By Ben Konuch
Interactivity in media is an interesting enigma. It isn’t anything new, with the popular “Choose Your Own Adventure” book series pioneering the concepts as early as 1979, but the last 10 years have shown a resurgence in the concept of interactive stories. Now reaching past its origin in books to encompass video games and even movies, the concept of interactivity is slowly shaping media with fascinating implications.
Interactivity has been shaping media in two main ways: indirect action and deliberate choice. Indirect action uses entertainment to give the player or viewer a sense of second-hand culpability that furthers the impact of the story. Video games, with the nature of their player-game dynamic, predominantly use this type of interactivity often to cause guilt or show shock at something the consumer wouldn’t normally pay attention to.
For example, the 2012 action video game “Spec Ops: The Line” starts off fairly straightforward, with the player controlling a soldier exploring a post-disaster Dubai. But, as the game continues, the plot gets darker and the player is called to commit crueler acts. There’s some element of deliberate choice interactivity, such as whether or not the player executes enemies, but the overwhelming majority of the story unfolds with the player following the clear path set out for them with little regard to intentional choices or consequences. One loading screen tip even reads “The United States Army does not condone the killing of unarmed combatants. But this isn’t real, so why should you care?” In this way, players start making small choices without even realizing choices are being presented to them.
The turning point of the game comes when the main character makes a decision without player input: to use white phosphorus to burn through an enemy fortification. After the attack subsides, the characters and the player are both shocked by the revelation that the fortification was actually a refugee camp.
The game uses the fact that players of action games typically remove morality from their decisions, acting in a way that “furthers the story” and promotes a false sense of heroism and nobility, despite the serious and often fatal consequences of actions. The way “The Line” uses this trope and medium to drive the point into the player is shocking, graphic and upsetting. It hits hardest because of the way the player used and surrendered their control for the sake of the fictional story. This is a story that couldn’t have the same effect on its players without its use of interactivity.
The second type of interactivity, the implementation of deliberate choice, isn’t just bound to choice-based video games, like “Until Dawn” or “Telltale’s Walking Dead.” In 2018, Netflix experimented with its “Black Mirror” franchise with the release of “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.” “Bandersnatch” is a psychological thriller interactive film about a young programmer named Stefan trying to create a choice-based adventure game. The story focuses on Stefan trying to create his game about choice while ideas of free will and control are constantly presented to him.
As the deadline gets closer, Stefan realizes he’s a slave to someone else’s decisions and starts to fear that he has no control over his own actions. The watcher is forced to make Stefan choose increasingly difficult decisions that can not only drastically alter the plot, but determine his fate and sanity. So why, then, is the novelty of an interactive psychological thriller movie such a selling point, especially with the story centering on free will and fate as it made its viewers face those exact dilemmas?
The reason goes back to the idea of choice and media, and even explains why “Spec Ops: The Line” had such an impact. Our Western society is fascinated with the ideas of moral responsibility and interactivity in media, whether that be the direct cause-and-effect type of media like “Bandersnatch” or the more subtle uses of choice and responsibility like “Spec Ops.” Simply put, choice sells. The prospect of freedom, of being able to choose your own adventure, has been reinvigorated and multiple companies and media forms are realizing that.
This causes an interesting paradox of worldviews. As a society, our world has been moving away from the values of moral responsibility and has instead adopted a culture that points the finger at anyone but ourselves. In storytelling, you can see this as far back as Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” in which the monster only becomes corrupted after the actions and influence of others had affected it. As recently as 2019’s “Joker,” in which Arthur Fleck turns insane only through a society that treats him like trash. Even the mind-bending effect of “Bandersnatch” comes from the revelation that the main character has no responsibility for what he does, as he discovers that he’s bound to follow whatever the watcher chooses for him. If this is the way our culture works, why do people continue to consume media that advocates choice and responsibility?
Dr. Joshua Kira, a theology and philosophy professor at Cedarville University. Kira explained that you have to look deeper into the situation to see that the appeal of these styles of stories comes from the fact that everything presented is virtual. Playing or watching interactive stories gives you the feeling of responsibility and accountability without having actual stakes.
“They’re not actually selling you personal responsibility, they’re selling you virtual responsibility,” Dr. Kira stated.
The paradox isn’t actually a paradox at all because while our society is still moving away from personal responsibility, we want the feeling and the gratification of choices that pay off or the projected regret of a choice that doesn’t actually come with the actual consequences. It’s that feeling of wanting to play God in these stories, the idea of wanting to be ultimately responsible for our own fates without having to face the consequences of wrong choices.
Are interactive stories inherently dangerous, then? Well, not exactly. As Kira continued to explain, these stories aren’t the problem, but our culture and our personal views are. These stories with their reliance on choice and virtual responsibility can fuel the fires of a society that desires no real personal accountability, but if we approach them in the right way, they can also do the opposite.
If we approach these stories with a Christian worldview lens, whether they’re games or a movie, we can analyze the themes and concepts they wish to impart to us in comparison to our beliefs. There is truth we can extract truth about morality and choice, responsibility, and owning up to our actions, and we can actually apply these to our own lives instead of using them to gratify a cheap imitation of accountability. If we use the themes they teach to challenge us to continue to make right choices, to continue to take responsibility for our own actions, and to continue to meditate on our own worldviews on free will and morality, then there is worth to be found in interactive media after all.
Ben Konuch is a sophomore strategic communications student and an A&E writer for Cedars. He enjoys getting sucked into good stories, playing video games and failing horribly at volleyball with his friends.