolution, like most discussions, FMV discussions are fakey by a matter of necessity – simply filming a reaction for an exponential number of conversational possibilities isn't practical.

So, given the option, I slap away. I pick each slap, each punch, with impunity. I always select it as an initial option, even if more charitable options are available, and I can't help but laugh at how unprovoked the attack appears. I take glee in watching the actors pull their punches, and seeing the recipient fake the impact. And while Magistrate John Fielding clucks away in his narration at his Runner's technique for extracting information, it's inevitable. It's been pre-recorded knowing that a little chin music will occur, otherwise the scene wouldn't have been filmed. Such is the nature of FMV.

Thankfully, Bow Street Runner doesn't require a deep degree of sympathy for its characters, as the meat of the game is in its procedural detective foot work and, in that department, it's extraordinarily fulfilling. But I'll always remember it for its gratuitous violence, for reveling in the liberties the Runners can take with their accused, and for giving me an excuse to dabble in them. Acting in the name of the law or, at least, with funds from them, I slapped away vigilantly. Long live the full-motion videogame!

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