In 2015 folks got to experience Sam Barlow’s Her Story, an investigative cold case, played out through random video clips found on an old Windows desktop PC, in a state of complete disorder. The game’s whole premise was the player viewing various clips of police interviews with a lady named Hannah Smith whose husband had gone missing, and was later found murdered. Each clip could be found via search of keywords used by the player, each search initiating the next by way of clueing the listening and watching player in on something else to go hunting for. Every person who played the game will have experienced the story in a slightly different way; finding things out in a totally different order and hopefully learning the truth. It was totally unique and one of the games of the year.
#WarGames is the latest from Sam Barlow, who is its creative lead, in association with Eko. It’s an episodic piece of interactive entertainment, familiar in style to those who’ve played Her Story, but clearly different. Each episode follows a group of hackers and activists — hacktivists if you prefer — as they try to make a difference in the real world through their internet skills and personal issues. Our main character is a young woman called Kelly Grant whose mother was killed by terrorists whilst on a tour of duty one year previous. Kelly, aka L1ghtman, is already linked to a group of other hackers and over the course of the story they, and more, do all kinds of things for fun and latterly, for their cause.
Each episode is a prerequisite to unlocking the next and all of them play out in the same way. Your desktop becomes something from Swordfish with the multi-monitor setup, or Minority Report where every screen can be moved around and resized according to what you want to ingest. You can choose to focus on whichever screen you fancy, with each continuing to play in real time regardless. The screens you see are people’s webcams as they chat online, smartphones, mobile cameras and more — basically any and every type of audiovisual feed is utilised at some point during the game.
This is where the interactivity comes into it, and how you get to impact the game. Your behaviour will in turn lead Kelly to behave differently. This might be minor, or as you get deeper into the game much more significant (especially as then you might get to make some choices as well as just watch), and her behaviour will ensure the end result in that episode is affected. Your behaviour here means how you watch the episode and what you watch. Do you pick a screen and follow that viewpoint all the way through, or do you flit from one to the other trying to get the best view of things? Whatever you do is tracked by the game — as evidenced by a line graph on the top of the screen — and determines how things play out.
Supposedly, at least. The hope is that the next day at the water cooler you’ll talk to your friends or colleagues and learn about their #WarGames experience and how what they were watching was not the same as what you saw. In practise this might be a little too hopeful as for the longest time — until the last episode or two out of the six in this first season — there was no obvious divergence from another path. If you were to replay it you might get something else (looking at the achievements list you will, but it will be very minor), but knowing how to purposefully impact the outcome might be challenging as you’ll have likely watched ten to twenty minutes per episode where within each you have four or five audiovisual streams playing at any one time. The permutations rapidly become sizeable meaning that without a guide the only way to guarantee a different result is to just leave it on the default input for one playthrough and change it up to another for the duration of the second, and so on.
As you get further through the season — by which point you’ll have been playing for somewhere around one and a half hours without any replays — there will be greater opportunities, and more obvious ones, to make a change to the story that clearly ends up altering what you see next. What effect that has on the overall narrative is perhaps still minimal, but at least you can see something has changed because of you. After each episode you’re shown the four or five things which happened which could have been different, like in a Telltale game, but I defy anyone to pinpoint one or more and say ‘a-ha!’. The control you have over what’s happening just isn’t there. Perhaps it’s because the actual way you make the choices is so subtle — picking that feed rather than this one — but regardless it still feels the same and that nothing has been done.
In Her Story you didn’t have any say in what happened but you did get to work it out in your own personal way, often leading to a spine-tingling revelation or at the very least sage nodding of the head and rubbing of the chin. With #WarGames I just didn’t get that feeling. I was left wondering why I’d spent nearly two hours watching a bunch of teenagers and young adults do some stuff for a cause that didn’t resonate, in part as it was never given that chance to. The concept is an intriguing one, and the production values are pretty high which makes things sleek and easy to play — if there was much to actually play.
For an interactive movie experience to work you need a noticeable element of control handed to the player and an engaging narrative. With #WarGames neither is truly there in the end and it must be marked as an elegant failure, but one which could be decidedly improved with the right focus in season two, should we ever see it.