We all remember the classic 8-bit games of the 80s and 90s. How classics like Mario had us dodging goombas and Donkey Kong hurling oil barrels at us. Of course, those require a player’s skill and ability to manoeuvre the game’s lead on-screen.
There were also other kinds of 8-bit experiences like the “Twilight Zone Text Adventure” that was very binary in how presented itself to the player. There were more or less two or three choices, sometimes, yes and no questions that got you to progress the plot.
Nevertheless, games have evolved since then. Developers such as Quantic Dream, Supermassive and Telltale have successfully created choice-driven narratives that aren’t just binary. “Until Dawn”, “Detroit: Become Human”, and the “Walking Dead” video game story have all had multiple paths that you can explore with different choices providing distinct endings. Some might be happier and some would be deemed as a bad ending.
In Netflix’s latest, the concept of choices is something that should be taken seriously. And as one might be able to decode, they can be deadly!
“Choose or Die” centres around teenager Kayla (Iola Evans), who is a wannabe coder after dropping out of college. She and her friend Isaac (Asa Butterfield) work together to refurbish and resell retro computers. During one of their meetings at Isaac’s house, she finds a bootleg cassette marked CURS>R.
Curious to see what the deal with it is, they call the number on the box. The duo are surprised to find that not only it is still active and offering a cash prize of $125,000 upon completion of The Game but the recorded voice is none other than Robert Englund, star of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise.
After loading up the program at a diner in the wee hours of the morning, Kayla notices that something is amiss. The CURS>R program begins recognising speech in real-time before it is even spoken. Bemused, she plays along with its initial prompt of “coffee” or “cake”, which just so happens to be a similar question on the diner’s menu.
While she does get her coffee amidst bizarre behaviours, Kayla is disturbed but soon finds out that she cannot exit and reload in real life. The Game has seeped into our world and can’t be stopped. As the prompts become more bloodthirsty, Kayla and Isaac are faced with a horrifying dilemma: Choose Or Die?!
With this being his feature debut, Toby Meakins gives his all in creating a unique spin on an otherwise overused concept. How many times have we seen games or the concept of it come to life and terrorize an entire town or something of that sort, ya know? Escape Room, battle royales, and even truth or dare.
Nonetheless, it’s always about the how and not about looking at something and dismissing it right away. Meakins does display his established values as a horror filmmaker, providing tense, grit-your-teeth moments without relying too much on the jumpscare technique. It gets under your skin enough to provide a decent thrill.
Despite the creepy moments, the movie is aware that it does not need to take itself way too seriously. One of the goofiest moments in the film comes at the climactic revelation that the game’s developer embedded some cryptic symbols in the prompt while performing his first beta test. While the situation was dire, the question asked, in hindsight, is extremely ridiculous: “eat this computer or your arm”. Who says that? While some might find it to be a little jarring, at least it was laugh-out-loud fun.
“Sex Education’s” Asa Butterfield has a ton of fun here as a sidekick who is naive and happy-go-lucky at times but still a caring friend. He’s that non-believer who is not particularly enthused by the idea of a killer game until it actually affects him. Butterfield’s Isaac is a welcome smooth, awkwardness to contrast the notion of a troubled teenager who is his friend.
Now, there is one thing we appreciate about this movie is that it isn’t the group-of-teenagers-who-do-stupid-dumb-s*** bloodbath. No, it’s a story about a young woman who is still finding herself. She’s grown up in a bad neighbourhood, living with a troubled parent, and experienced the loss of a sibling. Iola Evans, who you might have seen in The CW’s “The 100”, holds her breath and dives into this character who struggles with identity and guilt. Kayla wants to break free of the bias of her neighbourhood and her circumstances but does not know how.
In a weird, disturbing way, The Game enlightens Kayla, suggesting that there are more choices (despite The Game’s own binary picks) out there for her to explore. Especially through the film’s ending, the structures of The Game are torn down, giving Kayla control of life itself.
It makes sense especially given the context of social inequalities and myths in our real world. With capitalism, toxic racism/masculinity, and the state of inflation ever threatening the rise of a younger generation, the ability to choose your own path is not so easy. Only if an establishment is restructured will others be able to get a fair shot.
On the surface, “Choose or Die” might be asking its characters to perform tasks based on its objective prompts. Nevertheless, the definition of the matters at hand are not in black and white. It dares to question the authority of the people who create establishments. What do those in power do with their abilities? It begs us to ponder upon these things, to simmer upon acceptance or change. This is a question that we can ask ourselves.
“Choose or Die” is currently streaming on Netflix.
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Choose or Die
While "Choose or Die" spawns from the tendrils of an overused genre, the fact that it does not take itself way too seriously all while making sure that it gets under your skin when it matters makes it a uniquely serviceable watch.
- "Choose or Die" Review