Non-linear entertainment

I had high hopes for a new interactive DVD called The Onyx Project. It features an interesting story, a great role played by David Strathairn (who played Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck”), and at first blush, a great new idea on how to make more engaging entertainment.

The idea is intriguing, and comes at a time when the movie and TV business is trying desperately to figure out where this next convergence home run will be. Google buying You Tube is just the latest foray mixing the Web with TV. Look at all the various TV-themed Web sites that support the more popular shows today, and discussion boards about what will happen next on Lost. Clearly, we have begun some baby steps here. Granted, much of the video content on You Tube is stolen snippets from commercial sources, but I guess the Google legal eagles will get things sorted out eventually and we can all get back to stealing music and annoying the RIAA instead.

What Onyx does is provide a framework for browsing the video content, similar to the way a Web browser works in examining Web content. The difference is that the controls are minimal, and there are a lot of hyperlinked clips that you can jump from one place to another on the DVD. There is no way to watch this like a traditional DVD, with menus and chapter titles and the like. Instead, it is a series of scenes that can be woven together, so that your experience navigating and watching this content will likely differ from mine.

You can navigate the various video snippets using some simple onscreen commands to go forward and backward, and jump to a new sequence of scenes. And I should note that this DVD only works on relatively recent Windows XP machines, and ones with significant audio and video processing power too. I had a newish Dell with integrated video/audio and it had the occasional hiccup and garbled sound. You would probably do much better if you have discrete graphics and audio processing available for Onyx.

The story is solid and interesting. It is about a special forces commando mission that has gone awry in the Middle East. Strathairn plays the role of an Army colonel that led the mission. He has returned to a nondescript hotel room and is taping his memories about the mission, the tensions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his life in the Army running various black ops. His voice dominates most of the video snippets that you see — it is more of a video taped confessional and history lesson rolled into one. He uses lots of military lingo ala Clancy and it is all very au courant.

Despite his performance and a fascinating story line, ultimately Onyx doesn’t succeed. It is the old story that most of us don’t want to work too hard at being entertained. It fails because of its technological underpinnings, which get in the way of the entertainment value of the package.

The issue for me is that I am a mostly linear guy when it comes to watching movies and TV. And while I enjoyed Pulp Fiction and Lost, I watch both of them on DVD because I want to be able to stop and start them when it is convenient for me, and repeat passages that go by quickly or that have poor audio or hard to hear dialogue that is critical to the story.

I mention both of these titles because they are leading examples of great non-linear stories that don’t need a late-model XP PC or a user guide to view their content.

Lost is amazingly nonlinear for a TV show. There are a complex web of characters that come and go, and back stories and flashbacks galore. It is a far cry from Hill Street Blues, which started the concept over a decade ago with an ensemble cast and overlapping stories. And Pulp Fiction had that whole out-of-time sequencing thing that really worked and gets better on subsequent viewings too.

Back to Onyx. I got about an hour or so into the videos and then got stuck. According to the press packet, there are at least five recorded hours of content, which is too bad because I really wanted to find out what happened to the Colonel and his mission. No matter what I clicked on, I was trapped into viewing previously seen segments. First I thought the producers were trying to mimic the Irag war but I think it was just bad software design. Ideally, the system should skip over segments that you have already seen. I started clicking at random, just to get some fresh content, but no luck.

I never did find out what went wrong with the mission in question, which is too bad because there is a lot of great material on the DVD, including some references to current events and stock footage of real people interwoven with the fictional characters. (There we go again, confusing reality with fiction.) It reminded me of my first efforts at playing Myst, where I could never seem to get out of the first level of the game no matter what I clicked on. Sadly, I don’t think there is any cheats to pop up like the game had.

If I were doing Onyx over, I would have several modes of operation, including one that would allow you to play a linear movie from beginning to end, or at least some way of advancing the narrative. There is a “shuffle” command but that didn’t seem to do much and I still was trapped inside the first 50 minutes or so of content. I would also fashion the videos to run in a standard browser or use one of the usual media players, rather than have to rely on its own software to do the navigation.

We are still a far cry from true non-linear entertainment, and in the meantime Onyx is an interesting experiment, but as flawed as its mission that it portrays.

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