On “Interactive Movies” — Part 1

The interactive movie was an artistic form (or, arguably, a video game genre) that surfaced briefly in the early days of CD-ROM drives, utterly failed to impress anyone, and vanished, never to be seen again. In my last post, I mentioned that Drinking With God and the other (future) Bleating Sheep Theater titles might best be described as interactive movies, rather than as games.

The problem is that if they were, nobody would play them. This is because interactive movies have a horrible reputation.

What went wrong? Why did an entire new art form, bright and shimmering, full of potential and promise, and poised to completely overtake popular culture, slowly but surely whither and die?

How should I know? I’ve only ever tried three of them: Star Trek: Klingon, Star Trek: Borg, and Quantum Gate — and that was long enough ago that I don’t really remember anything about them. So everything that I have to say here about interactive movies is based on vague recollections of various articles, essays, game reviews, and blog entries that I’ve read over the years, with no reflection on the three aforementioned products in particular.

I gather that there were two basic problems: mediocre production values and insufficient user agency (and that, perhaps, these two problems have become conflated in the minds of the game development and game playing communities over the years).

Let’s look at these problems individually, starting with production values. What does it mean to have low production values? Well, say you had gone to watch a movie — a plain ol’ non-interactive movie. And say you came away hating it. I ask you, “how was the movie?”

“It was a completely terrible movie!” you say.

“Ah!” I say to you in turn. “This is because the movie was, in one or more areas, probably lacking in its production values.”

To elaborate: perhaps the actors were unconvincing in the portrayal of their characters. Or perhaps the sets looked to be constructed of styrofoam and cardboard. Maybe the audio was static-y, or not properly matched to the action on screen. The lighting might have been uninspired. The camera angles might have been oddly chosen. The editing might have been distracting, with inappropriately long pauses between each line of dialogue or violations of the 180 degree rule. Or (perhaps most importantly) the writing may have been inadequate, with a hackneyed plot, implausible characters speaking unrealistic lines, jokes that fell flat, and an unsatisfying conclusion.

But why are these things important to the movie-viewing experience? Why is it that when any one of them goes wrong, the quality of the movie (or game, or — where they apply — novel, comic book, theatrical production, or radio play) as a whole goes down in flames?

Well, to me at least, the most important attribute of any narrative work is its capacity for immersiveness. Its main purpose is to let you “step through there, and lose yourself in another world.” (Strangely compelling, isn’t it?) It should enable you to forget who you are and where you are, and to completely drown yourself in the alternate reality that it’s presenting to you. (I know — many objections no doubt spring to mind in response to this. I hope to address some of them in a future post.)

Now, a problem with a film’s writing, direction, acting, lighting, editing, and so forth is, artistic considerations aside, going to be distracting. How are we supposed to maintain empathy for the poor couple trapped freezing to death in the arctic circle when the snow begins to fall and looks more like powdered sugar? How are we supposed to believe in the mother’s passionate plea for the life of her child when it’s delivered in a tone that suggests its speaker is more interested in her next coffee break? In these and similar cases, our suspension of disbelief is shattered, and we eagerly begin to wait for the end credits to roll so that we can go out and get ice cream.

The impression I have is that the production values of nearly all of the interactive movies of the 1990s were so abysmal as to completely destroy any possible sense of immersion. There are several reasons why this might have been, which I’ll talk about in my next post.