RETRO: Rollercoaster, and text adventure/FMV games

Interactive fiction, readable as what we may now describe as a narrative ‘gamebook’, became a relatively commonplace form of entertainment during the 1970s and early ’80s. Some of the earliest choice-based stories are from the Tracker Books series by Transworld Publishers in the UK. One of their first published titles is 1972’s Secret of the Seventh Star by Kenneth James and John Allen – an adventure set in a strange deserted house where YOU must follow the clues to discover the identity of a murderer, and the secrets of the house itself.

Computer-based text games were also in production during this period, with one of the most famous being the educational pioneer adventure The Oregon Trail, created in 1971 by Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann and Paul Dillenberger, for use on the time-shared minicomputer network owned by Minneapolis Public Schools. The Oregon Trail series has since appeared on many platforms – including PCs, mobile devices and game consoles – with more than 65 million copies being sold worldwide. Additionally, during the late ’70s text-based adventures were being created on mainframe computers that would soon appear on 8-bit home computers, such as Infocom’s highly successful text parser adventures in the Zork series, released for personal computers from 1980.

However, what was not readily available during this time period were interactive movies – i.e. filmed sequences that offer choice and control to the person(s) watching the film. In Czechoslovakia, the 1967 film Kinoautomat (created by Czech screenwriter and director Radúz Činčera, and produced by Ladislav Kalas) became the first example of an interactive movie. Here, the movie pauses at certain points and a moderator appears on stage to offer the audience a choice of two following scenes; after a vote the favourite scene is shown.

Movie-based gaming providing pre-recorded video imagery and player interactivity is sometimes referred to as FMV – Full Motion Video. There were a few other examples of interactive films during the ’70s, but nothing that hooked up a computer to a video player, making it a fully digital interactive movie experience. This all changed in 1982 when Creative Computing magazine released a BASIC program for the Apple II 8-bit microcomputer, which presented a text adventure using video portions of the 1977 feature film Rollercoaster to enhance the game.

Now, if you haven’t already seen Rollercoaster, and enjoy thrillers from this period, I suggest that you do so. It’s a fine example of suspenseful ’70s drama, with some bad effects but an effective overall storyline – and it features some truly gruesome death scenes. Personally, I still enjoy watching this film, although it’s now a little dated.

Rollercoaster stars George Segal, Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda and Timothy Bottoms, and is directed by James Goldstone. George Segal plays roller coaster inspector Harry Calder, who must stop a blackmailer threatening to sabotage roller coasters at various American amusement parks. It’s certainly a strange story, but it’s rather straightforward and quite interesting in parts, and is really well shot and produced.

In 1981 David Lubar and David H. Ahl decided to create a text adventure based on the Rollercoaster storyline, using portions of the movie to show video scenes played out during the computer game. The code for the game has since been released online. Kevin Savetz and Yorgle Scott Lawrence created an online version in 2018, which you can see in action for yourself on YouTube. There is a link to the game in the description to the video, but be aware that their website does not always work.

In the interactive game you play as Harry (or any name you want – it’s interactive after all!), and the goal is to locate the terrorist planting bombs on roller coasters. So, you might think it’s presented exactly as per the feature film. Well, not really. Changes have been made to the storyline, and some scenes are used to branch the story in different directions. The program uses a set of commands to move the story forward, such as ‘drop book’ to drop a book from the inventory, or ‘south’ to walk in a southerly direction on the ‘map’. It is therefore a simplistic text adventure but with added movie segments, which are mostly just an element added for greater appeal, enhancing the basic gameplay.

This little program is great example of the innovative interactive (digital) text adventures that were coming out in the early ’80s, and it’s an interesting introduction to what Netflix and others appear to now be embracing with their recent interactive content. Later text adventures used a similar presentation technique with still graphic images, such as 1987’s Guild of Thieves (Magnetic Scrolls), which can be played for FREE online, but in ’81 this was a relatively rare occurrence.

Later on during the decade the market for interactive FMV games was mainly for the likes of Dragon’s Lair (shown below, left) and Space Ace in the ’80s, and Phantasmagoria (shown below, right) and Night Trap in the ’90s. When the focus for FMV games switched from animated content aimed at a younger audience to genre horror and adult themes featuring lifelike graphic violence and use of weapons, the entire gaming industry became embroiled in a political backlash culminating in the 1993 congressional hearings on video games. These hearings directly led the American video game industry to create the Interactive Digital Software Association, and the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB). When quality 3D-graphics emerged with the introduction of a new generation of home consoles, the interest in implementing FMV-based gameplay naturally declined.

There’s one further aspect regarding interactive movies still to mention, and that is the video disc format VHD – Video High Density. A format created by JVC in 1978, VHD was a competitor to LaserDisc (and its other names) and CED (which was used mostly in the US). Of interest with VHD was that it used interactive movies as a unique selling point, as it was possible to hook up an MSX computer to a VHD-player and get real interactive films! Very few games and other software was produced for the VHD+MSX-combo, but some releases did see the light of day. This system was mostly popular in Japan, and never received an actual release in either the US or Europe. The website features more information and game titles.

Additionally, YouTuber Techmoan has three amazing videos available on his channel about the VHD system, showing some demos (Thunder Storm pictured below) of these interactive games combined with the MSX computer: Movies on Vinyl – VHD the forgotten 1980s videodisc; VHD in the UK – how 1980s UK missed out on this interactive video & games format; and VHD in the USA: failure to launch. Sadly, it appears that none of these interactive adventures were ever produced for retail sale.

Today, there are an increasing number of interactive movies containing viewer participation, with recent releases such as Black Mirror: Bandersnatch on Netflix, A Heist with Markiplier on YouTube, and Deathtrap Dungeon – The Interactive Video Adventure (currently available on Steam) revitalising the format via digital distribution platforms that are affordable and/or easily accessed online. Now and then new FMV’s do pop up, and with influential players such as Netflix and YouTube seemingly keen to promote and produce further experiments that should generate new interest in interactive storytelling, we may see even more examples of choice-based experiences entering the marketplace in the near future.

Gamebook News is keen to see exactly where new technologies and current content creators choose to take text-based adventures, FMV and interactivity over the next few years, and we’ll be here to provide coverage whenever projects of interest do appear.

Let us know if you’d like to see more RETRO features such as this in the comments below – and if you’re knowledgeable about text-based adventures, FMV games or other cool interactive experiences from the past or present, and would be prepared to write your own feature article to be published here on GBN, contact us via the Submit News page.

5 thoughts on “RETRO: Rollercoaster, and text adventure/FMV games”

  1. Pablo Martinez

    I do love this new kind of feature! It certanly is refreshing to take a look to the past of interactive fiction and be able to learn from it. I would love to see more articles like this.

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