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Analysis: Interactive Storytelling And HBO's Mysterious Cube

In this analysis, writer and designer Emily Short looks at a new, intriguing interactive ad campaign from HBO -- and discovers lessons for designers about telling stories through interactivity.

Emily Short, Blogger

November 27, 2009

6 Min Read

[In this analysis, writer and designer Emily Short looks at a new, intriguing interactive ad campaign from HBO -- and discovers lessons for designers about telling stories through interactivity.] HBO has an ad campaign around the phrase "It's more than you imagined". One of its key features is a website installation called HBO Imagine, put together by BBDO and The Barbarian Group. The installation offers a network of still images (such as scans of newspaper clippings), sound (such as recordings of phone calls), and film. Some of the film is ordinary single-frame stuff, images fictionally from security cameras or advertising campaigns. Others appear on the faces of a cube. Rotate the cube, and you view the same scene from another angle, allowing you to see what is going on in the next room. What appears to be an amazingly unsuccessful art theft turns out to have been orchestrated for entirely other reasons, for instance, and it's fascinating to watch two characters argue when you can spin the cube and see the reactions and responses of two other characters hiding off-screen. All the films and evidence taken together are meant to tell a story: a rather convoluted one about theft and betrayal and people not being what they claim to be. In structure this reminded me most of Le Reprobateur, a French multimedia artwork that allows the player/reader to explore the interlocking lives of a number of characters by reading vignettes and viewing images and videos. Le Reprobateur maps all of its snippets of story to the faces of a three-dimensional object, and each snippet is thematically related to those that appear on adjacent sides. Le Reprobateur is not exactly a game, but review copies were sent out to game reviewers, which suggests that the author had some idea of the potential crossover appeal. It's not clear that The Barbarian Group conceived of HBO Imagine as a game at all. They should have. The thing they've put together is vastly glossier than Le Reprobateur or than many an indie game production. The video scenes are slick, well-directed, well shot, with the clarity and crispness we expect from a movie. On the other hand, its interactivity raises problems familiar to game designers: how to give the reader/player agency, how to offer adequate freedom, how to achieve coherence. This is where the HBO project falls down. Part of the problem is a problem of conventional storytelling as well: the story as a whole does not completely make sense. My impression was that many of the vignettes in the story were created for their individual impact -- the two men who appear to be lying side by side in bed, for instance, but who turn out to be bomb squad agents lying under a desk working to defuse a bomb -- and then glued together into a central storyline, but not very well. There's a darkly funny subplot about a mime, for instance, which completely fails to fit in tone or substance with the rest of the story. There is a villainous mastermind behind all of the events one sees, but it is never quite clear why he does all of the different things he does: surely some of the feints and counterfeints of his deception are completely unnecessary. At the end, when the player has clicked through and viewed all of the evidence, he's invited to see a connect-the-dots playing that puts elements in their chronological order. That's a bit helpful, but it doesn't resolve the fact that this is a bizarre and basically nonsensical plot with no particular theme other than, perhaps, that nothing is what it seems. The interaction exacerbates the problems, however. If the whole point of the experience is that we understand more when we know more, the failure of the whole project to come together into a sharp, coherent story is a very serious flaw. A good gotcha twist at the end of a movie -- The Usual Suspects, say, or Sixth Sense -- is that it makes an instant sense of everything confusing that came before. With HBO Imagine, the site and its interaction sells itself as being about discovery, about movement towards understanding. To the extent that there's a purpose in making this an interactive rather than a traditional-format movie, it is because the act of exploration engages the player more fully, invites him to make and test hypotheses about what is going on. To go to that effort and still not to understand is vexing. And it is effort: it's interesting playing with the cubical films, turning them this way and that to see the action from all angles, but it's a lot more effort than watching a conventional movie. It's easy to imagine the same information presented on a four-way split screen, and the result would have been a lot easier to process. The only point of presenting the films this way is to force the player/viewer to take action in order to uncover what is initially hidden. The interactivity forces engagement with the content, but the player has only limited control over how much he discovers, and even diligent pursuit of the truth is incompletely rewarded with understanding. It is possible to create an interactive storytelling experience where the chief mechanic really is just to look at all the pieces. The beauty of Le Reprobateur is that if you explore the story one way or another way, new themes come to the fore: reading the snippets in one order will suggest meditations on self-control, while in another the attention might be to the development of a particular character. There is no such depth to be gotten out of the HBO Imagine project. One strength of the design is the "Chart Your Progress" page, which gives the reader/player a map of the interaction and labels each short film or piece of evidence. That provides a little sense of agency, in that it's possible to decide to explore one subplot before another, or attempt to skip down to the end of a subplot in order to understand what everything builds to. But notice I say "attempt": the labels are often not very revealing of what the contents are really about, and that means that the player's one possible form of agency, choosing a route through the story, is rendered meaningless most of the time. Moreover, the sense of involvement and agency slackens even more at the end: all the player can do is click through the last several elements. With all that, I'm not saying this project is a failure. It is full of funny moments, and it's certainly gotten more attention than most bits of advertising fluff I've come across. I was engaged enough to play with it through to the end. And the cube-facing films really are ingeniously made, with the body language of actors suggesting different things from different perspectives. No, my real point is this: interactive storytelling -- even when it's not meant to be a game -- still needs a game designer. It needs someone who will think about what the reader/player is supposed to do, and what that action means, and how it contributes to the story being told. [Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]

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