Stephen Soderbergh, whose new series Mosaic debuts on HBO Jan. 22, may be best known for Ocean's Eleven (executive producer: Susan Ekins) and a little dance film called Magic Mike (casting: Carmen Cuba), but the indie director has a flair for the experimental and has been quietly testing the definition of television over the last few years. One of Soderbergh's latest projects is this HBO series, which first appeared as an app. How does Mosaic work, exactly? The storytelling experience is like a "choose your own adventure" book for grown-ups, centered around the murder of an author.
After handing the reins of The Girlfriend Experience (cinematography, 7 episodes: Ari Wegner) over to filmmakers Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan to be adapted and expanded as a half hour drama that breaks the mold for Starz, this is Soderbergh's latest rule-breaking creation. And you can immerse yourself in it on your phone right now.
The series — essentially the same content that will be released on HBO this month — was first released as an iOS app in November 2017. It's free. You can still download it now. It is available in the Google Play store for Android devices as well. It stars several acclaimed actors, including Sharon Stone, Garrett Hedlund, Beau Bridges, Paul Reubens, Michael Cerveris, and Maya Kazan.
In an official HBO press release, Soderbergh said, “While branching narratives have been around forever, technology now allows, I hope, for a more elegant form of engagement than used to be possible. At no point were we reverse-engineering the story to fit an existing piece of technology; the story was being created in lockstep with the technical team. The fluidity of that relationship made me feel comfortable because I wanted it to be a simple, intuitive experience.”
This is what the app looks like when you first download and start your adventure. See how it branches out and around as the story goes on? The first episode is "Meet Olivia Lake," which sets up Sharon Stone's author character and takes place four years before the main events of the show. It resembles a pilot, but the story gets (literally) more convoluted from there on.
After you complete that pilot outing, subsequent chapters will unlock and you can choose whose perspective you want to follow. How does it work? You just tap, swipe, and click through. It's a user-friendly experience. There's a map and everything, as you can see above. There is also an option to "look again" and search for things you didn't catch before.
There are also "discoveries," indicated by a button with a lightning bolt on it, that unlock as you go along and may even pop up as a notification. Those discoveries range from supplemental video to drawings and other content like documents, articles, and voicemails. By choosing who to follow and what information to examine, individual audience members will form their own opinion about and loyalties to these potentially unreliable characters.
So if you're a fan of transmedia storytelling that utilizes multiple mediums or platforms — think The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (co-executive producer: Margaret Dunlap) with murder or the Peak TV version of a video game — this tale might be for you.
If watching something in pieces on your phone isn't your thing, you could always just wait for the six episodes to air on HBO (consecutively, from Jan. 22 through Jan. 26) and watch them the traditional way. Even without the fancy new technology, it's still a murder mystery starring Sharon Stone and Pee-wee Herman.
You could also do both, compare the two experiences, and see if there's anything you missed while exploring the mystery yourself and creating your own personal narrative. Surely Soderbergh's edited episodes will have their own point of view. That's the beauty of interactive storytelling like this. You can choose your own level of engagement, and that level of control makes for something special.