I grew up in the era of VHS board games and later, DVD special features that occasionally included little trivia games or interactive fiction (the Home Movies box sets have some particularly good ones). I find them sort of interesting in a “car crash” sort of a way, because they never really worked. Today’s streaming platforms would seem ripe for a revival of the “game video” concept, but even with better technology and storytelling available to creators the examples are still few and far between.
The one that’s made the biggest splash thus far is probably “Bandersnatch,” the interactive episode of Black Mirror. I “played” it and like many I found it somewhat underwhelming: Your choices were somewhat limited and the story fell rather flat (and I never found the scene where you the main character fights his therapist to my infinite and everlasting sadness). Still, it was an intriguing effort. Last week Charlie Brooker tries his hand at the format once again on Netflix, but in a decidedly different genre: old school cartoons.
Cat Burglar is a 12-minute showdown between a cat trying to steal a painting from an art museum and the dog that works as the night guard. As a cartoon it’s a fairly pitch-perfect copy of a Looney Tunes short down to the exaggerated expressions, physical humor and occasional fourth-wall breaking. It could in fact, stand alone without the interactive elements, but if you really wanted an old-school cartoon both Warner Bros. and Disney make dozens of their best animated shorts available on HBO Max and Disney+ respectively. There’s also the Cuphead show on Netflix — which doesn’t interest me as I have never played the game (and never will because I’m just not that good at platformers).
So the real draw of Cat Burglar is its interaction, and it even bills itself as a “trivia game” instead of just an “experience.” How does it fare as a game? The gameplay consists of various quicktime events in which you must answer three quiz questions in a short period of time. When you answer correctly the cat succeeds and the scene continues, if you answer incorrectly the cat dies and you are sent back to make the choice again.
If you’re looking for tricky trivia this isn’t it, as most of the questions are easily guessed by anyone over the age of eight. There’s clearly a “right” answer and a “wrong” answer, and the game gives you three lives to lose before you get sent to heaven. As such, it feels even more restrictive than “Bandersnatch,” since you don’t really get to make choices.
However, while I said “most” of the questions are meant to be easily answered, the game will occasionally try to trick you up. I’ve died a few times in the game because my thumb twitched or I misread the answers (there’s one sequence full of double negatives) or, in one particular case, I just hated the question. (I still maintain that an Emperor Penguin is more powerful than the Emperor of Japan; I knew what answer the game wanted but it just made me mad for being so dumb.) The game will throw three questions at you each time but even getting one wrong will lose you the scene and thus, a life. But dying just means going back to the beginning and doing it all again, and even then it’s not everything — the game will skip over short bits of animation you’ve seen before that aren’t relevant to the overall plot.
When you beat the game by successfully stealing a painting, your new acquisition goes on display in a gallery that carries over to subsequent playthroughs. There’s six of them but so far I’ve only played enough to get half. When you win — or even when you lose — the game lets you start over, with the characters promising a “completely new” experience. That, in my evening of playing, is decidedly not true as I’ve already seen certain interchangeable scenes more than once. Either there aren’t that many options or I just have weird luck. But you’d hope the game would be programmed to avoid repeats at first.
Ultimately I think Cat Burglar works better as an experience than “Bandersnatch” did because it’s just much shorter; if I wanted to replay “Bandersnatch” I have to ask myself if I have an hour or more to kill just to see one or two story paths. Knowing that Cat Burglar is going to be quick certainly makes it less daunting, and it’s not even a bad option for kids as long as you don’t mind gratuitous cartoon violence.