In 1983, cyber-thriller movie “War Games” wound up a sleeper hit at the box office, grossing $80 million domestically from a $12 million budget. The movie starred Matthew Broderick as a tech-obsessed teenager who inadvertently hacks into government computers, coming close to unleashing World War III in the process.
The movie hugely influenced President Ronald Reagan and inspired a classified national security decision directive on telecommunications and automated information.
In an era that has spawned remakes of 1980s films ranging from “Red Dawn” and “The Karate Kid” to the upcoming “Top Gun,” perhaps a reboot of “War Games” was inevitable.
But for the reboot, “War Games” distributor MGM teamed up with entertainment company Eko to release a six-episode interactive TV series about a group of young hacktivists, starring an unknown cast.
Like the original movie, which was directed by John Badham and also starred Ally Sheedy, “#WarGames” revolves around the conflict between young people and military authorities. It contains references to the film and footage of Matthew Broderick’s character, David Lightman.
Yet the changes go way beyond an added hashtag. Director Sam Barlow has boldly reconfigured the movie as multi-screen entertainment deploying cellphone cameras, webcams and surveillance footage as the band of hackers, led by Kelly (Jess Nurse), becomes entangled in a web of drone warfare, news media and Washington D.C. politics.
Choosing which screen to watch influences the direction of the “#WarGames” story for the viewer. While radically different from the original “War Games” in terms of format and structure, Barlow — who received acclaim in the VR community for his 2015 interactive movie “Her Story” — says with his new take, “I’m not going to ruin anyone’s memories of ‘War Games.’”
Like its precursor, “#WarGames” is proving something of a sleeper hit. Having been available to stream online since March, the series will soon be launched on Xbox One. MarketWatch spoke with Barlow about #WarGames” and how it compares with the original film.
What attracted you to remaking “War Games” as an interactive multi-screen TV series?
Barlow: When this was first brought to me, my immediate reaction as a consumer was there’s a lot of 80s nostalgia and reboots happening. But the original movie was so specifically of a time and place. It is about that technology in 1983, it’s about the Cold War. It’s a movie you wouldn’t want to remake by tweaking a few things to update. I don’t think that makes sense.
For me as a creator, it always feels dishonest to directly prequel or sequel someone else’s story and take it places you think it should go or add redundancies that don’t need to happen. But the thing that got me excited, and the reason I moved beyond that initial skepticism, was thinking about how relevant the themes and the ideas of the movie were. It’s enshrined in pop culture. The idea of “War Games” exists as much as the movie.
What was the reception like when “#WarGames” was streamed online?
The reception speaks to how digital has changed traditional practices. If you’re doing a network TV show, you need it to be a hit from the start to satisfy advertisers. For theatrically released movies you need to justify the movie theaters you’re booking so people don’t turn up to see the movie two weeks after it’s closed.
The beautiful thing about digital is it’s there and available. There’s no cost for people to sit and wait to find it. What you really want is to find the audience that loves the thing you created because then they’re going to tell their friends and push it to people so you have this longer tail that specifically exists like this in digital.
No one really knows how best to do these things and certainly for “War Games” and for Eko it was a case of releasing it and seeing that it works. There’s a progressive rollout on “War Games” where I can see the stats panels and what different versions people are getting. Are the things that we’re testing working? Getting that data and being able to calibrate it whilst it’s live is another weird thing you get to do now. You can tweak things forever digitally.
— eko (@ekovideo) April 27, 2018
How do you think your take on “#WarGames” compares with that of the original movie?
The unique thing with “War Games” now is that the show is live to the experience in browser, on phones, online. We tried to answer the question: How do you tell a story about a bunch of people who have never meet each other physically and who are all sat in different rooms around the world in front of computers? That is very uncinematic. Every hacker story tries to find their own solution.
“War Games” [the movie] gave the computer a voice because otherwise it was just Matthew Broderick reading out what is on the screen. A show like “Mr Robot” localizes a lot of its hacker groups in a cool location so they can all hang out and talk and be shot conventionally. With “#WarGames” we hacked the idea of a video conference. Our story takes place across multiple screens with all these different hackers talking to each other, CCTV that they’ve hacked, live news broadcasts they’re watching. We use what you’re looking at to drive the story. We’ll branch the story, tweak the story to adapt to the characters or the types of action that you’re favoring so it becomes an interactive choice-based narrative in which the choices are kind of invisible.
This is definitely why I wanted to make it clear in our universe the world of “War Games,” the original movie, exists. Our characters talk about it and use it. If you have happy memories of “War Games,” they’re safe! We’re doing something interesting and forming part of the conversation with it.
How do you balance conventional storytelling demands with the interactive nature of VR?
It’s about creating something that feels more immersive, organic and reactive. In videogames and VAR sometimes people say “Our medium is so new and different that we’re going to throw out all the rules of storytelling. This is an entirely new way of telling stories.” But if you have a little bit of historical perspective, you see the core way in which a story works hasn’t really changed across theater, novels, comic books and TV. The basics have stuck around. There’s more that links stories across different mediums than divides them. If you look at how [Alfred] Hitchcock constructs a movie, so much of his technique is happening in the audience’s mind and what information he gives to let them act the story in their heads.
The visual storytelling in cinema is already, to some extent, interactive. So for me the experience of extending videogames and how to tell an interactive show is thinking along those lines. Hitchcock would love to have got his hands on the interactive tools. If he could see the metrics of the players, he would have enjoyed playing with that.
The thinking in “War Games” is reaching for a future where your TV knows where you’re looking for and knows if you’re smiling or happy. All that information about the audience reaction that human beings would get. With “#WarGames” we’ve abstracted the idea of looking so that we get a solid read on what you’re thinking….it was a conscious effort on our part to try and create an interactive story that wasn’t hijacking all of your conscious effort!
A movie’s success is based on ticket sales. But how do you measure success with “#WarGames” online and via VR?
The beautiful thing with an interactive show is the whole thing is its own capture. There is a human being sat there, interacting with the show who is concentrating and watching this thing. If you put an ad against this, there is a real person watching it and they’re engaged and enjoying it. We can actually tell you how engaged they are because we only charge for an engaged user. There’s something about the granularity you’re going to have with an interactive show of knowing you have an engaged audience, the audience is expressing themselves through watching the show. From a business perspective you have access to the stats, you know who has been watching it, how long they have had access for and the way in which they watched it. Which characters did they prefer? What kinds of stories did they like? You have this high-quality data.
What were the economics like for “#WarGames” as an interactive series?
The way this was shot, in terms of the planning, was very much like we were making a moderately-budgeted independent movie in terms of the locations, shoot, cast and wardrobe. Production-wise, because of the format, we had to invent a lot of techniques for shooting a lot of multiple locations simultaneously. People get scared when you talk about branching narratives and say, “Oh you’ll have to shoot 100 times the footage.” Yes, you are shooting a lot more footage but a lot of it is in the same location with the same set-ups with the same talent. The bang for buck is there.
Attitudes to technology have radically changed since the “War Games” movie was released.
That movie was almost science fiction to people watching it. Computers were somewhat magical. It was a glimpse into a world that felt very strange and different…even the whole concept of hacking five years ago had the air of something that was slightly removed. Hackers were mythical creatures that would hack into banks — it was big, exciting stuff. Now that so much of our lives are online, everybody is forced into thinking about their information security. Once I spoke to hackers for this, I very rapidly stopped using public wifi.
The core of “#WarGames” for me was telling the story of a charismatic hacker and how social this world is and making her a likeable person who is fun and who people can connect with. We hear so often that technology is bad but I wanted to try to find some of the optimism and explore the younger activist scene. That was the commonality with the original movie where there is this battle between Broderick and Sheedy as these naive young people and their parents who think they understand the global military-industrial complex telling them they don’t get it. So I thought, let’s cling onto the purity of that generational conflict, especially in the modern day when we have an even more vague and mired international scenario.
The most interesting feedback has been when we did a focus group. Some kids said this is such a weird show for us because we’re going to have to concentrate on it. When we watch TV now, we’re watching it and playing with our phones and we have a browser and three tabs open. They’re like, “This is forcing me to concentrate, which is a very strange experience. This is cool and I’m really engaged and involved in the story.”
The series has a female-driven, diverse cast. Was that deliberate?
When we asked hackers about the things that sucked about how their world has been depicted, the number one answer was always “Nothing happens that quickly — someone can’t hack into a system in ten minutes.” The next was the representation of hackers. I felt strongly about that coming from videogames where there have been huge problems with hiring practices but at the same time there is a lot of diversity. To make a show about hackers in 2018 having a diversity of faces and voices felt an important part of the mix.
Looking at the original “War Games” with an amount of perspective, it’s a shame that Ally Sheedy, who’s a wonderful actress, has a very decorative role. It’s like a PG-13 version of “Game of Thrones” exposition! Whenever there’s any exposition that is needed, Ally Sheedy calls Matthew Broderick up while doing her aerobics.
“#WarGames” will be released on Xbox One later this year