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Interview: Mystery Case Files: Dire Grove's Adrian Woods on the game's use of live-action FMV


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Last month, developer Big Fish Games released the latest game in its hidden-object, casual mystery series Mystery Case Files. Dire Grove features something rather unexpected for a game released in 2009: full-motion video. As a selling point! The game sets you into the investigation of four graduate students who disappear in the spooky town of Dire Grove one night. Along the way, video sequences will help illuminate the events.

Fascinated by the bold decision to bring in live actors for the latest iteration of a usually all hand-drawn series (and a game that will retail for seven dollars when the Standard Edition launches this month -- the Collector's Edition is available now for $20), we spoke to game designer Adrian Woods about the game and the somewhat anachronistic use of FMV.

Joystiq: Why an FMV game now? Is Big Fish bringing the FMV game back after its mid-'90s heyday?

Adrian Woods, Game Designer/Developer, Big Fish Games: Creating believable characters in any game is a challenge, but the challenge is amplified when it comes to casual games because budget and time are usually limiting factors. Our industry tends to have a less-is-more mentality, which forces developers to look for creative ways to deliver an immersive game experience. With each Big Fish Games Studios title, we push ourselves to accept some risk when pursuing new ways to engage the player. In the case of Mystery Case Files: Dire Grove, we decided to look at video as a way to bring the characters to life and further immerse the player. We were particularly excited about using FMV because few, if any, developers in the casual-gaming space have tried it.

As far as bringing it back? We will use it where it makes sense.

What are some of your favorite FMV titles of the past? Did they influence development of this one?

Ah yes, the cheesiness of days gone by. I've always had a soft spot for 7th Guest, Myst, Command and Conquer, etc. Here too, I think you have to respect the limiting factors of the day. 3D was in its infancy and the emergence of the CD-ROM gave game developers the ability to convey story through video for the first time.

Past titles didn't so much influence us as remind us to adhere to film-quality standards. Game developers typically aren't well-versed with film/video production. If we were going to do it right we had to hire professional actors, director, crew, etc. In the end, FMV in games is no different than film or TV -- if the production quality isn't there, it shows.

How does FMV work with the hidden object genre? Are you searching real environments or is the video limited to cutscenes?

Aside from some in-game, chroma-keyed sequences, the video acts mainly as cutscenes, though some clues are tucked inside. Its inclusion adds a subtle dose of reality to our virtual world.

The real video, and the setting, make this seem a bit darker than previous MCF games (even though they're all about crime). Is Big Fish looking to a more mature audience? Who is the usual target age group or audience for the series?

The last few MCF titles have definitely become moodier. We've been playing a lot with the supernatural and that edginess is a fun side-effect. Who doesn't like bundling up in front of the fire and reading, or in our case, playing a mystery novel? We aren't really looking toward a more mature audience -- although our target demographic is women aged 35+, upholding an E rating is important to us. Some of the best suspense you can create is in the viewers mind; you don't need violence and gore to accomplish that.

Big Fish collaborated with Nintendo for MillionHeir. Any more DS games or other console releases in the near future?

We have a great relationship with Nintendo, but at this time have no further announcements.

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