Order is a five-episode interactive short film series, created in the Netherlands (but with English subtitles). The protagonist, played by Selfcontrolfreak, lives a tidy but bland life. His apartment is decorated almost entirely in white, and minimally furnished. At first we watch him go through simple routines, listening to the radio, having breakfast, reading the newspaper, setting off on some door-to-door collection task that is apparently his job. He also has a long-distance romance, and every day he receives a postcard from his beloved, which he pins to the wall. His wall is covered with postcards which tile together to create larger images.
From time to time he goes into an idle, and interaction is required, either clicking or dragging on some portion of the screen. In each case there’s an element of discovery; the click or gesture is different from last time. But it’s rare that these interactions offer significant choices. We can either perform them or not perform them, most of the time, and in many cases not performing them just means that the story doesn’t go forward.
Initially the function of our interaction is benign and cooperative. We decide what the protagonist should eat for breakfast, what he should listen to on the radio. We establish routine to be repeated later. At this point, while the segments aren’t filmed from Selfcontrolfreak’s perspective, we can identify with him and suppose that we’re guiding him, or that he’s our avatar in the story.
Later the story becomes stranger and our interaction with it more malevolent.
At the beginning of the third episode, we knock over and break one of Selfcontrolfreak’s possessions, disturbing the order of his world. We are now no longer acting as, or for, or with him; instead we’ve become the Lucretian swerve, through which doubt and disorder enter. And things get even stranger. A part of the image goes solid green. When we click on it, Selfcontrolfreak detaches a green square from midair and takes it away to the pixel repair shop: somehow the screen on which we are seeing him is itself part of his world, something he can interact with and maintain. Inspecting it, the Pixel Shop owner tells him ominously that the pixel has suffered “too much interaction” and will need to be replaced.
Outside, the neighborhood where he makes his collecting rounds is damaged too, chunks of wall falling over, as though some apocalypse has come during the night. Even the consolation of the postcards is disrupted. Selfcontrolfreak’s lover sends him a letter about her unhappiness; their relationship may be breaking down, or changing.
Our opportunities to interact become less frequent but more destructive at every turn. Selfcontrolfreak goes to change a lightbulb, and we have nothing to do but turn on the switch mid-change, giving him a shock so that he falls over and hurts himself. The next day begins with his arm in a sling.
One of the film’s reviews describes some disappointment that the story’s outcome isn’t more flexible (assuming that Google Translate hasn’t led me astray — I don’t read Dutch), but suggests that the effect of the constraint is to cause us to identify more with the protagonist. Lots of games do use constraint that way, but I viewed Order differently.
Near the end, as Selfcontrolfreak slumps over and weeps at his table, the viewer can grab him by the hair and force his head upright. I felt I had become his tormenter. I would have liked to express comfort, but that action wasn’t available so far as I could see.
Selfcontrolfreak also has a number of other short interactive films on the main body of his site: most of these are so brief that they don’t tell any kind of story, but many occupy this same borderland between playfulness and sadism. In one, he responds to the movement of the cursor over the screen as though it were a fly; in another, he eats it, and spits it out again only when you click; in a third, seeing the cursor causes him to scream and run off-stage.
In the context of Order, this type of interaction seems to mean that the player becomes a force like entropy, bringing chaos to the protagonist but also finding fewer and fewer chances to intervene as there are fewer routines to manage or disrupt. The closest comparison I can think of is the emotional arc of Shade, where I also went from identifying with a human protagonist to identifying with something inhuman and destructive. But in Shade I ended up gleefully destructive, whereas here I felt sorry for this guy.