Netflix's Choose Or Die Director Details The Incredibly Difficult Task Of Making A Killer Video Game

Director Toby Meakins explains the process of making Choose Or Die's video game antagonist.


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 interests. It's because the film’s premise is steeped in the world of video games, and there are numerous difficulties associated with creating a noteworthy video game adaptation. Game-based movies that aren’t tied to an existing property, like Choose or Die, are problematic as well. The main issue being the believability of an interactive experience. Put simply, they usually don’t look or feel like the real thing.

Horror movies--the type that has its cast pulled into a game or made to interact with one that affects reality--are especially prone to this problem. For instance, 2006's Stay Alive missed the mark due to its killer game being unrealistic, among other things. Because of this, it's genuinely surprising how well Choose Or Die circumvents this issue by creating one of the most authentic gaming experiences found in film.

The film’s "villain" is the game CURS>R. Modeled after old text-based adventure games found on the ZX Spectrum--an 8-bit home computer, comparable to the Commodore 64, released in the UK back in 1982. The thing is though, despite being created for the film's purposes, CURS>R looks just like a game from that era. This fact was compounded by how well the cast played up the DOS-based elements; it was easier to suspend disbelief given how what was happening, though supernatural, was grounded in something that seemed tangible.

To learn what went into the creation of CURS>R, GameSpot chatted with Choose Or Die director Toby Meakins. As one would expect, making the game wasn't easy. Partly because creating something that resembles such an old experience is tough. But also, because Meakins isn't a big gamer. Though he grew up in the '80s and had access to the Spectrum, it was his brother that did most of the playing growing up. "I don't know if you remember those tape data games that used to take ages to load up" he asked, reminiscing on the early days, "but you'd spend like 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 boot up, he wouldn't want to stop playing. "He'd be on there for hours and hours, and you just couldn't get him off. And so like, my share of the computer at that stage was completely gone."

Thankfully, Meakins was surrounded by gamers when making the movie. Co-writer Simon Allen and Asa Butterfield (who plays Isaac) are both big on gaming, the latter of which co-designed a turn-based game before competing in the Nintendo World Championships. "I had all of these people going, 'You have to do like this and make sure you do it like this,'" Meakins explained. The goal for everyone was to make something as authentic as possible. So much so that Toby and co. sought out a ZX Spectrum specialist in Spain to check CURS>R's 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."

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The simplistic nature of the text-based game was indeed a gift and a curse. One of the reasons why CURS>R seems like a tangible piece of software is because of how well it represents its genre. It's easier to replicate the sensation of playing a text-based game than it is something more modern. That said, the process of creating CURS>R to be an antagonist was somewhat difficult.

For instance, the crew had to juggle shooting different types of screens. CURS>R looked different on an old CRT monitor than it did on a cell phone. This sort of thing could be fixed in post-production but Meakins wanted the actors to really interact with the game. "We had screens from different eras," explained Meakins. "We fed in a really clean kind of look of the game [through] the CRT screen because it would break it up and the glass is like five millimeters away from the screen anyway, so it’s really difficult to focus. So naturally, you'd get that kind of '80s [feel]." That wasn't the case with an iPhone which made the game look clean/ageless. "So, we went through a process where we were like, 'Ok. How do we put [the game] onto those screens and like, how much breakup do you want on that?'" The crew had to essentially remake the game for each type of screen on set.

Having to manipulate the different screens is one thing. Actually, having the game react in real time is another. "You need the actors to play off something," said Meakins. "We had a tech op, a cool kid named Ted, who basically acted the game. So, when he typed something [it would appear on screen] in the game." This process helped to make the onscreen happenings feel real. "Ted had his own kind of pinhole spy camera on the actor to see what they were doing. If we were shooting in an opposite direction or something, so he could make [CURS>R] cue with the actor. It became this incredibly complicated process."

All of the effort that went into creating CURS>R is readily evident. It seems like a fully realized and functional adventure game. And since the actors had something to interact with, there wasn't much need for CGI--most of the onscreen drama is acted out using practical effects. Choose Or Die benefits from a less is more perspective, even if the process proved to be a bit much. That doesn't mean that Meakins didn't spice things up when he had the chance.

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When we asked him about the need to give the game a voice, something to elevate it from just being this inanimate object, Meakins explained how Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger) helped in that regard. "We realized really early on that we had to get [this cursed piece of software] off the screen," said Meakins. "Because it's a text-based game, you're going to end up with a whole film of people reading stuff off 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 for the game to use. But that wasn't the goal at first. "There was a lot of debate on whether we should have used Robert Englund’s voice there. And it just felt so cool that we couldn’t not use it for that." What was at first a marketing tool (within the movie itself) became something more.

Choose Or Die is Meakins’ first feature film. He and everyone involved with the writing, production, etc. had an uphill battle on their hands. Thankfully, due to some smart moves, they were able to create a solid game-based horror/thriller. When asked what he planned on doing next, Meakins expressed his desire to make more horror films. "I made a film called Breathe, which is one of my shorts. And [some] ghost stories,” he said. "I'd really loved the idea of doing a ghost story [set] in broad daylight […] and I'd like to find a sci-fi horror."

Choose Or Die arrives on Netflix on Friday, April 15.

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