Blog Post

HBO Imagine Sets a New Bar for Interactive Fiction

[show=hboimagine size=large]The classy denim company Joe’s Jeans is notorious for putting up billboards of naked models to advertise its fashion — directly selling a concept in order to indirectly sell a product. It’s an advertising approach that, yeah, seems a little ridiculous, but has often proved successful, as associating oneself with a particular kind of experience goes a long way towards creating an image. So how exactly does the “branding experience” HBO Imagine promote, say, the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm? Maybe not directly, but that doesn’t keep the experience — which incorporates video, text and audio into a branched narrative that gains in complexity the more you explore — from being flat-out awesome.

Imagine consists of a Flash-driven framework of content, starting with a 2-minute short entitled The Affair. In the video, a couple’s awkward encounter is made more awkward by the fact that there are four available angles to watch their conversation from — and spinning around the “story cube” to shift angles reveals just how much is actually going on.

Production values, acting, and directing for every video are all of the caliber you’d expect from a premium cabler, the only slightly weak link being some of the dialogue and plotting, which verges on the cliché. Given the scale of the project, though, it’s easy to forgive.

Half the fun of Imagine is figuring out the story on your own — in fact, that’s what takes the otherwise passive experience of watching content and transforms it into a game. So I won’t say too much, except that art theft, bomb squads and teddy bears are all part of the noir-esque mystery. And that the creators seem to think mimes are much, much funnier than they are. A pretty important subplot revolves around the silent performance art, and while it initially adds an interesting element of absurdity to the otherwise very dark series of videos, the more punny jokes get old fast. Most intriguingly, there are a number of deliberate plot holes and places for the story to be continued, which is apparently the goal: According to AdAge, viewers will be invited to submit their own Imagine-themed videos.

At a certain point, navigating the sprawling interface does become tiresome, and it gets harder to find new content to add to your understanding of the story. Fortunately, the Chart Your Progress option lays out the narrative in a semi-linear fashion, allowing you to see how different elements are related and how much more you have to complete.

This is the second interactive video experience to come out of creative agency BBDO for HBO, the first being the award-winning Voyeur. This time around, The Barbarian Group was also a collaborator, helping to create not just the online experience, but a four-sided film experience touring to New York, Philadelphia, and D.C.

I sent this to Liz Gannes when I first discovered it (the phrase “OMG so cool so cool!” might have been used) and while she was impressed, said she didn’t have “10 hours to spare.” But I managed to complete the entire viewing experience in about an hour and a half, for while it is a bit of a timesuck, it’s an addictive one. How many subscribers will it drive to HBO? Probably not a ton. But while there’s an art to good advertising, sometimes there’s advertising that’s good art.

7 Responses to “HBO Imagine Sets a New Bar for Interactive Fiction”

  1. OMG. Finally, something that qualifies as “newteevee” featured on NewTeeVee.

    Yes, the Content is cumbersome and over-thought. But, it shows hope and a future. If they can re-shape for a more intuitive episodic UX (read: short interactive bit, not the whole enchilada, please) they may even grab an audience.

    Now, once they can figure out how to integrate User Generated content within their framework (“conversational” alternatives would be fascinating for this format), then, they may really suck people into the story experience.

    A few more productions like this one and NewTeeVee may have something to write about (Noting today’s other post: was also encouraging and the two combined were a breath of fresh air in what’s become a very stale environment).

    • ‘Imagine’ is definitely a very well made thing. If you like it maybe you’d find the interactive film ‘Subject to Change’ to be of interest to you too. It was a student piece produced and exhibited in the UK earlier this year that featured a touch screen controlling a flash video interface with four perspectives of the same scene much like ‘Imagine’. Only we also added Twitter into the mix to add more user generated content.
      So much smaller in scale but we want to make more!