There’s a scene in WarGames, the latest interactive experience from Her Story creator Sam Barlow, where the main character Kelly is sifting through a series of photos of buff young men. A hacker looking to exact revenge on a journalist, Kelly is hoping to find the right hunk to lure her prey into a trap. As the player, you’re able to cycle through photos and dating profiles, and it really feels like you’re a hacker delving into the private life of another person. In the end, though, the choice is made for you — and I was left to wonder what all that pretend hacking was for.
The idea of merging games and TV shows isn’t exactly new. For years, creators have been trying to fuse together the proven storytelling power of television with the interactivity of games. In most cases the end result has been a sort of choose-your-own-adventure structure, where the likes of 1983’s Dragon’s Lair or Netflix’s Puss in Boots series ask viewers to make choices that influence the outcome. These experiences take a very game-like element — stopping the action to make an explicit decision — and graft it onto the more passive act of watching a show.
WarGames, created by Barlow in collaboration with interactive studio Eko, tries something different. A loosely-connected reboot of the classic 1983 movie of the same name, it’s a story about a group of young hackers venturing into the realm of online activism, using their skills in an attempt to right what they perceive to be wrongs in the world. And for the most part, you experience it like you would a normal TV show. You sit back and watch the action unfold, without any breaks for interaction. Instead, the show presents you with multiple viewpoints, all playing simultaneously, and you decide which one is the focal point. This, in turn, subtly nudges the story in different directions.
WarGames is unique in that it hides its game-like elements beneath an unassuming live-action show. It’s a fascinating take on interactive TV, one that turns your attention into a game mechanic — unfortunately, it’s connected to a story where it never feels like you have much of an impact.
The show is centered on a young woman named Kelly, the daughter of two high-ranking military officers, who spends most of her time hanging out online with a small group of hacker friends. You see their world through their cameras, getting an intimate look at their lives via their computers and phones. At any given point in WarGames there are usually four or five windows on the screen, so you can see each character as they chat with each other.
Early on, Kelly and her friends act like stereotypical young hackers, kids more interested in pulling off pranks than creating real societal change. In an early scene, Kelly and her crew decide to punish a pop star who recently played a private show for a known war criminal — by flying a drone into his house to make an embarrassing video, laughing the whole time. But things get serious later when Kelly’s mother is accused of deserting the US military to fight for Afghan citizens. Kelly enlists her friends on a quest to both prove her mom’s innocence, and discredit the news sources reporting on her desertion.
When you’re watching, there is one main window that sits in the center of the screen, surrounded by an orbit of smaller windows. When Kelly and her friends are discussing their next caper, for instance, you’ll probably have her webcam in the middle, surrounded by live feeds of her buddies. But the focus can change whenever you want. If you’re more interested in another character, you can move your attention to one Kelly’s hacker friends. When something new happens — say, someone calls Kelly via FaceTime — a new window is added to the group, and you can choose to move your focus to that if you want.
Nothing obvious happens when you do move shift your attention, other than the windows rearranging; the feeds through each window will still play no matter what order they’re in. But the game says that it “adapts to you,” using your attention as a way to guide the story. The main effect, according to the show’s creators, is that your choices can alter Kelly’s personality.
“I wanted it to feel like you were just one other person hanging out online with these kids.” – creator Sam Barlow on the new WarGames
It’s all very subtle, and it feels natural. Clicking around WarGames feels a lot like clicking around on my desktop. In both cases I’m paying attention to multiple things simultaneously, and constantly shifting my focus between them. This is especially true during some of the show’s investigative sequences, where you have to do things like watch a series of private videos in an attempt to find someone’s password, or dig through a dating site to find incriminating details. Unlike most games, WarGames offers little in the way of feedback; you never really know how your attention is impacting the story. At the end of each episode, you’ll see a handful of points where the narrative could have diverted, but it doesn’t reveal any of the alternate routes.
For the most part, I really enjoyed this more intuitive take on interactive storytelling, especially because the other route — the explicit choices popularized by games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead — is so prevalent. The drawback, though, is that it never felt like my actions had much influence on the story; because of the lack of direct feedback, I was never sure if I was doing anything useful. Even still, WarGames feels like something new — but that only extends to the structure of the show, not the story itself. In that regard, the show feels like a mishmash of stereotypes held together by a not especially compelling cast of characters.
Kelly herself is somewhat believable as a hacker — even if sometimes she devolves into chugging Mountain Dew in a hoodie — but her friends are larger-than-life caricatures. There’s the green-haired Romanian “Torch,” who always wears oversized headphones and lives in a dark room filled with monitors, as well as the goofy high school kid “Zane” who makes perverted comments pretty much non-stop. At one point he complains to Kelly, “You have no respect for the lols.” Compared to Her Story, which was anchored entirely by the gripping performance of Viva Seifert, WarGames feels like a letdown.
Watching through the first three episodes (there are six in total), I found it hard to care much about anything that was happening. The show touches on plenty of relevant topics, in particular the ethics of invading the privacy of an individual in order to potentially help society at large. But it never dives into them deeply enough to make it truly gripping, and the goofy dialogue and often flat acting made it hard to take things seriously. It didn’t help that the interactive elements didn’t make me feel very involved
I really enjoyed the idea of WarGames, but my interest waned pretty early on, and so did my desire to interact with it. There’s definitely something to this format — I’m just not sure Kelly’s hacker story is the ideal showcase for the future of interactive TV.
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