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Not Quite A Winning Move

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While Sam Barlow’s previous game, Her Story, channels the appeal of older technology to tell an enriching mystery, his latest effort stokes more current anxieties. #WarGames touches on the modern surveillance state, our vulnerability to being exposed online, and the veracity of news media. But while its premise and approach to cinematic storytelling are intriguing, its storytelling lacks the punch necessary to build on its novelty.

#WarGames does a good job of making you feel like a voyeuristic hacker. The story plays out through an interface of shifting video feeds of characters’ webcams and phones, as well as security feeds, Twitter pages, and more. You can highlight a specific feed to enlarge it, letting you pick up on a few minor character moments you might otherwise miss. You can also alter the story depending on which feeds you focus on, but shifting to a specific character’s video didn’t make me feel like an active participant in the story. Instead, I felt like a moviegoer who had to do a little extra work to get the full picture.

The multi-screen approach to storytelling puts a large emphasis on characters, which #WarGames falters on as often as it succeeds. The story follows Kelly “L1ghtman” Grant, one part of the hobbyist hacker crew “#WarGames,” who enjoys screwing with celebrities and uploading viral videos exposing them. When Kelly sees a misleading report on the news accusing her now-deceased veteran mother of treason, however, she and the #WarGames crew start tackling more personal targets.

Actor Jess Nurse does a great job of bringing Kelly to life, and she quickly won me over.  Many of the secondary characters, such as bratty schoolkid Zane or mother-of-two Torch, are hit-or-miss; awkward lines and overeager deliveries reminded me more of a budget TV series than a blockbuster film. This is clearly Kelly’s story, but you don’t get enough screen time with anyone else for them to develop. Still, the interactions between #WarGames, their allies, and their targets lead to some fun moments, especially as the action ramps up during a couple of heists.

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The plot also draws parallels to real-world events, such as the controversy surrounding U.S. Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl, the circulation of US weapons to war-torn countries, and the doxxing and exposing of high-profile celebrities. These are all fascinating threads to pull on, and the story is at its best when it explores their implications. But the plot only skims their surface, leading to a bland story that stifles its message and ends on a disappointing cliffhanger.

You can go back through the season once you’ve finished all six episodes, but there isn’t much reason to. The additional scenes you unlock by focusing on different screens don’t justify multiple playthroughs. You might learn a thing or two about different characters, but you can’t meaningfully alter the course of the plot.

The biggest difference I encountered comes when the #WarGames crew tries to sneak into a target’s hotel room. On my first playthrough, Kelly acted as a diversion by confronting the target head-on long enough for her boyfriend Rafi to get in and out of the room undetected. The second time, Zane was able to activate the sprinklers, forcing everyone out of the building and letting Rafi get away. Most other differences, however, are negligible.

#WarGames’ TV-style branding suggests a second season might soon emerge, but I’m not invested in seeing it continue at this point. It has potential as an experiment in interactive storytelling, but it’s going to take better acting, more meaningful choices, and meatier subject matter to keep me on board.


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