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‘Brandon Generator’ Is a Noble Experiment in Crowdsourced Storytelling

It’s kind of hard to categorize The Random Adventures of Brandon Generator, the new online project from filmmaker Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World), comic book artist Tommy Lee Edwards (Turf, Marvel 1985) and Microsoft. On the “Behind the Scenes” page, Edwards writes that he doesn’t think of it as a comic or a motion comic. It’s an “interactive online graphic story,” he says. That’s a little bit of a mouthful, though, isn’t it? I might call it a motion comic-plus, or maybe what we should have been calling motion comics instead of those things that took issues of Astonishing X-Men and showed us just how Wolverine moves when he eats pizza.

However you might label it, Brandon Generator is an ambitious experiment in storytelling, melding animated comic art and voiceover with viewer contributions to get inside the head of a writer’s block-afflicted author who may or may not be losing his mind. Not everything about the first two episodes completely works, but it’s almost certainly the closest an animated comic has come to being worth the effort.

Let’s knock the technical stuff out first, since it’s maybe the most problematic thing about Brandon Generator. It’s evident from the moment you first visit the website that you’re supposed to watch the episodes in Microsoft Internet Explorer 9. The actual credit is, “a production by Internet Explorer,” which is pretty vague, but seems like it can only mean Microsoft is footing the bill for the project. In case you miss the initial notice, you’ll be reminded repeatedly you’re watching it wrong if you’re using Firefox or Chrome.

IE9 isn’t my browser of choice, but for the sake of seeing everything as it was meant to be seen, I fired it up and pinned the website to my taskbar, as instructed. A couple minutes into episode two, the playback froze up and wouldn’t restart, so I had to close it out and start over. This wouldn’t be a big deal if there were any navigation controls, but there aren’t. All you get is a pause button and mute button. When I restarted the episode, I inexplicably got two audio feeds, one about a second behind the other.

So I gave up and watched it in Chrome, which worked fine, though rewind and fast forward buttons would have still been nice. That’s probably not what the producers wanted to happen.

As for the story itself, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Generator, who looks a lot like Matt Fraction and/or Ed Brubaker, is a writer — of comics, novels, and movies — who’s fighting a nasty bout of writer’s block. He passes out after drinking too much coffee (not something I knew coffee could do to you, but I’ll accept it) and wakes up to find a wealth of ideas he supposedly created while unconscious. Apparently, the world around him changed a bit while he was out, too.

Stories about writers and writer’s block are pretty notoriously hard to pull off. After all, how do you build a story about someone not doing something? Wright manages to do it reasonably well, with lots of voice-over narration (from The Mighty Boosh’s Julian Barratt) informing us of Generator’s compulsion to drink coffee and the dull mundanity of his life with imagery (a thesaurus as a “dinosaur made of words”) and clever turns of phrase (“Looking out of the window was now the main skill on his resume”). Still, for almost an entire episode, this is a story about a guy who doesn’t do anything except drink coffee and stare at a screen.

Episode two picks things up a bit, with an excursion to get a cup of coffee, some mindf***ery and a scary encounter with a monster. Hopefully the screen-staring stuff was just for one episode. The website promises at least two more episodes in the coming months.

Edwards and the animators do a nice job of spicing up the story, with plenty of cool visuals (the word dinosaurs are particularly great) and little details such as Generator’s phone “vibrating” (because of a train going by) and a moth flying around a light. These aren’t just static characters or objects moving awkwardly; the animation has a really nice feel to it.

The writing and art really click when it comes to establishing mood. Even before monsters start showing up and Generator starts seeing things he shouldn’t, there’s an ominous feeling to everything that’s happening. Generator has anxiety dreams, his apartment is dark and cluttered, there’s a real sense he isn’t in control of anything. Even when the story is dull it doesn’t feel dull. That’s an accomplishment.

I can’t help but make comparisons to another recent story about a writer who finds himself confronted by material he’s surprised to discover he wrote while knocked out: the videogame Alan Wake. Like Generator, Wake finds himself beset by monsters of his own apparent creation, and like this story, Wake’s writers and developers do their best work when establishing mood. I don’t think Generator’s story is in any way a rip-off of Alan Wake, but I’ll be interested to see how much this story parallels the game’s when it’s finished.

The real X-factor for Brandon Generator is that –unlike in Alan Wake– the writer at the center of the story didn’t actually create all that stuff he found when he woke up. Viewers did. Indeed, the whole project is credited to Wright, Edwards and you.

I love the idea of a writer who’s essentially controlled by the reader. One could imagine this story turning out to be a sort of crowdsourced choose-your-own-adventure. But it hasn’t really lived up to that potential yet.

In the one episode that’s incorporated viewer contributions so far (the first served as a sort of invitation for participation), 68 ended up in the final product. But the lion’s share of those clearly fit into spots where you could really put anything –a phone message that sounds weird, a drawing on a notepad, a note on a digital voice recorder in a voice that Generator doesn’t think sounds like his own. It does go beyond that in a few spots. One of the phone messages about an owl’s eyes is accompanied by some creepy animation. The monster Generator confronts came from a viewer text submission (there’s a pretty funny gag about its silly name) and a mysterious character who shows up came from a voicemail message.

But I can’t help but feel that none of of this really affects where the story is going. It seems pretty clear that Generator was going to see weird stuff, and he most likely was going to encounter a monster. Still, it’s altogether admirable to see a writer as high-profile as Wright and an artist as talented as Edwards reach out to their audience like this.

The screens that close out each episode, which feature seven or eight clickable items that enable viewers to contribute different things (drawings, voice recordings, photos of themselves, text, and so fort) are, in spite of being a little overwhelming in terms of all the options, a hell of a compelling invitation to add something to the story. And at least one of those items at the end of episode two is pretty encouraging. It’s a scrap of paper that asks, “What happens next?”

Let’s hope that’s really up to us.

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