If you haven’t heard of Night Trap, you probably weren’t playing games in the 90s. It was this game and Mortal Kombat that set up the Congressional hearings on video game violence, and this was the most misrepresented of the collection they showed. It also represented a fortuitous save for Digital Pictures. They shot all the video for this game in 1988, funded by a virtual blank check from Hasbro, looking to create some must-have content for a VHS-based game console. That console never made it to market, but DP still had the footage, and by seizing the opportunity to jump on the upcoming Sega CD, they unwittingly sealed their own demise.
The game is a tongue-in-cheek homage to 80’s slasher films. A group of teenage girls mysteriously disappeared inside the ritzy home of America’s favorite family, The Martins. This has attracted the attention of the Sega Control Attack Team (yes, S.C.A.T.) who somehow don’t have enough jurisdiction to raid the Martins’ house, but do have the authority to sneak in, tap into the house’s state-of-the-art security system, and use a new set of unwitting girls as bait. Your job is to use a special remote interface (yes, it’s a Genesis pad) to monitor the proceedings, protect the girls and the agents, and use a system of traps to neutralize intruders.
You’ll learn about five minutes into the game that the Martins are actually sophisticated vampires who bottle blood like wine in their kitchen. The elaborate surveillance and security system you’re tapping into is meant to protect their operation from the “augs” – a group of lesser vampires dressed like a poor man’s ninja – who want to steal the stored blood and nab the girls. You must trigger traps at the correct moments to covertly capture as many augs as possible and save the day. You’re not just watching the girls though; you’ll also need to keep a protective eye on S.C.A.T. recon teams, the late Dana Plato as an undercover agent, and a nosy little brother who uncovers the Martins’ sinister plot. Even the physical cable that makes the security tap possible gets threatened. Basically, you’re Johnny-on-the-spot, trying to be everywhere at once.
You do this by switching between eight camera feeds running concurrently, showing different rooms in the house. A danger, or pressure, or whatever meter fluctuates on the upper right side of the interface as anyone approaches a trap. As soon as it hits the red mark, you have a fraction of a second to hit A and trigger the trap. In between traps, you’ll hopefully pick up the ongoing plot. That pretty much it, and good time management mixed with quick reactions is pretty much the entirety of the gameplay.
There’s the main plot and a few side stories, and catching everything will be impossible the first time through. As these events are happening in “real-time,” there are multiple scenes going on at once in different parts of the house. Unlike the split screen views of 24, you have only the one monitor that you must constantly shuffle. As the girls jam out to 80′s hits in the living room, the two Martin brothers may be in the kitchen talking about changing the codes to the security system, while a SCAT agent might be fighting off augs upstairs.
Unlike later “voyeur” games, there’s no visual indication of which camera feed has something important going on. You’ll get an auditory cue every time there’s a chance to trap someone anywhere in the house (which naturally include critical scenes), but no quick indication of where this is taking place. So you’ll hear the tone and start flipping madly through each feed, often making it to the correct one just as a black-clad ass disappears around the corner.
On the one hand, it encourages replayability. I suppose if you really get into it, you can take notes of what events happen where, and play again and again with your focus on different scenes or threads. The game includes an accurate mission timer to assist this, so you can make notes that 6 1/2 minutes into the game there’s a party in the living room, and that will happen exactly in every later playthrough. You will have to do this if you want to catch the maximum number of augs, and as the game lasts a total of about 25 minutes, there’s no way you’ll be able to remember all the events and timing on your own. This is how the game stretches out its advertised “1 1/2 hours of video.”
It also pretty much means that there’s a defined “path” through the video feeds you need to figure out, and that correct path will always have something going on. If you’re looking at a static camera at any time, you’re doing it wrong. Your commander shuts down the operation if you haven’t captured enough augs by certain checkpoints, and naturally, if you miss scenes where a lead character gets attacked, the S.C.A.T. really hits the fan.
It sounds like a lot of work, and it is, but you’re rewarded with some of the campiest video to come out of the FMV era. Technically, it’s neat to have a chase scene start in the bathroom and follow on the cameras as it moves seamlessly through the bedroom, hallway, and so on. Artistically, it’s a fucking riot to watch guys in baggy black clothes and pantyhose masks chase a girl in a nightie around with a drill-on-a-stick. 80′s clothes, music, and mannerisms punctuate every performance, from the lycra-encased mall spawn playing the girls, to the preppy ascot-sporting Martin senior. One of the Martin brothers almost always wears black Risky Business sunglasses – why you ask? Because his eyes glow demonic green!
The whole show is camp at its worst (best?), especially when it knows its campy and responds by trying to be even more campy. The acting gets raked over the coals frequently in reviews, but if bad actors do a really excellent job of acting like bad actors, were they good actors? They are trying to ham up the story and the performances as much as possible, and they certainly succeed. By doing so, they become almost critically bulletproof:
Me: “Your acting was awful.”
Actor: “Really? That’s what I was going for. A typical campy B-movie overacting actor.”
The sound work is reasonably good. The core of the game consists of dialogue between actors, and it is recorded cleanly and at an appropriate volume level. If you miss anything, it’s because you weren’t on that camera, not a fault from the shoot or the recording quality. Music mostly appears in stings for shock scenes, a cheesy guitar riff whenever augs are loping around on screen, and specifically-scored themes for chase and horror sequences. It’s typical slasher music; a lot of holding the high note as a goon slips up behind his victim, and it suits the tone of the game well without being overused. Foley effects and the like were recorded on set, and I don’t remember anything that was blatantly layered in later.
I said that the Sega CD sealed Digital Pictures’ doom, and here’s what I mean. When this was shot in 1988, the resultant footage surely looked okay. You can figure this by looking at the various ports of this game, which all feature larger video windows with improved quality. That wouldn’t have been possible if the source wasn’t decent. It was intended to play off of Hasbro’s mythical tape machine, not to be digitized into an early version of the Cinepak codec and streamed off a 1x CD-ROM.
Unfortunately, this version of Night Trap became the one that introduced the title, and introduced the idea of the full motion video game. It’s not to say that the video quality isn’t inexcusable or incomprehensible, but highly compressed, small-sized video on a CD wasn’t the intended format, and it shows. You’ll get Cinepak’s notorious cross-shaped pixel groups throughout the entire video, with visible blocking, color shifts, and plenty of moments where colors (especially in faces) fuse into one. Detail is hard to spot, and disappears and reappears with movement. This isn’t just hindsight either, as VHS and broadcast television were worlds better from what was being shown here. The fact that it was on a compact disc was a novelty at best, and people rightfully weren’t impressed by a third-screen view of some blurry actors.
The video quality in Night Trap would come to characterize the quality of all Full Motion Video titles, and the gameplay, though unique, was far more passive than what a game was expected to be. The Sega CD gambled heavily on these new interactive movies, and ultimately couldn’t support itself with the reputation it earned for just these sorts of games. Digital Pictures would go on to make a few more similar titles, but FMV and its million-dollar budgets never proved to provide any significant benefit to the gameplay; they looked okay, but they didn’t play that well. And so, the house that Digital Pictures built collapsed upon itself.
Controversy didn’t help the game or the genre either. There’s no gore or nudity in the game. If you heard that there was, sorry, that’s pure myth. Congress apparently got uppity on the misinformation that your job in the game was to trap and kill the girls, not protect them. It didn’t help that the game’s own producer, Rob Fulop, later felt the need to “atone for the sins of Night Trap” because the game allowed you, through your own inaction, to get the girls killed. I hate to argue with the game’s creator, but I don’t believe Night Trap revealed some subconscious desire to see young women get drained of their blood. I get his argument – refusing to do anything while knowing the consequences, and thus intentionally getting someone “killed,” is wrong. But that thinking doesn’t transfer exactly into games. There’s significant interest in seeing all possible paths (good or bad) in any form of media where you are given the freedom of choice. It’s a rare opportunity to go back and see what you could have done, how it could have played out, and the desire to do that is nothing more than understandable curiosity.
Furthermore, the game ends when a girl dies. You are in no way rewarded for failing to prevent their death – not even to watch “the annoying one” get it. I think the real issue was that this was a groundbreaking game, featuring real people in an interactive environment, and non-gamers got scared by the idea of anyone allowing real people to “die.” (Lethal Enforcers faced similar issues).
Hopefully we’re over that now. If anything, FMV games turned out to be uninteresting games. Night Trap is no exception. It’s certainly not an awful idea, and it can be fun to watch. There’s also some skill involved with triggering the trap at the right time (and avoiding fake-outs when the needle jumps close to the zone, but not quite enough). You’ll also have to pay attention to the Martins to keep up with the current color code of the security system, or risk being “locked out” of a trap at a key moment. Even the “security cam operator” plot is a plausible way to make an interactive video.
But even with all that, you’re ultimately just sitting and watching a movie play out, and if you don’t pay attention, you miss part of the movie. You’re not directing. You’re not switching camera angles during a scene or significantly changing the outcome, you’re either at a specific scene or you’re not. You either trap the bad guys when it matters, or the game is over. The level of interaction is about identical to going to a movie theater and choosing to watch the whole story, or choosing to doze off during parts of the film.
Best way I can say it: Night Trap is a fun film and a bad game. If the interface and camera switching hold your interest enough to keep you shuffling around to follow the plot, you’ll enjoy the show. Otherwise, it’s sheer novelty of the “it’s on TV at 3 AM and I’m drunk” variety.
Cheesy and fun slasher parody. The video content is probably better and less offensive than you’ve heard. Accurate timer and concurrent events give replayability.
Not much of a game, and a poor choice to define an entire genre. Debuting on the Sega CD’s video hardware didn’t do it any favors. Entire story is 25 minutes, so replay content is limited. All the industry-damaging controversy was complete bullshit.