#WarGames Is a Unique, Interactive Revival of the '80s Movie
The FMV videogame emerged in the late 1980s, and then died an ignoble death in the early 1990s. (Remember Night Trap?) Intended as a way to blend interactivity and live-action entertainment, FMV games (the acronym stands for "full motion video") were mostly awkward, stitched-together messes that, while fascinating, didn't have any sort of staying power. But in the past few years the genre has gotten a small, unlikely revival—one that unlocks its potential in a way the first wave never did.
Indeed, what's emerged now is something very different, a format more playful and more thoughtful than anything that surfaced back then. Case in point: #WarGames, an "interactive television" revival of Matthew Broderick's 1983 movie of (almost) same name. Created by Sam Barlow, an FMV pioneer and the developer behind 2015's mystifying Her Story, the game stars completely unknown talent and is just as odd, and just as promising, as you would expect.
In #WarGames, which you can stream online, Kelly's mother is a soldier killed in the line of duty, inspiring Kelly and a fellow group of hackers to engage in a crusade that takes them up against the military industrial complex, ensnaring them in a sprawling conspiracy world that ranges from broadcast news to drone warfare. To tell this story, #WarGames makes excellent use of diegetic video; cell phone cameras, webcams, surveillance footage, anything hackable with a lens becomes the eyes and ears of the viewer.
This, too, is where the interactivity comes in. As the story flows, different screens appear, and the viewer, watching on their computer, can choose which screen they want to focus on. Occasionally, these amount to clear binary choices that affect the plot, but more often than not they're simply a choice of attention. Will you center Kelly, the frustrated, idealistic protagonist? Her edgelord hacker friend? Her spiraling brother? The choices you make, as a viewer, are choices of interest. #WarGames wants to know who you care about.
What it does with this information is less clear. A line graph occupies the top of the monitor, changing based on what screen the player/viewer focuses on. This simple visual is meant to communicate #WarGames' central mechanical conceit, which is that these subjective choices of viewpoint subtly alter the story, changing Kelly's personality, shifting her own allegiances and interests to match your own.
How this works is never explained, and Barlow's team doesn't seem eager to discuss the precise systems at play. But at the end of each episode, the show displays the web of scenarios connected together by your decisions. What you failed to choose isn't shown, but it demonstrates clearly and self-consciously that, whether you know it or not, you are making choices.
This subtle, unobtrusive idea is oddly gripping. The writing and acting in #WarGames' six episodes are nothing exceptional, and the plot, while it has hooks of intrigue and is drowning in political relevance, isn't incredible either. But this quiet conceit is just enough to meaningfully involve the viewer in the movements of the narrative. It encourages you to keep your hand on the mouse, seeking out the most interesting perspective, almost challenging the story to hold your attention. It turns a viewer, ever so minutely, into a player.
This isn't a success to undervalue. Platforms like Netflix have been chasing the idea of interactive viewing for years, building clumsy choose-your-own-adventure hybrids and awkwardly gamified entertainment in the hopes of taking advantage of the unique, involved properties of the digital platforms we now watch television on. So far, these attempts have uniformly, well, sucked.
But Barlow's work, which gave such a subtle human touch to the FMV game, does something similar here. It finds a straightforward, unobtrusive way to keep its audience engaged and active. It's a pity that it's married, here, to such a broadly lackluster show. What's encouraging, though, is that it doesn't have to be wedded to it forever—developers have lots of options to choose from in determining where it goes next.
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