Cinema of Forking Paths
This column begins with Leslie, an anxious secretary rushing from the office to a rendezvous with an FBI agent. It also begins with "Kylie Ireland" on all fours taking it from three directions in three different views. And also with a character named "You," perched on the edge of a dark, moss-covered cave, staring into the threshold of time. The point here is, you get to choose the starting point. And the column begins . . .
Unfortunately, the column begins regardless. This page-bound version is strictly within the world of linear thinking (usually) and argument (I'd like to think so). But the film industry's first experiments in interactive movies--"multipath" films--are rolling out on DVD (Digital Versatile Disc), and suddenly the choices are yours, whether you like it or not. The first, the cornball I'm Your Man (starring MTV's Kevin Seal), debuts Tuesday, with three more titles to follow (available at Tower and Blockbuster). From the jigsaw pieces of Cortázar's 1963 novel Hopscotch to the musty corridors of the text-based computer game Zork, multiform precursors have burbled up over the years. But with the rise of DVD, a truly plausible platform for interactive storytelling is here. Now the storytellers need to catch up.
The interactive films, produced by a local company called Interfilm (now bust), were initially released theatrically back in 1993 in 42 movie theaters across the country. Viewers voted during the film using three-button consoles stuck in the cup-holders of their seats, and the majority ruled. The quality of the filmmaking got better over time (based on previews, the later three titles look like significant improvements), but the "group-think" voting system proved awkward. "You could vote, but you could also be democratically out-voted," says James Graham, a principal of Planet Theory, the Bond Street multimedia company that produced and is releasing the movies in conjunction with DVD house Zuma Digital. "Some people said to us, 'I watched this movie three times and I never got the ending I wanted.' " Which is expressly why the interactive movies are ideally suited to individual home viewing, where you control the navigation. Graham believes that computer-acclimated audiences are now prepped for the format. "I think we were ahead of our time," he says of the films' initial release. "Little kids are now coming out of the womb clicking stuff. Now we've got that geek audience built in."
The films' DVD creators (Graham, partner Kevin Centanni, and director Bob Bejan) admit they weren't out to make Citizen Kane, and, well, it shows. I'm Your Man offers 36 different "choice points" over the course of 20 minutes, and it's the least complicated of the upcoming titles (which include a thriller, BombMeister, and the bike race adventure Ride for Your Life). In the compressed storyline, the aforementioned secretary Leslie is attempting to nail her boss in a citywide scam, and she mistakenly embroils Jack (Seal) in her quest to unveil the truth. The choices begin with a screen asking viewers to choose a p.o.v.: that of Leslie, Jack, or the boss. Every few seconds, icons crop up at the bottom of the screen. Using the remote control, you must decide which character to follow, which escape route to take, or whom to join on the elevator.
The opening is promising, but it soon becomes clear that the choice is irrelevant. Not only can you change it every few seconds, but there is little difference amongst the alternative plotlines. By midfilm, the options have become slightly more sophisticated, but the film itself is still wallowing in its cut-rate sets, USA Network acting, and ridiculously overwrought music score (by Joe Jackson, who chose computer equipment in lieu of payment). Characters even turn to the camera and ask outright, "What do I do?" to prod you to respond. Ultimately, the film rejoins all the main characters, who ask as a chorus, "Whose ending do you want to see?" But the mere fact of the question gets at the film's limitations. What intrigues us as viewer-participants is not the choice itself, but the consequences.
By now, most DVD titles offer some kind of user-driven enhancements. With eight CD-quality audio tracks, eight hours of tape, and nine potential camera angles available on a single DVD, the discs can be rich with options. As usual, porn has been the most feverish about snuggling up to interactivity; since DVD players hit the American market last year, adult titles like Sex Show and Digital Debutantes have started to feature multiple camera angles and sex "games." The execution is exactly like you'd expect: "multiple angles" usually means getting a chance to jump from Kylie Ireland's rump to the small of her back to her head. And the Digital Debutantes game sends you on a quest for a white dildo, whose reward is a clip of it in action. Tetris would make far better foreplay.
If DVD porn is pushing one potential future of interactive storytelling, a stronger and more successful iteration of the form is already behind us. In 1979, Bantam published the first (and most successful) title in its Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) series, The Cave of Time. In it, "you" wander into a cave that sends you back in time, and at the bottom of every page, you are required to make a choice. The scenario goes something like this: Do you kill the snake with the rock? Go to page 98. Do you go home and forget all about your adventure? Go to page 112. The book, transfixing for generations of 10-year-olds, branched into a total of 40 unique endings. The Choose Your Own Adventure series, written alternately by Edward Packard and Ray Montgomery, became phenomenally successful with young readers, publishing a total of 184 titles over close to two decades.
At the outset, says Packard (now 67), no publisher understood how the books would work: "It was like the cartoon of two Hollywood producers where one says, 'We can't do this, it hasn't been done before.' " One year after Cave of Time, the publishing industry had not only become convinced by CYOA's success but had started to copy it; in addition to the CYOA titles, a passel of knockoffs appeared on shelves: Pick a Path to Adventure, the Lone Wolf series, even a Dungeons and Dragons version. "They helped saturate things and blow out the market," says Packer. This June, Bantam released the final title, Mayday!
The reasons for the stratospheric rise of the CYOA--and the causes for its eventual petering out--are enormously relevant to the future of interactive filmmaking. CYOA's staying power had much to do with each book's number of denouements, says Packard. But after a few years of producing the titles, he began to reduce the number of endings in an effort to indulge his authorial control. "I wanted more story and greater complexity with the characters," he says. In the last several books the number of endings diminished to 14, and then "some kids started complaining," Packard says.
Reducing the number of endings effectively reduced the number of possible stories, diminishing the books' potency. "To be alive in the 20th century is to be aware of the alternative possible selves, of alternative possible worlds, and of the limitless intersecting stories of the actual world," writes MIT prof Janet Murray in her book Hamlet on the Holodeck. Multiple endings are the direct translation of what Murray terms "pullulation" (splitting of reality).
The loss of reader control may have only been a small factor in bringing the CYOA series to a close (video games also played a part). But it's the reason why I'm Your Man seems so lightweight: all paths lead to virtually the same exit. Fortunately, the upcoming Planet Theory/Zuma titles dramatically ramp up the number of endings to 32, even 64 for Bombmeister. It's a sign that better bards are acclimating to the medium's capacity for an exponential number of endings. Here, there can be only one.
Research assistance: Deirdre Hussey
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.