I’m Your Forgotten Past: The Dubious History of Interactive Film

By Katherine Morayati

Mention “interactive fiction” to someone of a certain age – too young for Infocom, too old for whatever they’re calling “millennial” today — and you’d be forgiven a little skepticism. You might know 1995 as the year hobbyist IF sprouted from near-barren cultural ground, but they might know 1995 as a particularly dubious time in interactive entertainment. A lot of things were converging: the mass-mainstreaming of the World Wide Web, the sudden feasibility of sophisticated graphics and video on everyday personal computers, the now-quaint lack of irony regarding anything futuristic. In short, interactivity was the new hotness, and everyone wanted it. Historical sites could be “explored” via CD-ROM recreations that invariably resembled Doom levels. Musicians yoked all sorts of PC-based frippery to their albums. (Among the auteurs who bit: Prince, David Bowie, Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel.) Huge amounts of effort – much crass, some genuinely good – spent on what would become obscure, if sometimes fascinating, ephemera. (Let it be a cautionary tale for those repeating history.)

But the Holy Grail was, and perhaps is, interactive film. Video games, after all, have aspired to cinema since the technology advanced enough to make such aspirations feasible; arguably, modern blockbuster cinema aspires in the other direction. Each field tends to think the other is easier than it is. But the leap from choose-your-own-adventure books to film – even short film – is particularly difficult. What can be conveyed in writing with a couple dozen words and imagination serving as cast, crew and designer is exponentially more difficult (and time-consuming, and expensive) in film. And all this assumes a single-player experience – how does this translate to a movie theater without devolving into Twitch Plays-style bickering?

Enter Interfilm, which signed a deal with Sony to outfit more than 40 theaters with a proprietary joystick rig that allowed audiences to vote for where they wanted the film playing to go. The idea wasn’t exactly novel. Interactive theater had been done; 1985’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, based on an unfinished Dickens novel, allowed the audience to vote for the desired murderer, romantic pairings and secret identities, oddly reminiscent of the same year’s adaptation of Clue. (For an IF-world take on this, see Dietrich Squinkifier’s Coffee! A Misunderstanding.) Interactive film, too, had been attempted as early as 1967, with the Czechoslovak World’s Fair entry Kinoautomat. All these were comparatively well-received. So what went wrong? Intra-corporate bickering, perhaps; a failure to recall history, littered with short-lived “immersive” gimmicks like Emergo, Percepto, Illusion-O, Smell-O-Vision…; or most fatally, a level of pandering to the 18-34 male demographic resulting in such noteworthy cinema as robot grossout-revenge flick Mr. Payback, which Roger Ebert (perhaps foreshadowing his later stance on games?) called the worst film of 1995. It’s a movie with the rare distinction of being so bad, it’s literally unwatchable; when your film relies on proprietary, brick-and-mortar robo-sadism installations, that’s not gonna translate to YouTube even if someone wanted it to. And its counterparts, Adam West vehicle Ride For Your Life and blow-shit-up excuse Bombmeister (stymied by a certain incident in Oklahoma City), have also disappeared, save for their trailers.

The exception is 1992’s I’m Your Man, released on DVD during yet another renaissance of the idea, Tender Loving Care and Point of View. (The idea seems silly, but so did reviving 3D, right?) The film can still be found used, for those with morbid curiosity, questionable senses of humor, friends with both, and no aversion to the seller slipping up and sending a Leonard Cohen film instead. It so happens that I am all of these things. (If you are not, the intro can be watched online.)

The most striking thing about I’m Your Man is, despite its tropiness, the utter lack of cynicism on the creators’ part – especially given Hollywood’s habit of prospecting every new technology for potential revenue streams and places to stake fan properties. The making-of video is stunningly earnest; everyone except the composer, who cheerfully admits his mediocre work-for-hire, everyone talks about the film in the breathless, uncontained voice of the true believer. In interviews, the creators admitted to fantasizing about satellite versions. Someone who probably is Bob Bejan – because who would impersonate someone on something this niche? – went so far to post an Amazon review of the DVD: “…As stupid as it looks, we spent A LOT of time thinking about it. To be totally honest, a bunch of us who were there are still thinking about it. … There is little question that we were ahead of the curve.” The subject: “Interactive narrative is HARD.” The score: 4 stars.

“Ahead of the curve” may be a little generous. The plot of I’m Your Man is thin, the standard love quadrilateral between the villain, the MacGuffin, the woman and the flirt. Jack, a hapless would-be audience stand-in whose main personality trait is being bad at flirting and, thanks to Kevin Seal’s VJ background, evoking a wry Carson Daly; Leslie, a transplanted Elaine Benes type and the actual audience stand-in; and aforementioned Richard, who is played by The Master from Buffy. There is action of sorts, but it’s either seconds-long gags or questionably filmed, somewhat appropriative fight scenes. There is urbanity, via a self-consciously pretentious gallery opening; there is humor, of the dubious one-liner sort. There is sexual tension, of a sort, but it’s mostly goofy and unsuccessful skirt-chasing or the kind of self-serious seduction (“Let’s dance… while we talk”) that’s all but disappeared from pop culture. It’s played for laughs, but with juuust enough plausible deniability that it is intended to be serious.

What, then (besides snark) would compel someone to watch this thing? Well, interactive narrative is indeed hard, and a lesson is always useful.

Branching

An axiom of interactive fiction: branching paths exponentially increase the amount of writing one has to do, not to mention the number of variables and plot points and world state the writer and simulation has to keep up with. Now imagine all that, with shooting. Little surprise, then, that I’m Your Man branches in name only. The entire structure fits on the back cover of the DVD and is a standard friendly gauntlet. Most of the primary plot events are fixed; the only choice is whether to watch them or leave them to exposition. What actual plot choices exist rejoin the main storyline relatively quickly. The effect is something of a Rashomon narrative: the story happens, and your main decision is who to follow through it.

Critics did not like this. (“This experience is not like watching a real movie … it is more like rooting for a basketball team,” wrote Caryn James of The New York Times.) Yet there’s something to the idea; filmmakers might be limited by shooting costs and logistics, but writers have no such limitation. You can get more plot and characterization mileage from 60 or 120 minutes than you can from 20. With this sort of branching you can avoid two choice-structure pitfalls at once: the railroading of the traditional gauntlet, the uncontained sprawl of the time cave. And you can get a lot more mileage if your assumed audience is not the kind of 13-year-old proto-bro who’d be found these days in the audience of Suicide Squad. Imagine something like Photopia rearranged chronologically, but with a choice of whose story to follow. Or perhaps something like Exhibition drawn out into a full-length story. (Both these examples are parser-based, but if anything this would be an even better fit for choice, less constrained by an object model.)

Consequence

A side effect of the aforementioned bro-focus (brocus?) is that every narrative tends toward wish fulfillment. Consequences are irrelevant. Failure is abhorrent. Tragedies don’t happen. Every choice must somehow demonstrate how virile and awesome the PC, and by extension you, are. I’m Your Man follows this model. Most choices result in victories of some sort, however improbable: sudden feats of pepper spray, out-of-nowhere ninja moves. No matter how little game Jack has – a would-be flirtation scene finds him boasting about how, ah, fast he can get stuff done — Leslie can eventually acquiesce – it’s harder, and fits the story less, to make her not. There is no “bad ending,” no failure state; the player chooses which character achieves a “victory,” executed in-story via deus ex machina twist. The implications for CYOA writers are obvious.

Immersion

Most negative reviews of interactive film have a curious, near-phallic fixation on the joysticks used, making what I’m sure seemed the obvious leap to video games, and their apparent inherent dudeliness. Technology has advanced considerably in the 20+ years since, but it’s still not quite possible to make the decision process physically seamless. There will always be an inescapable physical sign of gimmickry at work.

Interactive films addressed this by making whatever implements exist part of the story. (I’m Your Man does it via campy tutorial-style intro.) But perhaps it’s best to do the opposite. Put another way: a compelling story goes much farther than a villain who breaks the fourth wall to inform the audience that, if they don’t make their choice fast, their seats will dissolve into acid. Or, as it were, their computer.

One thought on “I’m Your Forgotten Past: The Dubious History of Interactive Film

  1. Lisa Brunette

    Bonus points for ‘brocus.’ 🙂 Seriously, this is a great overview of a whole thread of film I didn’t know about, and your point at the end is perfect!

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