WarGames, the 1983 techno-drama starring Matthew Broderick, can safely be defined as an ’80s classic and, as with many ’80s classics, there are now plans to bring it back. MGM, who owns the rights to the film, has been bouncing around ideas for a remake/reboot to the property for years, and now, the studio thinks it’s found the proper approach — one that’s been in front of their face the whole time.
The film about a video game (which turns out not to be a video game) will become a video game. Well, sort of.
MGM is teaming up with interactive-video company Interlude, to bring WarGames back as an interactive film in which you, the viewer/player, will be able to determine the outcome. Interlude, self-described as, “Inspired by video games and non-linear stories,” is the company behind Bob Dylan’s 2014 music video for “Like a Rolling Stone.” The winner of Time‘s video of the year, the interactive piece puts viewers in control of a cable television set, with each manual switch of the channel providing a different show where the characters lip-synch the lyrics.
As of now, there’s no monetization structure in place for the early 2016 “digital short”; the studio is kind of using this as a free litmus test to see if it wants to dive headfirst into the interactive-film medium. Roma Khanna, MGM Television Group and Digital president, told Variety:
“WarGames is the perfect MGM title for this innovative technology. It allows us to engage the audience in the fundamental questions of ‘What would you do?’”
Several questions remain about how this thing will work. Will it be available for consoles? (I imagine the answer is “yes,” unless it’s given its own website with a control panel, a strong possibility that would tie into the desktop fantasy of the original film, and one that would follow Interlude’s current model of distribution.) Will it be a download? Streaming? Perhaps a mobile app? (If MGM wants the biggest audience possible, they’ll have to cater to the iPhone crowd.) And, the biggest question of all: Does this seem like a really bad idea?
Those, like myself, who have inhaled pop-culture for a few decades have been down this road before. Dragon’s Lair (a 1983, interactive-animated film) co-created by former Disney animator Don Bluth, seemed like a revelation until you realized that you had just lost $3 in five minutes because the damn thing was so difficult to navigate. Using laser-disc technology to allow viewers to choose its hero’s path, it was a novelty first and foremost. As one of the unfortunates who purchased a Sega CD system, I had the distinct pleasure of smashing my controller after one round of Night Trap, another failed foray into interactive-film. Similarly, what MGM seems to be pushing toward is a movie in which we somehow get to control how it ends, kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure book.
So what are we talking about here? A film where we choose what door the protagonist goes through at various intervals? Mini-games sprinkled throughout the narrative, the outcome of which determines the next scene? Whenever interactive films have moved the needle more toward the “cinematic part” of the experience, it’s rarely gone well. A video game that plays like a film can be quite fun (Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire come to mind, as does Telltale’s Walking Dead games), but when it’s a film that wants to tread on video games’ turf, well, that can turn ugly.
The interactive film has its roots in 1967’s Kinoautomat. During its initial screening at the Montreal Expo, a moderator took an audience vote at nine different intervals with the majority vote choosing the next scene. Dragon’s Lair revealed new possibilities in the medium using laser-disc, which had the ability to select “chapters”; this, of course, gave way to CD-ROM and DVD formats. In the years since Dragon’s Lair, handfuls of creators and companies have tried their hand at interactive narratives. In 1984, Us vs Them became one of the first games to use laser-disc technology to include live-action sequences. Essentially a space shooter, the game began to realize the concept of merging live-action with gameplay.
Night Trap and Sewer Shark were developed in the late ’80s, and built on the live-action concept, but both games failed to create a ripple in the pond. (Released on Sega CD in the early ’90s, they are notorious messes.) In 1993, Trilobyte Games released The 7th Guest, a CD-ROM title that immersed real actors in a 3D-rendered world. Selling more than 60,000 copies overnight, the game was a success. Trilobyte’s 1995 follow-up, The 11th Hour, proved to be a blow to the company and the format: Despite improved live-action sequences, budget and time restraints hindered the quality of the gameplay, and the title failed to recoup its production costs. David Wheeler, who shot the live portions of The 11th Hour, would later create Tender Loving Care in 1998, a film with over half-a-dozen possible endings based on questionnaires. The project had polish, and even an appearance by acclaimed actor John Hurt, but ultimately failed.
Mr. Payback attempted to reverse the balance, taking video controls into the theatre. The 1995 short boasted a joystick peripheral that, like Kinoautomat, gauged the audience’s choices about which path to take. Distributed by Sony, the film was panned universally, with Roger Ebert calling it, “…so offensive and yokel-brained that being raised in a barn might almost be required of its audiences.” Since the ’90s, interactive films have been in relative hibernation.
Ebert raises a good point in his review of Mr. Payback, saying, “…an interactive movie might in theory be an entertaining experience.” In theory, it indeed sounds like fun, but between the poor budgets, shoddy acting, and shaky gameplay, it’s been a rough ride for the medium. One of the main issues — besides those previously mentioned — is finding the right mixture of game and film. If there’s a happy balance, it’s yet to be discovered.
Technology has come a long way since’s Dragon’s Lair. Perhaps MGM and Interlude are conspiring to finally crack the code on bringing a wholly original, and enjoyable interactive-film experience. WarGames will be an interesting barometer not for just MGM’s interest in exploring the hybrid medium, but its very survival. If this thing bombs, it might be a while before anyone else attempts another one.