What the Heck is an Interactive ‘Twilight Zone’ Anyway?
Last week news broke that a new TWILIGHT ZONE movie was in the works, and it was being developed by none other than Ken Levine, creative director at Take-Two Studios. But the interesting part of this story is that this new TWILIGHT ZONE film would be an interactive one. Yeah, interactive as in class participation is expected. It’s a bizarre concept, and one that has some fans worried that giving the viewer agency in a TWILIGHT ZONE story doesn’t exactly play to the strengths the series is known for.[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#b20000″ class=”” size=””]Interactivity is a spectrum, it’s not binary” – Ken Levine[/pullquote]
So what the heck does an interactive TWILIGHT ZONE movie look like? I don’t have the slightest idea, but looking back at what Ken Levine has done in the video game space might help alleviate some worries that we’ll be getting a cookie cutter “choose your own adventure” style story that gives us simple choices; like if we want to look out the window of the plane or not (note; always… I mean never, never look out the window).
THE TWILIGHT ZONE is known for telling unique stories with twist endings that often leave our protagonist in some sort of horrible peril. Like in one of my favorite episodes Time Enough At Last were the antisocial bookworm Henry Bemis survives a world ending nuclear attack. Being the only living person on the planet he finally has all the time in the world to read to his heart’s content but eventually breaks his glasses, leaving him virtually blind in a library filled to the brim with books. This episode is perhaps the epitome of what made THE TWILIGHT ZONE such a beloved series. The show told fascinating stories about the human condition and had a child like glee in showing us how tragic and quickly our undoing could be.
On the other side of this is creator Ken Levine. Having cut his teeth on games such as Thief: The Dark Project and System Shock 2, Mr. Levine became a gaming luminary with his groundbreaking title Bioshock and later on Bioshock Infinite. Games that dealt with player agency in a way that few have done before or since. It’s Bioshock that really gives me confidence that an interactive TWILIGHT ZONE can truly work. Allow me to explain.
(Warning, I’m totally going to spoil Bioshock so if you plan on playing it, stop reading this. Play the game, all eight hours of it and come back, I’ll wait. But if you have no interest in this absolute masterpiece, read on, you savage) Okay so Bioshock is a game that seems very simple on the surface. In the game you play as a man named Jack who finds this secret city under the sea called Rapture and has to fight his way back to the surface. That’s the broad stroke of the premise, but what’s interesting about the game is its commentary on game design limitations and perceived player agency (among other topics such as class warfare and the philosophy of objectivism, seriously the game is brillant).
Throughout the game Jack has a man named Atlas on his radio that is helping him get out of Rapture. He’s your typical task master that most mission based games have with just one exception. From time to time Atlas will address Jack and say “Would you kindly do this, or that” the this or that is dependent on the mission at hand, it’s what’s needed to get into the next area, or progress through the game. The phrase Would You Kindly is always said the exact same way though. Now here’s the rub, you come to find out midway through the game that Would You Kindly is actually a trigger phrase used on Jack to enslave him and have him do whatever was asked. Sometimes Atlas has Jack doing questionable things and since you as the player could not progress through the game without doing these story missions it turns out Would You Kindly isn’t just a trigger for Jack but for you as well. Sure, you could simply ignore what was being asked of you, but to progress through the game you had to be a slave to a phrase, a slave to the game.
As video games have become more complicated, and seemingly more interactive, Bioshock stands as one of the only video games that tells the player the truth; that freedom and freewill are are a farce. We’re at the mercy of game developers and what they design–what they decide we are able to do. True freedom in video games is a lie. This was, for all intent and purposes, a brain breaking moment for me and my relationship with video games. All of a sudden I was hit with the obvious realization that every experience I’ve ever had in gaming came down to what the game designers have allowed me to do. It didn’t sour me on video games, it made me appreciate good game design so much more. Because of Would You Kindly, Bioshock is one of the first and few video games that truly would not work as a film. It’s a story that can only be told via an interactive medium.
It’s this type of mindset that gives me hope that an interactive TWILIGHT ZONE movie is in the right hands. Mr. Levine seems to be acutely aware of the limitations interactivity offers and I expect him to play with those limitations in strange and exciting ways. In an interviewed with Wired he said “interactivity is a spectrum, it’s not binary” and we can take that quote at face value but knowing Mr. Levine’s work as intimately as I do I suspect that line is very much loaded. It’s also telling and inspiring that for this interactive TWILIGHT ZONE project the company Interlude was brought on board, Interlude gained some acclaim for their interactive Bob Dylan music video along with their, in my opinion, more impressive and more entertaining Hulk vs Ant-Man Coca-Cola Superbowl ad.
So how can this play out? Perhaps we’ll be clicking our screens and changing the location of our main characters, or choosing what lines are being said at any given time. Personally, that’s the easy stuff and Ken (as I call him because we’re best friends, seriously, I totally ran into him in New York a few years back and we talked and talked and talked, and hugged and… Okay no, but he was very nice to me and let me ramble on about Harry Potter of all things, but I digress) He’s said time and time again while working on various projects of his that he likes to push himself and what he thinks he is capable of, regardless of if he fails or not, and I expect nothing different in his approach to such a strange concept as an interactive TWILIGHT ZONE.
I suspect we’ll be told a very coherent story but with only slight bits of a chalky under-taste about what’s actually going on. Viewers may be allowed to deviate from the plot entirely with some of their choices. The real fun will begin once the movie’s over and can talk to our friends about how our story went down and what choices were made and when.
So the right technology is in place, I believe the right creator is at the helm, and while no one’s ever watched the episode The Eye of the Beholder and thought to themselves, “I wish I could have made her opt out of that surgery by those pig doctors” perhaps this will be the coming of a new age of movie watching, a new paradigm shift in the cinematic experience! Or not, whatever, But at the very least it’ll be something new and different which will be a nice, much needed change of pace for film lovers like us.