A sharply dressed man and woman are lost on an empty stretch of road, with no memories of who they are or where they’re going. The only clues to their identity are the personalized features programmed into their car, and your phone number in their phone’s call history. The nameless man calls your number. For the next 15-20 minutes, you’re tasked with guiding the pair as they retrace forgotten steps, piecing together their past lives and their current predicament.
Welcome to Deja View, a visually stunning interactive film produced by Campfire to promote the Infiniti Q50, that delights in throwing you into the center of a mystery with characters as confused as you are. The experience (limited to United States residents) begins at infinitiusa.com/deja-view. After watching a brief explanatory video and calling a number to sync up your browser and your phone, voice inputs on the phone can direct what video content plays out in real time, creating the illusion of natural conversations with your fictional on-screen collaborators.
As Deja View progresses through the story’s three main narrative checkpoints, you’re led on a seemingly simple, linear journey. Once or twice per session, you receive a phone call from one of the characters and are asked to respond to a few simple questions: say you’ve spoken with the man before, or deny it. Go to the gas station, or to the diner. Your answer changes how the video progresses, while still driving you inexorably towards a happy ending where the pair free themselves from the loop that has them trapped. The only challenge? One of the central themes of Deja View that enables you to reach a successful conclusion to the story is the idea of eschewing the well-worn path, and breaking free from constraints. You can’t complete Deja View without convincing the on-screen characters to go against their own instincts, but the story rewards you for taking the easy path with a happy ending. The message is conveyed, but you aren’t forced to live it as a co-conspirator.
To address this potential for cognitive dissonance, Deja View has secret narratives that are only exposed to people who resist the easy answers. Ask the right unprompted question, and you might ferret out some additional information about why the pair are stuck in a loop. Make a conscious effort to thwart their journey, and you might make one or both of the characters lose trust in you and each other, irrevocably altering their path. It’s not easy, and most of the changes you make only have a small impact on the overarching narrative. But push the edges enough, and you’ll take things in a completely different direction.
If this method of telling stories sounds familiar, you may be remembering some of the experimental stories that played out across Fourth Wall Studios’ RIDES platform, which sought to integrate telephone and video content to create serial dramas like the Emmy Award-winning Dirty Work. But while RIDES focused mainly on narrative voyeurism by asking viewers to spy on synched telephone calls and text messages intended for others, Deja View grants viewers the ability to influence the video through telephone conversations that bring the narrative flexibility of text adventure games into the realm of cinema.
Deja View was developed as an interactive companion piece to Factory of Life, the brand’s television spot for the Q50. In Factory of Life, a man escapes an assembly line that churns out nearly identical business-people. Deja View follows that same man out on the open road as he attempts to make good on that escape. Both halves of the campaign can be viewed in isolation, but I found it best to experience Deja View first, before watching Factory of Life as a prequel. Elements of the television commercial offer hints at mysteries uncovered through flashbacks in the interactive short that lend to a better understanding of the project as a whole, but the overall experience is strongest when audience and fictional character uncover the narrative’s underlying mystery in Deja View together. Campfire’s Creative Director Steve Coulson explains that one of the inspirations for the project was the question, “what if Hitchcock did transmedia”? Part of the thrill of watching a Hitchcock film is experiencing the twists fresh during that crucial first viewing: and while Factory of Life doesn’t offer any information about the main twist, it might conceal a MacGuffin or two.
One of the core abilities transmedia storytelling and alternate reality games share is their ability to convey a feeling of agency. When I watch a horror movie and one of the characters is about to walk into the serial killer’s trap, my gut reaction is to yell at the screen and tell them what to do. In a crowded movie theater, I end up looking like an obnoxious jerk and risk getting kicked out of the screening. With Deja View, I can finally yell at the screen and actually have the characters listen and react, expletives and all.
While savvy players will be able to unearth quite a few hints about the two protagonists of Deja View, the story never gives a definitive answer to the questions of who the two protagonists are or how they got stuck in a loop. One possible explanation that I’ve entertained is that Deja View is providing a window into the genesis of professional drivers, and the closed course curse they’ve been forced to endure all these years. If you’ve watched a car commercial in the past decade, you’ve probably seen the disclaimer “Professional driver. Closed course. Do not attempt.” in the fine print of countless car commercials. But when was the last time you thought about what it means to be a professional driver? What does it take to become one, and why do we rarely see them? And exactly how closed are those “closed courses”? Is it significant that the warning shows up in Infiniti’s Factory of Life commercial just as the unnamed man escapes in the car?
Maybe that disclaimer isn’t just a disclaimer. Maybe it’s also a warning.
“Professional driver. Closed course. Do not attempt.”