There have been a couple of attempts at making interactive video essays, but it has proven an elusive and difficult format. Maybe the predominant linearity of traditional film and television narration doesn’t lend itself to an interactive exploration. Maybe it is hard to develop a coherent and focused argumentation while also inviting the viewer’s input. In any case, most efforts at interactive video essay making weren’t very memorable (as is the case with most interactive film or television experiments). This however is the exception to the rule.
Mark Brown makes audiovisual essays about video games. Specifically, his YouTube channel Game Maker’s Toolkit looks at how design decisions shape the gaming experience. Usually he does this in a conventional video essay format with voice over narration. His Platformer Toolkit however is a playable, tweakable, interactive project. It lets you play around with dozens of controls so you get to experience firsthand how adjusting the controls of a platform game’s protagonist influence the feel of the game. At the same time this toolkit introduces the user to intriguing game design terminology such as “coyote time”, “terminal velocity”, “cheating for the player” and “adding juice”.
Interactivity is part and parcel to all video games, which makes them the ideal subject for an interactive study such as this one. However, video essayists who work on film and television can find inspiration in this great project as well. For one thing, the Platformer Toolkit not only lets you adjust the character’s speed and jump height but also the game’s visual and auditory elements: particles and trails, camera settings and sound effects. That shows how aesthetic aspects and the enjoyment of gameplay are close intertwined.
Mark Brown also mentions the “three C’s” that game designers hold sacred: character, control and camera. Those elements are reminiscent of the “Five C’s of Cinematography” as defined by Joseph V. Mascelli in his classic filmmaking book. One could imagine an interactive video essay that demonstrates, for instance, how choosing different focal lengths when filming the same set-up changes the emotional effect or the identification of the viewer with a certain character.