Directed by debutant Toby Meakins, ‘Choose or Die’ is a horror-fantasy film that revolves around a survival game called ‘CURS>R.’ Kayla (Iola Evans) is a college dropout struggling to make ends meet. She takes care of her unwell mother with her meager income from working as a janitor at a mysterious company called Kismet. While visiting her friend Isaac (Asa Butterfield) to sell 1980s computer hardware, she finds a bootleg copy of ‘CURS>R.’ She begins playing the game, hoping that the promised $125,000 for completing the final level is still valid.
Much to her horror, Kayla soon discovers that the curses in the game can manifest in real life, and while she plays the game, she and everyone around her are in mortal danger. ‘CURS>R’ is at the epicenter of ‘Choose or Die’s narrative. At one point, the film itself was called ‘CURS>R.’ The plot develops by closely following Kayla as she progresses through the game. Its rules and levels provide context to her journey and her character development. Here is everything you need to know about it. SPOILERS AHEAD.
What Are the CURS>R Rules?
Released in 1984, ‘CURS>R’ has five levels in total. A Player gets five days to complete it. If they do, they win the final prize. The levels don’t seem to have any fixed patterns but get re-arranged and re-engineered to fit the circumstances of a given player. However, certain general rules apply throughout the levels. One of them is that the player is always given two choices. These choices lead to someone close to the player or the player himself/herself suffering extreme consequences. If the player refuses to choose, fearing the said consequences, they will die. This is where the film derives its name.
The inherent purpose of the game is to make the cursed suffer. The more they suffer, the more the curser benefits. Depending on the choices a player makes, the people around them end up becoming the cursed and bear the consequences of the player’s choice (obviously, who becomes the player or, for that matter, who is picked as the cursed is decided by the person controlling the game — the curser.) In Level 1, the waitress is the one who is the cursed. In level 2, Kayla’s mom is the one who is cursed. In Level 4, Isaac becomes the cursed. In Level 5, where Kayla and Hal (Eddie Marsan) fight to decide who will be the hero and the final boss, they each become cursed for the other person.
How Does CURS>R Affect Reality?
After the third level is complete, Isaac hacks into the phone line, tracking the prize line number provided on the game’s cover, and finds an address: Ferryman Storage Inc., 4924 Martinway Road, Unit 254, 13158 New York. Once he and Kayla get there after driving for about four hours, they find no one. They locate the answering machine sending out the prize money messages in Robert Englund’s voice.
Isaac and Kayla initially think this is a dead-end, and there is no prize money. However, following the power cables, they find the same room where the game was developed. They find a videotape captioned with ‘CURS>R Beta 1.’ This means the tape was recorded at the developmental stage of ‘CURS>R.’ In the video, the developer or Beck marks the date as March 12, 1984. Beck and his associates apparently discovered a powerful curse. Although they couldn’t find its origin or translate its exact meaning, they figured out that it’s incredibly potent. Its symbols affect reality. Each symbol stands for different things – from fire to water to blood — and together, these symbols have a way of affecting the reality of the person playing the game.
CURS>R Level 1
At the start of the film, Hal plays ‘CURS>R.’ We later learn he found the game in a clearance sale. When he starts the game, he inadvertently activates the curse. Initially, his choices are between trivial things, ranging from fetching another beer and leaving the cave to lights on or off. But it soon becomes much more sinister and asks Hal to choose between his son Gabe’s tongue and his wife Laura’s ears.
When Kayla starts playing the game, the first choice given to her is between coffee and cake. When she chooses coffee, the waitress suddenly appears and begins pouring coffee into her cup. Her following choices in the level are between whether the waitress should take a break or not and whether the waitress should break more glasses or clean up.
The game also starts showing what she and the waitress are saying before they actually say it. At one point, Kayla tries to forcefully leave the game by closing her computer but ends up in the place where her brother, Ricky, drowned. The game’s version of Ricky tells Kayla the core rule of the game: she has to choose, or she will die. When the waitress starts eating the shards of glass, Kayla tries to stop her, but the owner turns into a glitching frame and stands in her way, letting out the same screeching sound that Hal heard, implying that she isn’t allowed to save the cursed from their fate.
CURS>R Level 2
If level 1 was text-based, level 2 looks like a retro arcade game. Kayla is alone at work at Kismet at 2 a.m. the following night when the game restarts. This time, it describes her apartment building as a tower. She has to save her mother, who is the cursed now, from being eaten by a pack of rats. Kayla is forced to play the game as the rat, a game representation of the rats, attacks her mother in reality.
She chooses between the living room or bathroom, bathroom or bedroom, and charge or chew through the door. She guides her mother over the phone while making choices to delay the confrontation between her mother and the rats. Ultimately, she convinces her mother to jump out of the window right before the rats chew through the bedroom door. Although her limbs are broken, Kayla’s mother survives the fall.
CURS>R Level 3
Kayla plays Level 3 with Isaac accompanying her. The game once more starts at 2 a.m. and describes Isaac as a loyal squire. This time her choices are between help or no help, red door or blue door, and save Isaac or Ricky. Despite her misgivings, Kayla chooses Isaac to help her. They choose the red one and find themselves in a maze-like neon-lit corridor, which takes them to the pool where Ricky drowned. Knowing that it’s not her real brother, Kayla chooses Isaac and completes the level.
CURS>R Level 4
Level 4 starts before 2 a.m. Beck, appearing in the video, speaks directly to the two players and accuses them of cheating. When Isaac tries to disconnect the monitor, he becomes the cursed one. The area around him transforms into a glitching frame, and film strips start to pour out of his mouth. Beck demands Kayla choose between Rewind or Fast-forward. Knowing that if she doesn’t choose, she will die, Isaac urges her to make a choice. Kayla chooses Fast-forward. She completes the fourth level, but Isaac dies in her arms.
CURS>R Level 5
The choice in the fifth and final round is between Kayla and Hal. The latter believed that he escaped the curse by agreeing to copy the game. It presumably spread after that, and Hal benefited from it. Kayla is likely the first player who has reached the final level, which means she has to fight the man responsible (besides Beck) for the curse. This is the boss battle between Kayla and Hal. Only one will emerge as the final boss.
The game leads Kayla to Hal and his family’s home. It seems that the family has undergone drastic and disturbing changes since the last time we have seen them. As “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” by Tubeway Army plays in the house, Hal offers grace using the words from the song. Kayla and Hal start fighting, but they soon realize that they can only hurt the other player by trying to inflict injuries on themselves. This implies that they are each other’s cursed ones. Eventually, Kayla kills Hal by drowning herself, and Laura saves her life by pulling her out of the water.