Mosaic is a game, even if the creator says it’s not

It’s not often that you see a work of art defined by its genre before its medium, but the Wikipedia page for Mosaic distinguishes it from other pages called “Mosaic” by specifying it as a “murder mystery.”

This was probably the best option. This story exists not just as an HBO miniseries released early in 2018, but also as an app dropped several months before. Both versions use the same footage, and the same narrative, but arranged in drastically different ways.

One story, two tellings

The plot revolves around different characters trying to solve the murder of a popular children’s book author (played by Sharon Stone), and was written by Ed Solomon and directed by Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh, more than many auteurs, loves to find new ways to play with storytelling techniques. The TV show unfolds very traditionally, though with some jumps in the timeline.

There are six episodes, in which we get the setup, the murder, and then assorted twists, and by the end we’re fairly sure we know whodunnit, although it’s never explicitly confirmed. The acting is good across the board, Soderbergh’s direction is brilliant (he also shot and edited everything himself), and overall, it’s a fun, if somewhat straightforward, watch.

The app is an entirely different beast. It fragments the story into different chapters that are each seen through a specific character’s point of view. There are overlaps between each section, with the same scenes playing out from the viewpoint character’s eyes. And the app does not simply play the same clips, but uses different takes in different chapters in order to emphasize its protagonist’s perspective.

You choose how you learn

After an introductory chapter, the path the user can take to view each chapter splits. You need only see one segment to move on to whatever follows it, so if you so choose, you can completely ignore certain characters’ storylines on your playthrough. Doing so, however, will drastically alter your experience – and the order in which you play the chapters will change how you process the story as well.

At times, supplemental info called “Discoveries” will pop up. These can take the form of a short video clip (usually functioning as a character’s memory), a document which a character has found, or an audio recording. These too can be ignored, but they’ll also radically reshape your understanding of what’s going on. In one potent example, when a character observes an ambiguous symbol on a bag, a Discovery appears. If you click on it, you learn that the symbol is for a local cult, and reading the file on the cult will tell savvy viewers a great deal about what’s actually going on. Or you can ignore the Discovery and be blindsided by the reveal of the cult later on in the story.

Reverse angles

This is how the Mosaic app turns the user into a detective.

You’re not merely trying to piece together the murder mystery, but actively participating in shaping your own knowledge of the events through your choices. Even though nothing you can do alters how the plot actually flows, the user’s own, personalized input is vital to the overall experience. It is for this reason that one could easily categorize the app as a video game.

Some may disagree – including Soderbergh. He asserted in an interview that “the bedrock of visual storytelling is the reverse angle… the goal of a game is very different than the goal of being told a story visually. That’s why you don’t have the issue of a reverse angle in a video game, because you don’t need to see yourself playing the game.”

But that’s a fallacious way to look at video game storytelling. It ignores the many games wherein “you” as a player do not exist as a character within the world itself. In such games, one still takes action to affect what happens within the world and story. In this case, the interaction is grounded not in narrative but in the subjective experience of the work.

It’s ironic that, despite denying having made a game, Soderbergh constructed one of the best explorations of how different angles on an event recontextualize our understanding of it, and does so in a way no traditional movie or show ever could.