It’s hard to work your way through a good whodunit without getting the urge to play detective. Solving a fictional crime demands attentive reading, watching, or listening: taking nothing for granted, second-guessing everyone’s motives but your own. Even as the narrative moves forward, your suspicions may inspire you to turn back, revisiting the same moments in search of an answer you’re sure is hiding just out of view. In a sense, mysteries have always encouraged audiences to interact with the story as it unfolds, to make choices about what to remember and reexamine and dismiss. That may explain why Steven Soderbergh’s latest opus, Mosaic, feels groundbreaking and defiantly traditional at the same time—and why, so far, it’s been greeted with a resounding question mark.
Last November, HBO launched an iOS app called Mosaic (designed primarily by Soderbergh and the screenwriter Ed Solomon), which allowed users to enjoy a chilly, Utah-set murder mystery from any of half a dozen perspectives. After a short introductory video, the app offers a choice between two more videos, each one seen through a different character’s eyes. The two storylines lead off to further videos and further choices—and so on, until the mystery has been solved and the user has gotten to know three or four of the suspects. In mid-January, a six-episode version of Mosaic premiered on TV, woven together from dozens of shorter clips featured in the app.
The relationship between the HBO show and its longer, more labyrinthine predecessor is a topic of much debate. Was the app just a marketing gimmick, designed to build buzz for the main attraction? Is the television cut of Mosaic a Trojan Horse, quietly ushering in Soderbergh’s radical experiment with interactive storytelling? Is interactive fiction really the future of television, as some have been quick to dub it?
A lot of the writing surrounding Mosaic has made a concerted effort to clarify what it’s not. The earliest reports about the project were quick to compare it to the Choose Your Own Adventure books of the ’80s and ’90s, in which readers made decisions on behalf of the protagonist, eventually arriving at one of dozens of different possible endings. Yet Mosaic’s story line—Soderbergh is quick to point out—is singular. App users can choose their character and the order in which the story’s chapters unfold, but they have no control over who committed the murder, or what happens to them. With these constraints come some delights not always associated with the detective genre. Instead of forever nudging users forward to the solution to the crime, the app is at times surprisingly leisurely in its pacing, inviting users to get cozy with their chosen characters and, crucially, the storytelling format of Mosaic itself.
The lion’s share of publicity has been about Mosaic’s format, partly because its plot is surprisingly conventional. The murder victim, played by Sharon Stone, is Olivia Lake, a retired children’s author with one hit book. As the first episode begins, she makes the acquaintance of two handsome, volatile men: Eric Neill (Frederick Weller), a professional con man who’s been hired to seduce Olivia into parting with her land, and Joel Hurley (Garrett Hedlund), a frustrated artist who consents, Sunset Boulevard–style, to be Olivia’s kept man. After Olivia’s disappearance, Eric is arrested for murder and, on his lawyer’s advice, pleads guilty. Four years later, his sister Petra (Jennifer Ferrin) reopens the investigation, sensing that the real killer has gone unpunished.
Mosaic is, in short, a crime procedural, a TV genre that’s taken plenty of drubbings in the last decade.1 Rather than exploring the kinds of hot-button issues that attract think pieces and Emmy statuettes, though, Mosaic tells a humbly familiar type of story in an unfamiliar way. And it does so with a level of rigor and precision that is, for those who notice, spectacle enough.
It’s not terribly surprising that a series like Mosaic should have been the brainchild of Steven Soderbergh, a great director who’s spent the last 30 years adapting to new formats and technologies with a businessman’s pragmatism. His Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which won the Palme d’Or in 1989, made him a hero to aspiring filmmakers with no money or studio backing; but by the early 2000s he’d directed Erin Brockovich and Ocean’s Eleven, embracing all the freedoms and frustrations that come with an $85 million budget.
The next decade saw a handful of small-scale films, several of them without professional actors or a traditional script, as well as two more Ocean’s movies and other big-budget fare starring the likes of Cate Blanchett and Channing Tatum. In 2014, at the peak of the much-hyped Golden Age of Television, he directed the 10-part miniseries The Knick for Cinemax, then declared his intention to transition from film to television for good. (His retirement from filmmaking lasted all of four years, broken with last year’s Logan Lucky.) A few days after the final episode of Mosaic aired, he announced he’d be open to shooting exclusively on iPhones from now on.
If these projects sometimes give the impression that Soderbergh is straining too hard to stay on the cutting edge, they more often suggest an artist who cares deeply about polishing his craft and perfecting new skills. His personal website features a handful of “re-imagined” films by other directors, including a severely edited version of Michael Cimino’s infamously loose, baggy Heaven’s Gate, and a silent, black-and-white homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark, designed, he wrote, to help him study the cinematographic concept of staging.
Interactive storytelling might seem to offer its audiences the freedom to choose their own adventure, but it’s most effective when it emphasizes the bleak limitations of that freedom.
It’s possible to interpret Mosaic as a comparable exercise in form, meant, first and foremost, to showcase all that interactive fiction is capable of. Many critics take this to have been Soderbergh’s intention, an important reason why even good reviews of Mosaic have been qualified in their praise.
In contrast with what one might expect from a showcase for interactive fiction, the Mosaic app’s plot unfolds in more or less the same way, regardless of what character the user selects. Whether glimpsed from Joel’s point of view or Eric’s, most scenes seem to convey much the same meaning, with no nuance or new information lost or gained. First and foremost, this appears to be a budgetary issue. In a book or a video game, interactive fictions lead the way to story lines that can only be accessed in a handful of ways. In the case of an HBO show, there isn’t enough money to film interactive content that the majority of the show’s viewers are never going to watch.
Constraints aren’t necessarily weaknesses, however. Some of the most successful recent examples of interactive fiction have found creative ways of embracing the finitude of their resources. Howling Dogs—a disturbing, Kafkaesque game, designed for the Twine platform by the artist Porpentine—offers the user a sardonically limited array of choices that keep leading back to the same routines and locations. The same goes for the achingly lonely prologue to the video game Firewatch, which lets its users choose which paths to take through a forest but gives them no say in their character’s deteriorating career and marriage. Interactive storytelling might seem to offer its audiences the freedom to choose their own adventure, but it’s most effective when it emphasizes the bleak limitations of that freedom.
Mosaic is often at its very best when striking exactly this tone. Petra succeeds in uncovering some disturbing truths, but as the series comes to a close it’s an open question whether her investigation has accomplished anything of substance. Corrupt businessmen still hold all the cards, and a second innocent man may be going to jail, the patsy in an elaborate scheme involving a secret beryllium mine. The process of detection hasn’t led to justice; it’s just confirmed the detective’s powerlessness—and, implicitly, the viewer’s.
While Mosaic ends on a bittersweet note, it should be clear, even from those last few sentences, how boldly the series flirts with the ridiculous. The beryllium mine is a textbook Hitchcockian MacGuffin, a plot device that keeps things moving forward but doesn’t make much sense upon close inspection. Like Sir Alfred, Soderbergh is brilliant at getting his viewers to focus on the How instead of the Why of his material, ratcheting up the suspense until they forget the sheer absurdity of it all. (In what universe, we might want to ask, does a single book make a children’s author a multimillionaire? Must con artists always fall in love with their marks?)
What doesn’t quite gel is the contrast between the frequent silliness of the story and the aggressively somber tone, apparent in David Holmes’s pounding electronic score and in Soderbergh’s curt editing and cold cinematography. The little humor that can be found in Mosaic, coming mostly from the bumbling detective played by Devin Ratray, either falls flat or fades quickly into oblivion, like a song whistled on a cold, dark night.
Soderbergh excels at comedy, as fans of The Informant! can confirm, but this time around he seems to back away from the playfulness and gleeful self-reference implicit in his format. The result is frequently impressive but too tightly wound to feel like a genuine trailblazer, an experiment that rarely risks enough to be experimental. (Always thinking two steps ahead, Soderbergh has expressed interest in using Mosaic’s structure to create a comedy: “This format is built for comedy,” he said, “because comedy is all about perspectives and intentions being misinterpreted.”)
At this early stage in its history, interactive television is still searching for the perfect marriage of form, content, and tone. Mosaic may not be that perfect marriage, but it raises questions that aspiring auteurs would do well to consider carefully. It is—of course—too early to say if interactive fiction represents the future of television. But if it is, interactive fiction will need to adapt to its formal constraints and discover, probably by trial and error, what kinds of genres, narratives, and characters it’s uniquely equipped to deal in. In other words, the challenge facing interactive storytelling is exactly the one that Soderbergh has faced again and again over the course of his career: balancing artistic discipline with artistic freedom. Maybe it was fate that brought them together.
This article was commissioned by Liz Maynes-Aminzade.