We’re living in a full motion video game renaissance that doesn’t get enough credit. After the novelty of games like Night Trap and Phantasmagoria in the ‘90s wore off, developers moved onto increasingly photorealistic animation instead of using live actors. Over the last five years, the genre has been getting a renaissance that shows some true innovations. The latest entry into the canon is I Saw Black Clouds from Wales Interactive, and it shows that the company continues to evolve the genre in new and startling ways.
Produced by Amanda Murray and starring Nicole O’Neill, I Saw Black Clouds has a plot that is hard to describe without spoiling a major twist in the middle. Suffice to say, a troubled young woman named Kristina begins investigating a ghost story surrounding the suicide of a friend and discovers that the world is not as it seems. As far as horror stories go, it’s definitely a real creeper that uses a series of very twisted houses to create an air of true menace even as it relies on jump scares. Like a lot of FMV games, it's sort of direct-to-video quality pulp filmmaking mixed with slightly janky indie gamemaking.
The thing that makes the FMV renaissance so remarkable is how titles tackle the inherent problem in the genre. These games are essentially a series of DVD menus that the player scrolls through to choose different scenes. Functionally, they are no different than Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, though the focus on interactivity is obviously higher.
Since there’s not much you can do to alter that basic necessity of design, developers have to get creative. In Jack Attridge’s Erica from Flavourworks, a revolutionary phone app made controlling sequences feel dynamic even if it was really just a way of rewinding and fast-forwarding footage. Wales Interactive’s own The Bunker (director Allan Plenderleith, starring Adam Brown) used clever camera shots and thumbstick controls to mimic typical video game exploration similar to the old Dragon’s Lair games. All of it was an illusion of the mechanical control seen in other genres, but they were good illusions.
I Saw Black Clouds, at first, appears to be a step backward. All progression involves simple choices, usually binary, and there are no clever tricks to convince the player they are exerting more than nominal control. On the other hand, the game does something so simple and brilliant that it’s kind of amazing more titles haven’t tried it.
The game has a stat meter measuring various aspects of play. O’Neill’s Kristina has three segments of progression: a list of traits like strength and morality, a relationship bar for two NPCs, and a gauge for how she is progressing in her emotional journey regarding her deceased friend. In incorporating this basic display, the game solves another problem that has plagued adventure games for the last ten years.
Lots of games have values for various actions that determine progress or endings. The most famous recent example is Life is Strange 2, but it was also present in The Council and other titles. Hell, the idea goes back at least to the date mechanic in Final Fantasy VII. They all have one thing in common, though: the values are hidden. You don’t know how you’re doing until it's over.
Some games have tackled this in minor ways, such as Detroit: Become Human when you are given a meter to watch when you interact with NPCs. Even that game, though, keeps a lot of the values of your actions under wraps to spring them on you at the end of chapters as a surprise.
Supposedly, this promotes narrative immersion, but from a video game mechanical standpoint it has always bothered the heck out of me. Imagine playing a Mario game and never knowing where your jumps landed, or a Souls game that assigned you random equipment but never told you what it was or how it was augmented. That’s what a lot of adventure games feel like when they hide how what your doing is affecting progression. It’s one of the main reasons I think Life is Strange 2 isn’t very good. It’s primary mechanic is a mystery until the very end when you find out how the game judged how you played it.
By contrast, I Saw Black Clouds lets you know immediately. Tell your friend you don’t want to stay and sort things out, your morality bar and your relationship bar go down. You can see that with one button press. It also invests you in your choices. You get to know Kristina through these hard indicators. My Kristina was clearly a strong, but cold person based on the way the game saw my decisions, and it allowed me to try and correct for that or lean into it.
To be clear, you can absolutely play the game without using the stats function. There’s no heads-up display or notifications showing that this action hurt or helped any one stat being shoved in your face, so if you want to do it blind and be surprised then go for it. However, I found having this amount of narrative control over a character revolutionary, and something I wish more adventure games did. It adds the aspect of play that is missing from its otherwise standard FMV game controls, and it actually makes me want to replay the title to try and craft a different Kristina since I can measure it.
The difference between a game and an interactive movie is hard to parse sometimes, but it comes down to making the player feel like what they do matters. Truly gamifying the emotional journey of Kristina down to basic stat boosts is something I hope more games do in the future. It gave what was already a fantastic horror story a proper gaming edge. The feedback this simple innovation offers is proof that FMV games are not only thriving, but they are also occasionally taking adventure games as a whole to a new level.
I Saw Black Clouds is available March 30 on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Switch.