Choose Your Own Adventure: Interview with Eko’s Sam Barlow

Sam Barlow is the Executive Creative Director at Eko, a interactive video company pioneering a new medium where viewers shape the story as it unfolds. Barlow has been making games since his cult 1999’s title, ”Aisle,” and carries an extensive history of making games that create deep personal connections with their players. His “Silent Hill: Shattered Memories” is a classic that psychologically profiled Wii gamers, and his 2015 “Her Story” reinvented the FMV genre for the YouTube generation. With Eko, Barlow is exploring the new medium of interactive streaming video to reboot MGM’s classic WarGames. Ahead of his SXSW Interactive panel, we spoke with Barlow to learn more about his work and the future of storytelling with Eko.

“I’m in love with performance. I’m obsessed with the importance of compression in storytelling — the way in which stories take place in the imagination — performance is a huge part of that.”
— Sam Barlow

Sam Barlow of Eko
Photo Credit: Omri Anghel

From working on Silent Hill to Her Story, what inspired your transition to working with Eko?

The games I worked on often relied on performance, but were pushing against the constraints of performance capture technology. There were other constraints, too — the reliance on certain specific gameplay templates, the need for videogames to offer their “popcorn filler”: exploration and combat, the playground activities that you’d have to mold your story around. So “Her Story” was the turning point for me — I set out to make a game that relied on subtext, that revolved around performance; and I avoided all traditional forms of immersion and game-play, instead putting all of the interactivity into directly exploring the story itself. When it worked, it opened doors and managed to register on a broader level than just the world of video games, I was excited to continue to push out into this new space. And Eko is there too — particularly the way in which Eko’s technology is about accessibility and allowing anyone with a device to stream and experience the show. We share the same passion for combining high quality video storytelling with the rich vocabulary of interactive narrative that has been developed over the last few decades. We both want to reach a large audience, bring them into this world and show how transformative this medium can be.

WarGames (1983)
WarGames (1983)

What are you looking forward to the most about rebooting WarGames?
When I watch the original War Games, it’s hard to think of a classic that cries out more for a reboot: the intersection of hacking, government and warfare, a very politicized generation gap, and the question of how much we can rely on technology. Revisiting the original, I was taken aback by how much all of its themes spoke to the very current day situation. I’m coming from the world of video games–in a world that has seen online culture, troll culture, hacking culture mutate and take many forms–some arguably for good, [but] often for bad. I was keen to explore a more multi-faceted take on the world that didn’t just paint all hackers as Robin Hood types, but was also true to the diversity and humanity of that world. Matthew Broderick in the original film is not the modern hacker cliché — he doesn’t have a traumatic back story, he is funny and outgoing — he’s Matthew Broderick. It definitely felt that creating a new hacker protagonist who spoke to this would be an exciting project. And then working with the Eko platform, seeing how we can tell this story about the digital world actually on people’s devices, giving it the texture of that world, making it feel more authentic and intimate: it’s a marriage made in heaven!

What’s the story behind the panel “Filmmaking and Gaming Invite You to Their Nuptials” at SXSW?
So I’ve been working with Nancy [Tellem] and Eko for the last year, both on the WarGames project that I’m directing and also overseeing a number of other shows. Both of us come from different worlds — Nancy’s reputation speaks for itself — you couldn’t ask for someone who understands the world of film and television better. And I have fifteen years of experience making traditional video games. [We’re from] two very different worlds. But, with that said, neither of us is held back by our experience. Nancy did innovative work over at Xbox, trying to bridge the gap; I put out my “Her Story” in 2015, which made waves and went some way to opening eyes on both sides to the power of interactive stories. So we’re both passionate about the unique opportunities that spring from the combination of traditional screen storytelling and the interactivity that has traditionally been the exclusive domain of video games. Working closely together at Eko, we’ve seen the challenges that come with breaking this new ground, but also more than ever believe that this is an important part of the future.

What’s next for the future of interactive storytelling?
I’m most excited about the explosion in genre which will come with a more mass market adoption of interactive stories. The types of characters that most video games speak to, the types of stories are very limited, mostly by a self-imposed preconception of what kinds of stories the gamers want. When you throw in video, when you make room for performance, and when you open up the audience, we can tell any story we want. You see that every time a new medium comes along, we revisit and refresh our beloved genres — find new ways to make old stories new again. I was delighted to provide a fresh take on the police procedural with “Her Story” and I’m even more excited to see what other people bring to the medium. I want to see the first big interactive horror show, the first big interactive mid-life crisis relationship drama, the first big interactive legal drama, the first big interactive high school coming of age drama, etc. The possibilities when you apply interactivity to the depth of classical screen storytelling are so great. Right now the public perception of what an interactive film or TV show looks like is limited, and the general discussion around these ideas is based on increasingly outdated ideas of what a “game” is, and what it means to interact with a story.

Once the public gets their hands on these shows — once they start to understand that you can tell a story that is intimate, authentic and moving, and see how the interactivity enhances that, it’s going to be a game changer!

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Join Sam Barlow and Nancy Tellem along with Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw at SXSW Interactive Panel “Filmmaking and Gaming Invite You to Their Nuptials” on March 13th.

Learn more about Eko and companies we work with at Samsung NEXT.