In the spring of 2022 (in the film, 2024) I made a film during a road trip through Iran: from Tehran, the capital of the country located in the north, down to the south. My obsession with the notion of gaming and my affection for cinema led to an interactive film, in which the players/viewers could control the storyline with direct voting. During the research process, I realised the idea of interactive films goes all the way back to the late 60s, and a film named Kinoautomat (1967, directed by Radúz Činčera, Vladimír Svitáček, and Ján Roháč, Czechoslovakia), in which the audience could choose different routes that would eventually go to the same ending, and spans all the way to Netflix’s renowned show Black Mirror. I thought it would be awesome to have parallel realities that coexist in one moving image work and, as the viewer, have the power to choose what to see and what to skip.
So the question might pop up: “How is A Salt Story different from those examples?” I have to say that I don’t believe things should necessarily be drastically different from each other, and that specifically applies to the art world. A Salt Story has a lot in common with the long history of interactive films. Yet by utilising the the conventions of gaming, while also emphasising the role of the audience as semi-liberated observers (and not necessarily players with full control over the game environment) through a democratic voting system, I tried creating a hybrid piece in which cinema, gaming, and interaction with the piece and other viewers can be experienced on a new level.
Even though A Salt Story is not a feature film, it’s not short as well, and depending on your choices, you might see between 15 to 30 minutes of footage. Some story routes are more fun to explore, and you are sometimes given a second chance to go back and choose another route you didn’t pick before. Knowing that there are various unexperienced storylines that will not happen unless you want them to also allows the audience to actively imagine other storylines that were never created by the filmmaker, but are potentially as real as the stories that got the chance to be on the screen. As the gaming element is an important pillar of A Salt Story, I would like to share my thoughts on the philosophical questions related to free will in the digital/ binary world.
“Should I Kill Shelly Tiller?”: A Question of Morality and Free Will in Video Games
I have always been a fan of video games, and even though I never had the resources nor the interest to be a professional, full-time gamer, the idea of gaming has remained super intriguing to me. Unfortunately, from what I have witnessed, I feel like the general atmosphere around the gaming world is negative. You might, as me, have encountered a negative perception of gaming and gamers amongst the people around you. Even though I have a feeling that the scene is changing for the better at a relatively fast pace, and there are a few notable exceptions already, I still find it extremely common, especially amongst art academics, to neglect the long-standing practice of gaming. This creative and fascinating practice does not receive the attention it deserves.
While I was playing Fallout 4 a couple of years ago an inherently moral question hooked me. Following a side mission, in the radioactive ruins of what once was the city of Boston, I came across a frightened woman called Shelly Tiller, who was hiding on the second floor of an old building in shock. She had been targeted for assassination by someone, and the mission was designed in a way that you, as the player, could choose whether you want to kill this person for almost no money and finish the mission or pretend you’ve killed her and report a fake death and complete the mission. This was a turning point for me, as this question suddenly popped up in my head: “Is it worth killing her for this amount of money? Practically, I can’t do much with this many caps*, and she also looks really nice and scared.” I googled the mission and realised other people had the same dilemma. Why would you kill someone who you don’t know and hasn’t done any harm for almost no benefit? These ethical struggles happen in the context of a video game, a phenomenon that basically doesn’t exist outside of the realm of 0s and 1s, and the existence of which would turn into ‘nothing’ just by switching the power button off. Why were some of us gamers so indecisive regarding killing a virtual avatar? Are we playing as ourselves inside the realm of binaries? Does the same type of morality that exists in our social life also apply to video games?
If you have experienced playing an open-world game (meaning that the game allows you to “move around freely without fixed objectives”), you know that there are countless opportunities to explore. You can ride your horse through the deserts of the southwest United States in Red Dead Redemption or drive your car down the roads of a fake Los Angeles in the Grand Theft Auto series, simply enjoying the stunning landscapes. You can stop massacring the National Socialist German enemies in Call of Duty and get mesmerised by the view of the ruins of Berlin during the Second World War. You can be an observer, but usually not just an observer; that’s not what video games are made for.
Moreover, at least up to this moment, video games are far from looking ‘real’ the way films do. (Nerd alert: with the introduction of the new Unreal Engine, this might change drastically.) I assume there are two contributing factors to this ‘unreal feeling’ in video games in contrast to cinema: the first is that games are created by computers, and therefore, there is an artificial quality to their texture and graphics. The second one is the frame rate, which is the frequency of consecutive images that are displayed each second. If you’re expecting a smooth gaming experience, your hardware must be able run to at least a frame rate of 60 FPS, whereas in cinema, what gives us ‘the cinematic experience’ is the frame rate of 24 FPS. For me, watching a 60 FPS film feels too unrealistic and somewhat uncanny. In A Salt Story, I wanted to implement a hybrid experience of being somehow in control of what you see, like in a video game, but in a more real-life setting (including graphics and frame rates), like in a film. The result is an interactive film, in which you are given a chance to be an observer, explore the world of the film, and get playful with the content you are consuming.
In this article, I have mostly reflected on the ideas and the process that led to making this piece, rather than its content. A Salt Story is a docufiction and was shot, edited, and directed by me. I also composed music for the piece and designed/edited the sound. The actors are my friends and are not paid. As much as working independently with nearly no budget brings freedom to a film, it makes the process extremely challenging. However, I am satisfied with it as my first film.
I wish not to say any more about the film, and instead, I would like to invite you all to come and grab a glass of wine (you can choose between red and white [that’s the metaphor right?]) and watch A Salt Story at the UdK Rundgang on the 23-24th of July 2022, using this link make sure you book your seat in advance. Also follow my Instagram as I will post more information about the film screening there.
One last word: bring your friends and your smartphones as you’re going to need them.
*Bottlecaps, normally called caps, are the currency used in the Fallout world for trading, buying and selling goods.
Film and text by Sel.