Bxx: Haunted first impressions

Bxx: Haunted is a new online narrative created by Daniel Knauf, who created the HBO series Carnivalé. I’ve been fiddling with it since a preview went live for a select few (the first 5,000 users who signed up for it) last Friday. I thought I’d note my first impressions.

The concept behind Bxx: Haunted is what Knauf calls a “Bxx narrative.” Rather than being an entirely linear story told from whatever point of view a filmmaker or author wants the audience to follow, Bxx: Haunted allows the viewer to follow the story in a more or less non-linear fashion, watching segments of video in whatever order desired, reviewing pieces, skipping others and so on.

The premise is pretty basic. The narrative takes place in a modest two-bedroom house in Pasadena. The house is in pretty rough condition, obviously having been empty for some time. Over time — you have to watch some of the videos to figure out what’s going on — we learn that a team of paranormal investigators has set up 16 cameras around the house and that the team members will be staying in the house for the next 48 hours to investigate ghostly activities there.

By watching the videos, we get to meet the characters — Dr. Johnson, the head of the paranormal investigators; Diane, his assistant; Greg, an investigator; Len, the technical guy who set up and is monitoring the equipment; and Elizabeth, who apparently worked with Dr. Johnson on a previous investigation. We also meet Emil, a lawyer for CalTrans, which owns the property.

The video quality isn’t great, which one would expect from such an investigation. It’s better than security camera feeds, but doesn’t appear to be high definition. There are enough cameras that you pretty much have the run of the entire house, sometimes from multiple angles. The cameras are fitted with microphones, about which I’ll say more in a bit.

The videos are broken up into 6-minute segments. So, every six minutes, you have the option of viewing any of 16 6-minutes slices of the narrative. I haven’t gotten too far into the narrative yet — I’m only in segment 7 out of maybe 320 — but I think I’ve started to develop a feel for how experiencing this sort of narrative works.

In some segments, I’ve found videos that I’ve wanted to watch all the way through, and then watch from some of the other cameras to make sure I got everything. In other cases, I could tell that there likely wasn’t anything going on with certain cameras, so I could skip them — although, at this point, I’m still trying to watch everything just to see if there are weird things going on that the characters don’t notice, and so far I’ve found a few. It’s enough to keep me at least skipping through all the videos in a segment even if there isn’t obviously anything in it.

More than anything, Bxx: Haunted reminds me of a lot of the point-and-click adventure games that I used to play back in the ’90s. There are supplementary materials in addition to the videos such as old newspaper clippings, the investigators’ reports and so on, although in the preview a lot of that material hasn’t been fleshed out yet, and in some cases is clearly still in draft form. That’s pretty typical of the ’90s games. In this case, though, the interactivity is limited to picking what video in what segment you want to watch. For someone new to the idea, I can see it being intriguing; for someone who is well familiar with a variety of non-linear storytelling methods, it seems a bit limiting. Even so, I’ve always enjoyed this sort of storytelling by exploration in which you’re presented with all the elements of the story but it’s your job as the audience/reader/viewer/whatever to put the story together for yourself.

Although it’s still early in the process for me, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I like what Knauf and his team are doing with Bxx: Haunted. I like the premise and so far the execution is pretty reasonable. That being said, it’s clear that this is, to some degree, a proof of concept, and as such, the creators are still finding out how to tell a story in this particular medium.

Take, for example, the sound. As I mentioned earlier, each of the 16 cameras mounted in the house is also equipped with an omindirectional microphone to pick up sound. I also mentioned that the video quality is OK but not great. Here’s where those elements come together.

Because of the quality of the video, the actors pretty much have to use stage acting techniques in order to sell their characters. If you’re familiar with stage acting at all, you’ll know that it requires you to exaggerate some elements of your performance — you have to enunciate very clearly and distinctly, for example, in order to be heard by the audience members in the back row, and your gestures have to be bigger than they would be in real life just so the audience can see what you’re doing. Film and television acting uses different techniques and have different requirements because the camera can amplify a small movement into something large. In the case of Bxx: Haunted, though, the actors are all pretty much using stage techniques out of necessity because of the quality of the video.

The drawback of this is that, while you’re watching the video from one room and trying to listen to what the characters are saying there, you can hear the characters in the other rooms speaking, as well, and sometimes the characters in the other room are speaking so loudly that they drown out the speech of the characters you’re trying to follow.

This is especially true of the character Emil, the CalTrans lawyer. Now, pretty much all of the characters in Bxx: Haunted are — how shall I put this — fucking annoying. Dr. Johnson is the stereotypical clueless pseudo-academic who is trying to be leaderly about the project but is really pretty much a putz. Diane is a self-important bitch who appears to have the emotional maturity of a particularly nasty junior-high girl. (As Emil points out at one point when he observes that Diane always wears a hat, on TV when they want to show you that a female character has mental problems, they put her in a hat.) Both Greg and Len are excitable, which I suppose is a nice way of putting it. Elizabeth displays that sort of annoying false interest that is so common among people in public relations.

And, of course, there’s Emil. As another character tells him pretty early on in the narrative, “You’re a bit of a scumbag, aren’t you?” to which Emil replies, “Yeah, you know. A little bit.” That sums up his character. He’s loud, he’s juvenile, he’s the annoying guy who acts like a dick because his greatest pleasure is how people react to him being a dick. And in pretty much every video, when you’re trying to listen to some of the other characters have a conversation, you can hear Emil in the background jacking around and being an ass, sometimes to point of drowning out the conversation you’re trying to listen to.

That leads to another issue I have with the narrative. As I mentioned, the setting is a modest two-bedroom house. I get the impression that the story was designed for a rather more expansive stage. In addition to the overlapping sound problem, there’s the bit with the walkie-talkies. The team tries to use walkie talkies to communicate even though they could probably do better if one of them just stuck his head out the door and spoke loudly, not eve yelled. There’s also the fact that in a number of scenes you can hear Emil in another room talking smack about another character who should be able to hear him just as clearly as you can, but who has to ignore it. That sort of thing doesn’t really help the immersive quality Knauf is going for, I think.

I’m also pretty certain that most if not all of the dialog is improvised by the actors. Clearly, some of them are better at improvisation than others. There are lots of examples of the actors screwing up what they were supposed to say, but then recovering, the way real people do when talking. In other cases, characters refer to other characters by the wrong name, again, which happens in real life. The most important rule of improv, though, is to never say no — don’t negate what another actor gives you, take it and build on it. There’s enough saying no going on here that it makes me thing some of these actors either aren’t all that good at improv or they were specifically instructed to negate the other characters at least some of the time. Most of the time, that negated character is Emil, though, which actually makes sense. He’s not just a scumbag, he’s a loud and enthusiastic scumbag.

I might give you the impression that I don’t like Bxx: Haunted, and I don’t want to do that. For all its flaws, it’s a fascinating experiment. I’m at once daunted by it scale — it’s taken me 5 days just to get through 7 segments, and there are 313 or so to go — and fascinated by its potential. I’m looking forward to going through the rest of it.

Of course, part of that is to see if anyone in this piece ever stands still for more than a few seconds at a time rather than figiting all over the set. Now, that would be something to see.

I don’t know when it will be available to the general public, but you can find it at bxxweb.com.

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