On “Interactive Movies” — Part 2: Why low production values?

All a Bunch of Lies

One of the great things about writing for the internet is that you can just make stuff up, cite no sources, and pass off your idle speculations as undisputed fact with complete impunity. This is just what I plan on doing in today’s blog post.

In my last post, I claimed that one of the several reasons that the so-called interactive movies of the mid-nineties were (pretty much) all critical and financial failures is that they possessed low production values. Here I’m going to offer some theories on why this was the case — without doing a bit of research to substantiate them. I have no information about the production of these titles — heck, I (pretty much) haven’t even played any.

So! Here goes nothing.

Filmed Video

To the best of my knowledge, virtually all of the mid-nineties interactive movies were created using filmed actors and sets. Certainly all of them were created using pre-generated video, rather than real-time graphics; real time 3D of sufficient detail to reasonably depict characters was in its infancy during that area.

Because the content in video files is not dynamically generated, video allows for far less flexibly in conveying a dynamically-generated narrative than does real time 3D, a topic that I hope to discuss in more detail in a future post.

The use of filmed video does not contribute to mediocre production values in and of itself, but is a factor when coupled with some of the other issues discussed below.


For the most part, interactive movies were probably targeted at existing computer game players. (This was probably a mistake for several reasons which we’ll save for another day.) What kinds of stories do computer game players like? For the most part, the answer is probably big, sweeping epic stories of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

Which means — lots of characters, lots of fancy sets, lots of special effects, and lots of opportunities for your reach to exceed your grasp (or your budget) and cause you to end up with something that looks and sounds pretty cheesy. If these people had decided to make a romantic comedy about a couple of friends in a small apartment, maybe they could have handled it.

Branching Narratives

Ever read a Choose Your Own Adventure novel? Or, for that matter, have you played Drinking With God? If you have, then you’ve experienced a branching narrative.

In a branching narrative, you’re presented with a scene and then a list of choices. You make a selection from the list and are brought to another scene. This continues until you reach the end of the story.

There are many issues with branching narratives (these are touched upon in a fair amount of detail in Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling, and I expect to visit them in later blog posts, as well). The one relevant to this discussion, though, is that the number of scenes you need balloons out of control pretty quickly.

Say there are three choices after each scene. So after the first choice, you need to have created three scenes. Then nine scenes after the second choice. After the third choices, twenty seven scenes. After the fourth choice, eighty-one scenes. Then two hundred forty-three, and after six choices, seven hundred twenty-nine.

The typical big-budget Hollywood movie probably has about fifty to one hundred fifty scenes — and these interactive movies were probably being produced with far smaller budgets. So something’s gotta give.

(Incidentally, it is my current plan that future productions of Bleating Sheep Theater will not use branching — I have some other ideas for interactive storytelling up my sleeve.)


I already touched upon this in the previous few points, but to summarize — a big, epic story with a ton of scenes in the form of filmed video is going to cost a lot of money to make. Presumably some of these projects were big-budget compared to the typical video games of the time, but probably most were not — and probably all of them cost a fraction of the budget of a typical feature film. Creating these sorts of titles takes a great deal of time and talent — both of which, usually, cost a great deal of money, when considered in tandem.

Creator Expertise

Presumably, most people are not going to do that great a job on their first time creating either a film or an interactive experience. Because interactive movies hadn’t been done before, their creators were missing a vital background in either one or the other areas. You might know how to design a great branching narrative, but do you know how to direct actors, light a set, and edit shots together for proper visual continuity?

Moving Right Along

I mentioned two problems with the mid-nineties’ Interactive Movies in my last post: low production values, and insufficient user agency. That’s that for the production values discussion; next time, I’ll talk about the second of these.