Interactive movies let you decide the plot—and they’re going mainstream

Play button inside labyrinth.

Here’s a scary-movie trope: The protagonist hears a strange noise in their house and decides to investigate, instead of doing the smart thing and avoiding potential danger. And you’re shouting at the screen—”Don’t do it!” 

If only you could press a button to help the character decide not to open that door. Well, with interactive movies, you can.

Part film, part video game, interactive movies are like Choose Your Own Adventure books but in the form of films, where players are presented with an array of possible paths to traverse within a narrative. 

They originate all the way back to the 1960s—but have come a very long way since then. With the advent of faster internet speeds and streaming technology, it has now even become possible for high-quality interactive movies to stream on platforms like Netflix.

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What are interactive movies? A brief history

The first interactive movie, Kinoautomat, was shown at Expo 67 in Montréal in 1967. The film was screened in a custom-built theater where each seat was outfitted with a red and green button. At nine points during the film, audiences were presented with branching paths for the story and the option selected via majority was played to progress the plot.

Perhaps the most well-known interactive film in the pre-streaming era was Dragon’s Lair, which was released in 1983. Unlike anything else that had come before it, Dragon’s Lair stood apart from other arcade games of the early ’80s by storing immense amounts of data on LaserDisc. 

Dragon’s Lair gameplay involves watching, and reacting to, a series of cut scenes that make up a fairly cohesive linear narrative. In other words, players watch a cut scene and are then required to react with a series of “quick time events”—usually moments in which the user makes a selection according to a prompt to control a cinematic sequence. 

Later developments in data storage in the 1990s, including LaserDisc, CDROM, and DVD, lead to the possibility of playing interactive games in a home setting. Many titles within this genre utilized full-motion video featuring live action actors and full-motion video. Notable titles of this era include: The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery (one of this writer’s top 10 games of all time!), Under a Killing Moon, The X-Files Game, Phantasmagoria, and Star Trek: Borg.  

In 2004, a group of former LucasArts employees founded Telltale Games, a studio that became famous for two things:

  1. Popularizing episodic releases for games; and
  2. Heavy use of quick time events that were adopted in adventure games by other developers in subsequent years.

Telltale Games’ quick time events and dialogue choices have been instrumental for contemporary interactive fiction—a trend that has continued to impact titles from other developers. 

Interactive gameplay in action. (Hidden Agenda, 2017)

Notable modern examples of interactive games include: Fahrenheit, Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls, Detroit: Become Human, Hidden Agenda, Until Dawn, and The Dark Pictures Anthology.

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Interactive movies’ ‘quick time events’ came from video games

Quick time events (QTEs) are context sensitive events where players are presented with a limited set of actions within a dramatic cut scene. Prompts are displayed on screen, which players are required to respond to in order to forward the sequence or narrative. For example, a sequence in Resident Evil 4 involves a knife fight where an antagonist is relaying crucial elements of the plot to the protagonist while simultaneously attempting to slash them with a knife. Should the player fail to parry/dodge a slash of the knife too many times, they will die, thereby restarting the QTE.

QTEs are usually added to provide some interactivity in an otherwise passive portion of a game. In recent years, reliance on QTEs in non-dramatic (or otherwise mundane) situations within some games have been viewed by some critics as unnecessary

Quick time events are important to the development of interactive games and film and would continue to influence the genre into the streaming.

Streaming interactive movies

Which brings us to the latest twist in the interactive film story: Streaming. In recent years, Netflix has notably explored the genre with such titles as Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, You vs. Wild, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. the Reverend

Much like cloud gaming, streaming platforms provide the ability for audiences to stream interactive movies and participate in stories—without the need for any extra software or controllers. 

Perhaps the most comprehensive offering being Minecraft: Story Mode, which was initially developed and released on all major platforms before being offered on Netflix from 2018. This, if anything, demonstrates the capability of a streaming platform to be able to handle a more complex form of interactivity. 

Seen any interactive movies? Let us know in the comments!

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