Created by Her Story designer Sam Barlow, WarGames works like an interactive television show. It follows the story of Kelly, a hacker who goes from prankster to leader of a group exposing government secrets. As players choose what they see on screen, they slowly shape Kelly’s personality and make key choices that affect the story. Not everything works, but it’s an interesting experiment.
This version of WarGames has nothing to do with the 1983 movie, and the concept sounds more complicated than it actually is. The experience mostly amounts to watching an original television series. At any given time, the viewer can focus on one of numerous video feeds, moving it to the center of their screen with their mouse while the others continue in real time. This can mean managing the different perspectives of an online video call or through security camera feeds. Depending on what is in focus at certain moments, WarGames will decide what Kelly focuses on or does in the next scene. It’s an interesting idea with an execution that might be too subtle.
As I moved from one screen to another in my own playthrough, I never quite got the sense that I was radically changing Kelly’s personality. From time to time, I was forced to make story decisions, including a harrowing moment deciding who to warn about an impending drone strike in a North African country. These crisis points were more effective at making me feel involved as a viewer than the slow process of slightly shaping Kelly’s personality. A lot of this is thanks to strongly-written character relationships. While many of the characters fit certain cliches—the edgy activist hacker, the pale bedroom dweller, the slimy news anchor—WarGames takes time to give Kelly private moments with each of them. The acting isn’t always riveting, but it’s enough that driving a wedge between characters with certain decisions is always tense.
WarGames stumbles when it wants to talk about big issues. The entire story begins with Kelly’s recently-deceased military mother being turned into a political symbol for different agendas. It builds from there to examine things like doxxing and drone strikes. These are interesting topics, but it often feels like the series moves between them too quickly to actually examine them in depth. It doesn’t help that Kelly and her hacktivist collective lack any particular ethos beyond hacking whatever is personally important to them at the time.
Kelly’s story has plenty of twists, and I can’t stop wondering what trouble my choices caused. It’s not as involved as classic FMV games like Ripper or Wing Commander and the big ideas never quite land, but the format is one of the most interesting interactive experiences I’ve had in a long time.