The Late Shift

We’re taking a look at a game that has truly shaped the future of its genre with respect to both gaming and the future of cinema. Late Shift is hitting the three-year anniversary of its release in 2016 and still is racking up the downloads. SteamSpy estimates upward of 500,000 owners of this game along with 2.3K views on Youtube this week alone. This FMV (Full Motion Video) game was shot on location in London, England in full HD with a shooting budget of $1.5 million. It was directed by Tobias Weber, the CEO of CtrlMovie, and produced by Baptiste Planche and Kurban Kassam. Michael R. Johnson expertly crafted the story of this action-packed thriller. That name might sound familiar to you, and for good reason. He is the same man that wrote the screenplay for 2009’s Sherlock Holmes as well as Pompeii in 2014. The lead role of Matt is played by Joe Sowerbutts…

best known for I Capture The Castle (2003) and as the voice of Harry Potter in the Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone video game in 2001. May-Ling is played by Haruka Abe. Abe has appeared in films such as 47 Ronin (2013), Cyberbully (2015), and the TV series Emerald City (2017). Also, there is one other name that you might recognize and that would be Richard Durden. Richard has been seen in Pumpkinhead: Blood Feud (2007), From Paris with Love (2010), and Churchill (2017) just to name a few. CtrlMovie took the lead as the developer for the game, and that only seems natural since they created the engine that drove the project, while they shared the publisher’s role with Wales Interactive. Wales Interactive is known for The Bunker, Attack of the Earthlings and Don’t Knock Twice VR. The cast and crew set this game up for success and won some awards along the way.

  • Best Mobile/Tablet – Game Connection Development Awards 2016
  • Most Creative & Original – Game Connection Development Awards 2016
  • BAFTA Cymru 2018 – Games Award Winner

Equally impressive is the fact that this video game has made its way around to some pretty distinguished film festivals since release.

  • Cannes NEXT Marché du Film
  • NIFFF International Fantastic Film Festival
  • Stockholm International Film Festival
  • New York Film Festival
Joe Sowerbutts as Matt
Haruka Abe as May-Ling

Now let us look a little more into how this game has changed cinema. This game was the direct inspiration for the Netflix Original, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Netflix was so impressed with the reaction it received that they plan to release even more interactive movies as time goes on. Twentieth Century Fox announced that it is teaming with CtrlMovie to integrate the technology developed for Late Shift so that it will allow movie audiences to control the storyline and characters in the upcoming film Choose Your Own Adventure. I reached out to CtrlMovie and was extremely excited to hear back from the director of Late Shift and CtrlMovie CEO, Tobias Weber.  When asked about Late Shift turning three and how they have made an impact with this game he replied

“Yes, it’s awesome, LATE SHIFT has been out for three years and it’s still going. Still being downloaded on a regular basis. It’s been a great ride, and we’re very thankful for that…LATE SHIFT has certainly been a door opener for this kind of format…We’re very excited about the future of this format, and we’re looking forward to a slate of upcoming films. Many have dubbed CtrlMovie the film format of the future. We don’t think it will replace the linear film, but we sure think branched narratives will play an important role in the next decades of cinema.”

The central narrative of this experience is that the player takes control of Matt (Joe Sowerbutts), a very bright University student. Matt is all about the numbers and focuses his trust in mathematics and probability. He is bored with the day to day grind of working his job in the parking garage on the Late Shift to pay for his education but he puts up with it because he is almost done with school and the solitude of the shift gives him ample time to read and study when not dreaming about the exotic cars he is being paid to protect. The night doesn’t stay mundane for long,  as Matt’s world comes crashing down around him instantly. A turn of events sees the young student being forced to participate in the armed robbery of a high-end auction house. Now Matt must prove his innocence while trying to stay alive.

When Michael R. Johnson was asked, by the writers of the Late Shift Factsheet, to comment on what drew him to the project and the challenges of writing a branching script like Late Shift he replied…

“There are two aspects of ‘Late Shift’ that really drew me to the project. The first is the idea of a truly interactive film. It’s been attempted before with limited degrees of success, but what I feel puts ‘Late Shift’ ahead of the pack is the CtrlMovie format itself, which brings the viewer/player into the experience in a very intuitive way. I like the fact that rather than saddling the viewer with a series of arbitrary “go left” or “go right” choices, ‘Late Shift’ instead puts you into the shoes of an actual character – Matt- and the decision-making process always draws on Matt’s ongoing experiences and train-of-thought. You feel that each separate decision is weighted with careful consideration and the possibility of multiple consequences, good or bad. Which leads onto the second aspect of ‘Late Shift’ that really appealed to me: the fact that although there is any number of possible paths through the story, involving different characters and locations, the outcomes of each are strongly influenced by the morality of the viewer’s decisions. How you choose to interact with other human beings has a cumulative effect on how they decide to treat you, and how that impacts on your own fortunes as the story progresses. If Matt treats people with respect, they will tend to treat him with respect, and vice versa. But that’s not to say that ‘Late Shift’ forces the viewer to be moral against their will. Quite the opposite. The viewer is free to interact in whatever way they see fit, ethical or otherwise. It’s just like very much the fact that – unlike many console games – you cannot simply crash through the story with impunity and not at some point be faced with the consequences of your own actions. Just like in life.”

Johnson definitely had a lot on his plate, with the game containing over 180 decision points in total, with no pauses or looping footage, which lead to seven possible endings.  

An example of how choices are presented.
With only a short amount of time, you must chose quickly.

Teaming with CtrlMovie this time, Wales Interactive changed the gameplay mechanics from their last FMV title The Bunker. Gone were the generated interactive scenes between filmed scenes. The technology provided by the CtrlMovie Engine allowed for the seamless integration of choices being presented to players on the screen in real time as the scene progressed. These choices are displayed on the screen with a countdown to show how much time they have to choose their option, all while the scene is still in progress with no pause. After the player picks their choice, the scene continues on the path chosen. This allows for a fully immersive experience. As I mentioned before, this game has over 180 decision points that lead to one of seven different endings. This is an area where the game drew criticism from some gamers.

Some people were vocal that they felt the choices presented to them did not affect the gameplay enough. The argument was that some felt their choices would only result in dialect changes between characters or small changes, then it would put you right back onto the same story arc. This reaction, I believe, was in fact that this was being treated as only a game in their mind. It is important to remember that this is a film just as much as it is a game. Most games that boast anywhere near this many endings and choices would have a playtime of at least 30 plus hours. Late Shift does it roughly in one hour and forty minutes. In a traditional game, these choices would affect other quest lines or simply how others felt about the player (such as factions systems). In Late Shift, these options do affect how things will progress but more importantly, they build the story around you and allow you to develop the emotions within. They shape how others feel about you and how they react to you. The story is developed by the player while it was written by someone else. For example, the way the player chooses to have Matt interact with May-Ling affects the chemistry between the two. Does Matt see good in May-Ling and treat her as more than a common thief, maybe even forming the start of a romance? Or, does he interact with her like she is a common thug? These choices don’t jump right out at you as you play but instead slowly build up in layers, as your story unfolds. This is important because these choices affect your emotions toward someone and will drive your choices even further later in the game. My first playthrough saw me cursing Michael R. Johnson’s ending and fighting the urge to throw my controller. I had not felt so angered by an ending since the series finale of Lost. Then it hit me. These were my bad decisions that led poor Matt to this outcome. It wasn’t Johnson or Weber that left the sinking feeling in my stomach. It was me, and I loved it. I immediately started another game, mainly because I couldn’t let Matt go down like that…he was my boy.

So after examining Late Shift three years later, I have to say…this game is still gold. You won’t be able to find any other game that has reshaped the format that filmmakers and major studios are starting to take.  With close to 500k owners on Steam and 1,050 views on YouTube last week alone, this game is still hot. The reviews are even more favorable now than they were at release (79 meta). That’s for good reason. At launch, you always have hype and people playing genres of games that they aren’t even into. Now that the game has time under its belt since release, it is being discovered by players who are looking for a new and immersive experience like they have never had before. But more importantly, those gamers that are into story driven games (that can truly build layers of emotion and anticipation), are finding this game. In my opinion that is who the people behind this game created it for. So if you are looking for a good game, I highly recommend this. It can be found on Steam, Nintendo, PlayStation, iOS, and Xbox. It’s even free right now with Game Pass by Microsoft until the end of March.

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“That is all, Game on!”

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