Sam Barlow and Alon Benari
Revolutionizing Filmmaking With Interactive Live-Action Gaming
by Jay S. Jacobs
It seems only natural – streamlining and combining the technologies of video-gaming and movie-making. It’s an idea that has been tantalizing programmers and cinephiles for a few decades now, but the technology is finally hitting a focal point where it is both technically possible and even reasonably inexpensive to make, and for fans to buy. In a world full of smart phones and tablets, streaming interactive games are the wave of the future.
Surfing that wave is Interlude, an interactive-video media and tech firm which wants to change the way that we game. Point and shoot is fine, they feel, but they want to give the stories and characters time and place to breathe. The imaginative minds behind Interlude want us to play a game much like we watch a favorite series or read a novel, a new variation on our busy entertainment schedule.
The executive creative director for Interlude is the British-born Sam Barlow, a long time programmer and director at Climax Studios, where he worked on a couple of Silent Hill games, Crusty Demons and the video game tie-in to Nicolas Cage’s Ghost Rider movie. However, it was his first game for Interlude, a police-procedural Her Story, which won a devoted following and a series of awards from gaming publications, including a Golden Joystick Award. He is currently working on a new game based on the 1983 hit film WarGames.
The VP of Creative and Innovation at Interlude is Israeli-born Alon Benari, who comes into the business from the other side. A respected television director in his homeland, but also with a background in software, he was excited by the idea of merging the two mediums to create a separate art form.
I recently caught up with Barlow and Benari at Wizard World Philadelphia Comic-Con, where they had just given a lecture and demonstration of Interlude’s new world of games. After they finished telling their fans what to expect in their video frontier, the three of us had a little chat about the future of video gaming.
When did you decide that mixing games together with filmmaking was the wave of the future?
Sam Barlow: For me it was the last couple of years of working on traditional video games and the rise of mobile gaming as a thing and the rise of digital distribution. The beauty of mobile was you have this huge audience of people that have these incredibly powerful devices in their hands and they don’t have sticks on them. They don’t have shooty shooty buns, or whatever. Suddenly you had this audience that was prepared for new ways of interacting with things. They weren’t necessarily a traditional video game audience. Storytelling is such a fundamental thing, so suddenly you have this huge number of iPhones and iPads and things in people’s hands, and you could tell them stories. Even my mum has an iPhone and she knows how to use it. To swipe, click and touch. So you could speak to those people and say, hey, look, here’s a piece of storytelling or a piece of interactivity that you could explore on this. Suddenly it just opened up. For me this is a new way. There’s always been experimental interactive storytelling. There have been pieces that have used video or music or all sorts of different things, but they’ve always been a niche. If you’re selling it to a video games audience, those kind of things are more niche. The minute you hit the larger world of a more mainstream audience, suddenly these things can have real value.
Alon, you were saying in your talk that growing up in Israel you had very little television – just one network – until the mid 1990s. Did you have access to much in the way of gaming?
Alon Benari: We had American TV and stuff like that, but the TV industry there wasn’t much. But, yeah, as a kid I would play Winter Games and stuff like that. And Avalon.
Sam Barlow: Avalon was very good. That was great.
Alon Benari: I have to say, it’s interesting, because I’m in the opposite world. I stopped playing video games when I was like 18, 19, besides, like Civilization. I went strictly to film and TV. When I went to film school, graduate school, we even had this research group about interactive video. It was so far fetched. The technology wasn’t there. The broadband wasn’t there. It was just something that wasn’t possible. Over the past few years, suddenly the tech is so available. The know-how is so available. There is something naturally evolving, and you see that games have really shifted in that direction in the last few years. Film has shifted. Everything. This feels like the right time to bring these things together.
It’s interesting, I remember back again in the 80s and 90s they kept trying to make interactive films and they never really worked. Watching your games in the conference room, it feels like it may have finally hit a point that it might just work. Do you see that as another avenue for games?
Alon Benari: I’ll tell you something that Sam mentioned to me last week. I think the medium isn’t so much the bottom line here. It’s how you approach writing for it. In the first days of film, when they started making films, they brought theater people to write scripts. And what you got was filmed theater, [with] this static camera shooting. It took time until they understood: okay, we can cut to close-ups, and we can edit scenes. There’s this new storytelling language that this format allows for. If you look at the interactive experiments of the 90s, and even the F & V games, they brought in Hollywood writers and they would do a narrative film with alternate endings. There were alternate options for the scenes, but they didn’t really write for the format. What you see that is gradually evolving today is an understanding that this is a new format that requires different stories. This will not be World of Warcraft and this will not be Titanic, this will be something new.
Why do you find story-based games more interesting than more traditional point and shoot ones?
Sam Barlow: I think that all of these things are valid ways of entertaining ourselves. The thing that’s interesting to me is, and you find it even in the most shooty, shooty games, when you do focus tests and speak to the audience and you ask them how important is the story, and the characters, and the setting: Oh my God, that’s super, super important, even when they are just peripheral. As humans, that’s how we relate. For me, the big excitement is that, as I said on the panel, it’s only been the last 100 years that stories have been this static, passive thing, where you just want the film. Whenever you see the film, it’s the same film. Every time you watch it, it’s the same film again. Traditionally, that isn’t how storytelling worked. What computers give is this wonderful ability to make stories that return to that kind of sense of flexibility and personalization. Bring stories back to life.
Why did you decide to do “Charlie Gets Fired” as an animated game? The rest of your games seem to be live action.
Alon Benari: The way it actually works and the way we’re trying to do these things goes back to basically all the projects. If you don’t have a good story, the creative isn’t good, nothing will be worth it. The way we work it, is we tap into creators we would like to work with. We reached out to a couple of young creators. We usually do not do animated stuff, actually. They had this crazy idea about this crazy animated character. That was what they wanted to do. They went and used our platform to build this thing. It came out as something that we felt really worked. It was compelling and funny. We said, “Okay, it’s great.” I think the magic of what we bring is definitely more visible in live action, but still this is streaming video and animation is a huge part of content and content online today. We see the audience responding to this great.
When you are putting together a game idea, do you plan it all out almost like outlining a novel, or storyboarding a movie, or do you let the story reveal itself to you? Is it even possible to plan everything out, with it going in so many different directions?
Sam Barlow: It depends on the project, but yeah. We are still lacking a format or a piece of software that makes it easy to do these things. It always comes out printing out lots of pages and spreading them out on a table and hoping that you don’t use up the whole table.
Alon Benari: Partly because each one of these projects is different, every time we say, “Okay, we’ve figured out the format,” then we go, “Oooh, with this next project we’ll go with five different screens running at once.” It’s part of what’s fun. It’s part of discovering this new format.
You had said in your talk that you were going to do some games based on the old TV series The Twilight Zone. How did that come about? Will you be using old stories or doing things in the vein of the show?
Sam Barlow: With Twilight Zone and with WarGames, it’s a case of Interlude has very good connections with the TV and film world. A lot of those companies are super-excited about the idea of where this could go. We had conversations with them around how could we create something that is right for this new medium that is going to make sense. Not just throwing anything at it. Obviously WarGames is super applicable. The interesting thing with Twilight Zone is… especially the original series, which I think is what Ken [Levine, director of BioShock, who is heading up the project] is taking much of the inspiration from… is they told these parables that were ripped straight from the modern world, but given this sci-fi twist. Every episode would have this lovely twist to it, this kind of sting in the tail. Classical suspense and genre writing.
Why did Ken feel like the right fit for the Twilight Zone game?
Sam Barlow: Ken, in his video game work is most infamous for delivering some of the first famous instances of unreliable narrators. These big twists that really pulled the rug out from under you, but doing that in an interactive way, so you can make the player or the audience more complicit. Feel like they’ve brought this upon themselves. I think with Twilight Zone, figuring out how you tell that kind of classic, self-contained, sting in the tail parable, and do it interactively. Is that twist in the actual interactive play? Is it in how these things pan out in the variations system? That creates a whole interesting way of refreshing and rebooting that. I think that – like every possible story that can be told – has to be told. That’s the challenge if you’re a storyteller. Finding fresh themes or skins for classic stories. Fresh new angles. For me with Her Story, it was like the police procedural is such an evergreen thing. I’ve seen every variation on that.
I’ll probably date myself a bit, but hearing the basic idea of Her Story reminded me of a really old series by Sierra called Police Quest.
Sam Barlow: Yeah, I played the Police Quest games. [But with Her Story we asked:] How do we do this in a fresh new way? So, the interactivity, the perspective you had, that was a way of leveraging… the audience knows so much about genre now, it’s really hard to surprise them with linear. But with Her Story, it was actually used to my advantage, because the audience was helping to put this story together with me, so the fact that they knew all the twists, the fact that the second they saw a woman sat in a chair talking to the police, they are like: (snaps his fingers) “Okay, did she do it? Did she not do it? What’s she not saying?” They’ve had all that apparatus. We have such an intelligent, educated, multitasking audience out there. If you just sit them in front of a classic old TV show, it’s not enough there. It’s not enough for their brains to get stuck into. Their brains are going about a hundred miles an hour, three or four screens. So finding a way to tap into all that going on and make that part of a show, I think is a great achievement.
Why did you decide it was time to leave Climax Studios and go out on your own?
Sam Barlow: Yeah, it happened at a point where the traditional games industry that I felt – I’d done Silent Hill and I spent a lot of time working on a Legacy of Kain – when I was doing that I felt like I’m on this trajectory where I’m getting to make these big-budget story-driven games, and that’s a thing I can keep doing. I’ll be the Christopher Nolan of video games, or whatever. When I made that decision to move independently, it felt like there had been this big shift in the video game industry that people hadn’t necessarily acknowledged yet, but less and less story-driven single player games are being made. Most games now are games of service. They are multi-player things, less focused on telling a story. If you want to tell a five-to-ten-hour story, no one is going to pay the 10, 20, 30 million dollars that it costs to make that. There was this big shift in the industry where the kinds of stories and characters I wanted to explore didn’t feel like that was necessarily an option.
Were you surprised by how well Her Story did as your first independent work?
Sam Barlow: There was this big rise in digital distribution of this broad market, and so very much Her Story was an experiment. If I make this thing that I feel like should be of interest to people, is there an audience? The excitement to me was finding out there was this huge audience and it did spread into the mainstream. It got covered in mainstream newspapers and magazines and TV and places that traditional video games don’t normally reach. Then to me, working with Interlude was like: how do we take that to the next step? Because there is still that restriction of I need to download something at the app store. I need to have Steam on my computer. How do we make something that is even more ubiquitous? Even easier to get hold of. Because that’s the really dirty little secret of video games, it’s true that when a big video game comes out, it brings in more money than a big movie does. That’s because these games cost $60.00 each and fans are going out and buying them on day one, because they have quite a short shelf life. Still, if a big movie comes out, the audience for a big movie is way bigger and broader. The secondary market, people can see it on TV, on planes, on DVD. That is still a much larger audience for you to connect to, so trying to tap into an audience like that, I think, is the big excitement.
I was reading you are going to be doing a second Her Story game. Will that be a continuation of the original or just a similar type of tale?
Sam Barlow: Yes, a fresh story and subject matter.
We were talking about the Twilight Zone and WarGames adaptations you guys are doing. If you had absolutely no limits on what you chose, what would be your ideal story to turn into a game?
Sam Barlow: I’m pretty adamant that the one I’m working on is usually the thing that is most exciting me. So, WarGames, I remember when it was first mentioned that this was a possibility, the video game designer in me, who has worked on some movie tie-ins, immediately was like: Oh, a piece of old movie IP. That’s never a good idea. Then like five seconds later it was like, well, actually, that was a really cool movie. That was the movie that for a whole generation defined hacking. Introduced all these ideas that really tapped in to the younger generation and their feelings toward the cold war. That was a great movie. Then thinking: well, now imagine that movie rebooted in 2016 when you have Anonymous and LulzSec and the hacker activists. You have the war on terror and the way technology and government surveillance is all part of that package now. It’s like, wow, that’s super interesting stuff.
I agree, WarGames is ripe for a reboot. The fact that it was so ahead of its time makes people sometimes forget that the movie was made during the days of MS-DOS. Computer technology has changed so much that you have so many things you can do with it.
Alon Benari: (laughs) The fact that he could operate a modem made him a whiz kid.
Sam Barlow: That was amazing sci-fi future tech. Wow, he can log into a [computer] over a phone line? (laughs)
Alon Benari: Incredible.
Sam Barlow: And yeah, finding a lot of other ways. Speaking to people in the hacking community. With this version of WarGames we are leading with this 20-year-old female protagonist and just finding a way to make it modern and relevant. Make it feel more fresh and modern, diverse and tap into contemporary politics and things. There’s a lot of excitement there about can we create something here that is as inspiring to a younger generation now as that movie was back then.
Copyright ©2016 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 20, 2016.
Photos ©2016 Jay S. Jacobs.