Night Trap

Night Trap
Game Name: Night Trap
Platforms: Sega CD/Mega CD
Publisher(s): Sega
Developer(s): Digital Pictures
Genre(s): Voyuer game
Release Date: 1992

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 mis-represented 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 parody of 80’s slasher films. It’s not clever enough to be called satire, but certainly doesn’t take itself very seriously. The basic concept is that a group of teenage girls mysteriously disappeared inside the ritzy home of America’s favorite family, The Martins. This somehow attracted the attention of the Sega Control Attack Team (uh-huh, that stands for SCAT) who somehow don’t have enough jurisdiction to raid the Martins’ house and prevent another group of girls from spending the night, but do have the authority to sneak in, tap into the house’s security system, and use the arriving 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.

The Fresh Prince guest stars on Charles in Charge.

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 surveillance and security system you’re tapping into is meant to protect their operations from the “augs” – a group of goons dressed like a poor man’s ninja, who want to steal the stored blood and suck some virgin blood while they’re at it. You must trigger traps at the correct moments to capture as many augs as possible, and at particular points, save the girls from exsanguination. And then there’s the late Dana Plato from Diff’rent Strokes, as the agent-on-the-inside whom you must also take special care to protect. There’s also SCAT agents making occasional trips into the house, whom you must protect. There’s also the cable that makes your tap into the security system possible that you (I’m not kidding) must also protect. There’s also – oh, fuck it.

Essentially you switch back and forth between eight camera feeds to protect anything that needs protecting. A danger, or pressure, or whatever meter fluctuates on the right of the interface as anyone approaches a trap. As soon as it hits the red mark, you have about a second to hit A and trigger the trap. That pretty much it; the entirety of the gameplay. Along the way you will hopefully pick up the plot and side stories, though this will be nearly impossible the first time through. I suppose in an attempt to be “real-time,” there are multiple events going on at once in different parts of the house. Unlike 24, you have only one screen 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, and 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 includes critical scenes), but no indication of where. 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 side, it encourages replayability. Just like real life, you can’t be everywhere at once, and the game makes you choose which view or storyline is the most important. 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. The game includes an accurate timer to assist this, so you can make notes that 15 minutes into the game there’s a party in the living room, and reproduce that exactly in a 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. Fortunately, if you don’t loves you the Night Trap that much, you can do a serviceable job the first time through. You don’t have to catch every bad guy – I don’t even think you have to catch any bad guys, with the exception of the ones putting girls or agents in direct harm. If you miss these scenes and get anyone important killed, SCAT hits the fan.

Luckily, these critical, cornered by death moments are actually kind of amusing. 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 garbage bag masks chase a girl in a nightie around with a drill-on-a-stick that pumps blood into two backpack reservoirs. 80’s clothes, music, and mannerisms punctuate every performance, from the lycra-encased mall spawn playing the girls, to the preppy sweater-round-the-neck Martin senior. One of the Martin brothers almost always wears black Risky Business sunglasses – why you ask? Because his eyes glow evil green! This is camp at its worst, 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 really quite bad.”
Actor: “Really? That’s what I was going for. A typical campy B-movie overacting actor.”
Me: [silence]

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 ports of this game, which all have vastly improved video quality. That wouldn’t have been possible if the source wasn’t decent. It was intended to play off of this mythical tape machine, not to be digitzed into an early version of the Cinepak codec. 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 inexcuseable or incomprehensible, but CD wasn’t the intended format, it shows, and people rightfully weren’t impressed by a third-screen view of some pixelated actors. The video quality in Night Trap would come to characterize the quality of all FMV 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.

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, and background 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 obviously layered in later.

I frequently smile to myself when shadowy interlopers spy on my sensuous, vulnerable bod.

There’s no gore or nudity in the game. If you heard that there was, sorry, that’s absolute bullshit. 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 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 denuded some subconscious desire deep within Joe Gamer to see young women get drained of their blood.

You could make a fair argument that refusing to do anything while knowing the consequences, and thus intentionally getting someone “killed,” is wrong. But that argument 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. But the game ends when a girl dies, and 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 for the first time, and non-gamers got scared by the idea of anyone, through direct action or omission of action, allowing real people to “die.”

I think we’re over that now. If anything, FMV games turned out to be uninteresting games. Night Trap is no exception. It has an enjoyable campy quality to it. Like Sewer Shark, the production values are there, and it can be fun to watch. Having to keep up with the current color code of the security system, or risk being “locked out” of a trap at a key moment, is a nice gaming idea, and the “security cam operator” plot is a plausible way to make an interactive video. Still, 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 – it’s a fun film, and it’s 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, too bad, cause that’s all the game is.


The Good

Campy fun. The video content is probably better and less offensive than you’ve heard.

The Bad

Stereotypically bad video compression, typical voyeur game where your “interaction” is to switch cameras.

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