By Eric Hahn
Since its emergence in the late 1970s the Video Home System, or VHS, has been a particularly contested medium within cinematic discourse. VHS not only functioned as a means of encapsulating and materially dispersing the otherwise ephemeral film object—hitherto experienced as a fleeting event in theaters—but additionally challenged the very understanding of a cinematic work as a fixed artistic expression. From pan-and-scan reframing techniques that effectively cropped and altered the intended directorial framing of specific shots within a film to the ability for the user to selectively engage with particular cinematic narratives through fast-forward, rewind, and pause functions, VHS defied any authorial intent and materially shifted the authority to tell/show a story to the hands of the spectator. This spectatorial ability to manipulate cinematic and televisual time, or what Anne Friedberg refers to as “time-shifting” (443), drastically refigures the power dynamic between author and spectator and positions this “lesser” cinematic medium as an example of a kind of quasi-interactivity. The VHS proto-viewser can effectively choose, through a tactile interface (remote, VCR front panel, etc.), what scenes of a film to engage with at a given moment even allowing for totally new modes of temporal and narrative engagement with otherwise fixed content through unique tools like slow motion, fast-forward, pause, and rewind while the time shifted image remains visible on screen. While this remediation of cinema certainly challenged the author/viewer dynamic, the emergence of VHS additionally allowed for new explorations into cinema as a wholly interactive practice. By locating VHS as a unique technology and not simply a relocation of cinema, we can begin to understand its position in relation to contemporary interactive cinematic works.
Of particular interest to this short examination isn’t simply VHS as remediated cinema, which can indeed be argued as interactive to some extent, but rather the experimental, yet consumer based approaches to VHS as video game. Early VHS game systems like Action Max, View-Master Interactive Vision, and Control-Vision functioned as attempts to bridge the gap between film and video game at a historical moment when the two media seemed to exists on opposite sides of an unbridgeable gap. Video game consoles like Sega Genesis and Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) featured low-resolution graphics (16 and 8 bit respectively) that neither approximated the iconicity or audiovisual immediacy of cinema. With the emergence of VHS, however, the ability to locally store recorded moving images on easily accessible and distributable “cassettes” allowed for a new mode of engaging with cinema’s ability to “capture reality.” Rather than simply remediate cinematic works, these video game consoles attempted to allow users the ability to interact with material approximating recorded reality rather than low-resolution animations. Of course, this process had its limitations. Indeed, where systems like Sega Genesis and the NES allowed the user slightly more agency even if simplistically through controls like jumping and changing directions of your avatar at will, these VHS based systems had limited interactive functionality. This, however, is arguably what makes them so unique and significant to this study. It is precisely the hybridity between cinema and game, uninterrupted cinematic plot with some additional viewser agency, which places them as prime examples of interactive cinema in the home.
In “Fingers, Futures, Fates: Viewing Interactive Cinema in Kinoautomat and Sufferrosa,” Jenna Ng defines interactive cinema as involving the “ability (or, at least, so perceived) to intervene and change the images to produce an alternatively meaningful text and to have that text reflected back to us” (2). While, admittedly, the functionality and manipulability of these early VHS interactive systems was quite limited, the perceived ability to affect the outcome of a particular text was inherently the principal goal of these apparatus. Games like Sewer Shark (Dykstra, 1992) and Night Trap (Riley & Burgess, 1992), produced for the failed Control Vision VHS system (or NEMO), effectively offered up plot driven live action films/games where the narrative itself would proceed only through completing specific missions. Sewer Shark, for example, tells the story of a post-apocalyptic world in which most of humanity has resorted to living underground. The viewser’s avatar is a fighter pilot who must navigate the sewers destroying all mutant threats (rat/alligator hybrids, giant scorpions, etc.) in order to keep the underground city safe. While Sewer Shark’s plot and game play may be quite simplistic, it still foregrounds what Ng argues is a central distinction between interactive cinema and cinema proper, namely a temporality of presentness versus that of pastness (Ng 3). Although Sewer Shark retains a linear narrative despite the viewser’s interaction, the narrative discourse is only allowed to proceed if particular high scores are met, thus the actions of the viewser in the present determine the evolution of a predetermined plot.
If Sewer Shark favors immediate and simplistic action (shooting mutants) over narratalogical complexity, Night Trap conversely offers a more complex mode of interaction while relying on a more stilted mode of game play. In typical 1980s horror fashion, Night Trap tells the story of a slumber party interrupted by an attack of monstrous vampire-like creatures called “augers.” The goal of the viewser is to monitor the slumber party by switching between surveillance cameras and trapping invading augers when spotted. Although the interactivity essentially centers on simply pressing one of two buttons at a given point in time, the unfolding narrative is fundamentally modified by the viewser’s choice of which camera to monitor at a given moment. Much like contemporary interactive works like Late Fragment (Cloran, Doron, & Guez, 2007) which allows the audience to choose between simultaneously running diegetic threads, Night Trap allows for a spectatorial approach that rewards repeat viewing and points to a unique mode of engagement beyond the passivity often associated with the film viewing experience. Different events unfold that can only be viewed by particular security cameras thus the choice to watch an unfolding event in one means missing an event in another (possibly leading to a game over).
Although these two fairly simplistic examples of interactive cinema in the home gained limited popularity not in their original VHS NEMO versions but rather through the slightly less expensive Sega CD, their creation made possible through the emergence of VHS points to the medium’s significance in cinematic history. Although it is quite easy to dismiss this aesthetically offensive remediation of cinema as a lesser form, reinterpreting and/or looking beyond the limitations and problems of VHS allows for the visibility of the revolutionary aspects of this medium to emerge. While Friedberg points to VHS as producing a “new temporality” where films or videotapes are treated as “objects of knowledge to be explored, investigated, [and] deconstructed as if they were events of the past to be studied” (444), these works additionally point to the ways in which this technology allowed for the emergence of Ng’s cinema of presentness. In this new spectatorial position, the present experience and interaction with the cinematic work cannot be separated from the work itself. In essence, the “passive” spectatorial position traditionally associated with cinema is refigured as that of active shaper of text, as game and film collide.
Friedberg, Anne. “The End of Cinema: Multi-Media and Technological Change.” Reinventing Film Studies. Edited by Linda Williams & Christine Gledhill. Arnold, 2000, pp. 438-452.
Late Fragment. Dir. Daryl Cloran, Anita Doron, & Mateo Guez. 2007.
Ng, Jenna. “Fingers, Futures, Fates: Viewing Interactive Cinema in Kinoautomat and Sufferrosa.” Screening the Past, Vol. 32, 2011.
Night Trap. Dir. Don Burgess & James Riley. 1992.
Sewer Shark. Dir. Dykstra, John. 1992.