Back in the early 1990s, video games were the “big bad” in the US. They were soulless, mindless, gore-laden brainwashing machines designed to turn YOUR children into Charles Manson on bath salts. Mortal Kombat (1992) was the worst of the bunch, and those new-fangled 16-bit graphics made the carnage REAL. No longer was Little Billy content to toss a baseball with his old man, or whatever it is they do over there. No, Little Billy wanted to pull his old man’s spine out through his butthole and use it to desecrate the star-spangled banner. Or so parent’s groups would’ve had you believe.
As easy as it is to mock these “won’t somebody think of the children!?” types (though it is and you should), it’s worth remembering that at this time video games were entirely unregulated. By 1992, pressure from these groups for the industry to self-regulate had been mounting for quite some time. But, as long-time observers of the video game industry know, it is an industry determined to avoid responsibility as much and as often as it can. Ultimately, the US government threatened to take that responsibility, the games industry caved, and the ESRB was formed. Though certainly the most popular game involved, Mortal Kombat was not the sole catalyst for this industry-wide shift
Enter Night Trap (1992), a Full Motion Video game on the Sega CD that was equally controversial. At the time, FMV appeared to be the future, or at least a cornerstone of it. Comprising of video footage with real actors at a time when 16-bit violence was causing an uproar, it’s not hard to see why there was so much concern. The proliferation of home video, and subsequent flood of what were termed “Video Nasties” in the UK, were still fairly recent, and this is how Night Trap was perceived: A video nasty in which Little Billy controlled the onscreen violence. It isn’t that at all, but that didn’t seem to matter.
Not only is this not the case, but for all its infamy, Night Trap is incredibly tame. Looking at it today, it’s less the Giallo-tinged misogynistic boob-fest its legend might suggest, and more Benny Hill with trap doors. The thing with FMV games is that they are at the mercy of the production realities of both film and video games. Namely, “making films is expensive,” and “making video games is expensive.”
It’s inevitable, then, that the FMV game occupies the same space as the B-movie in terms of production value. Or, rather, it was. As filmmaking tools have become cheaper, more advanced, and readily available, the FMV game has seen something of a resurgence. Developer Sam Barlow is particularly notable for the way he’s taken the genre in innovative new directions with Her Story (2015) and Telling Lies (2019), managing to side-step the B-movie pitfalls entirely. Wales Interactives’ The Complex (2020) very recently offered a far more polished and well-made experience than one would typically expect from a game of this genre and budget.
Dark Nights with Poe & Munro is presented as a “season” of short vignettes, each largely self-contained aside from a few threads of continuity. The eponymous duo hosts a local radio show in the fictional town of August, on which they discuss dreams, nightmares, mysteries, and the unknown. They’re also secretly lovers for reasons I was never able to grasp. Maybe he’s packing. Or holding her hostage. It’s hard to say.
“He”, of course, is Poe (Klemens Koehring), the impossibly posh, perpetually damp, and more than a little creepy male half of this duo. Poe is deeply annoying for the duration, and his sinister manner is less that of his namesake and more “owns a mannequin leg and sniffs bicycle seats.” You met this guy at university, once, and then went out of your way to never meet him again. His over the top “posh man voice” is grating beyond belief. It’s unlikely that this is what they were going for, which is a shame, because otherwise the game succeeds in its intentional, over-the-top campery.
Happily, Munro (Leah Cunard) is eminently watchable. Cunard is indisputably the star of this show. None of the performances are bad—at worst they’re vaguely sinister and inexplicably moist—but Cunard is consistently great. Not just FMV game great, but “I would like to see her in things on television” great. Her big-eyed, breathless charm (presumably inspired by the screen persona of her namesake, if you’re a bit sloppy with the spelling) is enjoyable throughout all six episodes.
These episodes vary in quality but are all pretty solid, striking a peculiarly dissonant tone—shades of Welcome to Night Vale, with a healthy dose of camp. It is very camp, and I am here for it. It cashes in on the aforementioned B-movie tropes associated with the genre, seemingly embracing the limitations and history of this peculiar genre—and it works! It really does. For the most part, I spent the duration of my playthrough with a big, stupid grin on my face. From receiving death threats from the internet’s favourite big brother (Justin McElroy), to environmentalist murder mysteries, to past life regression, I was never not having fun. While undeniably a much better experience than Night Trap in literally every way, it’s hard not to recall its horror-themed silliness.
Where the efforts of Sam Barlow and Wales Interactive have taken the genre in new directions in terms of gameplay or raised the bar of presentation respectively, Dark Nights with Poe & Munro is a back to basics affair in the vein of some of the earliest FMV efforts. Scenes play out, and the player is presented with any number of possible actions or responses. These are often quick time events, with the time allotted usually dependent on the context of the scene. Naturally, these choices alter the direction of the story in numerous ways, resulting in hundreds of branching paths over the course of the game. Of course, there are only a handful of possible endings for each episode, but it is impossible to see everything in one playthrough. In fact, a complete understanding of each story necessitates multiple playthroughs, which is aided by the chapter skip option that unlocks once the game is completed.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to know what choice you’re making when you make it, as there’s no real indication of what each choice actually means. The corresponding icons are often arbitrary, which prevents the choices from feeling all that meaningful. At the end of each episode you are presented with statistics of the choices made by other players. In titles like Telltale’s The Walking Dead, this was interesting in that many of the choices were clear moral dilemmas, but here it doesn’t really add anything, other than finding out most people didn’t actively try to kill Poe. He’s the worst, and I won’t apologise.
It’s an enjoyable, if unambitious title. If you’re averse to the genre it won’t change your mind, but anyone with so much as a soft spot for the FMV game will find something to love here.