Full Motion Video: A Kitsch I Cannot Scratch

Graphical advancements in contemporary video game consoles have allowed computer-generated cutscenes to have a very impressive visual quality. Many games and systems are marketed heavily for their visual fidelity and cohesion. However, this has not always been the case, with video games previously relying upon and experimenting with full motion video (FMV) techniques for narrative guidance. While live action sequences have become less popular with game developers these days, there still appears to be a limited market, as the release of Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars in 2007 implies. Is this just a nostalgic return to a more diverse and social realm of game developing, or does the use of FMV have certain characteristics that produce a unique and beneficial experience? I intend to show that FMV has a kitsch appeal to players that creates a social and aesthetic attachment to the interactive moments of gameplay.

What Makes Full Motion Videos Kitsch?

Generally, FMV sequences are renowned for using tropes from popular culture and are dependent upon them for producing feelings of energy and enjoyment. For example, a FMV cutscene in Command and Conquer: Red Alert features a scantily-clad heroine whose armour is terribly inadequate for protection and too informal for the serious war room discussions. Furthermore, several hints of sexual innuendo abound. Such stereotypical clichés evoke the female heroines and femme fatales of Hollywood action films, suggesting the explosive dynamics and high-octane plotlines of the cinema. However, neither the acting nor the storyline reaches the higher standards it suggests. Thus, they are completely kitsch in tone and perception, as “the appeal of kitsch is totally parasitic on the associations related to its referent” (Kulka, 80). In this case, like most FMVs, the scene is completely plagiaristic upon the stock emotions and preconceived expectations of conventional blockbuster movies.

Tropes of squabbling generals and half-naked women warriors are aplenty in your average FMV.
Tropes of squabbling generals and half-naked women warriors are aplenty in your average FMV.

The very format of FMV sequences, its live action and theatrics, can be seen to add to its kitsch and camp appeal. This may initially appear irreconcilable with the very definition of the kitsch sensation, since “nature itself can never be kitsch we may correspondingly be more reluctant to consider a photograph of a sunset kitsch than a painting of one” (Kulka, 93). Therefore, we would expect the gamers to associate kitsch sentiments more easily with digitally-created graphics than the more visually realistic filmic sections. But this has not been the case. While computer graphics are constantly improving, so does our ability to depict individuals in photos or films of higher definition. And, at least for now, most “human actors are more capable of expressing emotion than digital constructs, making it easier for players to identify with their in-game personas” (Howells, 114). In fact, they can sometimes provide a higher quality of visual, aural and kinetic detail. If kitsch requires an overly emotive association with something, then live-action seems to provide that direct connection of feeling. Arguably, it is the superior clarity, with less pixellated or glitch-prone imagery, which allows the more realistic sequences to become kitsch. Unlike the game sections or computer generated cutscenes, a live-action sequence never needs pareidolia or facial recognition because people and sets are all immediately clear forms. Indeed, games have a history of appearing more geometric and abstract due to technological constraints, which makes them look more optically unusual and innovative in their abstractness. This is especially true in contrast to FMV sequences. Therefore, we can see how the FMV parallels kitsch in providing “the instant and effortless identifiably of the depicted subject matter” (Kulka, 28-29). Thus, the FMV gaming experience can be seen to use kitsch aesthetics in a specific way, reversing traditional hierarchies or high art and low art. It contrasts cinematics, and tangible reality, as undignified kitsch while gaming is praised as relatively imaginative.

Which seems tackier, the real or the generated? If FMVs weren't so kitsch would they invalidate the gaming experience?
Which seems tackier, the real or the generated? If FMVs weren’t so kitsch would they invalidate the gaming experience?

What Effect does this Kitsch Have?

However, during immersion a player would notrecognise this effect, as they would not be relating the game, intellectually or emotionally, to anything outside of itself. Yet the FMV itself counters this problem, as “the transition to full-motion video reminds gamers that this is, in fact, not real, breaking the suspension of disbelief” (Howells, 115). The change in format is both alerting and estranging. Resultantly, this destruction of the fourth wall distances the players from the melodramatic visuals, preventing them from forming empathetic reactions and causing them to adopt attitudes of critical objectivity. Hence, the gamers do not sentimentalise the kitsch FMV but deride or criticise its once banal clichés as detrimental to the experience. Also the cinematics, by disrupting any feeling of immersion, creates a frustrated antagonism in players towards itself. The FMV itself is realised to be a seemingly cheap and kitsch “commodity… destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide” (Greenberg, 12). We become aware of its derivative nature and pacifying intent as a mere commodity. Subsequently, one becomes alerted to the fact that such kitsch items, and therefore the gamer themselves, do not possess the institutional, aesthetic or social value placed upon other forms of seemingly genuine art. However, while the individual kitsch item, such as a painting or photograph, is in isolation, FMV sequences are directly compared with and contrasted with interactive and digitised gameplay. As live-action, and thus real life itself, becomes devalued through its association with kitsch, we begin to associate with the manufactured game world with increased contentment and encouragement. The constructed sections of the game become equated to art, gaming itself becomes a valuable aesthetic process rather than just a waste of time and life.

Sell Out: Kitsch items often are, or appear to be, cheap reproductions of a genuine and expensive product we desire.
Sell Out: Kitsch items often are, or appear to be, cheap reproductions of a genuine and expensive product we desire.

Not only that, but by aligning bad taste to a previous time period, with clichés from 1980s mainstream cinema, it emphasises the progression of technology and taste in our own era. For example, the “early games were unable to secure big-name talent, and … full-motion video became associated with substandard quality” (Howells, 114). Simultaneously, the prior age itself becomes associated with substandard qualities. Such diminutive quality included hammy acting, terrible scripts, unconvincing special effects and other example of poor production values. As already stated, we do not simply enjoy the sentimentality and melodrama because it disrupts our immersion within the game, making us self-aware and detached as gamers. Instead, we can gain self-assurance and security through mocking the culture and cinema of a previous, older generation. This is also true about our preconceptions about the technologic prowess of the twentieth century as compared to our own. Memorably, the first outpouring of this genre of games and their “initial enthusiastic reception… was the result of what was perceived as a spectacular breakthrough of full motion video (FMV) displayed by a computer” (Wolf, 152). Hence, we can derive pleasure from feelings of mechanical superiority and progression, feeling that the FMV sections are anachronistic and dated. Subsequently, the kitsch sections allow gamers to become optimistic and self-congratulatory about how much better modern technology, gaming and society appears to be, and will continue to become.

Once self-reflexive, we can gain a sense of superiority from the lesser technology and culture of a previous generation that the kitsch FMV evokes.
Once self-reflexive, we can gain a sense of superiority from the lesser technology and culture of a previous generation that the kitsch FMV evokes.

Overall, FMVs do have a tradition of overdramatic actions and maudlin scripts. This creates a notion of kitsch that downgrades the status of cinematics, often regarded as higher art than computer games, presenting virtual practices as artfully better. Altogether, FMVs may make the game experience seem less real, but they concurrently make it feel more valuable as both a status symbol and an artistic creation. Arguably, this encourages the player to continue the game with a renewed sense of empowerment.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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An English and Drama student who watches too many films, plays too many games and reads too many books. Has a genuine interest in most things, often with an opinion to match!

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  1. I think calling the Sega CD the mother of FMV would not be a lie? 😉 I’m a Sega CD collector and over half of my games are shitty FMV games. But some work well in interesting situations like Night Trap, great game to play with friends when you are drunk lol

    • Although this essay was more easily concerned with only partially FMV games, I have come across fully FMV games like Night Trap and Crime Patrol, which are full of unrestrained cringe-worthy laughter. 😛 It seems quite hard to believe that some FMV games could apparently cost over 1.5 million dollars to produce… :O

  2. Damn you guys write some mentally interesting article here. Great stuff! I’ll be watching this space.

    • I’m glad you found it interesting. I hope it wasn’t overly dull. Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂

      • Joe Holland

        Is there a difference between kitsch and camp?

        • I will have a go at trying to explain the terms:
          Camp is the adoption of conventional, orthodox or stereotypical signs in an overtly theatrical and self-aware manner. The camp performer repeatedly removes the clothing or disconnects from the expectations associated with the camp objects with opposing words and actions. Overall, these camp aspects reveal the instability of appearance or identity and the self-determination of individuals from preconceived ideas of personality.
          Kitsch is a readily accessible object whose meaning depends entirely on instantly understood aspects history and culture, which sentimentalises and emotionalises everyday life. This is often because kitsch objects are cheap reproductions of high art, fashion or design, destined for those who cannot afford the genuine products. Consequently, kitsch items pacify those who may feel that they commercially lack something from monetary or class injustice.
          At least this is how I currently think of it. I hope this helps. 🙂

  3. Brandon Merriman

    I love this progression: The FMV’s, once the pinnacle of computer entertainment, are now seen as some of the worst storytelling techniques. Greatness does not always follow tech. Reminds me of James Cameron’s comments on Avatar and 3-D in the industry right now.

    Are you familiar with the upcoming game Quantum Break from Remedy? It’s looking to include full 30 minute TV episodes to intersperse with the gameplay. I’m hopeful that the production and writing will finally be solid enough to bridge over the kitchness.

    • Thanks for commenting. I completely agree about 3D films, especially when it is only applied as a trivial afterthought, gimmick or money-making attempt that devalues the film experience. As for Quantum Break, I had not heard of it until now, but it sounds like something I’d personally love to play. Thanks for the information! 🙂 I’ll look into it. The question is, if the cinematics begin to outshine the gaming sections, would that put the gamer off and disrupt immersive play? :O

  4. I have very found memories of this game I used to play on my old iMac. It was running Mac OS 9 or even 8. Anyway, the game was called The Daedalus Encounter and was FMV to the next level. Very fun game, you should look it up.

    • After looking The Deadalus Encounter up, I found out the game starred Tia Carrere (of Wayne’s World fame). It’s always interesting to see what actors and directors were once involved in these FMV games. Also, it seems that the award-winning director Darren Aronofsky appears to have partially directed the FMV game Soldier Boyz. Who would of guessed it? Thanks for commenting!

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