If you’d asked me a few years ago if anything like #WarGames would ever exist, I’d call you a maniac.
And yet, here we are. Looks like the joke is on me.
#WarGames is just the latest project from Sam Barlow, whose credits have appeared in the cult text adventure game Aisle, Silent Hill: Homecoming, and most prominently, Her Story. Much has been made about what he would be up to next as the industry quickly lionised him after his success. What came next surprised many, myself included, as #WarGames was finally unveiled, a reboot of the classic Matthew Broderick movie which, similar to Her Story, uses the intersection of video games and television for its tale of hacktivism and geopolitics.
Like a spotlight during a play
#WarGames is, if nothing more, an interesting experiment. A combination of two separate mediums, the experience within is much more than just passively watching a season of a television show. Instead, #WarGames displays multiple screens at once, all shown like a cloud of videos that you can select and switch between at any given time. Selecting one of the windows will enlarge it, throwing it to the centre of the screen, like a spotlight on an actor during a play.
In practice, it works rather well, thanks to #WarGames‘ found footage format. Since most scenes play out like a Skype conversation, each character will have a window for themselves. When someone is saying or doing something that catches your eye, all you have to do is move the thumbstick to whichever corner of the screen they’re currently inhabiting and press A, bringing them front and centre. Whenever someone else enters the scene, or a new element is introduced like a security camera feed, they simply enter the surrounding like all the rest.
The series that watches you
However, it’s not just your ability to shift focus, but #WarGames‘ ability to track what things you’re paying attention to that is at the core of the experience. According to the creators, #WarGames is able to adapt to what you’re paying attention to, slowly altering the personality of the main character as the narrative progresses. It’s a novel idea, but after experiencing the entire thing, I’m still left wondering if it really worked the way its creators had hoped. While #WarGames does indeed show you a timeline at the top of the window during each episode, the data points within it aren’t ever attached to later events in the game in a tangible way. It all feels a little obscured.
Perhaps this was all by design, and maybe the creators wanted things to feel a bit more subtle and naturalistic than, say, a choose-your-own-adventure book. However, the problem arises when the feature that the project is being sold on is too ambiguous to even tell how it all really works. At the end of it, it’s difficult to not walk away feeling disappointed. For all I know, I could have had a huge impact on #WarGames’ final events, but I’ll never know – not unless I play through the whole thing again differently than I had before. Which, to be honest, isn’t the most appealing of suggestions.
Hacking and backslashing
That’s not to say #WarGames is an all around bad experience, mind you. I did rather enjoy it, for the most part. Centring on Kelly, a computer-savvy daughter of a prominent military figure, she’s pulled into a life of hacktivism after her late mother, who was also in the military, is being accused of desertion by a television personality. Although the plot at large has some hiccups structurally as it meanders between two arcs that don’t connect thematically, I’m impressed with how it handles some of its heavier topics. #WarGames covers everything from military interventionism, online harassment, irresponsible television journalists, and doxxing, though it also chooses not to unpack much of it and instead simply moves onto the next issue altogether.
For what it’s worth, each actor does their best with the material, which is hampered even further by #WarGames’ found footage style. Because our view of their performances is framed so specifically through the lenses of random webcams and cell phone cameras, there is only so much that we’re allowed to see.
It also gives each scene a slight sense of awkward voyeurism, most especially the more personal conversations between two characters. It feels as though we’re watching something we shouldn’t be seeing, which #WarGames directly confronts in a different context, but also parallels with its one mechanic. The entire relationship created with the audience can feel a bit complicated and I can’t tell if its supposed to be that way or not, but at the very least it gave deeper meaning when the plot was unwilling to.
Peculiar, but not peculiar enough
If the question is whether the experiment that is #WarGames worked, I’m not so sure. This new way of storytelling has plenty of potential, but it also relies on so many other elements that it can’t be adopted wide-scale. However, just taking the package as it is, at face value, I think there’s a lot to get out of it. With so many different takes on interactive storytelling, I think out of all of them, #WarGames might be the most interesting. It lacks the disjointed feeling of Quantum Break, as well as the now-normalised nature of Telltale’s Games. Its something new and, for what it’s worth, it’s something I’d be interested in trying again, either in a season two of #WarGames or elsewhere.
Yet even still, its central conceit looms over it ominously. Its inability to show you the agency you may or may not possess robs the experience of the satisfaction it so desperately wants to give you on its final scene. As its ending is seemingly one of many – however differing they may or may not be – it all feels inefficacious. Like the cast over your broken leg from the long jump you weren’t able to finish, no matter how good the rest of the experience is, that is what people will remember.