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Spy on a vampiric slumber party in the browser port of 'Night Trap'

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There's a Night Trap fan group on Facebook. This isn't too surprising, considering Night Trap's storied past in the video game industry and its unabashed, nostalgic charm. It's a full-motion video game (FMV) -- meaning it stars real people, just like a live-action movie -- released in 1992 for the Sega CD and later ported to Sega 32X, 3DO, MS-DOS and Mac OS. Night Trap follows a group of young women at a slumber party that turns deadly when vampiric creatures show up, looking to feast on the girls' blood. Players, viewing the party via hidden cameras, attempt to trap the evil beasties and save the girls. For this unconventional premise, Night Trap holds a permanent seat in video game history alongside Doom and Mortal Kombat: These titles were partly responsible for the creation of the ESRB rating system, following a series of congressional hearings on "violent" video games in the early 1990s. Concerned groups accused Night Trap of encouraging kidnapping and featuring ultra-violent content, although compared with many modern, award-winning games, it's a truly tame experience.

So, of course there's a Night Trap fan group on Facebook. It's precisely this Facebook group that Dave Voyles, a technical evangelist at Microsoft, turned to when he was seeking inspiration for his next programming project a few weeks back. Now, Voyles is knee-deep in Night Trap's code, reworking it to run in any browser for a new generation of fans to enjoy.

Voyles promises to keep the code open source as he works on Night Trap, noting, "I learned from others keeping their code open source and well-documented, so it's only fair that I pass it on." He hasn't secured permission from the owners of the Night Trap license, but he says that if they ever ask him to stop, he will. "My goal for this is to learn and teach others," he says.

We interviewed Voyles via email, and that chat has been edited for content and clarity below.

How did you get started on this project?

During lunch a few weeks ago, I wanted to see if I could quickly prototype something, so I thought I would challenge myself and try to re-create an old game in the browser. I got the idea from Phil Cobley, a fellow member of the Night Trap group on Facebook, after I saw him put together some screenshots of what it might look like on a 3DS.

What's your personal history with Night Trap? Is it an all-time favorite of yours?

I absolutely love this game. Sure, the acting is cheesy, but it was the first time I really had an opportunity to interact with a film. If you look at it as a "game," then sure, the gameplay certainly isn't top-notch. If you look at it as a film where you can control the outcome, I think you're getting a great experience.

I own two copies on the Sega CD, but once the 3DO came out, I immediately bought a copy for that, considering the footage is far cleaner. It's in my top five games, largely because of how different it was from anything else at that time. Also, because it is technically impressive.

What makes Night Trap worthy of the effort of porting it to HTML5?

There are a few things:

  1. The browser can finally handle it. Even a few years ago, this wasn't possible in the browser. I do a lot of game and web development, and wanted to showcase what the browser can actually do. With this, I can dynamically adjust the quality of the video, based on your device speed and internet connection. It's also platform-agnostic.
  2. It's a game with a lot of history. Filmed in 1987 and released in 1992, there are a number of gamers growing up today who have never played this out-of-print game, nonetheless even heard of it. Night Trap is a large reason why we have the ESRB rating today, so this is kind of my way of bringing the past back to the limelight for the next generation of gamers.
  3. It's a challenge. The fact that Digital Pictures was able to develop this in 1992 with, as far as I could find, only one programmer, is amazing. The programming language they had to use back then (68K Assembly) is far more difficult than what we had today, so I wanted to see if it was actually possible to completely rewrite something written in another language, without seeing any of the code.

What's the most difficult aspect of the Night Trap port?

The most time-consuming part of this is ripping all of the videos from the original disc (I'm using the Sega CD 32X version), then creating an outline with all of the underlying information for each of the 160 clips. I started to piece together the first 30; then the fan community at the Night Trap Facebook group filled in the rest! I have a bit about that here, along with a screenshot of what the data looks like.

From there, I needed to figure out how to architect the game. Without being able to see any of the source, this was difficult. Which clips fit together? What happens if someone catches an Auger (vampire)? What happens if they miss one? On top of that, there are so many edge cases that I needed to account for. For example, what if a gamer is viewing a room where nothing is happening, then it's the correct time for the clip to play? How do I keep track of those events for every room and every second?

It took me a day or so of prototyping, but I finally have it down. This was all written in JavaScript, which, despite being a terrible language for so many reasons, is also one of the most versatile, as it works everywhere that a modern browser is available.

Is FMV due for a comeback any time soon?

I've felt that FMV has been due for a comeback since it went out the window in the late '90s, but I understand why many people don't see it as something practical. Still, the gaming landscape has changed so drastically over the last few years, especially with the advent of mobile gaming, so who knows? You see companies like Konami, who are traditionally known for their AAA productions and arcade games, finally leaving that market for social games on mobile platforms.

Who says the tide can't change to favor FMV? Especially today, where we see more and more older games getting ported to mobile. Sherlock Holmes (which also appeared on the Sega CD and 3DO) is one of the most recent titles I've seen.

Images Credit: Dave Voyles

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