Late Shift: Interactivity and Games

So the quote-unquote ‘world’s first interactive movie’ has been released: Late Shift, the only movie where they don’t ask you to turn your phones off at the start. There was an Ars Technica review about it – basically the audience use their smart phones to vote on which way the story should go at key points. All up the film’s about 90 minutes long, depending on what you/the audience choose to do. It’s an interesting idea, and it’s one that throws into relief some of the things we’ve been talking about lately. 

Firstly I should note that this film justifies the things I was saying about The Walking Dead not being a proper game. I argued that it’s better understood as a sort of interactive movie, and now that we’ve got an actual interactive movie to compare it to, I feel entirely comfortable with my conclusion. In Late Shift there’s only a two-three second voting window, and whatever the majority of people want is what goes. The Ars Technica review notes that this is interesting from a sociological point of view, because you can track the behaviour of groups over time (basically people got more aggressive the further through the film they were). However, this also sort of threatens the premise of an interactive movie, because if the majority of people are going to follow a similar pattern in their decision making process, then most screenings will follow the same singular story arc. Kinda defeats the point.

Anyway, we’ll keep our eye on the developing world of interactive cinema. For now, let’s consider some of the power dynamics involved. We had some friends over the other night, and one of the things that came up in discussing this film was the way viewers are situated in normal movies vs. interactive movies. Say you’re watching an interactive movie and you decide that the protagonist should do something. You’re going to be more personally invested in the result of that decision than if it was something that happened in a normal movie – simply because you told them to do it. You’re partly responsible for what’s going on, and that changes the way you look at it. In a normal movie, you’re not responsible for anything – you’re just watching, and what happens is totally out of your control. In terms of power dynamics, we might say that normal films exclude viewers (ie viewers don’t have any power), and interactive films engage in a feedback loop. The film sets up a premise, offers you a branching path, and you make a decision that then informs the next block of narrative.

There’s a really neat way to understand this different style. In the Ars review, the writer noted that a certain decision won the majority vote, even though they personally voted against it. They ended up kinda feeling disconnected from what was going on, because they didn’t want that choice to take place. We can prove the point about power dynamics with this feeling of being disenfranchised – you wouldn’t feel cut out of the process in a normal movie, because you were never involved in it in the first place. The author in the Ars review felt disempowered when a decision went against them, but in a normal movie, we never have access to that power in the first place. We are passive spectators. Course, the word ‘passive’ is kinda frowned on now in academic circles, because obviously we still have to actively pay attention and process everything that’s going on, but we’re still primarily spectators. That’s the point of difference.

The other topic I wanted to raise was in regard to One Finger Death Punch, which we talked about last week. One of the things I noted was that although the game demands a high level of attention, there are nice little slow-mo moments where you beat the hell out of someone in a really cinematic way. On the one hand it’s a mental break, but on the other hand it’s also allowing for a shift between play and being a spectator. Environmental detail has always been a bit of a bum job in video games, because most of the time the player is too busy playing to stop and look at the scenery. There are a bunch of inventive ways to give the player space to admire things (such as cutscenes, forcing the camera to see something, offering to force the camera to look at something, etc), and one of those methods is the slow-mo beatdown in One Finger Death Punch.

Anyway: how does that relate to Late Shift? Again, there’s this distinction between player and spectator being raised. It’s that division that creates the power shift between Late Shift and a normal movie, and it’s that division that requires slow-mo moments in One Finger so you actually appreciate the visual side of things. But there’s a problem with this parallel. Didn’t we just say that Late Shift (like The Walking Dead) wasn’t a game? Didn’t we say it was basically an interactive movie? If that’s the case, how can we talk about Late Shift in terms of players? If Late Shift has players, then so does The Walking Dead – which means The Walking Dead is actually a game after all.

Well, uh, I’m still arguing that it’s not. This does give us an opportunity to revise our framework though. In Late Shift, the audience are making decisions, but I don’t think we have to say that they’re playing a game. I think it’s more just an interactive story. What we need, then, is a label that allows us to refer to ‘people who’re actively making decisions that affect the story world without being decisions that are framed within a game structure.’ We might call them actors, or agents – ‘agents’ is nice, actually, because it emphasises their ability to do things without suggesting that they’re necessarily playing a game. There’s the capstone on our Walking Dead argument, then: when you pla- ah, when you experience The Walking Dead, you’re an agent, but not a player. Interactivity and games are still two different things.

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