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The return of Tex Murphy and a '90s fad

On the great highway to gaming's golden horizon, our spectacular future, Full Motion Video (FMV) is a semi-abandoned town located on a dusty, arid plain.

There was a time when FMV was at the very frontier of all that gaming could achieve, the dizzying spectacle of "interactive movies." For a while, FMV fair bustled with industry, as impressive constructs rose from the ground, like The 7th Guest, as well as disreputable but popular bawdy houses like Night Trap.

In the CD-drive multimedia boom, cutscenes of real people gurning to camera was all the rage. But the fields thereabouts were overmined, and a wash of truly wretched games flooded the market. FMV's edifices crashed, the world moved on the next town, which was hosting the launches of PlayStation 2 and Xbox, a new era of visual excitement, of grand CGI vistas.

Leaving aside outliers like Remedy's Quantum Break with its live-action interludes, few people are calling for FMV to make its comeback. It is associated with bad scripts and worse acting, of games in which very little happens, of severely limited dialog options and dreary puzzles.

But there remain those who have fond memories of certain FMV games. And so when the guys behind the original Tex Murphy games, one of the most successful interactive movie series' of the 1990s, decided to launch a Kickstarter, the response was extremely positive.

Developer Big Finish Games raised almost $600,000 on a $450,000 target for Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure, due to be published on Windows PC and Mac this spring.

So what does this game, this refitted old mansion from a faded age, offer the gamers of 2014?

Well, for a start, they get a pass right back to the mid-1990s. The people who paid to see a new Tex Murphy game, did so because they liked the old Tex Murphy games. This is not so much reinvention as revisit, albeit with a vastly more complex game-world and much better visuals.

We have the same actor, Chris Jones (also the game's producer) taking on the role of the hapless, goofy but likeable 'tec in the lead role. The game plays out in a Unity 3D vision of future-dystopia San Francisco. There are logic puzzles and there are dialog trees.

But central to the Tex Murphy experience are the various characters who make up the game world, the human beings, represented by actors, that make these games unique. The cast is made up of professional actors, but there is something studiously hammy going on here, a layer of irony and distance. The world is played for laughs, because it is always better to be intentionally amusing than unintentionally.

"When we were doing the earlier games, it was really kind of an experiment with the character," said Jones. "We were playing it by the seat of our pants. As we have had a chance to look back, we can develop a more full idea of who the character is. It also gave me a chance to see what I feel as though I do best, and invest that into the core of the character."

"We worked really hard to maintain the same tone and feel of the original game," said producer Ryan Jones (son of Chris). "That's what the people ultimately miss, right? Being with Tex, being with his sense of humor, going through these puzzles. That's what drove people to donate to the campaign, that kind of atmosphere that we'd established."

Ryan was in High School when his dad was fronting the original games, which began in 1989 with point-and-click adventure Mean Streets, moved to FMV in 1994 with Under a Killing Moon, finishing up with Tex Murphy: Overseer in 1998. He worked as a tester on the series, and recalls the excitement of shooting scenes with actors, so different from traditional coding.

This Tex Murphy game isn't seeking to reinvent FMV for the 21st Century. It's a call-back to a gentler age, to a tech that once seemed like the future.

"We feel that it's actually aged quite well," said Ryan. "When you re-enter the game, it still makes you laugh. The story still draws you in. We're relying on timeless storytelling techniques. We're trying to have fun with it, but we're putting it on a nice scale with a lot of mystery and intrigue all the way through. It makes people want to come through and try the different dialogue options, try all the puzzles in different ways, and go through the game that way."

It is undoubtedly true that Tex Murphy has its devoted fanbase, as demonstrated by the Kickstarter campaign. Jen Lee is a fan who backed the campaign at the $10,000 level, which included a studio tour perk. She has been active on Tex Murphy forums throughout the franchise's wilderness years.

"I always felt a home with Tex Murphy games," she said, adding that the allure of FMV first drew her towards the games. "But it was his relationships with the characters that was always so much fun. You could play one way, mess around and replay it again. You have to remember that FMV was hot shit at the time."

In 2014, the FMV aspects of the game, which runs to about two hours, are more closely interwoven into the narrative than back in the 1990s, when interactive storytelling was in its infancy.

"I'd say the puzzles in this game are different in that they're integrated into the environment a lot better," said Ryan. "Before, we'd have to have a whole lot of load screens taking you to different places. Now, computers are more powerful. We're able to have the interaction between the avatar and the puzzles be right there inside the room and the level. They're just better integrated. Game engines are more refined. It's a lot easier to keep players inside the game and design even better puzzles that way. We weren't able to do that before."

Ultimately, with a Tex Murphy game, it all comes back to the central character. "His appeal is as a bit of an everyman," added Ryan. "We call him the idiot savant detective. He's a guy that relies upon his wits, when everything else is going wrong. It's turns out to be something that people really connect with.

"Some of the stories the backers have told us, they say that this is one of the first games they ever had exposure to on the PC, and it was so different from everything else at the time, it's just stuck with them for so long. The impression it had when it came out, using full video to make almost a true interactive movie, we feel like it did that in a lot of respects, and we feel like we've continued that legacy on with this game."

The next level of puzzles.

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