The time has come, entertainment media experts said in 2006, for viewer-driven media. Fourteen years ago they were talking about interactive additions to a DVD of the horror movie “Final Destination 3.”
There were earlier examples.
Theaters were equipped with joysticks in the mid-1990s for the short film “Mr. Payback.” And before that, of course, was the 1983 home game-meets-film laserdisc sensation “Dragon’s Lair.”
None of these moments ever coalesced into a full-on movement, but the point isn’t to laugh at or roll our eyes at failed predictions. This month’s interactive “Kimmy vs. the Reverend” episode of Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” shows that the merging of games with traditional film or television remains a tantalizing problem to solve for entertainment creators.
And one full of possibilities.
What’s more, in our current stay-at-home climate, the newest choose-your-story media provides opportunities for communal participation, and the ability, when done well, to broaden the audience for games and interactive entertainment. The challenge: When we’re not playing a more traditional game, we can easily become detached from the narrative if we’re not given a clear reason why we’re directing the action on the screen.
So join us as we look at eight notable interactive works that show how the lines among film, television and games have blurred over the years.
The schlocky, so-bad-it’s-good pioneer: “Night Trap”
A game like “Night Trap,” said Howard C. Lincoln in 1993, then a senior vice president of Nintendo, “has no place in our society.”
Indeed, there are many unfortunate issues with “Night Trap,” whether it’s the controversial teen horror content or the gameplay. The game also did itself no favors coming out at the height of ’90s-era fears about video game content with a story designed to raise eyebrows. Lincoln’s condemnation of “Night Trap” was given before a U.S. Senate committee on video game violence, and the game is said to be one of the reasons the industry adopted its own rating system in 1994.
Yet although Lincoln pledged that the Dana Plato-starring “Night Trap” would never make its way to a Nintendo console, the 25th anniversary edition of the game did just that. “Night Trap,” with extras, including a proof-of-concept demo, recently found its way to the Nintendo Switch (as well as the PC and PlayStation 4).
Purposefully racy — the game’s ridiculously dumb plot involves a house full of teen girls, “Home Alone"-styled traps and lumbering vampire-like creatures — the hullabaloo around “Night Trap” probably would have eased if anyone so upset by it had spent significant time with the game. Chances are they would have fumbled with it, as “Night Trap” remains clunky to play. It tries to overly complicate simplistic controls (press a button, trigger a trap) with a hurried pace that makes it difficult to follow the game’s color-coded alarm system.
And yet today, “Night Trap,” which is more a voyeuristic live-action cartoon than a horror movie, can be assessed as both a forgettable B-movie trying to be a game and a work that was ahead of its time.
What it did right: Rather than cast us as directors, we took on the roles of nameless agents trying to jump among security cameras to find the conversations that would keep us one step ahead of the vampires. The game’s balance is off, but its ambitions are grander than standard choose-your-own adventure tactics.
Russia’s cinematic jigsaw puzzle: “She Sees Red”
“She Sees Red” is an overlooked work from Russia that manages to ever so slightly avoid one of the primary weaknesses of interactive cinema simply by having us control much of the action around the protagonist rather than making decisions for her. Slickly professional, the action thriller, one that would carry an R rating, begins with some dead bodies in a Russian nightclub where it’s clear the thug-like owners are up to no good. This is pretty by-the-numbers, but lead Veronika Plyashkevich is set up as the sort of mysterious, studious detective who sees puzzles where we don’t.
For much of the film, we direct the killer, but “She Sees Red” is guiding us to lead traps for others. In turn, rather than have us attempt to make an emotional connection to a character, we find ourselves choosing what clues to leave behind, largely so we can decode what’s happening. While only about a half hour from start to finish, “She Sees Red” has enough material through its various choices to see us through almost at least two completely different episodes.
While mysteries and thrillers tend to be a go-to for interactive film and television — if audience members are in the dark, they don’t know when they’re making decisions that are out of character — “She Sees Red,” available for iOS, Android, the Switch and PCs, spins the plot in enough circles that we’re not necessarily looking for the “best” ending, which can be frustrating when we don’t land on it, but has us simply trying to decipher everyone’s relationship to one another.
Its brevity is a benefit; “She Sees Red” is an interactive riddle that’s the equivalent of a popcorn movie.
The ones that become puzzles themselves: “Her Story,” “Telling Lies”
Often heralded as the leaders in the current world of interactive film/television are the works of Sam Barlow, “Her Story” and “Telling Lies.” Barlow avoids one of the primary pitfalls of the genre, which is the question of why. That is, why are we, some schlubs on the couch, directing the actions of those on the screen?
Television and film aren’t broken as a narrative medium, so why do we think interactivity will improve it?
Often we probably won’t, since decent films and television offer enough to puzzle out without having to have us direct the story.
“Her Story” and “Telling Lies” work, however, because they pivot from simple multiple-choice options. Here, piecing together the story becomes a puzzle itself.
Each story essentially takes the mechanics of a search engine — type a word and search for it — and turns it into something to watch and play. We’re primarily looking for narrative strands rather than hidden messages or the dreaded language written in code, so both are relatively accessible. “Her Story” remixes the police procedural; “Telling Lies”spins a more complicated scenario in which we dig into video files on a stolen computer hard drive.
Both raise topical questions —"Telling Lies,” available on every major game platform, including iOS devices, goes relatively deep on internet culture and online security — and both have us, the viewer, heavily leaning into the story, so much so that we’re often wondering what role we’ve been cast in.
The one that feels a bit like a tech demo: “Erica”
It’s easy to be charmed by “Erica,"the full-motion video PlayStation 4 game that stars Holly Earl (“Humans”) as the titular character. When playing with a companion app for iOS or Android, “Erica’s” interactions become more fluid — we can swipe among choices that often direct the emotion with which “Erica” will respond.
The cinematic game has a sort of ghostly gauze, and with hand gestures we can spin objects on the screen or flip on the flame of a lighter. These are fun at first, and flirt with giving us some sort of spiritual role, but don’t have as much of a narrative impact as I wish they did.
Still, the plot is a mystical murder mystery that borders on spooky, and like “She Sees Red” the game will leave enough holes in its initial play-through to encourage us to decipher how it all fits together. “Erica,” however, does a solid job of disguising some of its branches, as it presents a couple of large narrative splits and also has us prodding the lead to make seemingly smaller choices that appear to have meaningful effects.
Think of a game such as “Erica” as the digital equivalent of dumping a puzzle on the kitchen table. We’re largely aligning pieces and hoping we’re not missing something. One large word of warning: “Erica” puts us in a role in which we are protective of its lead, and a couple of choices can send things off the rails, creating the sensation of punishing the viewer (or player?) for making the wrong moves.
The game that sorta plays like an interactive “Stranger Things”: “Oxenfree”
If you enjoyed any of the above but don’t consider yourself a game player, per se, it may be worth taking a slight dip into deeper interactive waters. Start with “Oxenfree” from local studio Night School, a game that’s available on every major platform, including iOS, and unfolds largely like a playable cartoon.
“Oxenfree,” in fact, mixes its terror with plenty of playfulness, creating a game in which wonder and ambiguity rather than pure frights are a priority. It’s a little game that looks big — it’s set on a decommissioned military island that may or may not have a mind of its own — and it takes a wide-screen approach, letting luminescent caverns or World War II-era military towers fill the screen.
There are some proper puzzles, but they’re largely solved by tuning a radio and tapping into some otherworldly frequencies, but most often it’s the teens who prove to be out of tune with one another. While the supernatural elements recall ‘80s-era films — “Goonies” was a primary inspiration — Night School’s games, including its recent “Afterparty,” largely tinker with making free-flowing, natural conversations become interactive. Rather than big life-or-death choices, “Oxenfree” offers us sometimes very subtle nudges, wanting to illustrate how a small phrase can still create larger shock waves.
“Oxenfree,” with its PG-13 tone, is relatively safe for a family game night, but “Afterparty” is slightly more adult. The latter features drinking games in hell, as two wayward college grads find themselves having to out-drink Satan to break free and try to figure out what they did that rendered them “bad people” in the afterlife.
The Netflix experiments: “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. the Reverend”
Netflix has been relatively astute when it comes to games, bringing interactive elements to animated works, starting in 2017 with “Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale,” to last year‘s dark anthology series “Black Mirror.”
“Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” struggled with its tone, alternating the show’s near-future bleak sci-fi mood with gimmicky choices such as what music to listen to or what breakfast foods to embrace. While it succeeded in bringing a game to the streaming service, a few too many choices resulted in either dead-ends or storytelling boomerangs that ultimately put the viewer on rails.
The newest experiment, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. the Reverend,” doesn’t try to rectify this, but it doesn’t need to. I’d argue “Kimmy vs. the Reverend” is one of the more successful marriages of games and television, largely because it has self-awareness.
More important, it shows that such tools work surprisingly well outside of the thriller/mystery landscape. The show presents us with clearly absurd choices — decisions even the borderline-surreal Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) wouldn’t make — knowing that many viewers want either exaggerated scenes or sudden deaths.
While longtime viewers are rewarded with callbacks to earlier seasons hidden in the choices, even those new to the show can revel in the absurdity of Kimmy turned to a skeleton that’s crunched, “Terminator"-style, by a robot uprising.
When we’re watching an interactive production, we know we’re not fully leaning into a game and are therefore more reliant on a script rather than user choice. Thus, comedy proves a pretty good fit — the weirdness of directing live actors can be embraced.
Sometimes, in fact, the funnest moments are simply the ones when the show lets the timer come close to expiring — and watching the actors vamp — before we make our choice.