There are few concepts more dated and goofy than Full Motion Video games. FMVs were one of those awkward technological stopgaps that emerge between the advent of new technologies. In this case, mass storage formats like CDs and LaserDiscs had come to the fore, but we didn’t yet have the processing power to take advantage of them in any meaningful way. Over the years a few quality titles came out – mainly traditionally animated fare like Dragon’s Lair or pre-rendered 3D games like Myst – but for the most part the medium was a dumping ground for C-grade actors and D-grade scripts.
A lot of live-action games tried to tell serious stories, but they were, by and large, hilarious failures. The better FMV games embraced the inherent campiness of the format with kooky b-movie plots. Of those, the Tex Murphy games are some of the best-remembered. They took an intriguing Bladerunner-esque cyberpunk noir setting and populated it with quirky, affable characters. The titular hero, played by series creator Chris Jones, is the very picture of a lovable idiot. And a lot of gamers did love him – enough to back his latest adventure to the tune of almost 600,000 dollars on Kickstarter.
The Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure finds itself faced with an interesting problem. Of course, it has to continue the story that left off 16 years ago (on a rather dicey cliffhanger, as I understand it), but as a live-action production there needs to be an explanation for how much the characters have aged. Big Finish Games’ solution is to give Tex partial amnesia, allowing them to set the game seven years after the last installment while keeping the hero the same man he was all those years ago. Amnesia storylines always threaten to devolve into cliché, but the developers have taken it in an interesting direction. Tex went dark and gritty in the years after his girlfriend was murdered in front of him, and now has to reconcile the nice guy he is with the asshole he became.
It makes for an interesting character dynamic, but the search for Tex’s past is also good excuse for the developers to introduce new players (like myself) to the series’ history. When Tex examines certain key objects scattered throughout the world, he flashes back to scenes from previous games. It’s kind of charming to watch the old, choppy, low-res FMVs, though they look positively ancient next to all this spiffy new 2k video. Sadly the clips seem more like a greatest hits reel than a proper recap, and they don’t do a great job of introducing newbies to Tex’s World
The CG is as low-grade as it gets, and it’s not shot particularly well (generally you don’t want actors staring directly into the camera), but the live action footage in The Tesla Effect looks mighty crisp. Big Finish have a remarkable capacity for blending live actors into their 3D worlds. The game also cues new clips very quickly, allowing for complex, seamless dialogue trees. For a budget game, it’s quite impressive. Less impressive are the actors themselves, who all fall somewhere between ham and cheese on the edible scale of thespian talent. Fortunately, Tex murphy is very self-aware, and plays up the b-movie performances rather than trying to work around them.
The gameplay itself is standard first-person adventure fare, although it’s worth noting that Tex Murphy pioneered that style of game. You wander around various 3D environments examining clues and picking up items, and progress by gathering information from various NPCs and solving puzzles. The puzzles are nothing to write home about, but the dialogue has a certain charm that elevates The Tesla Effect from other games that use the same formula. In particular, the quips Tex makes when examining objects are really funny.
Sadly, there aren’t nearly as many of those quips as there are objects to examine, and as is always the case with funny games, lines that were humorous once don’t really hold up the second or eighth time you hear them. On top of that, there are some weird technical issues with the pointer interface. Often, looking at the ground or walls of a building’s interior will trigger the line for examining it from the outside. It’s a minor annoyance, but it can make it a little difficult to hunt for clues when everything around you is a hotspot.
Without actors walking around in it, the world of the Tesla Effect looks a little sparse and barren. The 3D models are very low-res and low-poly, and aside from the HD video this looks like a 10 year old game. I suppose it fits well enough with the cheap costumes and prosthetics, adding an air of artifice to the proceedings, but it’s a little distracting to see a shirt hanging from a clothesline as though it were made of rigid cardboard. At the very least, the game hangs a lampshade on the cheap graphics, with Tex at one point remarking that a door is just painted on to the wall.
As adventure games go, The Tesla Effect is pretty average. The story and characters are quite entertaining, but the puzzles are mostly boring, and the gameplay visuals could use another coat of polish. By the standards of FMV games, though, it’s damn excellent, and a sure treat for those with a nostalgic fondness for the format. I think it’s a little too dated for most modern sensibilities, but it does a fine service to the fans who’ve waited so long for a sequel.