Courtesy of iConfidant

Saturday, June 6th, saw the culmination of a six-week-long ARG/immersive experience from the stable of horror director and immersive theatre auteur, Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II-IV, Repo: The Genetic Opera, Spiral). Taking a brief diversion from ‘The Experiences’ (2016’s ‘The Tension Experience’, and 2017-18’s ‘The Lust Experience’) and bringing together a new team of both experienced and up-and-coming talent, Bousman launched iCONFIDANT 2020, a multimedia, multi-platform experience centred around the theme of connection.

“iConfidant was conceived and created as a rabbit hole that allowed our participants to break out from their reality and enter a bizarre and distorted world.”
– Darren Lynn Bousman, iConfidant creator/producer/writer

For those new to the term, and I’m assured that there are still a few of you out there, ARGs (Alternate/Augmented Reality Games) act as an overlay on reality – stories that live both in our world, in this case recognising and reacting to both the worldwide pandemic and civil unrest, and beyond it too, allowing players to experience things outside of their usual lives and comfort zones. They can be likened to fully interactive murder mysteries or the Choose Your Own Adventure books of our childhoods. The difference here, and what makes Bousman’s work stand out from the crowd, is that, as a participant in his immersive experiences, your choices are somewhat infinite and have a definitive impact on what happens next. The saying “you get what you give” certainly rings true, as to get the most from the experience, participants willingly give up not only their time but also a part of themselves emotionally to help breathe life into the unfolding narrative.

iCONFIDANT 2020 matched 30 selected “beta participants” with their platonic soulmate, or “confidant”, for a month-long journey, exploring friendship, deceit, and mental health. From initial introductions, through intrigue and puzzles and mysterious glitches, to violent ends for many, iCONFIDANT was and continues to be a story for a world in isolation, highlighting the importance of connection while we navigate our way through the darkest timeline…

BEHIND THE CURTAIN

While iCONFIDANT may have taken inspiration from events within ‘The Lust Experience’, it must be made critically clear that “this is not that”. Like a spin-off from your favourite TV show, iCONFIDANT 2020 took one character, iConfidant’s “creator” Stacey Erikson, and crafted a brand new narrative, making it accessible to both those well-versed in the existing dense lore of ‘The Experiences’ and newcomers alike. iCONFIDANT 2020 allowed both creators and participants to leave behind the past and embark on an exciting new adventure together.

“You are only as good as the people you surround yourself with, I just know how to surround myself with the best…”
– Darren Lynn Bousman, iConfidant creator/producer/writer

It is important to note that, although Bousman’s name was on this project from the launch, this was very much a team effort and an epically talented one at that. The iCONFIDANT creative team consisted of ten writers, from the worlds of immersive theatre, stage, and screen.

Joining Bousman (creator, writer, producer) at the helm were Joshua Ryan Dietz (creator, showrunner, writer), and co-producer Morgan Rooms (multimedia, writer). Amanda de Souza, who worked with Bousman on the upcoming Saw movie, Spiral, provided graphic design alongside her writing credit. Completing the team were Stephanie Hyden and Lawrence Meyers who are both well known for their immersive work in the Los Angeles scene, horror royalty Jace Anderson (Panic, Autopsy) and Adam Gierasch (Fractured, Tales of Halloween), talented newcomer Santiago Vega-Albela Osorio, and theatrical wunderkind Max Friedlich.

“This was my first dive into immersive, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, and it ended up being a very satisfying and challenging experience… it becomes an electric, even addictive experience that you can’t get enough of. I’m grateful for the amazing team we were surrounded by – it would have failed without them.”
– Joshua Ryan Dietz, iConfidant creator/showrunner/writer

“Working with Darren is a LOT like working at Burning Man… We create things that can only exist in the environment we find ourselves in, and we can’t rebuild them… The art was built, presented, burned, and now gone… This is not how normal people make normal art; we’re a cluster of Chaotic Neutrals pushing each other more than most teams can handle.”
– Morgan Rooms, iConfidant co-producer/multimedia/writer

Together, the team created 30 (yes, you read that right – THIRTY) individual “beta participant” paths with an overarching narrative, plus an optional path for those “rejected” from the beta, and this doesn’t even take into account the threads not pulled on, the breadcrumbs not followed, the side quests overlooked by potentially hundreds of players. And there were no weak paths here either, as every single narrative was as strong and as engaging as the next. Featuring diverse characters including single parents, married couples in strife, a journalist, and a hitman, and topics including disability, mental health, suicide, and murder, iCONFIDANT bravely went where others may have been nervous to go, and did so with confidence and an overwhelming sense of care for their craft and their active audience.

“The stories changed daily. All of the writers and actors were adapting at every point. Darren and I would constantly call each other with new, crazy ideas – some of our favorite moments or ideas were created on the spot when we were reacting to decisions that had been made.”
– Joshua Ryan Dietz, iConfidant creator/showrunner/writer

The logistics of the narratives alone are mind-boggling, without adding in a cast of over 30 actors internationally (with bases in Los Angeles, New York, and London). Known as “the control group”, many names and faces were recognisable to those who have followed Bousman’s immersive creations, from ‘The Experiences’ to ‘Theatre Macabre’, and the LA immersive scene in general, including Bobby C. King (“Mason”), Theresa Richardson (“Tabitha”), Andrew Somers (“Jeff”), Benedikt Sebastian (“Ben”), Erika Quintana (“Alexa”), Damien Gerard (“Conor”), Curtis Tyrone Scott (“Phil”), Shannon Estabrook (“Maggie”), and Melinda Dekay (“Estella”). Famous faces made surprise appearances with Shawn Ashmore (X-Men, X-Men 2, X-Men: The Last Stand – as himself) and Dayton Callie (‘Deadwood’, ‘Sons of Anarchy’, ‘Fear of the Walking Dead’ – as “Tom”), as well as actor/author/magician Rob Zabrecky (“Xavier”). The final element of this phenomenal cast was made up of a myriad of international talent from both stage and screen: Martin Head (“Langston”), Sam Evenson (“Garrett”), Andrea Nelson (“Fiona”), Gerald Waters (“Dale”), Cilla Silvia and Chris Killik (“Lexy” and “Max”), Erin Ownbey (“Lizzy”), Ceara Ledwith (“Rachel”), Marianne Goodell (“Sara”), Josh and Emily Chacona (“Christopher” and “April”), Rachel Levy (“Christine”), Jonathan Daniel Brown (“Anthony”), Anthony Cornatzer (“David”), Noel Cecil (“Dylan”), Allison Lanier (“Lane”), Anastasia Romashko (“Samantha”), and Don Schlossman (“Bob”). And it would be remiss of me to not mention McGuffin the dog as “McGruff”.

Theresa Richardson as ‘Tabitha” | Image courtesy of Brad R., iConfidant “beta participant”

It may seem excessive and unnecessary to name each of these actors, however, the energy and commitment brought to the project by every single one cannot be understated. While the writers enamoured participants with their words and intricately woven stories, the cast solidified the connections made, dragging their characters off the page and, living and breathing, fighting and screaming, into this messed-up overlay on reality, no matter where they or those they were interacting with happened to be residing.

“Just because we live in different cities and across oceans, we are still united; we are still there for each other.”
– Darren Lynn Bousman, iConfidant creator/producer/writer

Through both its casting and design, iCONFIDANT removed the barriers to immersive experiences often caused by location. As a participant in many LA-based immersive experiences while living in the UK, I have often had to watch “dead drops” (information left in public spaces for participants to find – akin to a scavenger hunt) and in-person events from the sidelines, only able to feel the thrill vicariously, no matter how much effort and research I put into the online portion of the story. iCONFIDANT placed participants across the States, the UK, and beyond, squarely on an equal footing, although minor modifications to sleeping patterns helped, but were not required.

To do this, the creators utilised several social media platforms; with Reddit (r/iConfidantBETA) serving as the main game board, or “forum”, and added texture provided through Facebook (@iconfidant) and Instagram (@iconfidant2020) accounts. Moderated by “mod-daddy” Sean Rich, whose job was somewhat akin to herding cats, with support and assistance from Kevin Gossett, every important in-game interaction was chronicled in perpetuity on Reddit both by the amazing “Team Wiki” and the community as a whole. 

For the “beta participants”, three methods of interaction with their “confidant” formed three “acts” – 2 emails a day for 2 weeks, one week of phone calls, followed by one week of video calls via Zoom, Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Skype. Once connections beyond email were made, many “beta participants” had a 24-hour a day line of contact with their confidant if they chose to use it, although those new to this kind of experience may have been too nervous to capitalise on this, and more seasoned players may have been more reticent to abuse the privilege.

Beyond this, through the use of Slack as a medium for in and out of game-related chat and connection, and Zoom parties, that if not orchestrated by the writers were then consistently disrupted by in-game phone calls and infiltrated by characters, iCONFIDANT provided a space that allowed a community of players to form and flourish. If not involved directly in the beta storylines, participants could choose their role and level of engagement, whether that be as a casual lurker, an emotional support provider, a puzzle solver, a conspiracy theorist, or even a member of Boyd’s “Chain Gang”…

In only six weeks, the creative team behind iCONFIDANT built a world within a world, burned it all down, and then allowed the community to rise from the ashes. And when the logistics alone are this mind-blowing, it is easy to forget to talk about the story, or stories, at its heart. What follows is merely a brief overview, a hint at the overarching narrative – the full story is ready for you to discover and unpick and savour over on Reddit.

DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE

As previously mentioned, iCONFIDANT first appeared on the immersive radar in 2017. As part of ‘The Lust Experience’, participants took part in Beta v1.4, which saw Stacey Erikson’s vision of providing a platform for the creation of true and lasting friendships hijacked by the nefarious OSDM in their incessant quest to collect emotional data. 

“Our company severed ties with TENSION LLC back in 2017 and has absolutely nothing to do with them. iConfidant is its own business, operating completely independently from any other narrative, business, or organization. Please embrace iConfidant as a new business without previous attachments.”
– iConfidant.net

iCONFIDANT 2020, or Beta v2.0, described itself as “a social service striving to help people find the most profound connections humanly possible. Our team is comprised of experts from the tech industry to mental health professionals to sociologists and many more from different cultures and backgrounds all over the world. Through our algorithms, intuition, and hard work, our dedicated team of professionals will find the confidant for you.” Leaving the past behind and emerging like a phoenix for one final beta test before being rolled out to the general public, iCONFIDANT also heralded the return of Stacey in control… or did it?

Registration for the limited beta test ran May 1st – 5th, with a questionnaire to fill in on the iConfidant.net website. From the jumping-off point of contact details and the seemingly innocent choice of songs to represent life and death, applicants soon found themselves answering shocking would you rather scenarios and contemplating relationships in abstract terms, such as colour. As applicants waited to hear if they had been successful, iConfidant set a fun challenge to share pictures on Instagram of the things that brought potential participants joy – an important reminder to take a moment to focus what brings us happiness even when the world is full of fear and despair. iConfidant also shared “insider” Instagram posts of the selection process, and calls were made by their staff seeking further information and clarification.

With over 500 applicants for a limited number of spaces, iConfidant created a shortlist of 100, with those selected being asked to “Prove Yourself!” While some chose to be privately or even publicly vulnerable, revealing their insecurities and need for deeper connection, others made sacrifices to set themselves apart from the crowd. Successful applicants were notified via email, phone calls, and social media, with iConfidant’s Instagram follow list serving as official confirmation of acceptance onto the beta program.

As with any good experiment, sorry, BETA TEST, iConfidant eventually took on board 28 “beta participants” and matched them with a “control group” partner. The beta participants were required to share their journey and interactions publicly through diaries on the r/iConfidantBETA subreddit, while the control group were to have no contact with or visibility within the wider community.

First contact was made between “beta participants” and their “control group” matches via email on May 15th. But there were “hiccups” straight out of the gate. The first weekend alone, potential discoveries of an underage control group participant and emails being intercepted and altered led to a dramatic baptism of fire for, and consequential dismissal of, brusque IT guy Keith.

“Boyd” | Image courtesy of Dan D., iConfidant participant

And while the relationships between beta and control group participants soon found their way back on track, rumours of headaches and “a hum” amongst the “control group” led to theories about robots and mind control. Many reported unknown presences in their homes, being watched or stalked, communication interference, forays into the dark web… As emails became phone calls and then video calls, beyond the growing intimacy between the confidants and the connections made between the stories of “control group” members, the community at large also began to receive strange phone calls, videos, and messages containing morse code and other coded warnings. Failed applicant “Boyd” began recruiting other “rejected” applicants to his email chain and inviting participants to his Zoom parties, where he encouraged wider community engagement, but also hinted at knowledge of the dark truth behind this seemingly innocent friendship service… As the bigger picture was slowly revealed, it was becoming clear that once again, things were going seriously awry for iConfidant, leading to questions about who or what was in control.

As members of the “control group” found themselves in increasing degrees of peril, their participant matches would turn to iConfidant’s creator Stacey for help, but to no avail. As confidants began to get hurt and disappear, Stacey pulled further and further away from the community she had built. Until she made one final iConfidant match, between herself and player Briana. In their conversations, Stacey revealed herself to not be the original Stacey Erikson, who had in fact taken her own life just last year. This “Stacey” was, in fact, Tabitha, Stacey’s therapist, who saw the beauty in Erikson’s vision and sought to recreate it in her memory.

Image courtesy of iConfidant

As things turned darker, and darker still, as the stories revealed by the confidants hurtled head first into the realms of kidnapping, abuse, and violence, participants were always reminded of their safe word, an in-built eject button that could be used should they feel it necessary: TERMINATE. Ultimately, it would be Tabitha who would pull the ripcord, dramatically ending the beta test, but not before many of the confidants would lose their lives, either by their own hands or murdered by other “control group” members.

Amidst the devastation, and a multitude of unanswered questions over what had unfolded before our eyes over the last month and whether we were ever truly able to save the “control group” from their grisly fates, many “beta participants” chose to compose moving goodbye letters to their confidants, an outpouring of real emotion proving that iCONFIDANT had succeeded in making its participants feel and connect, both with the story and with each other.

Image courtesy of Jackie K., iConfidant “beta participant”

To explore the ARG as a whole, the iCONFIDANT subreddit (r/iConfidantBETA) contains a wiki menu which allows the reader to focus on the timeline of events, look at a list of characters, or browse the list of confidant matches. You can also use the “Interaction” and “Discussion” flairs to sort through posts. For more information on the individual “beta” storylines, use the “Diaries” tab on the wiki or the individual flairs to navigate your way. Whether you are intrigued by my experience with the troubled mind and marriage of writer Max under the flair “Blondie and Voldemort”, want to go on a tech journey into the void using “Kari and Garrett”, if a “meating” of minds tickles your fancy then click on “Jackie and David”, if you want to follow Tori Spelling’s adventure with a female serial killer using “Tori and Alexa”, or explore Dissociative Identity Disorder with “Kit and Samantha”, there is something for every taste and certainly, no wrong narrative to start with – you will soon discover the connections that tie some, and eventually all, of these stories together. Puzzles remain unsolved, connections unmade (despite my best efforts), questions unanswered. iCONFIDANT 2020 may be “over” in some respects, but it is by no means completed…

“In this day and age, how amazing is it to email someone and have them encourage you to take a leap… which takes you to a world you never expected. Then find out they know Tori Spelling and Ice Man from the X-Men. Then become friends with them and cry together as your new friends are slaughtered… Before realising through it all, you’ve made a connection. All that without meeting. I dread to think what will happen when I meet these people…”
– Tim M., iConfidant “beta participant”

THE iCONFIDANT LEGACY

Bousman’s immersive work is renowned for the cult-like following it accrues, and iCONFIDANT is no exception. While many potential participants appeared to lose interest after being “rejected” from the beta, those who stayed the course will testify to the impact that this complex and emotive ARG has had, and will continue to have, for those involved. iCONFIDANT’s legacy is not only one of innovative, challenging, and engaging storytelling, of pushing people to reconsider their boundaries, their values and desires, but one that lives on through the community it created. A vibrant and thriving community that has come together from all corners of the world, acted as a respite from the terrifying reality outside our doors, worked to rebuild broken relationships from the past, and provided a safe space to share feelings and creative projects.

“This quarantine really took me to a dark place, then iConfidant started and I became enthralled in everything happening with my confidant and everyone else’s confidants. The things that played out brought me closer with this community that I now cherish. Since it has ended, my moods shifted and now I have motivation and passion back in my real life. I can’t thank this experience enough for what I was able to get out of it.”
– Chelsea B., iConfidant “beta participant”

“In a time when the immersive theatre genre is more saturated than ever, iConfidant achieved something truly extraordinary. It presented participants with the opportunity to not only connect with their content, but to understand the value of real relationships and community in a time when those things are more important than ever.”
– anonymous iConfidant participant

“Someone mentioned rabbits and Alice in Wonderland, but I had no idea I’d end up falling headfirst, out of control and overwhelmed, in a blind sprint toward something unknown yet overwhelmingly wonderful… The genius of iConfidant, aside from the intoxicating addictiveness of it, aside from the overwhelming intensity, aside from the treasured connection… was the community. I’ve never experienced something so immediately embracing and loving and warm and supportive. We were in it together, for good or for ill.”
– Tim M., iConfidant “beta participant”

The community, upon culmination of iCONFIDANT, was delegated with one final mission – of picking a charity, with a donation link appearing on iConfidant.net enabling people to give what and if they were able. Taking not one penny for themselves, the creators sent 100% of donations, $4,167.87, to “The Movement for Black Lives”: “an ecosystem of individuals and organizations creating a shared vision and policy agenda to win rights, recognition, and resources for Black people.” (m4bl.org)

This seems the most fitting point to end on – a community created and enabled to give not only support to those within, but also to those out in the “real world”. Beyond entertainment and art, iCONFIDANT 2020’s impact is an enduring social one, that will live in the hearts and minds of many for years to come. 

“When it’s over, there’s always a scorched landscape where our story used to be, with people affected by what we did, but mostly by what they went through with each other. These are the real bands of friendship; it’s not something being put on for a camera – this is real.”
– Morgan Rooms, iConfidant co-producer/multimedia/writer

Image courtesy of Morgan Rooms, iConfidant co-producer/multimedia/writer

For more information and updates, visit the website at www.iconfidant.net, the subreddit r/iConfidantBETA, and follow them on Instagram, @iconfidant2020, and Facebook, @iconfidant.

Special thanks to Morgan Rooms and Joshua Ryan Dietz for taking time to talk about their experiences on the creative team, and to the community for their reviews and enduring support.

Known by friends and foes alike as “Blondie”, Victoria is part-cat, part-chameleon. Behind her ever-changing exterior lies a mind obsessed with horror, criminal psychology, and sloths (also sleep and treats because cat). With degrees in both film and creative writing, Victoria now works in escape rooms while writing, editing, and travelling the UK/crossing the Atlantic to attend immersive theatre experiences in her spare time.
Immersive

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