Our World War: BBC launches first interactive episode

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The BBC unveiled its first interactive episode online last night as part of new World War One Drama, Our World War. Using animation, original footage and multiple choice gameplay, it forces viewers to make some difficult life and death decisions…

Our World War is a BBC3 drama inspired by the channel’s award-winning documentary, Our War, which captured the daily experiences of soldiers in Afghanistan using helmet cams and point-of-view footage. The show is based on real events and accounts from World War One survivors, but characters are fictional.

In the interactive episode (watch it here), viewers are placed in the role of Corporal Arthur Foulkes, who is forced to lead the remaining members of his battalion at High Wood, part of the Battle of the Somme, after his commanding officer is shot and killed.

The experience begins by outlining the soldiers’ position before cutting to an audio excerpt from a High Wood survivor, followed by scenes of the characters rushing into battle. Players are then forced to make decisions such as whether to shoot approaching soldiers or hold fire, whether to kill or capture an injured German soldier and how best to deliver a message to HQ.

For each question, viewers are given a choice of answers and a time limit in which to decide, with each choice affecting the outcome of the drama. The episode is split into short acts and at the end of each, viewers are given a summary of their performance and scores for tactics and team morale. Each act also unlocks a new spin-off story about one of the soldiers featured, told in a graphic novel-style animation.

Footage throughout reflects the style of the TV show, with quick cuts and POV shots adding to the sense of panic and fear. The narrative is brief but poignant and viewers are introduced to each soldier through on-screen graphics revealing their name, position and personality traits. The experience lasts around 20 minutes.

The project is part of the BBC’s new digital learning platform, iWonder, which we wrote about in our March issue and on the blog. In an article for the BBC, executive producer Tim Plyming says it was inspired by games such as The Walking Dead, based on Robert Kirkman’s comic book series about a zombie apocalypse and Operation Ajax, an interactive animated spy thriller.

“We wanted to experiment with creating a new format that could bring audiences even closer to the story … by using techniques found in modern gaming experiences we have set out to create something very new, a hybrid between a TV programme and a game,” he adds.

The episode was created in partnership with BBC Learning and Open Games and Mi, a CGI, games and animation studio based in Salford. Will Storer, a senior product manager at BBC Future Media Games who worked on the episode, says one of the biggest challenges was developing a gameplay system inkeeping with the narrative’s sombre tone.

Using historical records and eyewitness accounts provided by producers and academic advisors, Storer says the team developed a series of flow charts to establish how the narrative and choice model might work.

“Based on these flows and story dissections we put together “Tempo” charts to explore how a specific speed of user interaction might map across onto the pace and tone of the story at any given moment. Is it more compelling if during a tense, pacy point … the user needs to decide quicker? Is that approach more immersive? In the end we ended up with a balanced set of interaction times relevant to the narrative and the decision at hand,” he explains in a blog post.

The on-screen graphics are simple and intuitive, as Storer says it was important to ensure they didn’t overshadow the narrative, while the scoring system needed to be respectful and informative.

“In this context, straightforward game scoring didn’t feel appropriate … The sensitivity of the subject matter combined with the desire to achieve learning outcomes along the journey meant that we needed to treat this aspect with great respect,” adds Storer.

“The interesting discovery here is that militarily correct tactical decisions don’t always create positive morale in the team, so scores whilst accurate, are somewhat unexpected depending on the scenario, an outcome which we thought reflected well on the hellish situations depicted within the story itself,” he says.

A century on from the war, and with no veterans alive today, conveying soldiers’ experiences to a young audience is a difficult task. But by combining drama and gameplay, the BBC and Mi have created an educational and compelling piece of content.

It does feel more like a gaming experience than a TV programme but is a great example of how today’s technology can be used to illustrate historical events – another was last year’s D-Day: As it Happens project (from Channel 4, Windfall and Digit), which used a social media-style timelines to relate the day’s events in real time through the perspectives of seven people who were there.

With BBC3 due to move online, projects like this could become an important tool in attracting and engaging with viewers, and Plyming says it’s something he’d like to see other broadcasters and channels explore.

“This is a real first for the BBC and we hope this pilot will inspire creative communities inside and outside the BBC to think up new ways of delivering drama to an audience who demand higher and higher levels of interactivity,” he adds.

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