According to a story on The Wrap, The Twilight Zone will be making a surprising digital return in the near future. Why am I writing about it here? Two reasons: First, because the new show will be an interactive video project designed to “let viewers step in and become part of the story.” Second, because the pilot episode of the new series will be written and directed by Ken Levine, of System Shock 2, BioShock, and BioShock Infinite fame.
According to CBS and Interlude, viewers will be able to “change and adapt the story based on what he or she feels.” And as with other videos that Interlude has released in the past (and as with most story-driven games), users will also be able to go back and make new choices on future viewings.
Boy, do I have mixed feelings about a lot of this.
Interactive movies go back to 1967’s Kinoautomat and have bubbled up in video games a number of times since then. I honestly think there’s still something (fun? distraction?) to be had with the medium, so I’m not rushing to say that we should avoid them or that this is a fundamental misstep. But I have a lot of doubts that this is a good fit for The Twilight Zone.
When I look at the tech in use–say, in this clever lip-synching, channel-surfing video for Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” or in this official tech demo from Interlude–I always find myself moving through the same set of feelings.
At first, I’m impressed: Unlike the choose-your-own-adventure videos that occasionally show up on YouTube, Interlude’s videos are all so seamless. Everything moves cleanly from one scene to another, which leaps over one of the major hurdles facing this sort of storytelling. In the company’s tech demo, you make choices about what a spokesman for Interlude does as he goes through his spiel. Will you dress him in sportswear or evening wear? Will he be backed by a bombastic cinematic score or a minimalistic track straight from a twee tech ad? It’s smooth and I end up with a little grin on my face.
At one point, though, the spokesman says that “Interlude inspires movie makers to rethink the most fundamental question in storytelling: What if?” And that’s when I notice a different sort of seam all together. When I come to films and TV–especially with shows like The Twilight Zone–I’m not looking for a collection of “What If” questions. Most Twilight Zone episodes could twist and turn in a dozen different ways, but the best ones are an example of smart decision making on the part of the writer and director that zero in on the most challenging questions.
The best choice-heavy games, meanwhile, offer a network of choices and continuity of ongoing interaction, creating a sort of cascading effect so that even if the choices aren’t particularly deep, there’s a sense of constant, ongoing connection. When you play Mass Effect 2, you’re not just asking “What if Shepard punches this reporter?” but also “What if I upgrade this sniper rifle?” and “What if I bring Tali on this mission instead of Miranda?” At some point, that moves past a feeling of “Ooh, this is interactive,” and towards a sort of settled state of engagement.
I’m not saying that smart interactive moviemaking can’t be done, but creators will need to overcome the allure of gimmicky filmmaking to develop a new set of techniques for the medium if they want to make something beyond novelty. Look at something like interactive cartoon Charlie Got Fired, which gets laughs from randomness more than careful joke construction. Mad libs are fun, but I’m not sure they’re what I’m looking for when I turn on a comedy show. Even in the interactive Dylan video, I find myself eventually moving past the novelty of channel-flipping so that I can focus on the either the classic footage of Dylan performing or the Danny Brown lip synch, which is produced like a traditional music video, incorporating elements of the beat and lyrics into the visuals.
All of this is what makes me cautious about Levine’s connection to the new show’s pilot episode. Levine and the old team at Irrational were at their best when they were building worlds, and perhaps at their weakest when offering players a choice of narrative outcomes. What’s worse is that when I think about BioShock Infinite, I can’t help but focus on the ways in which it botched its own Twilight Zone-y story. Rod Serling’s show was at its best when it was fearless and fresh, able to weave together mind-bending sci-fi with subversive and surprising cultural commentary. BioShock Infinite missed this balance by a mile, delivering a complex world of multiple dimensions alongside a trite “Everyone is bad, actually” morality play. No matter how much I loved riding Columbia’s skylines and slamming into enemies with the Charge vigor, it’s hard to get excited about more storytelling from Levine.
On the plus side, Interlude is also working on an Interactive reboot of WarGames, and I think if done well, that could actually convince me that this model of storytelling has legs. My only demand is that the only way to get the good ending is to press no buttons at all.
Full disclosure: Giant Bomb is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of Twilight Zone creator the CBS Corporation.