At the end of the video game Bioshock -- spoiler alert -- the player-character is revealed to be an unwitting slave to a brainwashing antagonist, who triggers obedience by speaking the key phrase 'Would you kindly?' Throughout the game, the player has been given their objectives prefixed with the phrase, making for a neat commentary on the deceptive interactive freedom in gaming. That phrase often comes to my mind when someone announces a supposedly innovative approach to interactive media, as the results are so often a disappointingly illusory sense of control.
Fitting then that, in a recent interview with Wired, the creator of Bioshock, Ken Levine, is asking us kindly to be excited at the prospect of an interactive reboot of The Twilight Zone. The press release claims that the viewer/player will be able to "change and adapt the story based on what he or she feels" and that this will allow for a "different viewing experience each time." Levine will be writing and directing the feature-length pilot, in collaboration with American television network CBS and Israeli media technology company Interlude. The project is still in early development and it's unclear whether it will allow users to play as a character with objectives, determine the course of events through selecting branching narrative paths, or utilise some more novel system.
Founded by Yoni Bloch in 2010, and inspired by his love of Dungeons & Dragons and Choose Your Own Adventure books, Interlude develops innovative technologies for smooth viewer engagement with online media. Interlude had previously made quite a splash in 2013 with their interactive music video for Bob Dylan's 'Like a Rolling Stone'. Viewers could switch between 16 channels -- for example from the news to a children's cartoon -- with each featuring different characters lip-synching to the song.
Determining the course of a music video is one thing, allowing a viewer to do so with a feature drama is considerably more complex. Compelling and emotionally affecting storytelling is then required to justify this complexity. Interactivity is a slick buzzword, but if the drama is not supplemented by the interactive format, it's nothing but a gimmick.
Since the development of CD-ROM technology in the eighties, Full-Motion Video games have offered player control of narratives consisting of live-action video. The ambition of such games often exceeded the capabilities of the technology, however, with the poor quality video, dodgy green screen, ugly interfaces and the all-too-visible suturing of video streams often disrupting the experience.
What's more, like the discomforting uncanny valley of semi-realistic digital humans, the head-on collision of real actors jiving to all the fumbles and repetitions common to playing games could be unsettling. Technology has greatly improved -- with Interlude's toolsets particularly adept at seamless video stream transition -- but it remains to be seen whether or not the ambition of the team will similarly overshoot what's possible.
It's not just technology that can stand in the way, because in interactive drama there's always a narrative trade-off. In order to provide a satisfying interactive experience, it's necessary that the creator give up not just absolute control of plot, but also relegate the primacy of the ideal narrative thread. The computer science researcher Ruth Aylett called this the "narrative paradox" of interactive media; as user interaction increases, narrative cohesion falls apart.
Video games often come up against this paradox, especially the kind of large, detailed simulations created by Rockstar Games and Bethesda Softworks. When digital worlds become bigger and more open -- and the interactions within them more variegated and free -- the tendency is that their narratives become bloated, unfocused and badly paced. It's the tricky balance required between necessary dramatic structure and desired interactivity that makes projects such as this Twilight Zone reboot particularly difficult.
Interlude tout the immersive quality of interactive live-action media, but interactivity is not necessarily more immersive than a passive experience. Levine and Interlude could a deliver a remarkably fresh experience if the end result matches the lofty claims in the marketing spiel, but how much control should a viewer have over drama? Should we be allowed to make Sophie's Choice? If we're to be empowered with interactive control over a dramatic film, major life-or-death decisions have to be included. But if the viewer is making major decisions for characters, rather than the characters appearing to do so themselves, does it limit the effectiveness of the drama?
Good drama is based partly on implying a plausible psychology behind the characters that influences their decisions; the viewer has to feel that the characters live beyond the confines of the story itself. It could enhance empathy to make decisions for the characters, as Levine argues, but it might instead destroy an important suspension of disbelief in the viewer as to the agency of the characters themselves.
A further potential pitfall is that the function of interaction, and its necessary interface, can break immersion by reminding the viewer that they are manipulating a system, rather than engaged in a story. Video games can engender immersion despite these issues through direct control, complex interactions and virtual worlds, but creating a live-action drama puts artificial restraints on the degree of interaction possible.
Control may prove damaging to the dramatic power of interactive narrative, but too little can also be a problem. If a creator isn't willing to provide viewers with significantly diverse experiences, the interactivity can seem superficial; branches in the road that appear to offer divergent paths, but eventually funnel to the same destination. For a viewer to truly feel in control of a story, they would need to determine not just intermediate events but also the conclusion. The facade of interactive control comes tumbling down when the viewer believes that their previous choices have become meaningless in the final determination.
This level of branching complexity is difficult to achieve in a feature-length film, as the diverging paths from each choice create an ever larger production. Unlike interactive fiction, which can create manifold narrative manipulation for the reader through relatively simple use of language and logic, increasing the complexity of the system architecture for an interactive film makes the project exponentially more difficult to produce. Creating films that deliver similar non-linear branching narratives is a wonderful prospect, but the realities of cost and time render it prohibitive.
All these issues make effective interactive drama difficult to produce, but in adapting The Twilight Zone, Levine and Interlude may encounter particular difficulties. Although not all great television drama has to comply with any established narrative structures, The Twilight Zone most often conformed to a very particular tension-to-twist formula. Each episode was written around an allegorical or metaphorical mystery -- usually resolved in a surprise ending -- that proposed ambiguous questions about contemporary life and the human condition. Levine might find himself struggling to write branching choices within that essential formula of The Twilight Zone.
Interactive dramas require a keen second-guessing of the potential viewer. The Twilight Zone was a series acutely aware of a need to provoke and disturb, being at its core an evocation of the paranoid nightmares of Cold War America. So how do you encourage an audience with control to challenge itself? When given the narrative reins, some viewers might wish to steer away from the difficult and towards comfort. What kind of heartless monster would actually choose to have Henry Bemis' glasses fall from his face at the end of Time Enough at Last? Yet this knife-twist is the most fitting conclusion to the story. The creative choice becomes whether or not you allow for a potentially less tragic -- and perhaps less emotionally affecting -- journey in order to allow for more freedom. But bestowing such control upon viewers does seem antithetical to the discomfort, horror and suspense that was the stock-in-trade of The Twilight Zone.
In the interview with Wired, Levine shrewdly describes interactivity as a spectrum, rather than binary. Interactive drama is a new art form, and the spectrum it lies in has yet to be clearly defined. Promises of interactive narratives are inevitably tapered by restraints, both practical and artistic necessities, but advances in technology and experimentation with form are constantly advancing the interactivity of what were previously passive mediums. It's always an illusion of control, it just matters how effectively you construct the trick.
It will be interesting to see how a video game developer from the highly interactive end of the spectrum like Levine -- with the specific mindset and training that comes with that -- maintains the dramatic impact of classic Twilight Zone, while factoring in viewer engagement. Regardless of whether of not interactive drama and The Twilight Zone make for a good fit, it's a welcome development to have such a mix of talents tackling the problems inherent in the medium. The narrative paradox of interactive drama is a tough nut to crack, but more co-mingling between the worlds of video games, Web 2.0 and television might provide the tools. Now, in recognition of the wonders of online interaction, would you kindly share this article?