A little twist this week. Ever since I was a young and impressionable teenager counting down the hours till I could next play Mass Effect, I’ve been drawn to games that allow you to shape your own story. It’s part of the reason why I eagerly anticipate most new Telltale releases. But the ultimate endgame, the holy grail of the ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ genre has to be the interactive movie. A live-action/FMV feature-length film that allows you to shape and influence minor choices as well as key events, resulting in wildly divergent outcomes at the end. Over the years there have been a number of games that utilized FMV (Full Motion Video, or live-action); it was wildly popular in the 90s, though the live-action segments are largely restricted to limited cutscenes and loading screens. The game I bring to you this week is a true, continuous, interactive movie that doesn’t stop from start to finish. I give you Late Shift.
Late Shift is the debut….(movie? Game? I’ll just call it ‘title’) from developer/filmmaker CtrlMovie. To date, Late Shift is the only title released by the studio but the company seems to be willing to sell the use of their technology and processes to independent filmmakers, so chances are we could see a slew of these games hit general release soon.
The player guides the choices and decisions of young student Matt, who parks cars in an underground garage in central London to help support his tuition. As I mentioned before, the whole thing is live action. You don’t move around, interact with items, gather curios or anything of the kind. You are in charge, purely and solely, of Matt’s choices, and get to watch the consequences unfold. Ever watched a movie with someone who can’t help but talk about how ‘everything they’re doing is wrong dude…why would you take the elevator in this situation…’ or something similar? Well, tell them to shut up and shove them towards this game.
Before playing I should say that I don’t know too much of the plot, other than the premise of Matt, the student car-parker. Obviously more needs to happen than a series of sweet parking maneuvers into tight spaces to satisfy my narrative fix, so let’s press on.
I’m treated to a gorgeous opening sequence of the London skyline at night, in beautiful 1080p. A voice (it appears to be Matt’s internal monologue) opens the game by beginning to talk about the random nature of life and human interaction. ‘Everybody going about their own business, mindless, structure-less, glassy-eyed automatons, subject to the whims of probability’ etc. Typical lonely first-year philosophy student-esque stuff. The soundtrack pulls my attention; a slick but not too intense ambient/electronic mix. I get to make my first few choices before the title screen rolls up, and I notice that you get very little time to make decisions. Anybody who has played Telltale games will be expecting a good five or six seconds to make a choice. Try three. Truer to real life, the game forces you to think on your feet like we all do every day. It’s no good standing in a main road for six seconds before choosing to jump out of the way of a speeding bus. Already I like that about LS, it’s a refreshing take on the choice-driven narrative.
[WARNING: Spoilers Ahead – Skip to Final Thoughts to avoid]
Herein lies the rub: owing to the aforementioned choice-driven narrative, there is no one, single storyline. Every decision you make causes your story to diverge from the other possible outcomes, like branches on a tree. Sometimes those branches can loop back and rejoin the main tree, sometimes they can’t. Sometimes they can rejoin the main tree, pass straight through the tree to the other side, then come back and rejoin again. Picture that tree for a moment. Now call an exorcist because that tree is straight up possessed. What all this means is that I can’t summarize the entire plot content based on my one playthrough; there are supposedly seven different endings and hundreds of different choices to find. I’ll attempt to summarize the key pieces that appear to be common to all arcs.
Matt’s quiet shift at the car park takes a dramatic turn when an intruder breaks in and forces Matt to drive out of the car park with him. He soon becomes embroiled in a plot to steal a priceless Ming dynasty porcelain rice bowl from an auction house with three other accomplices, including the captivating May-Ling. From there on leads a series of events that draws Matt ever deeper into a world of grand heists, Chinese crime syndicates and a night on the run from the law. I won’t mince words: my playthrough concluded in a way that was highly unsatisfactory and disappointing. Early in the game, Matt says to the player: “You are your decisions, that’s what shapes you.” Well, my decisions shaped me as some idiot getting arrested in a hotel room next to a dead May-Ling. I have to admit, it’s not my finest moment as a gamer.
Though the story wasn’t as gripping or intriguing as others I have played, it’s pretty solid and passes muster. There were a couple of good twists but no real ‘WTF’ moments, and as a result I never formed a real emotional attachment to the game. That being said, there is still a lot to take away from it. The Butterfly Effect remains one of my favourite all-time movies (yes, even though it has Ashton Kutcher starring), purely because I’ve always been fascinated by chaos theory. Tiny actions and seemingly insignificant choices can have vast consequences. I don’t believe any game I’ve played so far truly epitomizes this concept as much as Late Shift.
I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I’m disappointed about the lack of an intense and thought provoking plot. But I’m in love with the basic concept of the interactive movie (or an ‘audience-collaborative cinematic experience’, as per the CtrlMovie website). Being able to sculpt and shape the actions of actors on-screen is a powerful and unique feeling. These days, versatility is a huge strength. The fact that this game is available on a plethora of different platforms, including Apple TV, PS4, Xbox One, iOs, Steam and Nintendo Switch, scores major bonus points. At £9.99 on the Steam store (though it is much cheaper on Apple TV and iOs), it retails for the same amount as a new DVD release. Bearing in mind that there’s around four hours of video altogether with the alternate endings, that’s damn good value for money. Not to be lost on the player as well is some fantastic acting from the principals, Joe Sowerbutts and Haruka Abe. All in all, a very well-rounded game, made with cutting edge new techniques which make for a unique gaming experience.
Letter grade: B+
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