Her Story Becomes Their Story: An Interview With Sam Barlow

Her Story Becomes Their Story: An Interview With Sam Barlow 2

Interactive media company: Interlude hired Sam Barlow, visionary creator of Her Story as their Executive Creative Director.

Interlude has been pioneering a new form of media in which video can respond to a person’s actions and interests in real-time. Creating a wide range of interactive media ranging from music videos to movies. Recently Interlude partnered with Sam Barlow, the visionary game creator behind the interactive, FMV crime-procedural Her Story.

As Executive Creative Director at Interlude, Barlow will be responsible for conceiving and directing a variety of new Interlude experiences – including the previously announced original digital short inspired by MGM’s three-time Academy Award-nominated 1983 feature film WarGames. He will also lead definition of a number of new series which will be showcased on Interlude’s new eko network.

Sam Barlow is hoping to provide his vision to Interlude’s innovative platform for interactive media. CGMagazine sat down with Barlow to discuss his joining of Interlude, and what new and exciting projects he may be adding his expertise to.

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CGM: How did this partnership come about? Did you approach interlude? How did the whole thing start?

Sam Barlow:  Her story came out in June of last year and amazingly in the first week had a great buzz around it within the gaming community and the gaming press but that very rapidly seemed to spread outside of the gaming press into all other sorts of media. Out of that I started taking lots of meetings that were very interesting with pretty much any story telling medium such as book publishers, TV people and film people. It seems that we’re in a moment where all of those industries know that digital and the interactivity is going to be a big part of how they will tell stories in the future. I see it the most in book publishing because I think they are the ones who are feeling the burn the most. You have all these industries where they know this is something they have to engage with and they have to figure out, but they don’t know what direction to turn too and then you have video games which is an industry, which in theory, should be the cutting edge in solving some of these things and figuring out how we create interactive things.

One of those meetings early on was with Yoni Bloch, who was one of the founders of interlude, and I came to New York to hang out. Funny side of the story was when I said to my wife, because I was doing many of this meetings and trips, I’m flying out to meet with this Israeli rock star who’s creating a company about interactive video and he wants to hang out, she said “that sounds like one of those Nigerian prince scams, get off at JFK airport and someone’s going to bundle you into a van or something.” I said that’s a very targeted scam, probably only has one or two people that works on it.  I came out and saw various things that Interlude had in their hopper and talked to Yoni about his vision, which dovetail very nicely into my questions about how to follow up with what I did on Her Story.

I think that seeing what Interlude was working on and how their visions of working on creating these interactive narrative driven experiences that are delivered streaming over the internet so it would have a massive reach and could be interacted with by anyone anywhere, that for me was very exciting because the vision was to take this medium and find a very large audience for it and a business model to support it. The kinds of stories and experiences we were talking about were the things that motivated me to go independent with Her Story. I was frustrated with the pace video games was moving as an industry because it wasn’t moving fast enough as I wanted it to so this felt like a very good meeting of the minds, where we were talking about the same things, and so joining up with Interlude seemed like a good option.

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CGM: What are you hoping to provide Interlude and what are you hoping they provide you besides the wider reach creatively?

Sam Barlow: The relationships that Interlude has come from the TV and film world, so there’s a lot of knowledge of how those industries work, how to create that kind of content, and I think when you speak to the people from outside video games about how to add interactivity to gaming, people very quickly jump to a simple old-fashioned idea of what a video game is and then they struggle to see how that’s going to work with storytelling. I think, with me in particular, as someone who has been in that world, I probably have a more experienced nuance vision of how interactivity can embellish storytelling.

What I bring to the table is here are different ways of understanding how we can do storytelling interactively. One of the popular fantasies is the “holo-deck,” especially with VR now; that I can become the character literally, and make all the decisions and it’s as if I’m living in another reality. For many people that’s the end point for an interactive story but I feel that breaks down some of the rules of storytelling, which always has a frame to it, there’s always an amount of distance from the audience and the tension of deep emotional empathy for a character and having an element of distance or dramatic irony is what creates the interesting experience when we experience stories.

From the Interlude perspective you have a great kind of infrastructure, great vision, great tech and a wealth of experience and connections and an appetite to move fast and experiment by trying new things, which is very exciting for me, especially in a world where our video game cycles last 10 years. You might start an ambitious project, which lasts 3-4 year to come to fruition; there was a desire in me to accelerate the rate of experimentation and learning in the storytelling space. I think a start-up like Interlude has that kind of passion and desire to move quickly by exploring new ground, that is a big part of the package for me.

Her Story Becomes Their Story: An Interview With Sam Barlow

CGM:  Since Her Story do you have any ideas kicking around where you think that because you’re involved with Interlude, it’s going to make this project so much better?

Sam Barlow: I think in general that it’s the step up in terms of production values and scope of what kind of stories can be told. When I made Her Story it was similar to an indie movie that worked around the constraints and used them to its advantage. Now, the richness and the quality that we want to achieve is quite exciting to look at production values and telling some the series or shows that we are working on here, I get very excited when I look at them because this is the same quality you get from cable TV storytelling, but with this great interactive element. I’ve seen experimental indie exercise and cool bits and pieces, but it’s the ambition and combination of quality storytelling with the interactivity and the scale we can broadcast too, which feels very secluded.

CGM: With Interlude’s design portfolio are you guys going to focus on the FMV style or are you going to branch out and try out different genres or styles of “gameplay” in different kinds of videos.

Sam Barlow: I think that that is a big drive from Yoni is this needs to be an experimental thing. At the simplest level we are talking about how to take video, performance, and story and stream that and have it be interactive in different ways. We’re almost pushing to figure out as many different angles on this as possible because it feels like there’s so much ground to cover and so much room to explore. For example, what we’re doing with WarGames, which I’m directing, the way we’re dealing with this is very different. When you talk about interactive storytelling you think about the classic choose your own adventure and I think a lot of those classic FMV games would take that route of branching narratives and the user getting explicit choices and if you think within the video game space, companies such as Telltale, they are exploring that space of these kinds of explicit choices coming up that are solved via the user interface and the story will follow as a diverge.

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When we have a story figuring out what is the best way to make this interactive and how do we keep people immersed in the story telling, have them empathize with the characters but also have this kind of agency. In terms of what I’m bringing to Interlude, that’s always been a big focus of mine is figuring out, you have the person sat on the sofa interacting with this story and then you have the character in the story and they are separate people, what’s the best way to pull those two people together what’s the best way to make you feel involved in the story. It isn’t necessarily like a traditional video game to just push that character out with a stick, it might be done in all sorts of ways…. I’m stopping myself from talking too much.

CGM: Alternatively then, have there been projects that weren’t video games that were kind of like interactive movies or music videos that you’ve always wanted to work on that now, being part of Interlude, might help fuel these projects?

Sam Barlow: There are ideas of interaction, kinds of genres, kinds of nuggets of stories that I’ve always wanted to explore that there was never necessarily an option to do that within a traditional video game space. With Her Story being a police procedural there is a very different set of rules we have here. We’re talking about how do we tell people these interesting moving stories and genres, suddenly lots of these ideas or nuggets of interaction become far more… one of the most exciting things for me is when you’re addressing an audience that doesn’t have a huge amount of preconceptions, suddenly we can do many things that actually seem really really obvious.

A case-in-point is when I worked on Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, a horror game on the Wii, and as much as we could, since it was an established IP, one of the things we tried to do there was pretend we were working from a blank slate and one of the things that seemed blindly obvious to us was a huge deal at the time, was that the whole horror genre within video games was built on the template of the zombie film. Zombie films have tons of monsters, move slowly, they are dumb and the protagonists whack them with all sorts of weapons and blowing their heads off with shotguns, lots of engaging with the monsters and gore. That had become a staple of the horror video game, whatever the genre, if you’re talking about Silent Hill 2, where you have this intense psychological story, very character driven and atmospheric game, you still have to have at some point have wandering dumb monsters that you would beat up with a rusty pipe. That’s when we turned around and said we shouldn’t be whacking these monsters with bats, we should be running away from them and be scared and be confused. It should be like those nightmares where you run but you never quite get away and then you turn the corner and the monsters suddenly there.

It was always that we had these expectations from video gamers. The world of video games has got a very solidified set of expectations so the excitement with me here with forging this new genre of streaming interactive video is that we are able to make up the rules as we go along and we can have the story and the genre kind of drive that. So it opens up a lot of fun things and ideas I might have had previously that now can be applied here because their not budding up against, what kind of game is this or how does this fit with a gamepad?

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CGM: What is the future for Sam Barlow and Interlude?

Sam Barlow: So we’re working on a bunch of projects, the first thing you’re going to see is going to be WarGames, which I hope will kind of define the tone of what we’re working on together. Like I say, of the things we’re working on, it’s probably one of the most ambitious in terms of trying to tell the richness of story, the depth of story that you would be able to get from your premium cable show. It feels like the form and message feel so enmeshed because we’re tapping into the world around us right now. If you look at what does it mean, we’re talking about hacking and the military and young protagonists in the modern world. You look around and you see what hacking means in the modern day, the generation of hackers inspired by that original WarGames movie, that is a fascinating rich world.

We’re talking about a generation who lived so much of their lives online and then you look at the military and the way that’s become fueled by technology and then you stick that together and then you talk about a medium which is taking place in a your device, in your computer, in your phone and it’s interactive this great kind of meeting of different things that slot together perfectly. Like I say, the way you interact with WarGames is something you probably aren’t expecting, but will hopefully feel fresh, exciting and that should lay the foundations of the kind of ambitious story driven projects that we will be able to deliver.

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