The line between film and video game is blurring. Much of this has to do with the shifting ways we consume media: Our screens are smaller, more personal and imbued with interactivity. They're meant to be tapped, swiped, clicked and pinched, and we expect the images under the glass to respond to every prod. We're pulling these screens closer and closer to our bodies, teaching them to respond to physiological output and unconscious gestures until eventually, they'll simply be a part of our anatomy. Everything will be interactive.
But we're not quite there yet. In 2018, creators are figuring out how to bridge the gap between traditional cinematography and interactivity -- and few people are driving the medium forward as directly as Sam Barlow. Barlow is the creator of Her Story, a critically acclaimed 2015 video game that imitated an old-school database packed with VHS clips of police interviews. It featured a live actor and introduced innovative mechanics based around tagging and the start-and-stop nature of VHS tapes.
Her Story is a video game, so players accepted its interactivity without question. Barlow's latest project (which just went live this week on Steam and Eko) is an updated version of the beloved 1983 sci-fi hacking film WarGames -- and it's also interactive. But #WarGames is not a video game; it's a new kind of TV series.
"I think the two projects are actually super-different," Barlow said. "And it's definitely the thing I have to overexplain to people. Her Story, essentially, made a virtue of being a very-low tech solution. If you look at the history of live-action video games and you look at what happened in the '90s, people were really struggling to create a traditional video-game experience using video. You have so many problems with that."
Her Story embraced the limitations of a live-action format, imbuing the game with hard stops and placing players in the clear role of an observer, rather than attempting to make them part of the scenes.
#WarGames approaches the modern technological landscape in a similar way. It takes something that we're extremely familiar with nowadays -- video chat -- and uses the strengths of this format as an interactive mechanic. Viewers don't simply sit back and watch all of the video chat windows at once; instead, they click around and pull the conversations that most interest them to the front. It's interactive voyeurism.
"We kind of riffed on the idea of video conferencing, of video chat," Barlow said. "And there were some great examples of a few particular sites where members of some of these hacking groups would hang out in video chat just to kind of shoot the shit and socialize. When we started talking about this, thinking about it, it was a really neat interface. Because we're all now used to using video chat ourselves. The phone that I might be watching #WarGames on might be the same phone that I use to FaceTime my kid."
Meanwhile, the series itself tracks which scenes each viewer watches and the narrative shifts according to their preferences. It's a living interactive TV series powered by technology from Eko, the company Barlow joined in 2016.
"We got the idea that if we give people that environment and give them some level of interaction, some reason to be touching the screen, then it will draw them in closer into the experience," Barlow said. "And we can possibly create something which lets you feel like you're sat in the conversation with these people, hanging out with these other people online. So that was something that was carried over from Her Story, was just thinking about how we can use very noncinematic video."
All of this experimentation is in the interest of creating new and better forms of immersion, whether it's labeled a video game, TV series or something new altogether. Interactive media is the next big evolution in entertainment, according to Barlow. Take the horror genre: In the 1960s, audiences were used to monster movies like Creature From the Black Lagoon and The Blob -- and then Rosemary's Baby hit theaters.
"They said: Well, what if we make it, if we set it in the real world and actually the thing that's terrifying here is this relationship and this woman's pregnancy," Barlow said. "That certainly makes it feel real again."
Rosemary's Baby helped reinvigorate the horror genre and ushered in a new era of introspective, human-centric films. This fresh approach felt more real, more relatable to the times, more immersive overall. Barlow noted the same thing happened in 1999 with the debut of The Blair Witch Project, which popularized the found-footage genre.
"We're constantly trying to hijack that."
These evolutionary spikes worked because they created a more-immersive environment, allowing the audience to place themselves in on-screen scenes in ways they hadn't imagined. Interactive entertainment is doing the same thing now, but on an even more powerful scale, Barlow says.
Essentially, #WarGames is an attempt to overwrite the brain's natural processing systems and make it believe in a new kind of reality. Imagination, as Barlow explains it, is the result of our brains constantly running simulations on all of the ways we might be killed at any given moment.
"When we're running around in the grass, foraging for food, our imagination was there to tell us that bit of grass that rustled over there could be a snake," he said. "Could be the wind, but I'm gonna make you imagine there's a snake in that grass. And the nine times out of 10 it isn't a snake, that's fine. If there is a snake there, I've just saved your life. That's essentially what the imagination does. We're constantly trying to hijack that."
Video games do this in spades -- simply having to think about certain scenarios in a critical way makes them, in effect, real to our brains, Barlow says. Cinema accomplishes this brand of immersion, too, but it works even better when people are forced to touch the screen and consider how their actions might affect the story.
"Just by physically involving the audience's body, you are telling the brain this is real," he said. "With #WarGames ... you are touching or clicking to choose which window to look at. And you can do this as often as you want. There is this constant simple layer of interaction and reaction. There is the ability to peer in and look more closely at something. The fact that it recalls the interface that we're used to from FaceTime or Skype or whatever, this is this extra layer which tells you something is going on here, and we're interacting, and we're involved in it, so there's a higher chance that this is real."
Barlow sees #WarGames as something new in the entertainment field. It's not a choose-your-own-adventure book where viewers attempt to unlock the best outcome; it's not a role-playing game where the audience is a hero on a quest to save the world. Instead, you're an observer deciding which screens look the most interesting at any given time, navigating the chat windows like you would with Discord, Skype or FaceTime. The fact that the series actually responds to your decisions only increases the level of immersion, how real the on-screen action feels.
#WarGames is not the end of entertainment's evolutionary cycle. Eko has created a suite of interactive music videos and series, and the technology is only going to improve.
"At some point in the future, we're gonna have the fully realized tech that will allow us to track where you're looking, read your chemical levels in your bloodstream and extract things from that," Barlow said.
For now, #WarGames is one of the first attempts to push interactive media into the mainstream. It doesn't tap into your synapses or read your heartbeats, but it follows your thought processes, all in order to twist and trick your brain into accepting a new reality.
"What this allows you to do is perhaps be slightly more truthful in exploring some of these more complicated questions," Barlow said. "By allowing people's preconceptions to steer the story to some extent, you actually get to introduce slightly more variability and acknowledge that you're exploring the question itself rather than presenting an answer."