There were four projects that had not been on my radar before gamescom began, but ended up being among my personal highlights. One of them was Late Shift, an interactive live-action thriller created by Swiss studio CtrlMovie. As co-writer and director Tobias Weber presented me with a trailer, Late Shift’s top-notch film production highly impressed me, making me eager to find out more about the project. Unfortunately, there was only time to see just a few scenes in action on an iPad, but I was particularly fond of the seamless transitions between interactive and non-interactive content in this cinematic crime drama. Since Late Shift uses a continuous element of time pressure, these transitions were particulary important so the feeling of “being in the movie” was never interrupted. In case a decision isn’t made in time, an automatic choice is selected. This makes a lot of sense, as maintaining the flow of the story is a crucial element of the experience.
One scene Tobias showed me required swiping through a live-action location, trying to find a code for a door. If you find the code and enter it in time, what happens next differs from a scenario in which you don’t find the code in time. Everything else I saw related to the aspect of choice and consequence, as Late Shift allows you to lead the main character into different directions that result in seven different endings. Co-written by Michael Robert Johnson, best known for writing the screenplay of Guy Ritchie’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie, Late Shift is currently available on the App Store for iPad and Apple TV, with ports for other platforms planned for 2017.
For a better idea of what to expect from Late Shift, and a deeper understanding of how the creators are tackling the subject of interactive storytelling, Tobias shared plenty of insights with me in the following interview.
Ingmar Böke: Knowing how difficult it is to secure funding for live-action video games, I’m extremely surprised to see such top-notch film material. How did you get funding for this – seemingly quite expensive – production?
Tobias Weber: Indeed, funding has not been an easy subject for us. We tried film subsidy, but they declined and reasoned their decision with Late Shift being a game.
Ingmar: You fell between the cracks.
Tobias: Yeah, we totally fell between the cracks. Fortunately, Pro Helvetia – which is a fund for cultural projects in Switzerland – saw the potential of what we were trying to do and supported us. Swiss TV SRG SSR has also been very generous, so we received further funding from their transmedia fund. Nevertheless, that was only a small part of the overall budget as we put a lot of private money into the project.
Ingmar: What can you tell me about the story?
Tobias: The story is about a math student from London named Matt. He’s trying to financially keep his head above water by working as a night guard in a parking garage. Even though he is a smart guy, he has problems with making decisions. Matt kind of struggles his way through life, dealing with algorithms and game theory…
Ingmar: (grins) Anything autobiographical in there?
Tobias: (laughs) Well, uhm… no comment! (laughs again) Anyways, Matt stumbles into a crime story that begins with a car theft during his late shift. It turns out, though, that the car theft is related to a much bigger crime. Our protagonist is forced into a brutal heist at a famous auction house in London. He is left proving his innocence, and figuring out who really is behind all of this.
Ingmar: I was impressed with the way the movie keeps on running seamlessly while the viewer/player makes decisions. Please elaborate on that aspect and the element of time pressure.
Tobias: While in earlier attempts of interactive cinema the film has always stopped at decision points, we were convinced that it would be important for the audience to stay immersed in the film. We wanted them to be under the same amount of time pressure as is the main protagonist. Life too does not wait. No decision is also a decision. This was a creative decision and a technical challenge, but it was worth it. People are very impressed with the fact they don’t see where the film branches, and yet they realise it’s going in the direction they chose.
Ingmar: What other gameplay mechanics does Late Shift use?
Tobias: In the cinema it’s the decisions the audience takes as a collective. When you’re watching Late Shift on a touch device, however, there are other ways of interaction. At times you can swipe the image to look around, you can tap objects in the film to decide what to do with them. And you get to operate devices like a door lock, phones or a computer. Depending on your input the story progresses differently.
Ingmar: Are action elements important in Late Shift?
Tobias: Late Shift does contain some action scenes, but I have to say that the gameplay isn’t really focusing on that element. You don’t have to fight other people, and we’re not using Quick Time Events either. We’re rather interested in players dealing with ethical and moral questions. Who can be trusted? Which side are you choosing for what reasons? Things like that, you know.
Ingmar: Can you elaborate on this aspect of ethical and moral choices and consequences in Late Shift?
Tobias: In games you get full agency, but often enough you simply steer your characters down a street or have them open doors. In films, such transitional moments are usually cut. That’s part of cinematic language. Cinema likes to concentrate on the story – on conflicts between characters, on difficult decisions, personal agony, emotions, love – the stuff that matters in life, the stuff that defines us as human beings. “Your decisions are you” is the film’s tagline. We wanted to let the users explore the relationship of their choices and the resulting consequences.
Ingmar: The CtrlMovie technology seems like an important element behind your approach. Please tell me a little more about it, and what it allows you to do.
Tobias: CtrlMovie allows for very seamless interactive movies on all sizes of screens, from cinema to home entertainment to touch devices. It’s a professional tool for cinematic content creation, which is intuitive to use and yet very powerful. It allows the use of scripts for complex branching and features a proprietary audio tool for dynamic soundtracks. We developed the tool as we went along, adding features as we saw their necessity.
Ingmar: What movies (and perhaps TV shows) inspired you as a director and co-writer when it comes to the look, atmosphere, and story premise of Late Shift?
Tobias: There’s a variety of films I like, ranging from Drive to Oceans 11. Hard to pinpoint where exactly the inspiration has come from.
Ingmar: You co-wrote the script with Michael R. Johnson, who also wrote the screenplay for the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie by Guy Ritchie. What was the creative process between you and Michael like?
Tobias: I’ve known Mike for a very long time; we went to film school together and I always liked his writing style and humour. I came up with the general mechanics of the story and bounced my ideas off him, then I wrote a first draft which he finalised. The result was the script we shot with; I only made a few alterations in the preproduction phase to accommodate the specifics of the locations we would be shooting at. The collaboration was very pleasant and highly professional. You know they say the Swiss are punctual, but it was indeed Mike who delivered on the minute.
Ingmar: The trailer mentions that Late Shift contains more than four hours of film scenes. What’s the estimated length of one play through?
Tobias: Actually, one play through of Late Shift is about as long as a traditional movie. Something between 70 and 90 minutes, but it also depends on some of your decisions. If you want to go back to previous chapters to make different choices, you’ll always be able to do so. As you can imagine, it’s impossible to see all content if you only play through Late Shift once. Having said that, you should be able to play the entire game several times without getting bored.
Ingmar: Did you play adventure games when you grew up? Do you consider them an influence on what you’re doing today?
Director Tobias Weber (foreground)
Tobias: As a kid I loved “choose your own adventure” books, which enabled you to choose different ways of experiencing a story. Me and my friends also played tabletop roleplaying games like DSA that were rather text-based and required your own imagination. During the ‘90s, however, I played lots of point-and-click adventure games including Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max, Monkey Island and many others. I really enjoyed them, so it is likely they had a certain influence on me. More importantly, though, I often watched movies, and kept on thinking what choice I would have made in a tricky situation. What if I could have felt the pressure of the protagonist when he or she had to make a considerable decision? What if I could have made that decision on my own? Those thoughts always fascinated me. I was hoping one day people could experience something similar that would take place within a really cool setting.
Ingmar: It’s kind of funny how often I used to hear that interactive movies are dead. Now you have studios like Quantic Dream and Telltale that – even if their games don’t contain live-action video – are actually pretty successful with doing interactive movies. What’s your take on these developments?
Tobias: While I’m not a hardcore gamer who finished all these games, I’m well aware of them, and feel like we’re all doing something similar. As you can imagine, I’m very happy about their success. Personally, I believe there’s a space between film and game that can be approached from two different sides. The studios you mentioned approach interactive movies from the perspective of game developers. We, on the other hand, approach it as traditional film makers and try to extend the potential of live-action video, which has its pros and cons. If you’re using CGI to create story-driven games, you have a lot of freedom. Obviously, we don’t have that freedom as we’re using pre-recorded film material. Nevertheless, I believe that nothing can feel as realistic and emotional as real human beings. So, yeah, while there are pros and cons, I think we meet each other somewhere in the middle.
Ingmar: What you just said about the pros of live-action video reminds me of my interview with the creators of The Bunker. Amongst other things, we also talked about Telltale’s version of Games of Thrones. It was nice seeing some characters from the show in the game, with the original voices. Yet it felt odd to see them as cel-shaded characters, and I just wasn’t able to care about them as much as I do when I watch the HBO series.
Ingmar: Sitting in front of the TV, and seeing great actors like Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey just has a totally different effect on me.
Tobias: Right, and that’s exactly the gap we’re trying to position ourselves in. While it is possible to play Late Shift on the iPad, our porting for the AppleTV has better sales. It makes perfect sense. This kind of experience just works best when you’re sitting on the couch, playing and seeing it on a big screen. On the AppleTV it is also possible to play the multi-player mode with your friends.
Ingmar: How does that work?
Tobias: Well, whether you’re playing with five or ten people, everyone just needs to install our app to their tablets or smart phones. Each player has to vote for his or her preferred decision in situation x. The choice that receives the most votes “wins” and unfolds the story.
Ingmar: Let’s say you’re playing Late Shift with four people. Two of them choose option A, the other two choose option B. What happens?
Tobias: In case of a draw it’s either predefined by the script or set to random, depending on the situation.
Ingmar: You mentioned that Late Shift is available for iPad and Apple TV. What can you tell me about other platforms?
Tobias: We’re planning to do a PlayStation 4 version. Hopefully, we’ll also be porting to other consoles like Xbox One. Android is another subject we’re discussing. That would be particulary cool as an Android porting would allow us to be on Smart TVs. The PC should become an interesting option as soon as we start working on the Xbox version. Ideally, all of these portings should arrive in 2017.
Ingmar: Any plans for further live-action games in the future?
Tobias: Absolutely! Late Shift demonstrates our CtrlMovie technology and we want others to work with it, too. Having said that, we’re currently talking to film students and film production companies that are interested in using our tools to create their own content. Of course, our team is also going to come up with a new project at some point in time!