Full motion video, that staple of the CD-ROM era, might seem like an antiquated notion these days. Photorealism isn’t far off, if videos like this are any indication. With the versatility and accessibility of CG increasing every day, there would appear to be little reason to favour the old tech.
But appearances can be deceiving. FMV still has a few tricks up its sleeve, tricks that CG has yet to master. Prime amongst these is facial animation. Games like LA Noire and Heavy Rain do a decent job of approximating the complexity of the human face, but they still lose something in the translation. The barely perceptible twitch of a lip, the tiny tic in the corner of an eye, the wrinkle that differentiates a fake smile from a true one. To truly capture the wealth of emotions conveyed in a single facial gesture, the amount of time and money required is extraordinary. The cost might be feasible in a game like Uncharted, but for most studios, it’s just too expensive.
This is where FMV comes into its own. Relatively cheap and straightforward, it captures without any additional effort the entire spectrum of facial emotion, from the explosive to the surreptitious. It has its limitations: actors need to have more than just a good voice, make-up can’t do everything CG can, mixing special effects with real life is tricky to make look natural. But for a certain type of game, one where the human element takes precedent over everything else, the trade-offs are worth it.
Contradiction is that game. As the name implies, it’s all about exposing the incongruities in the things people say. More specifically, it involves spotting the lies told by the residents of Edenton as the mystery behind a young woman’s death slowly unfolds. Though structured like a traditional point-and-click adventure game, the beauty of Contradiction lies in questioning the townsfolk as Inspector Jenks, a loveable detective determined to solve the case before midnight. Every piece of evidence you uncover is another topic for discussion, another opportunity to lure the dubious residents into revealing something they’ll soon regret. Everyone in Edenton has something to hide.
Since interviewing suspects in the case of Kate Vine’s death is what you’ll spend most of your time doing, it’s a good thing it’s as compelling as it is. Not only is the acting entertaining - sometimes purely for how eager it is - but the way in which you identify inconsistent statements is at once simple and satisfying. Every topic broached with a character is summarised by a number of key points, any of which can be called out for contradicting something else the character has said. If you’re right, Jenks will deliver a satisfyingly smug takedown of the slip-up, forcing the liar to reveal another puzzle piece in the grander mystery.
This mechanic adds challenge to the game while avoiding the trap so many point-and-click adventures fall into: bad puzzles. Since the internal logic of adventure games is frequently so bad the phenomenon has its own shorthand, it’s a smart move to trade pixel-hunting and item-combining for a concept all humans are familiar with. Not only that, but probing for untruths is intimately tied to the story, sidestepping the problem games like Professor Layton have with puzzles that have nothing to do with the narrative. In Contradiction, there are no ‘gamey’ moments to pull you out of the twisting tale.
The one area in which FMV games have often suffered is presentation. Even when the film quality is high, the interface surrounding it frequently looks out of place, incongruous against the real-life backdrop. Contradiction elegantly subverts this trend by favouring simplicity and minimalism over everything else. To move between locations, arrows and notes like those Jenks might scrawl in his notepad overlay the scene, clear yet unobtrusive. Icons for the inventory and map are nestled away in the corner of the screen, transparent enough that you forget they’re there until you need them. Even the interview interface, by far the most complex part of the game, is laid out neatly and intuitively, with the blurred backdrop of the interview scene giving the feeling that Jenks is just taking a moment to collect his thoughts.
Adding to the realism endowed by FMV, the residents of Edenton are an active bunch who get up to a lot more than just sitting around, waiting for Jenks to interview them. As you explore the quaint town, you eavesdrop on furtive arguments and stumble upon suspicious behaviours that offer both clues and complications to the ongoing mystery. These scenes unfold organically, occurring in familiar locations without obvious triggers. This gives the town a sense of dynamism, enhancing the feeling of being a detective investigating a foreign place. You’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next, but you’re also never left scratching your head over what to do.
For as impressive as CG can be nowadays, there’s still a place for FMV. Her Story showed off the flexibility of the framework, and Contradiction proves that the traditional approach is still eminently entertaining. FMV may not be the wave of the future as the 90s portended, but it remains a viable genre I hope to see a lot more of.