Inside the “Ed Wood” World of ‘90s Video Game Acting

“We didn’t know what the hell was going on!”

Phantasmagoria 2 behind the scenes photo
Curtis Craig

Jeanne Basone was appearing in a popular weekly lunchtime lingerie show and raffling off prizes at Chuy’s restaurant in Glendale, California in 1993 when she was approached by a regular customer asking her to star in Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties. “And that’s how,” she chuckles good-naturedly, “I ended up in the Ed Wood of video games!”

Her description is apt. The game has acquired cult status as a charming disasterpiece worthy of historically terrible director Wood’s infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space, his endearingly incomprehensible 1957 sci-fi horror once called the “worst movie ever made” by none other than Jerry Seinfeld.

The customer, entrepreneur Michael Anderson, had only intended to make a novel experiment in interactive entertainment. Composed entirely of still photos overlaid with voice acting, it’s a romantic comedy where the player contrives to get a plumber named John (played by Edward J Foster) and “daddy’s girl” college student Jane (Basone) together in the manner of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book.

Looking at the original box art in front of her featuring the effusive praise: “The reviews are in: it plays like a game, feels like a movie!” causes Basone to boggle: “Uhhhh….not really! It’s a glorified slideshow!”

Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties (United Pixtures)

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For about a month in 1993, Basone shot scenes from the game’s nonsensical script — reportedly written by Anderson in a blitz of booze and marijuana — on the fly. She even suggested filming locations such as in front of the Hollywood Sign and the Griffith Observatory. Again channeling Ed Wood, they had zero filming permits. As an actor, Basone was used to scenes being shot out of sequence (one minute, she’s whipping a priapic boss, the next she’s running through Chinatown in a bra and a skirt). “But I thought that once they put it together, it would at least make sense!” she chortles.

“I’ve pushed boundaries throughout my life. When you’re young, you’re fearless.”

While recent years have witnessed a growing number of A-listers taking virtual roles, such as Oscar-winner Robert Downey Jr. in Call Of Duty: Black Ops II, Keanu Reeves and Idris Elba in Cyberpunk 2077, and Jodie Comer in the Alone in the Dark reboot, what happened to those involved in the gonzo first frontier of digitized acting and grainy full motion video (FMV) games? These accidentally trailblazing unknowns often found their performances derided as cheesy or used as a hand grenade in a moral panic. But three decades later, they look back at the experience fondly, if with a hint of embarrassment.

“Actors didn’t tend to appear in video games back then,” Basone says, “but I’ve pushed boundaries throughout my life. When you’re young, you’re fearless.”

Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties

This is the current website for Plumbers Don't Wear Ties as of 2024.

United Pixtures

When Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties received a limited release on PC in 1993, the U.K.’s PC Magazine denounced it as “an irksome and yobbishly-executed pseudo-pornographic photo-story with the wit and charm of an elephant’s arse.” A re-release for the ill-fated 3DO console a year late boasting additional full-motion video content where Basone explains the rules of the game while the camera zooms gratuitously in on her chest (“I had no idea they were doing that,” she notes) saw it topping myriad worst-games-of-the-year lists.

“Have you seen the Angry Video Game Nerd?”

For her part, Basone was never sent a copy of the game and didn’t realize it had even been released. “I didn’t even know what a 3DO was!” she exclaims. She forgot about it and moved on with her life. Until, 15 years later, when she was inundated with messages asking: “Have you seen the Angry Video Game Nerd?”, a popular YouTuber (real name James Rolfe) that had reviewed Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties comically in an episode that’s garnered 10 million-plus views to date. “Watching that guy go off on it made me laugh — and he’s right in a lot of ways!” says Basone. “By tearing it apart, he's made the game more popular too.”

You might presume that being in a game once compared to Dumbo’s derriere might wound Basone, but what you probably don’t realize is that she played “heel” Hollywood in the original Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling and was therefore used to hate. “My character in G.L.O.W. was a bad guy and when people are booing you, you’re doing your job right,” Basone says. “The more they hate you, the more you know they’re going to be first up asking for an autograph!”

Night Trap

Night Trap led to the creation of the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board).

Digital Pictures

Giovanni Francioso had only a smattering of theater credits to his name when he received his first professional audition in 1987 at 19 years old. He had no idea he was about to appear in arguably one of the most controversial video games of all time. Francioso played enigmatic sunglasses-wearing vampire Cousin Tony in Digital Pictures’ Night Trap, which ignited a culture war and led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board.

“Even us actors had no idea that we were auditioning for a video game,” laughs Francioso. “We didn’t know what the hell was going on! We were confused as to what we were making. Considering what they were doing was so pioneering, the makers downplayed the game aspect of it. I thought I was making a The Lost Boys-style film at one point.”

Night Trap is probably the most infamous attempt of the FMV craze to mine the intersection of Silicon Valley and Hollywood. Schlocky B-movie vibes abound as players control the surveillance cameras and Wile E. Coyote-esque traps at a slumber party full of teenage girls infested with vampires. Shot on a soundstage in Century City, California, Night Trap contracted Francioso for around a month of filming — the pay easily dwarfed theater wages. He recalls an inordinate amount of takes (“because you have multiple potential scenes as the game progresses''), having his fangs custom-made, and lavish sets with elaborate physical traps such as beds that shoot vamps into the walls and staircases that transform into slides.

“If you want to make something appealing to teenage boys, try to ban it.”

Mostly, however, he remembers the camaraderie of the young cast. Francioso even ended up dating co-star Allison Rhea, who played Ashley, one of the scream queens. After filming ceased, Francioso put the game to the back of his mind for over two decades. Easily done: Night Trap was originally slated for release on Hasbro’s scrapped NEMO console, but didn’t emerge until 1992 on the Sega CD. By then, Francioso had left acting and pivoted to his first love of music (he now records prog-rock tracks). He bypassed the 1993 Senate Hearings on Video Games, where Night Trap was branded “child abuse” and accused of promoting violence against women, prompting Toys R Us to remove the title from its shelves.

Francioso feels the worldwide firestorm benefited the game’s longevity. “It’s like parental warnings on albums in the ‘80s,” he says. “If you want to make something appealing to teenage boys, try to ban it. It’s contributed to Night Trap’s cult appeal for nearly 32 years now. Then you play the game and realize how mild and innocuous it is!”

Night Trap (Digital Pictures)

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Apart from the political tumult, Night Trap is known for being part of what has been luridly dubbed “the curse of Diff’rent Strokes by the tabloids. In one of the first cases of a household-name actor appearing in a video game, Dana Plato — who had been fired from playing Kimberly Drummond on the Norman Lear sitcom two years earlier after becoming pregnant — landed Night Trap’s lead role as the unfortunately-titled S.C.A.T. (Sega Control Attack Team) agent Kelli Medd. Twelve years after filming the game, and following a string of regrettable brushes with the law all while the media treated her mental health like a bloodsport, Plato overdosed and died at age 34.

“When you’ve been on a successful show and are nationally famous, I can only imagine that she saw it as a step-down,” theorizes Francioso, who became good friends with Plato. “But as an actress on set, she was never a prima donna. She never acted like she was bigger than anyone. She was always professional, did her job, and had her cues ready. There was only one time when I remember she was frustrating the director because it was taking her over 50 times to film one scene. In terms of where she was mentally, if she was upset, she hid it very well.”

“If she was upset, she hid it very well.”

The re-release of Night Trap for its 25th anniversary in 2018 prompted die-hard fans to begin messaging Francioso (one even had Cousin Tony tattooed on his arm) and, like a more wholesome gaming version of Sunset Boulevard, he became friends with some of them. They even filmed him playing the title a few years ago. Unlike the other actors involved — now podcasters, authors, fitness instructors, and nurses — Francioso sweetly cherishes his role as a footnote in pop culture. “The other actors want nothing to do with it, but I find it awesome to have been in something that’s still talked about today and has affected other human beings in some way. I’m completely appreciative.”

Mortal Kombat

Kerri Hoskins as Sonya Blade.

courtesy of Kerri Hoskins

On her 50th birthday, in 2020, Kerri Hoskins’ now-or-never instinct kicked in as she stared at the green leotard and black headband that had laid dormant in her basement for 25 years. She had last donned the costume as special forces agent Sonya Blade in Mortal Kombat 3. “I put it on and was nervous,” Hoskins admits. “But I looked at myself and got an adrenaline rush.” She set up a photo shoot but, tentatively concerned about the reaction, sent the pictures to Mortal Kombat creator Ed Boon. “I said: ‘What do you think? Should I post this?’ And he enthusiastically responded ‘YES!’”

“Between shoots, we’d try and come up with our own ideas for finishing moves.”

Hoskins was already on developer Midway’s radar (she had appeared digitized as a cheerleader in 1993’s NBA Jam and filmed opposite Aerosmith as dominatrix villain Mistress Helga in the rock band’s bizarre 1994 shoot-‘em-up curio Revolution X) so when a lawsuit from OG Sonya Blade actor Elizabeth Malecki over royalties concerning the use of her likeness in home console versions was filed, Hoskins was the natural successor for the role. With a background in boxing and gymnastics, she performed against a green screen in a storage closet that had been converted into a studio. It was an arduous process.

“We’d shoot something then we would have to wait five to 10 minutes for the computers to reboot, because they were so slow and couldn’t digest all the video that was coming,” Hoskins points out. She found the game’s visceral fatalities amusing. “Between shoots, we’d try and come up with our own ideas for finishing moves and tried to outdo each other with how horrible and brutal we could be!”

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After the game was released, Hoskins was deluged with touching fan letters. Girls told her she’d inspired them to take up martial arts, and closeted lesbians informed her she’d saved their lives. She went on the road for a year with the grueling Mortal Kombat Live tour. “We trained in the Catskill Mountains for three months straight, 12 hours a day. It was the first time I’ve hallucinated from tiredness.”

Nonetheless, Hoskins was convinced fame would be fleeting. Post-Kombat, she concentrated on starting a family, but the specter of Sonya raised itself in unexpectedly poignant ways. Bringing up twin boys who suffer from severe cerebral palsy, she looked toward Sonya as a lodestar.

“I thought everybody had forgotten about me.”

“During times when they’ve almost died and I’ve wanted to sit and cry, I’ve consciously channeled Sonya to get me through it,” Hoskins says. “She’s such a stoic woman. I’ve pictured her saying: ‘Quit your complaining and get the job done.’ Everybody looks up to me and expects me to be like that character, and I’m grateful for that because it inspired me to be strong.”

Hence, when she posted the photo of her dressed as Sonya Blade, aged 50, on Instagram to a chorus of approval, it meant more than you might imagine.

“I thought everybody had forgotten about me, but posting that picture was the start of a new life,” Hoskins says. “I started doing conventions and Comic Cons and all those 10-year-old boys and girls who played Mortal Kombat 3 back in 1995 are now in their 40s and telling me I was their first-ever crush.”

Tattoo Assassins

Tattoo Assassins was shelved before its intended 1995 arcade machine release.

Data East Pinball

The phenomenal success of Mortal Kombat begat a cluster of “klones,” among the more storied of the gore goldrush was the much-hyped Tattoo Assassins, spearheaded by Back to the Future screenwriter Bob Gale. Given his involvement, you might assume it would be a classy affair, but instead, it was relentlessly puerile, boasting around 60 fatalities and “nudalities.” Tattoo Assassins was shelved before its intended 1995 arcade machine release, due to an inability of the frazzled development team to meet the tight deadlines and excoriating feedback from play-testers.

Christine Dupree was brought on board by her kickboxing coach, Maurice Travis — who played cyber mercenary A.C. Current in the game — to portray deadly ice skater Karla Keller, a Nancy Kerrigan proxy. “They bought me rollerblades and I had to learn to skate for the game,” remembers Dupree. “It was a fun job. We did a lot of the moves on a trampoline.”

“It was a fun job. We did a lot of the moves on a trampoline.”

Data East Pinball

Tattoo Assassins prided itself on its gross-out content, vomiting on opponents, and, for her part, Dupree had to pretend to heraldically fart noxious green gas as a special move. She didn’t mind such scatological content. “I thought it was hilarious,” she shrugs. “It made for a cooler game, so it didn’t bother me. It’s harmless. Maybe people from the Midwest, where I grew up, might have thought it weird, but since I’ve been in LA for 35 years, I’ve seen it all. I’ve been selling videos of female wrestling for a long time on a website that has all kinds of strange fetishes — including videos of women farting or crushing tiny dolls while pretending they’re giant women — so Tattoo Assassins was tame compared to that!”

Only a few prototype machines remain in existence. However, when the ROM was ported onto the internet in the mid-2000s, Dupree found herself contacted by players keen to hear about the so-bad-it’s-bad “worst fighting game of all time.”

“At the end of the day, it was just another film industry job,” she cheerfully reasons. “Sometimes they’re a hit and sometimes they’re not.”

Phantasmagoria 2

Paul Morgan Stetler as “Hec.”

courtesy of Curtis Craig

Other actors appeared in games that attempted to push the envelope in more mature ways. Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh (aka, Phantasmagoria 2) was a point-and-click psychological horror saturated in violence and mental health issues. It’s since gained a notable LGBTQ+ following due to its non-judgemental treatment of sexual fluidity.

Paul Morgan Stetler was a coltish theater actor living in Seattle when he won the starring role of introvert Curtis Craig, who works at a clandestine pharmaceutical company and is plagued by dark hallucinations. “The script was around 500 pages long and, apart from containing my dialogue, also worked as a manual for the game, detailing the puzzles and other elements that were foreign to me,” recalls Stetler. “I went in pretty blind.”

Filming took place around Seattle for around six months in 1996 with a reported budget of $4.5 million. “Although there were shorter scenes and a lot of repetition, I still didn’t feel like I was filming a game — just a long movie with a lot of different options,” he adds.

Photos from behind the scenes on Phantasmagoria 2. (Courtesy of Curtis Craig)

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Upon its release in 1996, Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh didn’t have the same impact as its 1995 predecessor. “As an actor, I’d hoped it would have some kind of push towards my movie career, but it was a blip,” Stetler says. “FMV games never got to the cultural place that people had hoped they would and fizzled out. For a decade, I’d moved on.”

That changed when YouTube Let’s Plays started waspishly covering the game, but Stetler was understandably wary of checking them out. “Poking fun at the game is fine, but I’m in every scene so I didn’t want to watch somebody making fun of me. But as more people started reaching out, I realized some kind of love had blossomed over the years.”

So when Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh’s 25th anniversary coincided with work loss during the pandemic in 2021, Stetler noticed a growing nostalgic reverence for the game and created his Conversations With Curtis YouTube channel, compiling an oral history of the series and recording himself playing the title for the first time. What he and many other actors have realized is that, in an era of game spectatorship, these early experiments have been rehabilitated from critical infamy to camp or kitsch cult artifacts. In one way or another, their work paved the way for today’s blockbuster cinematic gaming experiences and helped shift the perception of games as pixelated playthings for kids toward an art form conceived and marketed explicitly for adults.

“Over 30 years later, I’m being heralded as a pioneer.”

Basone has transformed initial notoriety into a fun side hustle. With Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties receiving a “Definitive Edition” release via Limited Run Games on modern platforms replete with additional FMV, she’s planning to appear at events talking about the game.

“It’s evolved so much to the point where games are like movies,” she marvels. “In 1993, actors would say to me, ‘Are you sure?’ But it’s like my wrestling. In 1985, people balked at the idea of women wrestling, but over 30 years later, I’m being heralded as a pioneer.”

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