Late Shift is a curious beast. A live action film at heart, it just so happens to have game elements in its ‘choose your own adventure’ model. That’s just enough to qualify it as a game, but what matters most is if this mix works as an interactive experience.
You’re tasked with defining the actions of a young nightwatchman’s life over a single night as he finds himself unwittingly embroiled in a risky heist. You must make a series of big and small decisions during the 90-odd minute runtime that steer our protagonist into and out of dangerous situations. It may be as simple as choosing the tone of your reply to a question. Or it could be as severe as attempting to escape a perilous situation. All in all, there’s enough alternative scenes in Late Shift to fill almost another two films.
Evoking less than fond memories of FMV games of yesteryear (and the recent revival found in last year’s ‘The Bunker’), Late Shift already has a thankless task on its hands, but it does two things differently that let it stand as its own thing. Firstly, it’s shot with High Definition cameras and as a result, it has a sharp slickness that’s light years ahead of the grainy, amateur dross this strange little genre usually associates with. The transition between scenes where you make a choice is handled remarkably smoothly, with little that appears jarring (it is noticeable exactly where the changes occur at times, but not to the detriment of the experience). You’re always on a timer, which is a far more effective way of handling choice than simply pausing the action as it keeps the flow going.
Secondly, its cast is a notch above ‘open call at a late night McDonald’s’. Faint praise? Sure, but it does help sell the concept when your lead can actually convey emotion without checking in a mirror first. That’s not to say this is top tier stuff. Think British Soap Opera and you’ll be in the right pool of acting credos. Our lead is easily the most likeable and relatable of the cast, mainly because he’s got the most screen time and you’re making his choices, but also because as mentioned, he can act well enough to be a sympathetic figure. With that, you have some reason to care about what’s happening, and that’s obviously vital for an experience so reliant on story.
The only real issue with our lead actually comes not from actor or performance, but from the branching nature of Late Shift’s story. Depending on what choices you make, you can end up painting a very confusing, contradictory picture of our man’s world view. This could potentially be sorted by having a bit more depth to the character, give him a trait that explains why he might make choices that go against the reasoning for previous ones. Unfortunately, it is what it is, which means despite a solid amount of variations to the plot in the threads you can travel down, only certain ones snap together in a cohesive manner.
From a story perspective, the branching paths are interesting to explore, especially in retrospect. Going through Late Shift once, knowing the consequences of whichever actions you took are, lends itself to a repeat playthrough or two as you see what other choices would have led you to. As with most branching path narratives, most choices lead, in a roundabout way, to similar conclusions, but this can be attributed more to the smaller decisions than the heavier ones. There’s multiple endings to factor in as well, though the quality of the story, and acting, isn’t really a huge incentive to go rewatch/play large slabs of similar material for a few seconds/minutes of something different. It’s fine, but there’s not much in the way of gravitas, depth, or ham, to make it tolerable over two plus playthroughs.
Another, intertwined, problem with repeat playthroughs is that you really don’t have much to do beyond ‘pick boxout A or pick boxout B’. You’re left twiddling thumbs during middling scenes with middling acting that you probably already watched once, so one of two things happens. You sit disinterested and pick more holes in the story, dialogue etcetera. Or you switch off and do something else, like ponder if the writers on Night Trap ever got work again (fun fact, one of them did! As visual effects supervisor on stuff like 24, CSI, ER and The Office). If this marriage of film and interactivity has a future, then it needs to get a touch more ambitious with the interactivity part while the film quality remains mediocre at best.
Nevertheless, Late Shift is an interesting prospect, and whatever you want to class it as, it’s definitely a step in the right direction for interactive film at least. Alas, this is a gaming site, and I’m ultimately judging it as a game first. As such, it’s not much to crow about, Late Shift’s weaknesses as a film shows up the limited nature of the game’s interactivity, and that’s disappointing. A crime thriller is a fresh choice for this sort of project, but probably not the best genre to create a strong whole. I personally believe that horror is the most effective match for this model, as it can bring the schlocky tension and variety of consequence that truly entertains beyond a first sitting.