The best FMV games offer a mix of invention and technical wizardry but just what are they? For the uninitiated who do not share my multi-disc, misspent youth, I’ll first answer the obvious question: 'What is FMV?' The initialism stands for Full Motion Video (remember when that was swish, newfangled tech?), and generally refers to games that feature live action footage. It’s a whole niche that largely shuns computer generated assets in favour of live actors and physical sets.
Once upon a time, FMV games were widely regarded as ludicrously expensive, interactive B-movies. But these days you'll need to master the best video editing apps, have a good video camera (you can use an iPhone 14) and now how to out it all together in a game engine or the best digital art software. And while that’s 'cheese' is very much still part of a FMV game's charm, recent years have seen a slew of award-winning indie flicks. For instance, last year developer Half Mermaid took home a BAFTA for their game Immortality – and I’ll cover why a little ways down this list.
The best FMV games on either side of the millennium are weird, wonderful, and absolutely wild. Below are ten of the best FMV games of all time, with most theoretically playable on modern hardware.
The best FMV games to inspire you
I've played all of these games, and more, and even starred in one FMV game myself as a budding actor (a voice on a phone counts, right?) Also, as the games editor of PLAY magazine, I can tell you plenty qualify as the best FMV games for PS5 too, thanks to backwards compatibility. Read on, this is a list close to my heart.
The best mystery FMV game
Erica is Sony's big-budget route into the modern FMV genre and really went all in when it comes to production values and talent. Actress Holly Earl plays the titular protagonist, a haunted woman striving to decode all left unanswered in the wake of her father’s murder.
Your investigation of the mysterious Delphi House enjoys a wonderful tactile edge as you literally poke and prod at this mystery. Besides engaging twists that’ll send you tumbling down the rabbit hole, this one gets full marks for feature-worthy presentation, including some UI and font use that draws you in rather than killing the atmosphere. Erica even boasts a more traditionally feature length runtime. Bingable in an afternoon, Erica is the perfect summertime chiller.
While Erica released on PS4 it's fully playable on PS5, and now is available on iOS and PC too, via Steam. Read our PS5 review to discover why, perhaps, this is the way to best experience Erica.
02. 428: Shibuya Scramble
The best FMV game for pacing and puzzles
428: Shibuya Scramble is slightly different from many of the best FMV games on my list, because it uses still photography. Now, I know what you’re thinking: ‘Does a visual novel that predominantly uses still photography really count?’ And I’m going to say yes, because you must unravel this mystery yourself. (You may want to read our guide to the best photo-editing software if you like the sound of 428: Shibuya Scramble.)
Weaving between the perspectives of multiple protagonists that have to be seen to be believed – from an amnesiac trapped in a mascot costume to a recycling folk hero – your choices have the potential to cut any one’s story short or unite them in unexpected, often hilarious ways. With a whopping 87 different endings, this is a tangled web worth getting lost in.
The best FMV game with ambition
Immortality director and writer Sam Barlow’s latest FMV game asks two questions: 'What happened to the actress Marissa Marcel?' and 'Why were none of her films ever released?' It’s a compelling set up that Immortality absolutely runs with; winning a BAFTA for its narrative in 2022, this one gets a big tick in the 'absolutely wild' category I mentioned before.
Barlow’s earlier projects, such as Her Story and the horrifyingly grounded Telling Lies, more successfully nail the 'database detective frame device' that Barlow's games are based on – scour video clips for clues, click and zoom, and link leads to find narrative strings. But while it stumbles a little, Immortality is the game making bigger swings (and more interesting misses), and so remains one of the best FMV games of all time.
04. Contradiction: Spot The Liar!
The best FMV game for armchair detectives
Contradiction: Spot The Liar! is a little bit Ace Attorney and a little bit Columbo – so what’s not to love? Set in a sleepy English village, the community is rocked by the apparent suicide of a young woman named Kate Vine, and you need to find the killer.
Detective Inspector Frederick Jenks smells a rat and, via a fabulously off kilter performance from lead actor Rupert Booth, sets out to unravel a bizarre web of lies. It’s incredibly satisfying to catch suspects out when their stories don’t make sense, and comparing statements makes you feel like you’re genuinely cracking the case.
The game is simpler than others on my list, it has some fantastic performances and keeps you guessing. Also, if you're looking to pick up some good video editing tips Contradiction: Spot The Liar! is a great place to start.
05. Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh
A great horror FMV game
Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh is a classic horror FMV game released back in 1996, and is seen as one of the pioneers of the genre. But, okay, I get the 90’s grimdark edge definitely won’t be for everyone – nor will its gore, or its often frustratingly abstract puzzle solutions – but it's a classic worth revisiting.
The age and game design kind of works in Phantasmagoria's favour in 2023 (it's a point-and-click interface). Casting a cursor over the top of live action scenes and poking at the blurry edges of reality couldn’t be a more perfect way to represent the unravelling of protagonist Curtis Craig.
Phantasmagoria offers a decidedly dated exploration of themes surrounding mental health, but the fleshy mystery at its heart is still a compelling one to unpick. (Fancy creating something similar? Read our guide to creating movie style horror effects.)
A cult classic FMV game
With Ripper we are now firmly back in 'Oh my days, what did I just watch?' territory. Featuring an all-star cast (Christopher Walken, Karen Allen, and John Rhys-Davies among them), this sci-fi take on Jack the Ripper first released in 1996.
Far from just an interesting relic of the genre’s past, its central mystery features some absolutely bananas twists that are worth witnessing first hand, to say nothing of Christopher Walken’s swaggering performance as Detective Vince Magnotta.
Some will argue Ripper isn't technically an FMV game, but rather a game with lots of FMV in it. Kind of dancing on a knife-edge here, but as a game that helped develop the FMV game genre it's undeniable, particularly as even the non-FMV sections were cutting edge 3D, for the time.
07. The 7th Guest
The best FMV game for character design
The 7th Guest delivered stunning and revolutionary graphics when it released 25 years ago. Taking place in a mansion chock full of ghosts and fiendish conundrums, this historical heavyweight lead to no small number of people picking up a CD-ROM drive back in the 90s. The 7th Guest was truly cutting edge for the time.
While the design of those aforementioned head-scratchers is definitely dated, the blend of 3D environments with ghostly, live action footage remains visually compelling (and that’s without even getting into the camp charm of the actors’ performances).
It’s worth revisiting, especially as a full remake using volumetric video is set to take the Stauf mansion into virtual reality later this year. If you can't wait for that release, take a look The 7th Guest: Remastered for iOS. (Read our guide to the best iPad for gaming, of you do want to play on an Apple device.)
08. The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker
The best FMV game for Eldritch horror
The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker may not have the same production values as others on my list, but it shows what can be done today with easily accessible tech and a bit of imagination and passion. (For example, read about the best BlackMagic cameras.)
One therapist’s couch, six clients, and a whole lot of questions surrounding the demise of their last counsellor - good job you’re here to fill in! This engaging FMV game resurrects another throwback mechanic: the text parser. While a bit of a pain to use on a controller, typing out questions opens up new responses from your patients, often with unpredictable results, and gradually unspools an engaging eldritch mystery.
Though rough around the edges, the small, confined scope of this project is absolutely an asset. As mentioned, as an example of what can be achieved these days The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker is essential. Developer D'Avekki Studios has built a solid reputation for delivering creative FMV games on a budget, and this is quite inspirational.
09. Night Trap: 25th Anniversary Edition
The best retro FMV game
For years Night Trap was a joke, a spectre of a time gamers tried to forget. On release 1992 it came under fire for its gamification of voyeurism, which was possibly more to do with people being impressed by grainy, low-res FMV than it was the actual game.
The premise behind Night Trap sees a gaggle of teenagers congregate for a sleepover – little do they know the house is full of cameras, booby traps, and vampires. Hopping between security camera feeds, you’re tasked with keeping the youngsters safe, though unfortunately there are an awful lot of blood-sucking blighters to capture.
To get the best endings, you’ll need to ignore the most entertaining scenes in favour of watching the shadows like a hawk. Still, it’s cheesy, corny, campy, and responsible for at least one moral panic back in the day; this list simply wouldn’t be complete without it. You can play the remastered edition on most platforms, but I'd suggest getting the Sega Mega Drive Mini 2 for the full 90s experience.
10. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
The best FMV game for Black Mirror fans
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is a true-blue interactive movie that anyone with a Netflix subscription can play. It represents the moment when FMV gaming became a mainstream event once again and showed these kind of games are no longer the preserve of genre fans and retro collectors.
The Bandersnatch story follows a struggling game developer as he puts everything on the line to create his magnum opus. Naturally, not everything is as it seems (least of all your co-developer, played by Will Poulter). This is suitably Black Mirror-like and based on a the ill-fated Megagames of 80s publisher Imagine Software. (If you like these kinds of games, read our guide to the best retro games consoles.)
Light on mechanics, gameplay in Bandersnatch takes the form of timed choices ranging from mundane to existential, and a non-standard narrative structure will keep you guessing as you uncover a plethora of endings. This is a simple FMV game but one with a high production value and Netflix has experimented with more, including Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs The Reverend and Carmen Sandiego: To Steal or Not to Steal.
What was the first FMV game?
The first FMV games began launching in 1983 when the laserdisc technology became more accessible, and would be found in many video game arcade machines. The first games were Sega's Astron Belt and Dragon's Lair from Cinematronics, animated by the legendary Don Bluth. A limited number of games followed, but included some memorable releases like Firefox, Road Blasters and hologram game Time Traveler.
What does FMV stand for?
In a video games context FMV stands for full-motion video, and describes the use of video files interspersed into CG for narrative or gameplay purposes. True FMV games only use video files overlaid with a context-sensitive UI and player options.
How do FMV games work?
FMV games rely on pre-recorded video files to enable interaction with the player, usually through menus and text prompts but newer FMV games enable you to manipulate the video, images and audio to explore the format of video and film.
What do I need to make an FMV game?
There are many good tools and apps around these days to create your own FMV game. While you can make any kind of interactive game in Unreal Engine 5, its geared towards photo-real CG and not video, so best to use something like Blender, HitFilm or Unity (via plug-ins like Charles Engine). FMV games are a unique blend of film and video editing techniques and game engine tech to put it all together.