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Hard Decisions: Interactive Storytelling and Complex Representations

Hard Decisions: Interactive Storytelling and Complex Representations

Director Eli Rarey has launched Hard Decisions, an innovative choose-your-own-adventure web series where viewers steer a day in the life of Brandon, the gay everyman played with subtly and dry wit by actor / writer Brenden Shucart. Brandon has a nice apartment; enough disposable income to make choices like where to eat; and a gaggle of friends and acquaintances—from drag queens to extraterestrtrials—that keeps his life interesting.

The series begins with Brandon meeting his best friend’s new girlfriend Melissa (played by Deanna Neil), while dealing with relationship issues of his own (with his hunky boyfriend played by James Cerne). As the day progresses, every episode ends with a character having to make a choice between two options, spelled out by a narrator and illustrated with two text boxes appearing on the bottom of the screen. The audience clicks on the direction they want the story to go (often later given the opportunity to remake a decision). With this series, Rarey is an early contributor to online interactive storytelling, an increasingly blurry line between film and video games. Historically a web series, like a TV show or a movie, was what internet and law academic Lawrence Lessig would call a “read only” document, but like a video game, Hard Decisions is closer to a “read / write” document, with viewers being given increased “editing” privileges.

The show has a forward momentum that comes not only from form but also the way Rarey and team use humor—and martyrdom. It is impishly sadistic how the majority of the choices fall on Brandon to make, with then all bad or uncomfortable situations blamed on him. This does not go unnoticed by Brandon himself. “Why do I have to be held responsible?,” he says, or, “Why is it always up to me?”

For a casual viewer this can be a cathartic projection. In the way video games give players a relief from the world where they may have little control, Hard Decisions allows viewers to manage someone else’s life. Distance provided in a choose-your-own-adventure allows for a self-reflective user experience as had by advanced gamers: It is not just a question of “what should I do in this situation?,” it is also, “what is my role in creating these situations?”

But as in life, in the world of Hard Decisions, there are some things we can’t avoid. Regardless of what choice a viewer makes at the end of episode one, in episode two Brandon discloses his positive HIV status, and no matter how you reach the last episode you are treated to a heart-warming musical number from him and a friend about living with HIV, that includes the lyrics:

If you don’t bend then you’ll break
And if you break then you’ll lose
I accept who I am and the choices I’ve made after all
After all, I’m feel pretty positive about it.

It is revelatory to hear someone living with HIV share their experience because—thirty-two years after The Denver Principles were created, asserting people living with HIV should be central to the discourse and action around the virus—it rarely happens. Too often in media people living with HIV are plot devices, symbols of the past, or “the bag guy”. Outside of media it is worse. Thirty-four states across the US have what is known as HIV Criminalization laws, whereby people living with HIV are being charged, convicted, and imprsioned based on outdated, inhumane logic making them solely responsible for what happens prior and during sex and then putting the burden of being able to prove what happened before sex on them in front of a jury most often not of their peers. “Why is it always up to me?” indeed.

And it is here that Rarey’s choices around form and content are powerful. A premise of Hard Decisions is the idea that the viewer is tasked with unburdening Brandon from having to be solely responsible for everything and yet we the viewer never have to pay the price for the choices “we” make, only he does. This is the dynamic at the heart of HIV Criminalization and core to the daily life of people living with HIV.  Beyond the inhumane laws, living with HIV in an AIDSphobic work impacts how much you actually can bend, which as we learn by the end of Hard Decisions, means that you are always that much closer to breaking.

But for all the profundity and innovation of Hard Decisions, I almost didn’t make it past the first episode. Melissa, Brandon’s best friend’s girlfriend, from the very beginning is rendered shallow, an under-developed foil to Brandon. Her existence is the tension of the show. It is through Melissa we learn of Brandon’s HIV status, and through out the show she is the annoyance he has to contend with. She is the killjoy, the one for whom accommodation has to be made, the girl that can’t keep up.  At one point Melissa says, “I avoid making jokes because I don’t have a sense of humor.” She does not even get to be the butt of the joke, rather she is the fly in the boy’s bedroom.

It’s hard to understand how a creative team with such a nuanced understanding of technology and HIV can be so basic when it comes to gender. Then again, maybe it isn’t. Hard Decisions can be understood as existing at the intersection of both gay and gamer culture, neither known for being open to women beyond a surface level. Gamergate illustrated how many men “fight” for women in the logic of play but do not make space for them IRL. Similarly, within Hard Decisions there are moments of almost liberative gender play by drag queens, muscle queens and others. But what good is celebrating and experimenting with femininity and gender if women can’t exist as robust three dimensional figures.

In her heart-bursting review of “All I Want Is For All My Friends To Become Insanely Powerful”, a video game from innovator Porpentine, writer Cara Ellison concludes that the game “needs you to realise that your life is changeable, and you can do it through text, subtext, the textual bonds we make between each other.” Rarey achieves similar same magic but with one important and glaring flaw. Through Hard Decisions he helps us see that change is possible. We are all works in progress, needing each other to make it though the day.

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