I'm not afraid to admit that I enjoyed full motion video games back in the early '90s. Like everyone else, I was enthralled by FMV and real voice acting, which seemed exciting and high-tech compared to what was available on the consoles of the day. But of course, I eventually realized that those games were bad... really bad. And for a long time, the campiest of genres seemed doomed to rot in the wastebin of history like any other relic of the '90s.
But with the rise of Kickstarter has come a revival for FMV games worthy of recollection -- a reminder that even the most maligned genre in gaming had a few gems. One such gem is Tex Murphy, which garnered its share of fans with its surprisingly strong production values, and is remembered to this day as a legitimately solid adventure series. More than a few people have been waiting a long time for a true sequel, and now they're getting one in Tesla Effect. It's not half bad either.
That the Tex Murphy games have largely managed to hold up over the years is largely down to the fact that they felt like actual games -- a feeling that not at all common among '90s FMV games. As an adventure game, it offered free-roaming first-person exploration -- this at a time when DOOM was still considered very much state-of-the-art. Its exploration gave players a form of agency, even if that agency mostly consisted of clicking on every square inch of a room, taking a few steps forward, and repeating. That feeling of freedom in turn offered a sense of realism and involvement in the story, which helped to sand away some of the dissonance between the live-action cutscenes and the actual gameplay.
All of this was impressive to say the least, especially for a game released in 1994, and it quickly earned the series a large and loyal fanbase. Its popularity was further boosted by its likable star -- the noir detective Tex Murphy played by series co-designer Chris Jones, who plies his trade in post-apocalyptic San Francisco. Wearing a rumped fedora and trenchcoat, Murphy routinely offers observations like, "Danger's like Jell-O, there's always room for more," giving the series a much-needed light touch.
Buoyed by its popularity, Tex Murphy had a good run through the '90s before abruptly coming to an end in 1998 -- a period that also marked the end of adventure games in general (at least until Telltale came along). With FMV games dead and buried, it seemed as if Tex Murphy was finished. But in 2008, Chris Jones and Aaron Conners reacquired the rights to the series and characters and set to work on a true sequel.
The fruits of their labor, now called Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure, is a throwback to the series' glory day, with full-motion video sequences, exploration, and even puzzles are little changed from what they were back in the '90s. Unfortunately, that includes the production values, which wouldn't be out of place in 90s daytime television. The engine, however, has been rebuilt using Unity, making the indoor environments in particular somewhat reminiscent of Gone Home -- another Unity Engine game.
That it manages to hold up after all these years is thanks in part to the new engine, but also to the open exploration pioneered by the original games in the '90s. In an era where Minecraft and GTA V are by far the most popular games around, people are used to having some degree of freedom to explore the world aroud them. Tex Murphy grants that sense of freedom and exploration, even if it's something of an illusion. Ultimately, it's not that different from a point-and-click adventure, since you're not doing much more than pixel hunting. But in this case, the illusion is important, as it makes it easier for modern player to engage with the series in terms that they are familiar with.
The FMV, as expected, is mostly pure camp despite the presence of recognizable actors like June Lockhart and Kevin Murphy. Chris Jones, as always, is earnest and likable as the eponymous detective, though it would be a stretch to suggest that he's a good actor. Todd Bridges as a mutated morlock is outright hilarious, as even in heavy morlock makeup, he's undeniably Todd Bridges. The dialogue tree even makes reference to his days on Diff'rent Strokes; because, of course, you can't cast Willis Jackson without referring to Gary Coleman's famous catchphrase.
None of this is exactly bad though, as its perfectly in line with the light, relatively tongue-in-cheek writing of the original Tex Murphy. In fact, it would be a bit of a shock to see an FMV game that plays everything straight, what with the genre having been a joke for as long as it has. Maybe that will change someday in the future (doubtful), but until it does, Tex Murphy's light touch is a necessity. Because let's face it -- anyone who downloads an FMV adventure game is doing so for the camp value as much as the gameplay and story itself.
All that said, considering that it trades on nostalgia for a series of 90s adventure games, it holds up better than you might think. Certainly, the new technology helps; but for a child of the '90s who played a lot of PC games growing up, it was hard not to feel the warm fuzzies of nostalgia creeping up when seeing the old fedora and trench coat. And the puzzle-solving, for its part, holds up just fine -- a mixture of item hunting and inventory management that likewise inspires its share of warm adventure gaming memories.
It certainly won't rehabilitate the FMV genre's reputation -- nothing short of a complete reinvention could ever do that -- but it does serve as a reminder that not even the worst subgenre should be dismissed out of hand. If only as a fun throwback to another era, it's good to have Tex Murphy back on the case.