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Venturing into a seldom explored corner of interactive entertainment, WarGames is a cross between a movie and a video game that invites the player to have an impact on the narrative by choosing where to focus each scene. It's an interesting concept, but the execution left me feeling less like a participant and more like a voyeur.
Clocking in at about two hours, this latest take on WarGames is worth a gander, especially since its six chapters are broken into segments lasting between 10 and 25 minutes. There's an ad-supported version of the game on sites like Eko or on iOS through the Eko Presents app (don't worry, the ads don't interrupt the episode), or you can fork over about three bucks on Steam to get rid of the commercials.
In WarGames, players follow the story of hacktivist Kelly Grant, a military brat who, along with her hacker pals, has made a hobby out of pranking folks they feel have behaved inappropriately. If you're a pop star who performed a concert for a cruel dictator, for instance, her crew might fly a drone into your home in the hopes of capturing some embarrassing footage.
Their antics take a turn for the serious when Grant's recently deceased mother, a soldier who died a hero at the hands of terrorists, becomes the target of the latest cable news smear campaign. There's an obvious stand-in for Fox here and, while the original 1980s War Games film dealt with the dangers of technology and the threat of nuclear war, this latest take on the concept gets into more modern concepts like drone strikes, doxxing, hacking communities, government cover-ups and, of course, hashtag fake news.
What's most interesting about WarGames, at least for a while, is how the player interacts with the narrative. The story takes place in a series of windows showcasing whomever or whatever Kelly is interacting with. If she's chatting with her haxxor friends, their window will be off to the side of Kelly's. If Kelly's boyfriend or brother calls in, their windows will pop up as well. If someone sends her a link or there are video feeds available, their windows will also appear in the margins. You never have more than a handful of windows to choose from and you can always click between the windows to determine which one gets the prominent spot at the center of your screen.
Sam Barlow, creator of the similarly narrative-driven choose-your-own-adventure game, Her Story, has described WarGames as "the game that watches you" because the screens you choose to focus on have an impact on the narrative. That's actually my biggest gripe with the game. WarGames claims that it is "saving my path" from time to time and even offers a post-chapter glimpse at where those linchpin moments existed and could have led in different directions, but none of it really feels like it was having a legitimate impact on the story. Did my choosing to watch Torch instead of Zane or Kelly in a group chat actually do anything? If I kept the focus on one video feed instead of another, would it have really changed how things played out? It certainly didn't feel that way and, based on the buzz I'm hearing, any known alterations are minimal at best.
I'd be fine if the game was simply billed as an interactive story but, since it leans so heavily into the idea that the player is making something happen behind the scenes, I just wish it felt like the results were actually tied to my actions in some way.
While Her Story was praised for its leading actresses' standout performance, WarGames is something of a mixed bag. Kelly's hacker pals are little more than nerd stereotypes and the news anchor is expectedly crooked and cold as ice. Thankfully, most of the acting is decent and some scenes are especially well delivered, but there were an equal number of flat moments and awkwardly delivered lines. The narrative is interesting enough, but I wasn't especially compelled to find out what happens next. If my hands weren't occupied swapping between screens, WarGames provides the type of boilerplate cyber espionage tale that would have had me reaching for my phone to check emails or Twitter were I watching just a straight film.
Still, I'm always interested in unique forms of storytelling, even if it feels like WarGames could have pushed its handful of unique ideas so much further. Little here made me feel like I was having an impact on the story, which is a big misstep when one of the game's major selling points is that the player will help shape the outcome. It's not a terrible way to spend a couple of hours but, while the story feels like it could keep branching out, I'm not feeling inspired to keep following along. In the end, WarGames is an interesting, but halfheartedly executed, concept. My hope is that it serves as a good foundation for more ambitious projects to come.