At the end of the first episode of Sam Barlow's reimagining of WarGames, I got to look through all the choices I had made along the way. And the weird thing is, I didn't think I'd made any. I was thinking of choices that paused the action for a second and gave me a decision to think about and then act on. I was thinking of the big (literally) show-stopping moments in games like Life is Strange. What I should have been thinking about, perhaps, is a question of influence. You nudge WarGames around while watching it unfold. You nudge it through the very way that you watch it. It's fascinating stuff. It's also occasionally boring at times, and generally a delightful oddity.
Sam Barlow has form, of course. In Her Story, he broke a cold case investigation up into little chunks of video and let you discover it the way you might discover a cold case. You had a searchable database, but while each piece of testimony you returned filled in a spot on that database, you could not access the database itself in any more systematic way than by picking a path from one potentially promising keyword to the next. You could not be chronological, instead you had to dance around, driven by topic. This worked so well because it was novel, certainly, but it was also harmonious. It made you feel like an investigator because it made you work like an investigator. The database was actually a way of giving you a flexible half of the conversation: I want to know about apples, say, so by querying the database about apples and returning all appley clips, it's as if I had asked you, with the bonus delight that I might get something back in which apples are purely a tangential element.
WarGames works rather differently. You're introduced to Kelly and her hacker buddies. The game starts when Kelly wakes up, and then her buddies come online and after a while you're watching all of their separate live-screen feeds as they hover around in front of you. You also watch any web pages or video clips that they're sharing between them. Regardless of how many feeds you have open at any time, one of them will always be larger than the rest: while you can hear everything else, the large feed is the one you're focusing on, and you can shift your focus by clicking on another feed as the desire grabs you. (A timeline running along the top shows a representation of the choices you have made so far.)
It's certainly novel. And it's a lot of fun to do, watching the chat unfolding and the story developing and choosing where to put most of your attention. But is it harmonious? It's very hard to tell after a single episode, not least because I really don't understand who I am meant to be yet, or even if I have any kind of meaningful role in the proceedings at all.
What's certainly weird, though, is by placing my attention in one place or another, I am impacting the story that unfolds. On my first playthough I kept things on Kelly. In the opening scene she's planning a prank with those hacker buddies: to fly a drone around the mansion of a celebrity who has done something morally unconscionable and generally give him a hard time. With Kelly as the focus - and then the drone footage as the focus - Kelly chased the guy around his pool and then into his house, where he produced a gun and shot the drone.
The second time I played through the episode I focused on Torch, one of the other hackers. This time, as you might expect, I got a lot more of her story: kids that had only been mentioned in the playthrough in which my focus was on Kelly suddenly turned up on camera this time. But on top of that, the celebrity didn't go into the house and shoot the drone. He fell into the pool instead.
Somehow, I caused that, but while I have a vague idea of how - on the Kelly playthrough I had the drone as my focus towards the end, so I got more of its story - I certainly had no intention of doing so. As a witness, it is hard to have much of an intention about anything, other than simply finding out the crucial parts of the story. This is why the witness role worked so well for Her Story: because you can be an active investigator and an almost passive witness at the same time. The story isn't changing, but your understanding of it is, and this is fascinating. When you can change the story - in ways that I'll happily admit are not immediately clear to me so far - this changes a little bit. I'm a witness, but I'm also meddling. But I don't know how and I don't yet know why. It will be fascinating to watch how the rest of the series tackles all of this stuff.
My worry so far - and it is not a very deeply held worry, since WarGames is so odd I am instantly on its side - is that this is one of those games where the way it works is more interesting than the story that it is trying to tell. Focusing on hackers is fraught with trouble, for starters. Hackers live in this sort of uncanny valley of narrative representation. No matter how good the acting and how good the writing, hackers are almost never convincing in cinema or television or novels. I doubt they'd be convincing in ballet or opera. There is something about them that your credulity bounces off of, and my credulity bounced quite a long way here.
Oddly, the one film this might not be true of is...well, WarGames. But I think this is entirely down to Matthew Broderick and the way he brought the context around his character to life. Broderick's a unique performer who is capable of being vulnerable and ashamed and embarrassed and cocky all at once. Broderick is playing a hacker, but WarGames is so good at insinuating all the reasons why he probably became a hacker: his role in the story emerges from his character. I sense from WarGames that we're going to get character backstory and context up the wazoo, but since this is a reimagining it doesn't have the same leeway to do this. Kelly is a hacker because this is a thing based on another thing that was about hackers, and although I can't put my finger on why, that makes the contract slightly different.
There's also the fact, no doubt, that I have grown up with Broderick's performance, so it's harder to be objective about it and harder to reject it. Perhaps the cleverest thing about WarGames so far is that it seems to understand this last point. WarGames does not feel very much like WarGames. It feels like something different: something strange and sometimes boring and stagey but simultaneously fascinating and thought-provoking. One episode down and I am going to continue watching - and, I guess, I will continue nudging.