In 1967, the first interactive film screened at the Montreal Expo in Canada. Conceived by the Czech filmmaker Radúz Činčera, it was a comedy called A Man in his House; but the film is also known as Kinoautomat, named for the interactive platform designed to allow audiences to engage with the film’s plot and alter the trajectory of the story.
The film was a smash hit, considered by many to be the darling of the Expo — a perfect combination of art and innovation. The New Yorker even wrote at the time that, “The Kinoautomat… is a guaranteed hit of the World Exposition, and the Czechs should build a monument to the man who conceived the idea, Raduz Cincera.”
The story begins with a flash-forward of a middle aged man’s apartment in flames. Retracing his steps the day before, the audience attempts to make decisions to both determine what happened and also stop the fire from occurring.
How it was accomplished
Exhibition of the film required a custom-built cinema with green and red buttons installed on each seats. Four times during the film’s runtime, the action would stop and the lead actor would literally come out and ask the audience to make a binary choice to determine what the main character should do next.
From there, the audience would cast their vote and the results were displayed on the screen. The chosen path in the film was achieved by switching a lens cap between two synchronized projectors, each running a variation of the final cut of the film.
The four choices presented to the audience were:
- Should Mr. Novak should let in a woman, locked out of her apartment and clad only in a towel, into his apartment just before his wife arrives home?
- Should Mr. Novak ignore a policeman flagging him down while driving?
- Should Mr. Novak rush into an apartment despite a tenant blocking his way?
- Should Mr. Novak knock out a porter blocking his way when trying to point out a small fire?
Why was Kinoautomat banned?
Despite the film’s success it was quickly banned by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia for an interesting reason.
In the film, no matter what choices people make, the ending is always the same. Critics were split on what the meaning of this revelation was, but the most popular interpretation was that it was a criticism of how the Communist regime rigged elections, and that no matter what citizens wanted, they always received a fixed result.
Some believe the film carries a more humanist message about people trying to control their fate in a world of systems that makes choices for them.
Either way, it speaks to the artistic possibilities inherent in interactive fiction.
For more, there is a good interview with the daughter of Cincerova at Radio Praha