6 December 2017Observations on Mosaic

After trying out Steven Soderbergh's interactive movie Mosaic, I was surprised to find that there are very few reviews of it online, only puff pieces promoting it before it was released. So, some observations.

First, although nearly every piece in the press describes it as in the vein of Choose Your Own Adventure, Mosaic is not a CYOA. It's a movie that allows you to leap between points of view as you move through the story, with additional segments and background documents revealed as you progress. You can move backwards chronologically as much as you'd like, but you may only plod forward in time-- so as not to spoil the surprises of the story, I would guess.

Another way to look at it: if Mosaic was a written work, we'd comfortably call it hypertext. I think the reason for the Choose Your Own Adventure comparison is that it's the one thing the mainstream press understands is a form of narrative that requires reader participation to progress-- that isn't a video game, anyhow. I suspect no one is brave enough to compare Mosaic to a video game to Soderbergh's face.

I don't understand exactly why, but Mosaic is being released as both interactive app (on iOS) and linear TV series (on HBO). It seems extraordinarily challenging to design a narrative that will work in both contexts, and perhaps that's why despite Mosaic holding my interest as I watched it, I came away a little disappointed. As I watched the final scenes (unlike many hypertexts, there really is a dénouement), I thought: "I guess we are wrapping it up here?"

I believe I am paraphrasing someone, though I can't exactly place who right now, when I write that the two main problems hypertext readers have to grapple with are:

  1. Where am I in the story?
  2. Am I done reading?

So as a debut work of interactive narrative, it is not surprising that Mosaic ran headlong into problem #2. Mosaic's ending is a bit Chinatown, so part of it was that I felt emotionally unsatisfied--but more than that, I wished that there was more there there. The digressions provide more explanation behind some of the actions of the characters, but they felt like browsing the appendices of a book, and not the cool kind of appendices. You also don't have to do anything to unlock the extra video segments, so there isn't much of a thrill of discovery. Maybe if Mosaic didn't wrap up all the loose ends I saw, left some mystery for me to untangle, I would've found the extra material more engaging.

The story itself? Interesting in parts, cliché in others. I found Joel's segments the most interesting, but I hesitated a bit even there. He's depicted as suffering from mental illness, and though I am far from an expert on these things, as I spent more time in his perspective it began to feel like a cartoony, larger-than-life version of mental illness. He also commits nearly every clichéd action a person in his position should never do. You'll understand what I mean when you get there.

I think the most daring part of Mosaic is that most video segments are 20 minutes or longer--which sounds like damning with faint praise, doesn't it? But I think it worked. It gave me space to get comfortable and slip into a reflective state of mind instead of an active one (the kind you need to play, say-- a video game).

Mosaic also requires you to set up an account to experience it, but all it's ever done with it is email me a few days after I finished the storyline to remind me, a little pedantically, that there was to more look at. I opened the app again, but nothing seemed different--it was just a stack of videos that would elaborate on, but not transform what I had already seen.

p.s. It is always sort of funny to see James Ransone onscreen. He and I went to high school together--he was a friend-of-a-friend--so I have a strange, asymmetrical familiarity with his face.