In March of 2010, the Dutch broadcasting company VPRO released the documentary Energy Risk as part of its Future Affairs programming. The Dutch-language documentary explored the impending transition from fossil fuel to alternative energy sources. Recognizing that the average documentary viewer is over the age of 55, the network approached SubmarineChannel to create a more engaging experience that would appeal to younger audiences. Tommy Pallotta was brought on board to direct the experience, and the Collapsus experience was born.
Staying true to the project’s documentary roots, Collapsus presents a global narrative that plays out in the near-future. Told through the eyes of activist vlogger Vera and a cast of supporting characters, Collapsus depicts a complex world of profiteering, geo-political maneuvering, and conspiracy centering around dwindling oil reserves. Stylistically, the experience combines live action film with rotoscoped scenes that should be familiar to viewers of Pallotta’s previous projects, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. Pallotta notes that “we settled on a hybrid of live action and animation as an aesthetic choice, but also one made for time and budget. The story takes place all over the world so we had to find a way to tell a global story that didn’t show the limitations we had.” This core narrative, combining live action and animation, forms the root of the Collapsus experience. And while this passive experience can provide a complete narrative arc, the story is peppered with a host of opportunities to take a more active role in the story.
Along the bottom of the screen, the standard video progress bar has been replaced with a timeline that signals major events in the narrative, triggering additional content. Pallotta explains that his vision was to “bring an annotated experience to storytelling. I am more interested in a fragmented narrative that mirrors our own lives instead of a highly constructed and forced narrative.” Reflecting this fragmented view of storytelling, viewers can slide their mouse to the right at any point in the video to view faux-news reports from Citizenergy, along with English-language clips from the Energy Risk documentary that relate directly to events in the story. Sliding the mouse to the left brings up a map that leads to an interactive infographic granting the player absolute control over energy allocation and research budgets for the UK and Bulgaria. Pallotta explains that the game “allows you to look at energy in a way that really shows a cause and effect of consumption and production. In this sense we can talk about what is going on in a fictional and geo-political way, but the game actually places you in a simulation that makes the problems more tangible and guides you to think of solutions.”
At key points in the narrative, optional interactive challenges also arise, with tasks ranging from playing one of the characters in a game of Snake to virtually decrypting encoded text messages and recording conversations between characters using surveillance equipment. While these interruptions to the narrative sometimes feel forced, they generally offer welcome breaks from the weighty subject matter of the video proper.
Although it is tempting to compare Collapsus to its thematically similar counterpart World Without Oil, an alternate reality game focusing on the plight presented by peak oil, it is perhaps more fitting to describe Collapsus as a long-form version of Fourth Wall Studios’ interactive trailers such as Eagle Eye: Free Fall and Six Minutes to Midnight, which leveraged a central online platform to create the illusion of agency.
Collapsus treats the subject of alternative energy with care, and provides no easy answers. Although the narrative presents space-based solar power as a viable alternative to fossil fuels, the flaws of the system are laid out in stark relief, leaving the audience open to explore alternatives. Pallotta notes that the project was designed for the connected generation, and has been well-received with younger audiences. Hopefully, this project and others of its nature will in turn attract more bright young minds to tackling the complex issues surrounding global energy production and consumption.