Not so many weeks ago, I wrote a piece about how full-motion video games, or FMV games, still have plenty to offer today. "Still" because to many of my age—late 30s these days, shut it—those three letters mean mostly one thing: awful, barely interactive CD-ROM games of the early and mid-1990s.
I personally had a Mega-CD, Sega's Mega Drive CD-ROM expansion accessory, with Digital Pictures' Night Trap and Ground Zero Texas—titles where the "game" elements effectively extended to either timing a button press to correspond to some bad on-screen acting, or moving gun sights around to take out some equally hamming-it-up guys dressed as aliens. I might've liked them enough at the time, but with hindsight being 20/20, I can see that they were bad games.
But the success of Her Story in 2015—an accidental FMV game to paraphrase its maker, Sam Barlow—has opened the doors once more for the genre, if you can call it that. In late 2016, Wales Interactive put out The Bunker, a clunky but likeable FMV mystery in which the player-controlled John must investigate the history of his underground surroundings, and the horrors that played out there not so many years ago. It used point-and-click mechanics to guide John, and interact with various collectibles and environmental features.
Wales Interactive has followed up The Bunker by publishing another FMV release—but this time they've forgotten to factor in the game part, that's usually a given however minor the player's actual involvement. Late Shift is a curious creation that tries, simultaneously, to be a meaningful interactive drama and a compelling movie for any passive viewers.
Late Shift fails as a game, absolutely, restricted as it is exclusively to plot-point decisions—do you stand your ground in the presence of a thug with a gun, or make a run for it, that kind of thing. These do alter the course of events, sometimes significantly; but such is their presentation, usually a binary this or that situation, and the need to decide quickly—as the gam… the mov… Late Shift doesn't truly pause at all—that a palpable impression of "player" agency never manifests.
Yes, I selected the second option, and I want to forget about that person entirely and move the "me" of the experience (I guess?), mathematics student Matt, onwards, protecting his arse above anyone else's. But such was the absolute absence of time afforded to properly consider the moment that it can only be a flippant, spur-of-the-moment choice, and something that I feel no true connection to.
When you arrive at an ending, little that's come before has registered with weight enough to make it matter. Want to do it again, but differently this time? Um, do I have to?
And this plays out time and again: as many as 180 quicktheclockisticking decision points (total, across all possible routes) that, while changing the direction of the drama, never feel completely controlled by you. And when you arrive at one of the seven possible endings, little that's come before has registered with weight enough to make the conclusion matter. The credits roll. Want to do it again, but differently this time? Um, do I have to?
Which is as much down to the writing as it is the barely interactive elements. With apologies to those involved, IMO and all that, Late Shift's script stinks. Naturally, there's the branching plotline to consider—it's hard to put time into establishing a character and their relationship with others if you're then going to see them relegated, as per the viewer's choices, to a supporting role—but even so, the cavalcade of clichés it crams into 80 minutes or so is dizzying. The actors do their best, but they're forever fighting against cringe-worthy dialogue and stiffly orchestrated action scenes.
In short: Matt becomes embroiled in the kind of hackneyed London gangland rivalry that Guy Ritchie would be embarrassed by, receives no help from a staggeringly incompetent Met, and a romantic interest is so painfully forced upon proceedings that it hurts to watch the relevant scenes. The wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught up in shady happenings during a night shift working security in a parking garage, Matt is at first a hapless weakling who somehow finds the strength to go up against, explicitly or otherwise, what is, essentially, the local triads. We've all seen this breed of underdog story before, one way or another.
Which isn't to say we've all seen it play out quite like this, given the variety of twists available, predominantly bluntly telegraphed though they are. I wanted nothing to do with the femme fatale of the story, May-Ling, but come my first ending it was her who, albeit unintentionally, brought about Matt's undoing. That was disappointing, a real damp squib of a climax, albeit actually unexpected (to the production's credit, I suppose)—but your experience will likely differ.
I'd perhaps have striven to see every possibility if Late Shift was shorter. But at movie length, and with select sequences taking up far too much time—yes that is a very shiny, very expensive car, and these London streets sure are atmospheric at night, aren't they—the enthusiasm to go around more than twice just isn't there.
The interactive movie concept, however, is something I'm on board with—as someone who grew up with choose-your-own-adventure books, having a say in how my fiction plays out is welcomed. But Late Shift doesn't use its "unique selling point" particularly well. It aims for sleek and stylish, aesthetically seductive, but the writing can't match the ambition of the project, and without a story worth caring about, it fails to capture the imagination.
Late Shift is billed in two very different ways. On its official website, it describes itself as "the world's first cinematic interactive movie". In its press pack, available to anyone who seeks it out online, "a cinematic FMV adventure game". The reality is that it's stuck, awkwardly, painfully, between the two—dissatisfying both as a film and as a game.
But as an experiment, using a method of interactive experience production some wrote off two decades ago, it's interesting, and something I'd like to see other developers, directors and producers take a chance on. A tighter, briefer version of "this"—something where the branches arrive quickly, and the consequences are more easily mapped— could be really exciting. Give me a shorter film in which you know exactly where to make a change on the second, third and fourth times through, and with characters to care about in smaller situations that we, the players and viewers, can more easily relate to.
That's something I'd want to take control of—and chances are, I'd be more moved by it, too. It'd still not be a game, but at least I'd probably not be feeling like I'd been played myself.
Late Shift is out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.