Fans of text adventures and the sadly defunct Telltale Games series can get their latest fill of branching narratives and choosing their own storyline courtesy of the new interactive sci-fi film, The Complex.
“Here is a brand new idea in fiction – a story which ends in any one of a dozen or more different ways, depending entirely on the taste of the individual reader.” This was the opening salvo on the inside sleeve of Doris Webster and Mary Alden Hopkins’ Consider the Consequences; published in 1930 it is potentially the first of what would later become widely known as gamebooks. Even before such stories had exploded in popularity in the 1970s, cinema was getting in on the action via the Czechoslovak audience controlled experience film, Kinoautomat.
The brainchild of Radúz Činčera, it paused at key moments and presented the audience with a choice of A or B which they voted for. This is a similar conceit to that used in 2016’s Late Shift in which the audience voted for their preferred course of action on their smartphones and the majority determined what happened next. The same company is behind The Complex, which finesses the previous film’s decision-making process while dropping in some additional perks for viewers/players.
Less metatextual than the Black Mirror foray into interactive cinema, Bandersnatch, The Complex isn’t as interested in playing with the nature of the branching narrative as exploring its genuine storytelling potential. As such, Lynn Renee Maxcy’s script doesn’t necessarily feel mind-bendingly fresh but perhaps delivers in ways we don’t anticipate from a format often dismissed as a gimmick. The plot itself sounds relatively rote: Dr. Amy Tennant (Michelle Mylett) and her colleagues are trapped in their lab in the bowels of The Complex (run by Kate Dickie’s visionary researcher) trying to escape while hostile forces attempt to force entry and steal their revolutionary technology and kill them. However, unlike Late Shift or Bandersnatch, there is character development enough to make you care about whether they succeed on a deeper level than purely whether you can configure the story in the right way.
This comes in two forms. One is cleverly using some early decisions to deliver emotional beats at the film’s climax. Typically the calls you make have direct consequences but here, even when they don’t seem to, Maxcy’s script brings things back around in unanticipated ways; there is a particularly difficult choice early on which really pays off well later. The other form is that while playing, you are also able to pause the action and access a stats screen which displays how you are managing your relationships with certain individuals and how your choices are cultivating Amy’s personality. It’s interesting to see how your handling of situations changes her demeanour and lays down a challenge to you as a player to create a compelling, rounded character yourself.
All of that is not to say that the format doesn’t still have its issues. The nature of the system means you always have those awkward moments in which Amy glances back and forth between two people before following your direction. There is also the fact that even with a good screenwriter on board, the way the conversations have to be constructed can make things feel forced. That said, Mylett and her co-star Al Weaver (who plays her fellow scientist, Rees Wakefield) manage to get into the rhythm and by the denouement, things feel relatively slick. Regardless, The Complex probably doesn’t quite scale the heights of Bandersnatch, or the similarly constructed computer game Heavy Rain, but it manages to make certain strides forward that bode well for the potential of the format.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson