Last year, Her Story, burst onto the video game scene with its enthralling mystery and intelligent design.  I don’t know if it excelled in all areas – I enjoyed the story and the performance from Viva Seifert, but it’s hard to gauge if they stand out well on their own or if the smart use of non-linear storytelling and intriguing premise made us more forgiving.  That might come off as faint praise, but I don’t mean it that way.  Sam Barlow, the brain behind Her Story, tightly ties the narrative into the design in a way that makes the strength of the story and performance from Seifert inherently more palatable.

This whole concept is similar to what I said in my article earlier this week.  Even in a game where narrative is ostensibly the focus, the actual work is done by game design which works in favor of the narrative.  If you watched Her Story in sequential order or if the story was told through flashback sequences, I don’t think it stands up on it’s own.  And maybe that has less to do with the actual writing and acting and more do with how we’re given the information.  Because we’re rewarded through the game’s simple search engine and our own guesswork, we feel satisfaction every time we stumble onto another piece of Hannah’s story.  

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I’ve spent some time in this article revisiting why Her Story worked so well, because this week I’ve played my first FMV game since Sam Barlow’s mystery thriller – The Bunker.  In some ways, The Bunker, feels similar to Her Story – has simplistic gameplay, leans heavily on non-linear narrative, but in more important ways it differs from last year’s genre counterpart.  The big difference is that The Bunker loses focus of how to make itself into a game, instead opting to create a movie and let us click on the screen from time to time.

Again, I think Her Story points out everything that The Bunker fails at.  It’s not that I think one story is better than the other or that one actor is better than the other – in fact, it’s clear that far more big screen talent went into The Bunker.  However, the way that we’re made to process the information in Splendy’s latest outing is far more traditional and thus we’re forced to grade it more like movie and less like a game.  

The Bunker is an FMV game that gives players control over the actions of John, a boy who was born in a nuclear bunker during Judgement Day (my term, not the game’s) and lives in the same bunker his whole life being kindly (or sometimes not-so-kindly) neglected by those who share the space.  All of John’s time as a boy is told in flashbacks, while we control him in the future as the bunker is shutting down and everyone who once inhabited the bunker is dead.

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I could lament the plot holes or storytelling missteps that the game takes, but that isn’t really the point, is it?  Or at least, it shouldn’t be.  Again, if you go digging in Her Story you can find the same plot holes and narrative gaffes – we’re just more forgiving because we’re too busy caught up in the fun of a mystery.  We want to figure out how this murder happened and we what happened to Hannah.  In fact, Her Story, shows its strong game design by going one step further – we’re not actually controlling Hannah, we’re learning about her story as a third party (and when our true role is revealed it’s an interesting twist).

Again, The Bunker forgoes any kind of design decision and instead has the player control John by clicking on items throughout the screen as if they were playing an adventure game.  But The Bunker lacks the design to support its adventure game design.  There aren’t a lot of objects to interact with or characters to talk to.  The isolating theme of the game serves to make you feel like you should be in a first person view, free to explore the nooks and crannies of the bunker to find out what makes this location worthy of being a game, but Splendy doesn’t seem keen to give you that much control.

It makes me wonder if The Bunker had always been intended to be an FMV game.  Was this always the plan or did the FMV part work its way in as a means to make the game a reality or to make the storytelling more lifelike?  It’s true that The Bunker’s human characters make moments shared between John and his mother more poignant – at least when compared to other video games – but there’s not a lot of time that John shares the screen with other actors to take advantage of any connection that would require two real actors.  I wanted one.  I kept hoping that some stranger would stumble into the bunker and John would finally get to act opposite another character, possibly developing some chemistry, but instead the game focuses on how John is all alone.

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I like elements of The Bunker, Sarah Greene’s turn as the mother is particularly wonderful, but I feel it was another example of games putting the cart before the horse.  Almost like someone wanted to make an FMV game and started making the game with that idea in mind, regardless if the elements worked in service of an FMV or not.  

Which leads us full circle to the title of this article.  It wasn’t surprising with the success of Her Story that the FMV genre would see a little more attention, or at least no longer be a genre that was instantly dismissed.  However, if any other games find themselves hankering to try and dip their toes back into the genre, I would ask that they try to find a new approach, something that really pulls the genre in a new direction.  You need to find a game that needs to be in FMV, not an FMV game that is in need of everything else.

About The Author

The Glorious Predecessor

As I write this, I am listening to Striking Matches and eating a blueberry muffin. The music is good, the muffin is even better. I dance when I drink and have been known to occasionally free-style rap, none of which benefits society.

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  • I felt like I played a mystery game unraveling these paragraphs:

    “I’ve spent some time in this article revisiting why Her Story worked so well, because this week I’ve played my first FMV game since Sam Barlow’s mystery thriller – The Bunker. In some ways, The Bunker, feels similar to Her Story – has simplistic gameplay, leans heavily on non-linear narrative, but in more important ways it differs from last year’s genre counterpart. The big difference is that The Bunker loses focus of how to make itself into a game, instead opting to create a movie and let us click on the screen from time to time.

    Again, I think Her Story points out everything that The Bunker fails at. It’s not that I think one story is better than the other or that one actor is better than the other – in fact, it’s clear that far more big screen talent went into The Bunker. However, the way that we’re made to process the information in Splendy’s latest outing is far more traditional and thus we’re forced to grade it more like movie and less like a game. ”

    On first glance it seems that Sam Barlow made an FMV called The Bunker prior to Her Story. And then a proper noun called Splendy appears completely out of nowhere. I think you have to assume that readers have no familiarity with what you’re writing about to write effectively.

    (The only counter argument to this reading is to quibble over deployment/understanding of an em-dash. That’s too flimsy to lay at a reader’s doorstep.)

  • PS: I can’t see an FMV game ever working, although I think footage, especially of people, can be blended with synthetic images. I think FMV only makes sense if the basis of the piece was to be a collage that takes existing footage and repurposes it cleverly. Something like old multi-media experiments in the early 90s when there was still interest in the medium coming from successful writers.

    This weekend I realized that video writing is actually not as bad as I thought. I think it’s actually much better than network television writing. I never realized it because I haven’t watched a second of network television since I was 16yo almost two decades ago. I realized it because my DVR got stuck on Comedy Central so I awoke to the much lauded “How I Met You Mother” which seemed like it was written at a level far substandard to Soap Operas, and a particularly insane montage of a CSI like show was on while I was visiting my family in town, and I usually think of it as just a loud annoyance, but I listened and was shocked at what I heard. So I the video game industry probably rightly believes that their writing doesn’t stink, when this is going on unabated in a neighboring industry, where the sole focus should be writing. I cannot believe that network television cannot find writers. I think they are targeting a demographic that is unable to communicate effectively, and it’s so cynical, but it seems like so much of “industry” media is masterfully rendering (exploiting for gain) an uneducated, or uneducable, core vein of our populations.

    • ^I meant to post that second paragraph in the “Enough Bad Video Game Writing” feature.