'#WarGames,' the Interactive Reimagining of the Iconic Nuclear Thriller, Is Mostly a Gimmick
Sam Barlow's part game, part television show adds up to something I don't want to watch or play.
WarGames is a classic film about video games and global thermonuclear war. Matthew Broderick stars as a brilliant teenaged hacker who has to convince an artificial intelligence running NORAD that nukes aren’t fun. He learns to use hacking for good and that sometimes the only way to win is not to play.
#WarGames is a reimagining of the classic film that deals in drones, Fox News, and hacktivism, but unlike the original, it amounts to little than a gimmick propping up a mediocre product. The story follows super hacker Kelly Grant and her band of rascal hacktivists as they hold the powerful accountable and learn the secrets of the military-industrial complex. It’s got drones instead of nukes, and the gimmick is that viewer interacts with the story to shape it.
It works like this—players watch the story of Kelly and her team unfold in a series of episodes that play out through webcam footage and browser windows. Click one window and it fills the middle of the screen and that’s the area of the story Kelly will focus on. As the viewer shifts their eyes, so does Kelly. As her focus changes, so does the story. #WarGames is the brainchild of developer Sam Barlow, who did something similar with Her Story, the well-loved interactive thriller where players looked through a 90s-era police terminal and watched videos of a woman discussing her missing husband.
The problem is that when I look past the gimmick, #WarGames is not very good when compared to any other show in this genre on TV or Netflix, and when I focus on the gimmick, #WarGames is not a very good piece of interactive entertainment compared any number of video games I'm currently playing. The story feels like the rejected plot arc for a season of Mr. Robot and the acting doesn’t always seem natural. The characters are likeable and the gimmick is fun, but it’s just that—a gimmick.
The story is moving in one direction and the player can only affect minor changes on how everyone gets to the climax, but not much of what happens during the story. One episode takes place in a coffee shop where Kelly works. A rival hacker comes into the shop and messes with Kelly. He takes control of everyone’s computer in the shop and floods their screens with weird images of her boss sucking toes. Kelly watches patrons on three CCTVs and confronts one depending on how much time the player focused on the window. But no matter which customer she confronts, she causes a “scene” and gets fired. Ultimately, my choice didn't really make a difference.
WarGames was a great and important film. Released in 1983, the story centered around a geeky computer nerd who loved video games and knew how to code and use a modem. The film was a hit and computer companies saw a spike in modem sales after its release. It was also an anti-nuclear film bold enough to suggest that nuclear weapons were a bad idea and that maybe, no one should have them. It launched Broderick’s career and made a generation of kids interested in 2600 Magazine. #WarGames can’t compete with that legacy and, to be fair, it doesn’t try.
There’s been a few projects that have explored this space between video games and movies and none of them quite work for me. When I want to play a video game, I sit at my computer and play a video game. When I want to watch TV, I kick my feet up on the couch and watch TV. They are very different forms of entertainment that I enjoy for different reasons, and #WarGames doesn’t make a great case for bringing the two together.