Ever since its inception, the video game industry and controversy have gone hand in hand. Custer’s Revenge, Death Race, Grand Theft Auto, Sam Fox’s Strip Poker… these titles and many more like them have secured their position in the history books by stirring up trouble, but few have instigating the kind of furore that results in the industry-wide adoption of a ratings classification system. When it comes to notorious video games, Night Trap – recently confirmed for release on the Nintendo Switch – is in a league of its own; the real irony is that its iniquitous status as highly subversive 'video nasty' is almost entirely undeserved.
Creator Rob Fulop is a man whose name might be familiar to Atari addicts – he’s the person responsible for programming many excellent domestic conversions of the company’s most successful coin-op hits. "My first commercial release was Night Driver, followed by a version of Space Invaders for the Atari 400/800 Personal Computer," he recalls. Annoyed by Atari’s refusal to credit its game designers, Fulop helped establish publisher Imagic. Demon Attack and Cosmic Ark soon followed, both released on his former employer’s 2600 hardware and both shifting an impressive volume of units at retail.
Imagic was eventually sunk by the video game crash of the '80s and Fulop joined Atari founder Nolan Bushnell’s new company, Axlon. The firm was working on an innovative entertainment system codenamed 'Project NEMO' (which, depending on who you ask, stood for ‘Never Ever Mention Outside’ or 'Nintendo Ends Mid-October') that used VHS technology to create movie-like experiences far more visually arresting than anything available at the time. "The NEMO system allowed multiple tracks of video to run simultaneously from a consumer tape deck," explains Fulop. "Still frames of the video were interleaved together, sort of like shuffled playing cards, and the hardware would freeze selected frames for a few milliseconds until the next frame of that track came off the videotape."
A prototype game called Scene of the Crime was produced in order to demonstrate what this potentially groundbreaking system was capable of, and this short demo would essentially serve as the blueprint for Night Trap. "The main difference was that Scene of the Crime was a five minute demo, where as Night Trap was a full game," comments Fulop. "Also, there were no 'traps' in Scene of the Crime. Instead, players merely followed suspicious characters around a house trying to find who stole the money." As an exhibition of what NEMO could do, Scene of the Crime clearly worked; it was shown to executives at toy giant Hasbro in 1986 and convinced the company to pick up the NEMO system for retail.
Night Trap’s production schedule was part movie shoot, part video game programming. "It was shot in 16 days in 1987 and took another few months to edit into the separate tracks," recalls Fulop. "The software was developed concurrently. I think all told, the game took about six months to get working." Because Fulop and his team were working with pioneering technology they soon discovered that old-fashioned development methods didn’t always work. "With a traditional game, the author can diddle to their heart’s content with all the on-screen elements, often right up until the game is completed," he says. "This process is referred to as 'tweaking' and is what makes a good game work so well. With a 'movie game' like Night Trap, the author has practically no 'tweaking' ability as all the assets they have to work with are handed over as a video stream; there is no way to go back and insert a new scene or change the timing of when an actor comes into view. The game must be designed as a script and the first time the game is played is much later; at that point it’s too late to make significant changes."
Indeed, one of the key differences that separates Night Trap from games of the same era is the fact that it uses real actors instead of sprites as its protagonists. However, for the thespians in question, the groundbreaking nature of the project was largely lost on them. "The actors knew it was an interactive game, but their day-to-day process was identical to making a movie or TV show," recalls Fulop. "They came on set, rehearsed their lines, and performed as directed. There were a few times they needed to work out careful timing of when they entered and left the scene, but such was coordinated by other people on the set."
Understandably, the status of the cast in question wasn’t exactly A-list. "Interactive ‘movie games' were populated by performers either on their way 'up' or on their way 'down' the Hollywood ladder; nobody aspired to appear in a ‘movie game!’" chuckles Fulop. Arguably the most famous person to be involved was Dana Plato, notable for her work on the American sitcom Diff'rent Strokes, in which she had starred from 1978 until its eventual cancellation in 1986. The termination of the show – coupled with Plato’s personal problems with drugs and alcohol – resulted in her career adopting a distinctly downward trajectory. "Dana was fine to work with at first, very professional; she needed the work," remembers Fulop. "Later she became more problematic; she’d come late and never wanted to rehearse. Her doing this project was obviously a step down from her previous popularity and she didn’t make a great deal of effort to hide this fact.”
Her involvement with Fulop’s game was something of a low point in her career, but it was by no means her professional nadir. Following several breast augmentations, a spread in Playboy magazine and appearances in soft porn movies, she tragically died in May 1999 from an overdose of prescription medication; the official reason was ruled to be suicide but many close friends insist it was an accidental death. Despite the problems experienced during the filming of Night Trap, Fulop still has a good word to say about the late actress: “Obviously I was very sad to hear about Dana; she had a very fun spirit and had a great sense of humour. She deserved better.”
With the footage in the can and the programming complete, Night Trap was readied for launch alongside another NEMO 'movie game' called Sewer Shark. However, just before NEMO was about to be officially launched at the start of 1989, disaster struck – Hasbro pulled the plug. The company cited the high cost of the hardware (thought to be in the region of around $300) as the reason for the decision, and although Sewer Shark and Night Trap had eaten through an combined budget of approximately $4.5 million – making them two of the most expensive video games of the era – it looked as though they would never see the light of day. Fulop walked away disappointed but essentially unfazed by the entire affair. He went on to form PF.Magic – which would later become famous for creating the best-selling Petz virtual pet simulation series – and allowed Project NEMO to fade into memory.
However, Night Trap refused to pass quietly into obscurity and was given a second lease of life thanks to Tom Zito. "Zito was the General Manager of the Hasbro Interactive unit based in California," explains Fulop. "He was the executive producer of both Night Trap and Sewer Shark and was my supervisor during production of both titles." When the Hasbro deal turned sour, Zito quickly purchased all the material related to the two abandoned games and founded his own company, called Digital Pictures. Rumour has it that Zito had originally hoped to bring the two games to the Super Nintendo CD-ROM unit that was being developed in conjunction with Sony, but when Nintendo’s add-on failed to materialise he decided to sign up with Sega and launch on the company’s Mega-CD system instead. Night Trap made the transition from VHS to CD-ROM and was pushed out onto store shelves in 1992 – five years after it was originally created – where it instantly became embroiled in one of the most controversial chapters in the history of video games.
The following year a joint US Senate Judiciary and Government Affairs Committee held a hearing on the sticky subject of video game violence. Senator Joseph Lieberman attacked Night Trap with the same vitriol usually reserved for rapists and murderers, claiming that it promoted a "culture of carnage" and was "a disgusting, offensive game that should not be shown to civilisation." The other title under scrutiny was Midway’s gory fighter Mortal Kombat – a fact that irks Fulop even to this day. "It was annoying to hear Night Trap compared to Mortal Kombat – a game featuring one character ripping the heart out of their defeated opponent’s chest," he admits. "The most graphic scene in Night Trap involved two hooded thugs dragging their victim off-camera."
In a move that was especially humiliating for Sega, Nintendo’s chairman Howard Lincoln was asked to give his opinion on the uproar. "Lincoln testified in front of the Senate stating Night Trap would never appear on a Nintendo system because it did not pass their guidelines," recalls Fulop, who thinks that Lincoln's iconic statement – which has been rolled out as part of the promotional campaign for the recently-confirmed Switch version of the game – was disingenuous and has ultimately been misunderstood. "He was referring obviously to the technical guidelines – the game would not run on the Nintendo system due to lack of CD-ROM – but he made it sound as if the game was unworthy of Nintendo’s moral standards."
Nintendo’s sanctimonious stance was a deliberate move to distance itself from the scandal and make its bitter rival Sega look bad, but this self-righteousness didn’t last long. "Nintendo’s subsequent licensing of Mortal Kombat on the SNES was a complete hypocrisy," Fulop exclaims, despite the fact that the Nintendo version was heavily edited to remove blood and gore. This hullabaloo ensured that Night Trap became infamous for its supposedly objectionable content and its creator is still clearly stinging from the assault even today. "I thought the whole witch hunt was ridiculous and totally without merit," Fulop recalls. "I was very embarrassed that something I had made was being torn apart like that. Many people were getting the complete wrong idea about the game." Indeed, Lieberman’s assertion that Night Trap somehow encouraged violence against women was laughably ill-informed – as anyone who has played the game will know, the aim is to save the female characters, rather than delight in their demise.
It speaks volumes that Lieberman himself later admitted that he never actually played the game. "There is no easier target than pop culture for a politician who wants to be seen as looking out for the common good," says Fulop with a wry smile. However, the veteran developer admits that one good thing did come out of all the fuss. "The controversy around Night Trap lead directly to the establishment of a rating system for games," he states. "I think it made sense. Violent or potentially disturbing games should be labelled as such, because a lot of grandparents buy these games for their grandkids, and don’t really have a clue as to what they are buying." The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (or 'ESRB') was founded in 1994 as a result of the hearings and is still running today.
Having been instrumental in developing the concept of 'FMV gaming' (or 'movie gaming' as Fulop likes to call it), does he feel that the negative critical reaction to Night Trap – and FMV games in general – was warranted? "Comparing Night Trap to a traditional video game is like comparing American Idol to Star Wars," he says. "They are two totally different experiences offered on different platforms to different audiences. Nobody intended Night Trap to hold up to a traditional game. The intent of the 'movie game' genre was to go after the 95 percent of the people in the world who don’t play traditional video games. So throwing rocks at such a thing and claiming that the gameplay doesn’t hold up compared to DOOM is silly. That said, we hardly created a breakthrough form of interactive entertainment. We took a shot, it didn’t go very far, end of story. But we never for one second thought we were making something that should be compared to a real video game. A game reviewer complaining that Night Trap isn’t a fun enough game is like a film critic complaining that a game show doesn’t have enough action scenes."
As for Tom Zito? He built his Digital Pictures empire on the success of Night Trap and went on to become something of a figurehead for FMV gaming in the early '90s; notable titles include Ground Zero Texas, Corpse Killer, Quarterback Attack and Supreme Warrior. In an ironic twist, footage from several Digital Pictures games was spliced together to create 35 minutes of action for the 2003 straight-to-DVD release Game Over (AKA: Maximum Serge Movie), in which the central protagonist must play various video games in order to save humanity. The asinine plot at least gives some justification for the hilariously unconnected nature of the action, but sadly doesn’t clarify why the video quality varies from 'passable' to 'barely VHS' standard. To top it all off, former Baywatch beauty Yasmine Bleeth is given top billing despite the fact that she only appears during the segments lifted directly from Digital Pictures’ most auspicious FMV 'movie game', Maximum Serge – which never actually saw commercial release.
Time may not have been particularly kind to Night Trap and FMV gaming in general, but Fulop is still pleased with what was achieved all those years ago. "I'm most proud that we got it to work at all, and that we managed to put out a truly novel game format, something that nobody had ever played before," he beams. Although 'movie games' have all but been forgotten as 3D graphics technology has advanced and become ever more realistic, Fulop isn’t convinced that it’s an entirely dead medium yet. "I think interactive movies haven’t reached a large enough audience," he comments. "As long as they are designed to appeal primarily to gamers there is obviously no comparison; the sheer number of times one can interact meaningfully with a 'movie game' pales to the continuous interaction offered by something like Grand Theft Auto. That said, I still maintain that there exists a huge potential market for FMV entertainment that is not so 'game-like'”.
Damien's feature previously appeared in a slightly different form in Retro Gamer magazine, and is reproduced here with kind permission.