Netflix’s Choose or Die is better than expected. Not so much because of what was shown before its release, as the trailer(s) certainly piqued our interest. This is because the film’s premise is rooted in the world of video games, and there are many difficulties associated with creating a remarkable video game adaptation. Movies based on games that aren’t tied to an existing property, like Choose or Die, are also problematic. The main problem being the credibility of an interactive experience. Simply put, they usually don’t look like the real thing.
Horror films – the type whose actors are drawn into a game or designed to interact with a film that affects reality – are particularly prone to this problem. For example, 2006’s Stay Alive missed the mark due to its unrealistic killer acting, among other things. For that reason, it’s truly surprising how well Choose Or Die circumvents this problem, creating one of the most authentic gaming experiences in cinema.
The “villain” of the film is the game CURS>R. Inspired by old text adventure games found on the ZX Spectrum – an 8-bit home computer, comparable to the Commodore 64, released in the UK in 1982. The thing is however, although it was created for the needs of the movie, CURS >R looks like a game from that era. This fact was compounded by the way the cast played the DOS-based elements; it was easier to suspend disbelief given that what was happening, although supernatural, was based on something that seemed tangible.
To find out what went into the creation of CURS>R, GameSpot spoke with Choose Or Die director Toby Meakins. As you might expect, making the game wasn’t easy. Partly because creating something resembling such an ancient experience is difficult. But also because Meakins is not a great player. Although he grew up in the 80s and had access to the Spectrum, it was his brother who played the most growing up. “I don’t know if you remember those tape datasets that took hours to load,” he asked, reminiscing about the early days, “but you’d spend 45 minutes to an hour trying to load a game.” So when his brother got into a game called Elite, after waiting a long time for it to start, he didn’t want to stop playing. “It would be there for hours and hours, and you just couldn’t get it to go away. And so my part of the computer at this point was completely gone.”
Fortunately, Meakins was surrounded by gamers while making the film. Co-writer Simon Allen and Asa Butterfield (who plays Isaac) are both passionate about games, the latter having co-designed a turn-based game before competing in the Nintendo World Championships. “I had all these people say, ‘You have to do it like this and make sure you do it like this,'” Meakins explained. The goal for everyone was to do something as authentic as possible. So much so that Toby and co. sought out a ZX Spectrum specialist in Spain to verify CURS>R programming. “It was a fascinating thing [to create the game]. And it was actually…it’s a lot more complicated than it looks on screen, which is always a good thing, I think anyway.”
The simplistic nature of the text game was indeed a gift and a curse. One of the reasons CURS>R seems like tangible software is that it represents its genre well. It’s easier to replicate the feel of playing a text-based game than something more modern. That said, the process of creating CURS>R to be an antagonist was somewhat difficult.
For example, the team had to juggle shooting different types of screens. CURS>R looked different on an older CRT monitor than on a cellphone. This kind of problem could be fixed in post-production, but Meakins wanted the actors to really interact with the game. “We had screens from different eras,” Meakins explained. “We nurtured a really clean look of the game [through] the CRT screen because it would break it and the glass is about five millimeters from the screen anyway, so it’s really hard to focus. So naturally you’d have that kind of 80s [feel]. “That wasn’t the case with an iPhone that made the game look clean/ageless.” So we went through a process where we were like, ‘Okay. How do we put [the game] on these screens and like, how much breakup do you want on that? “”The team basically had to redo the game for every type of screen on set.
Having to manipulate the different screens is one thing. In fact, making the game react in real time is another. “You need the actors to play something,” Meakins said. “We had a technician, a cool kid named Ted, who was basically playing the game. So when he typed something [it would appear on screen] in the game.” This process helped make the on-screen events look real.” Ted had his own type of pinhole spy camera on the actor to see what they were up to. If we pulled in an opposite direction or something, so he could do [CURS>R] cue with the actor. It’s become this incredibly complicated process.”
All the effort put into creating CURS>R is obvious. It looks like a fully realized and working adventure game. And since the actors had something to interact with, there wasn’t much need for CGI – most on-screen drama is performed using practical effects. Choose Or Die benefits from a less-is-more perspective, even if the process turned out to be a bit cumbersome. That’s not to say Meakins didn’t spice things up when he had the chance.
When we asked him about the need to give the game a voice, something to elevate it beyond this inanimate object, Meakins explained how Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger) helped in that regard. “We realized early on that we had to get [this cursed piece of software] off the screen,” Meakins said. “Because it’s a text-based game, you’re going to end up with a whole movie of people reading stuff on a screen.” Ideally, one way to do that was with the prize line, a recording that talks about winning a grand prize for surviving the game. There’s a voice to use for the game. But that wasn’t the point in the beginning.” debates about whether we should have used the voice of Robert Englund there. . And it was so cool that we couldn’t not use it for that.” What started out as a marketing tool (in the movie itself) became something more.
Choose Or Die is Meakins’ feature debut. He and everyone involved in the writing, production, etc. had an uphill battle on their hands. Luckily, with a few clever moves, they were able to craft a solid horror/thriller based on the game. When asked what he plans to do next, Meakins expressed his desire to make more horror films. . “I did a movie called Breathe, which is one of my shorts. And [some] ghost stories,” he said. “I really liked the idea of doing a ghost story [set] in broad daylight […] and I would like to find a sci-fi horror.”
Choose Or Die hits Netflix on Friday, April 15.