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Dim future for interactive film

"Interactive" is the kind of word I like to interact with by hitting the "delete" key on my computer. I'm asked at least twice a week about the future of "interactive movies," and I am sorry to disappoint, but the answer is: Interactive movies have no future. They're already over with, except as a buzzword often found in the same sentence with terms like "infobahn" and "information revolution."

Interactive games are quite another matter. There is a new generation of computer-based CD-ROM programs, including "Myst" and "Cosmology of Kyoto," which abandon the tired old pinball machine approach of the Nintendo-style games, and create evocative, mysterious worlds through which the user can wander, discovering the rules as he goes along.

The key difference between interactive movies and interactive games is that the games operate on a one-on-one basis, while the movies theoretically would have to involve an audience, and the rule of the majority. Also, the new kinds of games are intuitive; you click here or there on the screen, discovering what will happen, while with an interactive movie would have to be some sort of menu of choices or plot lines.

Let's look at the two concepts separately: Interactive movies:

This very term is an oxymoron. We aren't supposed to interact with movies; they're supposed to act upon us. One of the fundamental reasons we go into a movie theater is to hand over control to the screen. We sit in our seats, the lights darken, and we have a vicarious experience. If the movie involves us, we leave our problems and preoccupations outside the theater, and enter a reverie state. The movie guides us, showing us what to see, hear, think and feel.

An interactive movie would demand our participation in the storytelling process. I think such an experience would be a nightmare for audience members. Let's walk through a hypothetical interactive episode, based on the new movie "Speed."

In "Speed," the characters are on a bus that has been rigged with a bomb. If the bus drops below 50 miles an hour, it will explode. The bus is traveling down a freeway still under construction. Coming up soon is a 50-foot gap in the road. Terror is reflected in the eyes of the brave female passenger who has been drafted to drive the bus. The hero cop looks ahead grimly as the gap approaches. Please select one:

A. The cop tells the driver to floor the bus, building up speed in an attempt to leap the gap.

B. The driver desperately tries to spin the bus around without losing momentum, pointing it in the opposite direction.

The audience sits in the dark, grasping their remote-control voting devices. A second ago, they were totally absorbed in the movie. Now their concentration is broken. A menu with choices "A" and "B" is flashing on the screen. Audience members are shouting "go for it!" and "she'll never make it!"

Finally, everybody has voted. But the menu is still on the screen - because, in time-honored movie fashion, enough time must elapse for even the slowest reader to painfully sound out every word.

OK. Let's say a majority of the audience voted for "A." There are groans from the "B" faction. The bus speeds up. The suspense builds. The passengers on the bus look fearful, as the cop shouts for them to brace themselves. The heroine at the wheel floors the accelerator. The gap comes closer. We're involved again, on the edge of our seats. Will the bus make it? It's going faster, faster . . . and the gap is coming closer, closer . . . and . . .

Please select one:

A. The bus successfully leaps the gap.

B. The bus fails to bridge the gap, falls to the ground, and explodes. And, if your choice is "B":

C. The hero and heroine leap free and are miraculously saved as the bus falls.

D. Everybody is killed in the explosion.

Of course, if "B" and then "D" are selected, the movie is over. It has been 45 minutes long. Fights break out in the audience between the blockheads who voted for "B" and "D" and everybody else. People start shouting for the projectionist to run the movie back and start it again.

All of this is completely hypothetical, of course, because given the incredible expense of the special effects in a movie like "Speed," it is harldy likely any studio would authorize the filming of several alternative action sequences. Nor is it likely a director would want to relinquish the editing choices in his movie to an audience. Nor would an actor want to play a character whose decisions were at the whim of remote-control devices. Nor, of course, would an audience want to endure such an experience.

It's easiest to imagine interactive movies in the action genre. But what about dramas? Would an audience be invited to make Gandhi's ethical decisions? Decide whether the butler falls in love with the housekeeper in "The Remains of the Day"? Vote whether the words "I do" are used at a crucial moment in "Four Weddings and a Funeral"?

I don't think so. The practical and artistic problems associated with interactive movies are so overwhelming, and obvious, that I'm amazed the notion of their possibility is still entertained.

On the other hand . . . Interactive games:

Here the majority does not rule, because there is only one player. In new interactive CD-ROM games such as "Cosmology of Kyoto," there isn't even an antagonist. Nor are there many rules. The essence of the game is to create an experience, and your experience of this game may be completely different from mine.

The game takes place in the medieval Japanese city of Kyoto, circa the year 900. A map of the city's streets and principal landmarks is supplied with the game. The rules are very simple: To go ahead, click in the center. To go left or right, click left or right. If the cursor symbol does not form an arrow, that means you cannot go in that direction.

When you are confronted with a character or object, clicking on it may allow you go come closer. Sometimes characters speak to you (in Japanese, with English subtitles). You can respond by typing, but you have to intuit appropriate responses (when a monk said a prayer, I repeated it after him, and he seemed pleased). Sometimes objects (mirrors, coins) can be picked up and taken along with you, for future use.

At no point in the instructions is the object of the game explained. Having played it for about four hours now, I believe that the goal is to have the experience of wandering through this medieval city, opening doors, exploring streets and rooms, and meeting the inhabitants. The things I pick up may help me on my way. If I penetrate a palace or inner temple, I may find something of great interest, but now I am wandering through rag-and -bone shops on the southern outskirts.

The game is visually beautiful. The colors and drawings evoke a cross between Japanese medieval art and the stylized characters of modern "Japanimation" feature -length cartoons. There is mood music - sometimes soothing, sometimes discordant and alarming. Sometimes the characters sing or chant.

This form of interactivity creates a reverie state that's a seductive cross between going to the movies, and exploring an unfamiliar city. I love to walk city streets - exploring London has been my obsession for years - and I never think much about where I'm going. I walk up this street and down that, finding places I didn't know I was looking for. "Cosmology of Kyoto" creates the same kind of experience, and is curiously absorbing; at some level, I am not playing a CD-ROMbased computer game, but venturing down the threatening, promising streets of an unknown city.

This kind of interactivity interests me a great more than the kind of computer games where you bop enemies on the head, fry your opponents, and shoot your way through to some kind of treasure. One of the pleasures of "Cosmology of Kyoto" (and of "Myst," a current best-seller, which I also have sampled) is that you devise the rules as you go along. The game informs you how to move among its images, and then leaves the rest up to you. There are clues and discoveries that help you decide what to do next, but in general, you are a traveler in a strange land.

Because computer games are computer-generated, of course there is no problem in creating countless scenarios, locations and actions. The clock isn't ticking on a Hollywood movie production schedule. I have no idea how many different houses, rooms, characters and sitations there are in "Cosmology of Kyoto," but so far I have explored only one small quarter of the city, and failed to exhaust its resources. There is the delicious sense that possibilities multiply without limit.

One key difference between interactive movies and games is that we expect movies to be linear - to tell a story. Every time an interactive movie reaches a branch in its story trail, each choice eliminates all of the others. A game like "Cosmology of Kyoto" does not tell a story, and seemingly does not have a plot. It is more about curiosity and unshaped explorings.

My feeling is that the two art forms really have little in common, except perhaps for the invitations they issue for us to enter their worlds. When we go to the movies, we enter into the experience of the characters. In some way, we become them. When we play an interactive game, we are the central character, and we determine our own experience.

I like both feelings. It is important not to confuse one with the other.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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