Press A to change your life: 'Otis' and the new American cinema

The interactive drama blurring the line between film and video game.

Reality is a lie. Everything we experience is filtered through thick veils of of personal baggage, self-interest and delusion, constantly skewing the world into the most comforting state possible. Universes of fragile concepts stand between what you think happened and what actually happened.

Otis shines a detective's flashlight on this dissonance between reality and personal experience. It's an interactive crime drama that allows the audience to shift perspectives among three characters at will, telling a single story from disparate points of view. In the free online prototype, viewers press A, S or D on the keyboard to instantly swap perspectives among a babysitter, a father and a man intent on robbing their house.

Otis doesn't pause when the perspective changes; the story carries on for all three characters. This means audience members will miss bits of every character's narrative. They won't see the full story.

That's director Casey Stein's favorite part.

"Real life does not work that way -- you don't get all the answers all the time," Stein says. "And, in fact, you form opinions based on lack of information, if anything. ...That's what makes human life and humanity in many ways so intriguing. And so different. We can say things in different ways, in different tones, and you intentionally leave things out, whether you realize it or not."

Two people who go on a blind date, for example, will walk away with two completely different stories to tell their friends. Even though a static series of events transpired -- dinner, drinks, movie -- each person will omit certain things, emphasize other things and generally give a self-centered review of the entire night. Otis attempts to bottle up this idea of fluid reality in a polished, interactive experience.

"You, as a viewer, you're making decisions that really affect the narrative without feeling like you're affecting the narrative," Stein explains. "Because the narrative is actually what you think happened."

Otis is as a seven-minute prototype, but Stein and his cohorts have big plans for their new filmmaking method. They want to create a socially relevant murder-mystery series set in the American Rust Belt based on the biblical story of Cain and Abel. The prototype is their proof-of-concept -- a necessary step for an unprecedented, complex narrative experience.

Filming Otis was like completing a giant puzzle, Stein says. Each character had a handful of "fiddle points," or moments that were pivotal to the story and unmovable. For instance, one of the film's most powerful scenes involves the babysitter smashing her own face with a soap dish -- Stein and his team shot that moment, edited it down and timed it with a stopwatch. Then, they knew how long the other two characters needed to be doing something else (preferably something not as exciting, subtly pushing viewers to stick with the babysitter and the ceramic).

Essentially, Stein's team shot three short films, each with a different leading character.

"There's no smoke and mirrors," Stein says. "We literally made this movie basically with a notepad and a stopwatch. That's it. ...This project is one of the most strenuous things I've ever been a part of because of the mental energy that it takes to think about it on that level."

The result is something that exists in a kind of digital purgatory: Otis is not quite a video game, but it requires more engagement than a movie or television show. Otis is something new altogether -- and it's all millennials' fault.

Digital purgatory

Stein isn't ashamed to admit he watches a lot of TV in bed, on his laptop. Most of his friends do the same, and so do plenty of other cord-cutters across the country. Streaming video is king in a cable-free economy, meaning more people than ever are watching TV and movies on interactive platforms.

"We have all these tools sitting in front of us," Stein says. "I mean, I've got this keyboard and it's just sitting there, it's doing nothing. I'm using my laptop as a vehicle for this completely passive act when it could be completely active if I choose it to be."

On top of accessible interactivity, the success of apps like Instagram demonstrates the market is hungry for new ways to play with video. Virtual reality further supports this trend, often putting viewers in control of the camera, blurring the line between film and video game. Even some advertisements and music videos on YouTube offer "choose your own adventure" options.

"We see this as an opportunity to exist on a place like HBO or Netflix or Hulu, YouTube -- anybody that's really willing to accept us is the honest answer -- but as a new way to watch television and a new opportunity to experience a story in a different way," Stein says. "We are starting to become inundated with that as viewers when you look at things like Snapchat, when you look at things like Instagram, when you look at sort of the plethora of very simple games that are out there. It feels more every day that there's an appetite for it."

It's important to be clear here: Otis is not a choose-your-own-adventure game. It tells one linear story, no branching paths to be found. But if Stein achieves his vision, no two people will actually experience the same narrative arc. Every person who watches (or plays) Otis sees different scenes, focuses on different people and misses different details. In this sense, Otis' story is actually told outside of the screen, when viewers get together to discuss what they saw.

"For us, the more interesting conversation is you having the conversation with somebody else about it the next day," Stein says.

Everything comes back to Trump

Conversation is essential to our understanding of reality, and recently, it helped Stein come to some important realizations about his own life -- realizations that are driving his desire to turn Otis into a full series.

Stein grew up in Washington, and he now lives in Brooklyn, New York. He calls himself a left-leaning individual, and like many of his peers, he was shocked when Donald Trump won the presidency in November.

"I was, like many of my friends, upset and frustrated and confused; I didn't get it," he says. "More and more, I realized I was talking into a vacuum because everybody else felt the exact same way I did. Well, of course they did. I lived in Brooklyn. No shit."

People across the country were coming to similar realizations around the same time, even as Facebook vowed to crack down on filter bubbles and inaccurate news in users' timelines. There was a sense among many major-city Democratic voters that they had missed something, and Stein wasn't immune to this feeling. He recalls thinking, "Maybe what's really happening here is we're not listening. Maybe we're just tuning them out and saying, 'I don't want anything to do with those hillbillies' or whatever. Well, that's not very American of us. That's not a very good way to go about it. That's not even remotely nice."

So Stein decided to listen -- and, more than that, he decided to tell the story he had missed during the presidential race. He chose to make a full, Otis-style series about life in the American Rust Belt -- these isolated industrial towns from which so much of Trump's support seemed to stem.

"We know it's fictionalized," he says. "I would by no means try to paint a picture of what it's really like to live in a really impoverished, marginalized town. But the goal for us is to try to get people to listen as much as we can because if we're not listening to each other, our future isn't looking too bright."

Stein realizes his place as a big-city-dweller; he realizes people in small towns across America lead rich, full lives that he may not ever truly grasp. Perspective, after all, is a bitch. Still, he's going to try.

Stein and Otis writer Bernard Zeiger have rented out a room in the poorest city in West Virginia, a town of roughly 3,000 people, and they're going to stay there for all of October.

"We're just going to go live," he says. "We're going to go sit and we're going to talk to people. We're going to see what's going on with their lives. We want to hear from them, we want to know what it's like. We are very different than them, and that both frustrates me and excites me at the same time."

They have the building blocks for the full series -- it opens on a fight between a man and his cousin, the latter of whom ends up dead at the end of the altercation. The story unfurls from there, with viewers able to move among three perspectives: the person trying to arrest the man, the person trying to murder him and the person trying to save him. They're all trying to figure out what really happened to the cousin, allowing the audience to play detective in all three perspectives.

The Otis prototype is a standalone project, telling a different, self-contained story. It gets the point across, though -- it's a powerful experience that proves Stein's concept. It demonstrates the feasibility of an interactive mystery. Now it's up to Stein to do the research, fill in the gaps and complete the puzzle he started.

"As a filmmaker, authenticity is everything to me," Stein says. "I hope that I am the strictest judge of myself when it comes to that. If I'm going to tell this story, I want to make sure the person I'm telling this story about not only thinks that it's accurate but wants to watch it too."

After all, just because reality is a lie doesn't mean it isn't also true.