Full Motion Video -- at one point, it was
the wave of the future in games. According to Wikipedia, between 1992 and
1995, 62 video games using Full Motion Video (FMV) were released. But by
the end of the 90s, developers had nearly abandoned the medium.
Looking back, FMV partly stumbled due to its impracticality – the
expense of hiring actors (not just their voices), for instance, and the
inconvenience of swapping multiple CDs before the advent of DVDs. Then
there were the technical issues. The panning in Byzantine: The Betrayal
that felt like moving through melted wax. The blurry background graphics
in Dark Side of the Moon. The sluggish pointer in Star Trek:
Borg that took several seconds to register interactions.
I loved those FMV games, though. They had an authenticity and gritty
ambiance that has never been replicated using rendered scenes and animated
characters. So, at the end of 2008, I was excited to learn that a new
series of FMV mystery adventures had surfaced. This episodic series,
called Casebook, is set in New Zealand. It features an appealingly
intense police detective, James Burton, and manages to overcome most of
the problems endemic to the earlier experiments with FMV. Episode I:
Kidnapped was released in December, followed three months later by
Episode II: The Watcher.
A Mad, Mad World
The Watcher opens with Detective Burton investigating a suicide
at Skylark Apartments, a former psychiatric hospital. Judging from the
current tenants, Skylark hasn’t changed its status much. The occupants
include a blowsy, redheaded landlady, a young man with an anxious
expression and a mannequin companion, and a middle-aged woman with a cat
fetish. Your role? Detective Burton’s new junior partner, of course, whose
job is to search the apartments and analyze any evidence found there.
More Inner Demons, Please
As for Detective Burton himself -- he’s played by actor Julian Temple,
who excels at the “dedicated police officer with inner demons” manner. The
detective is handsome, with close-cropped hair, a hint of a beard, high
cheekbones and piercing eyes. Outwardly, he’s a cool customer, even when
confronted with the crime-related horrors that are inevitably uncovered.
But somehow he manages to get across what he’s really feeling to you, his
partner. When he contacts you on the phone his voice takes on a husky
quality that’s friendly, yet professional. He’s definitely a charismatic
presence as the mystery unfolds.
The storyline in The Watcher is partly revealed through
cutscenes, conversations with Detective Burton, and his interviews with
witnesses (these occur periodically throughout the game as you investigate
the apartment complex). Subtitles are available and I found them
essential, especially during interviews when some of the witnesses don’t
speak with perfect clarity.
The plot also advances as you analyze the data, and as you receive
reports from Pete the lab technician, the only “regular guy” in the game.
Pete is cheerful and competent and gives a much needed sense of normalcy
to the sometimes weird business of police investigation. Witnesses and
suspects in the game are well played by the actors -- with the exception
of the landlady, who seems too hard-boiled to be true. The video
recordings by the suicide victim as he struggles with his sanity are
particularly affecting. I wanted to reach in through the screen and rescue
You’re on Candid Camera
The game takes you through a series of rooms in the apartment building,
all of which you can move through smoothly. Exploration of the
environments takes place in first person perspective, with 360 degree
panning available. The panning motion is quick and fluid. The graphics are
slightly blurry while you are moving, then sharpen when you stop. Each
location is rich in detail. While standing and panning, you can
distinguish small items and intricate shapes and read titles of books on
the shelves. If you fail to locate all the evidence on your own, The
Watcher has a hint feature that zeros in on what you’ve missed. It
also has brief on-screen instructions at the beginning of the game to get
you acquainted with the interface and procedures.
Once you’ve explored the rooms visually, you get down to the police
work. Using a high-tech camera, you again pan around to locate items of
interest, which are highlighted by red lines. If you are too far away for
a good shot, the game tells you, and you can zoom in for a better view.
You snap away, storing up to eight shots. Then it’s off to the crime scene
van, where you analyze the evidence using the computer. Nearly all the
interaction with the gameworld takes place through the camera or through
the computer (with one intriguing exception where you communicate with
Burton by moving the mouse to signify “yes” or “no”). All interactions use
the game’s responsive point-and-click interface.
Having the crime scene van parked nearby is a welcome innovation in
this type of game. I much prefer it to the procedure in (for instance) the
Law & Order games, where you repeatedly revisit police
headquarters, the medical examiner’s office, and the crime lab. In The
Watcher, lab results are available instantly. Okay, that’s not
terribly realistic, but it sure beats wandering around the gameworld
killing time while the lab technician sprite goes through the motions of
examining the fingernail clippings you just submitted.
While in the crime scene van, you’ll also perform several tests on the
evidence yourself. Some of the lab tests are unusually easy, requiring
just a move or a click of the mouse. For others, you position a slider
until an image and/or sound becomes clearer. These are a bit more
difficult and more fun. One oddity – items “picked up” from the crime
scene are registered as photographs. So when you work at the computer, it
appears as though you are testing the image rather than the item itself.
Other challenges provide variety, including deciphering a code. My
favorite (though slightly gruesome) challenge was the dummy trajectory
I think The Watcher would have been an even better game if the
puzzle challenges had been a bit more formidable. However, this is an
early episode, and I suspect that the designers will gradually increase
the difficulty level as the series continues.
Background music plays only briefly in this game. There’s cool jazz
with a “noir” element at the main menu screen, and you’ll hear tinny
elevator music when you travel between floors. Music adds subtle texture
or – in a couple of instances -- dramatic emphasis to the cutscenes. The
locations have ambient sounds, and time spent at the crime van computer
features unusually creative sound effects as you work with the evidence.
A casebook in the van lets you keep track of objectives and replay
certain interviews. It also contains file folders that organize various
locations and aspects of the case. You place photographs of reports and
in the casebook.
A chain-link icon is visible on some of the photographs and documents,
meaning that they can be linked to other evidence or photos. Finding the
link is easy – you just keep clicking on everything with a chain-link icon
and eventually you are bound to find the match. If the match is in a
separate folder, simply click to pick up the item and the matched item
automatically pops out of the separate folder.
At first I thought this made the linking challenge too easy. But as the
case developed, I realized that, with so much evidence to manage, the
automatic linkages provide an excellent way to review how disparate bits
of evidence begin to hang together to form an overall picture of the
We’ve Got Issues
The only glitches I experienced with The Watcher were two screen
freezes that I could overcome with ctrl-alt-delete. Both times the game
autosaved right before the problem occurred.
Which brings me to my chief quibble with this game – the autosave
feature. You can’t save your game when you would like to. The game
continually autosaves. After the game ends, you can’t go back into the
gameworld at all, but must start a new game. Personally, I like to go back
and re-examine locations at various stages, listen to dialogs and watch
cutscenes again -- particularly with a plot-heavy mystery game like this
one. I can replay, but that’s pretty time-consuming. I estimate that the
game took me about seven hours to complete.
A Developing Relationship
Where The Watcher shines is in its story, characters and realism
– a portrayal of a believable world. The game makes it easy to form
relationships with the main characters – something that is rare in gaming.
Episode II finishes the story on one level, but on another level, it’s
clear that there’s more work for Detective Burton if justice is to
triumph. I’m looking forward to Episode III.
Quick List for Casebook Episode II: The Watcher
An entertaining second episode in a new Full Motion Video (FMV)
detective mystery series which introduces Detective James Burton. A well
plotted story set in a former mental institution that’s now a low-rent
apartment building. First person perspective, point-and-click interface.
The FMV medium, plus the dialogs and cutscenes, creates a sense of
immersion and empathy with the characters that is rarely achieved in
games. Some excellent acting. The game touches on mature themes, making it
inappropriate for young children.
Most interaction within the game takes place through observing the
surroundings, snapping crime scene photos, and working with the evidence
on the computer in the crime scene van.
Puzzles are in the “Easy” category. No sliders, no mazes, no
sound-based puzzles, no need to distinguish colors, no timed puzzles. A
good hint system. I’m hoping that later episodes will contain somewhat
more challenging puzzles.
No problems with installation. The screen froze twice. The autosave
system is restrictive.
Casebook Episode II: The Watcher is aimed at mystery
aficionados, fans of FMV, gamers who enjoyed the Law & Order and CSI
games, and anyone who might be curious about Detective Burton’s star
potential. Is he – or isn’t he -- the real deal?
Final Grade: B+
Casebook Episode II: The Watcher
can be purchased via download at the Aero Cinematic Games website
My Computer Specs:
Windows XP Professional
Pentium 2.80 GHz
2046 MB RAM
Direct X 9.0c
512 MB NVIDIA GeForce 7800 GTX
SB X-Fi Audio