Erica (Flavourworks / Sony Interactive)

Erica is an interactive film for the PS4, controlled by a companion app for your smartphone. It bills itself as a thriller: Erica’s father is murdered in a ritualistic way almost at the beginning of the game, and then we pick her story up again when additional murders begin to occur.

The smartphone app lets you control Erica with gestures. Indeed, the first thing you do in the experience is flick a lighter open and start the flame, using swipes of your phone screen. At other moments you might turn a faucet, wipe steam from a mirror, hover over items in a room that you want to interact with, or lead you to shift your focus.

These interactions reminded me of the touch-screen gestures used in Pry, or in The Secret Language of Desire. But I generally found Pry‘s gestural interactivity extremely evocative and focused on communicating a particular feeling or relationship to the events of the story. Erica‘s are a bit more “we’ll have you manipulate this briefcase latch because there just happens to be a briefcase in the story right now.”

At their best, those affective actions are tied into activities where the protagonist might take some time over the activity — opening a box that probably has something awful in it, say — and so, despite the linearity of the structure, the interaction at these moments is contributing something to the viewer’s sense of pace and complicity, in the same way that the forward links in My Father’s Long Long Legs tend to build up apprehension.

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Bandersnatch (Netflix)

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If you work in interactive narrative at all, there was a period recently where you could not go anywhere without people asking your opinion of Bandersnatch, Netflix’s branching-narrative episode of Black Mirror.

Because I am ornery and/or busy and/or was sick part of the relevant time, I didn’t watch it then. Still, I was aware that IF folks felt

  • annoyed that people were treating this as massively innovative when there are tens of thousands of works, produced over the past fifty plus years, exploring the possibilities of interactive story, including quite a lot specifically of interactive film if we’re narrowing the gaze to just that
  • disappointed that a lot of the choices were kind of basic
  • weary at the prospect of yet another Author’s First Interactive Work about free will vs chance, fate, and external control — this theme being (for obvious reasons) not exactly new in the interactive narrative canon
  • excited by the hope that this meant big commercial possibilities for interactive story
  • like ignoring Bandersnatch and playing more Cragne Manor

I have now watched, and here is my opinion, now that no one is asking.

The short version: I found Bandersnatch slightly more satisfying than a lot of my friends did, perhaps because I happen to have landed on an ending that is, I gather, rare.

At the same time, I had various criticisms of it. Some amount to “this is a first interactive work by someone new to the possibilities, and it’s designed for an audience that is also not particularly literate in interactive fiction, and I guess that’s to be expected.” Others are more serious issues with the messages and themes.

Long version below the fold.

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The Last Hours of Laura K


The Last Hours of Laura K is an interactive film and transmedia project, which I’ve mentioned before in my interactive film roundup. It was short-listed for the Kitschies Invisible Tentacle prize, and I was on the jury, so I spent a fair amount of time with it, though I can’t claim that I watched all twenty-four hours of the main footage, let alone got to the bottom of it.

When you start the piece, you’re granted access to many, many hours of footage of Laura K during the last hours of her life, collected from cell phones and surveillance cameras and other sources – the sort of tapestry you might imagine law enforcement being able to pull together either now or in the very near future.

These include, towards the end of the footage, a sequence in which Laura seems to stabbed by an anonymous stranger in a crowded place, and we see her death and the discovery of her body. (This is something you could easily watch as the first two minutes of your play experience, or not think of trying until hours in.)

There’s too much here to watch straight through, though, so you can also access different snippets associated with times when Laura was sending or receiving social media messages.

The borders of the fiction are interestingly broken: characters within Laura K are, on Twitter and Instagram, following one another but also real people. There’s a Tumblr site that’s part of the background on SaturnEye that links into a number of real-world situations and events. At every turn there are bits that reinforce the idea that this story is part of the real world, and its threats (oppression, bad policing, corporate greed, surveillance, creepers on the internet) are the same threats that exist in the real world. 

More than that: I ran into a few stilted-feeling bits here and there, but for the most part what I encountered felt very plausible: the body language and the dialogue communicated that these were real people going about a day they were finding stressful, but that their behavior was not being performed for anyone’s benefit. In that sense it is almost the opposite of Her Story, where the main character is self-consciously performing in a way I think is part of the story, but others have mentioned they find rather off-putting.

And yet the scene in which Laura’s sister Jess finds her dead, and we watch this layered with a voicemail message left by Laura’s mother, has a compelling sense of focus and irony that most real-world footage doesn’t. They pull off a neat trick here balancing between the scripted and unscripted feel. 

All that said, though, I didn’t get to the end of Laura K, and I did get to the end of Her Story, if by “the end” we mean “a point at which I had seen most of the content, felt I knew who had done the crime, and had my own version of the narrative worked out.” And I think there are several reasons for that.

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Interactive Film


The bump in FMV games in 2015 sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole investigating interactive film, and games with a large component of filmed content; and here is a bit of a round-up of what I found.


Her Story, an interactive database game, about which I’ve written several times. It makes strong use of its exploration mechanic and has been positively received in a lot of places, though there have also been some vocal objections to what might be a misleading portrayal of mental illness.

The Last Hours of Laura K is another game (after a fashion) about exploring database footage. In this case, you have many, many hours of footage of Laura K during the last hours of her life, collected from cell phones and surveillance cameras and other sources – the sort of tapestry you might imagine law enforcement being able to pull together either now or in the very near future. There’s too much here to watch straight through, though, so you can also access different snippets associated with times when Laura was sending or receiving social media messages, since you also have access to her media accounts. I don’t feel I’ve yet solved anything, but it’s a curious and voyeuristic experience that captures some of the same exploratory play.

Contradiction, a murder mystery adventure, covered on Offworld and reviewed here (and an honorable mention for narrative in the IGF). Despite some moments of frustration, I generally liked the acting, the strong sense of pace, and the design, which stuck to the contradiction-spotting mechanic with just a few light lock and key/evidence-finding puzzles.

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Order (Selfcontrolfreak)

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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.

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Contradiction (Pneuma Films)


Contradiction is a murder mystery game set in a small English village. You control the movements of police inspector Jenks, who wanders around interviewing suspects, finding contradictory elements in their statements, and pressing them for more. Conceptually it’s akin to Detective Grimoire or (to a lesser degree) Phoenix Wright; the twist being that it’s interactive film, with live action segments for the interrogation scenes and for many of the transitions as Jenks wanders the village. It’s available for the iPad, and for Mac/PC via Steam. Though I have some criticisms of the design, I enjoyed it quite a bit; it is vastly better than Tender Loving Care.

Conceptually, this doesn’t stray that far from its graphical adventure inspirations: you run into locked doors and have to find the key elsewhere, or dark rooms that need a light, or so on. Most of these puzzles are pacing devices and aren’t tremendously difficult, though it’s possible to get stuck because you haven’t noticed a useful object.

That issue is compounded by the fact that the game is divided into one hour segments: “after 5 PM”, “after 6 PM”, and so on. The clock advances automatically when you’ve reached critical plot beats. This allows the game’s creators to move characters around, make the pub and houses open and close at different times, and give a sense of life to the village. There are sometimes new cut scenes when you go someplace you haven’t been already that hour, opening up new information. The downside is that this means you really need to revisit every location during every hour, even if Jenks doesn’t have a good reason to do so at the moment. Not realizing this is what got me a bit stuck several times in the early game. There is a TIPS panel you can open to get advice about what you’ve missed exploring recently, but I found it was occasionally buggy in the late game.

“Always nice to randomly find a key on the floor.” — Jenks’ voiceover, at one of the more credulity-stretching coincidences

Finally, the logic of the investigation is very much game-logic rather than real-world logic or even TV investigation logic. There are a lot of things that we discover simply because Jenks finds a set of keys and decides to do some warrantless searching. He has no compunctions about small acts of petty theft. Sometimes he decides that objects are interesting and worth pursuing even when they’re not yet of any obvious relevance to the investigation — a point that stands out the more because of the realism of the sets. In an animated graphical adventure, it feels semi-plausible that the protagonist interacts with the one object in the room that has a hotspot, especially if (as is often the case) the setting is otherwise a bit bare. In Contradiction, Jenks will often wander into a storage room crammed with objects, as storage rooms often are in the real world, and light on the one piece of paper that he has arbitrarily decided is going to matter, even if at first glance it says nothing about anyone involved in the case. And of course, he’s right — but it’s weird. One just has to suspend one’s disbelief.

The contradiction mechanic is also constrained, in that you can only ask people about contradictions in their own statements, not challenge them when you’ve heard some contradictory news from another character. This probably keeps the game within the bounds of playability — even as things stand, by the end of the game I was struggling to juggle all the things I was supposed to remember being told — but it means that some very obvious avenues of investigation are closed. A character admits having an affair with another character? Fine, but you can’t go asking that second character about the affair. You’re never even allowed to bring it up. I’m guessing that real police don’t operate that way.

Then there are restricted pieces of evidence. Jenks takes a loose view of property ownership, but he’s strict about keeping confidences. If a character has told him not to reveal something to another witness, you don’t have the opportunity to bring that up with said witness, even if it seems like it might be a good idea. This, again, is probably to avoid letting Jenks cause scenes that might branch the investigation plot, but it feels artificial.

But if the mechanics are only moderately innovative, the FMV presentation makes it distinctive. The village is rendered with lovely atmosphere and attention to detail, and many of the locations have idle loop film with a much stronger sense of presence than a still image. The live footage of rippling lake water and of the trees blowing in the wind makes the outlying areas of town both attractive and sinister. By the end of the game I was intimately familiar with the glass in the pub door, the steps to a character’s cottage, the gates around an out-of-town mansion.

There are no deeply absurd puzzles of the sort where you make a fishing rod from a rope and a banana, because anything that Jenks needs to do has to be filmed, and so the solutions can’t rely on physical impossibility. Perhaps the author wouldn’t have been inclined to include those types of puzzles anyway, but dedication to the FMV aspect provides limits. (Contrast the also-FMV Missing, which incorporates various unlikely actions and then just doesn’t film the actor performing the ones that would be hardest to replicate in real life. I didn’t finish the first episode of Missing because it was doing too much with hidden object mechanics and implausible puzzles, and not enough with convincing plot, characters, and setting.)

As for the character performances, they’re not realistic in style, but they are fun to watch. Jenks has a way of cartoonishly widening his eyes at people and exaggerating all his movements. Many of the witnesses are entertainingly passive-aggressive about being questioned. Some feel that Jenks is bugging them or wasting their time, and I can’t say I blame them, after I have knocked on their door for the fiftieth time to ask them about, say, a random business card I found on the ground. Paul Darrow’s performance is especially hammy and entertaining, as he plays a no-ethics businessman, unencumbered by tact, who has a snarky word to say about everyone. There’s a quality to these interactions that would be very hard to capture in animation and voice-over.

Per genre, Contradiction is the sort of story in which pretty much everyone is up to at least one or two things they shouldn’t be doing. There are some references to drug addiction, alcoholism, and mental illness, and these aren’t always handled tactfully by the characters, though the game itself doesn’t necessarily endorse the views of the witnesses. I’d like to say a little more about the plot, but since this is an entertaining piece of work that you might well want to play first, I’ll put that after spoiler space.

Disclosure: I played a copy of this game that I bought with my own money.

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