This is a surprisingly intimate glimpse into the inner world of multimedia artist Nathan Penlington, with plenty of exciting decisions along the way.
It is deliciously frustrating to have options closed down forever.
Nathan Penlington: Choose Your Own Documentary takes the form of the old 'Choose Your Own Adventure' novels. Members of the audience are given little devices that allow them to vote, and each time a key decision comes up in the story, the audience decides which path to take. Do we want Penlington to continue to search for the original owner of his books? Should he go and see a psychic for advice? How about a life coach? The story begins when Penlington buys a collection of second-hand books on eBay and finds a few pages from the diary of a miserable teenager amongst them. Determined to find out if the boy grew up into a happy man, he seeks out the owner. More than that, I can't tell you, because the story is different every night depending on what courses of action the audience votes for.
Penlington makes a very engaging host. Slightly socially awkward, but willing to be very open and at times almost painfully sincere, he guides us through a mixture of extracts from the old books themselves, documentary footage of his adventures, and personal accounts of his own motivations. At times, he seems a little encumbered by the presumably enormous script he has memorised (apparently there are over 1000 different permutations to the story) and it would perhaps be better if he allowed himself a little more freedom to improvise, but generally he is a clear and endearing narrator of his own story.
The technique of the 'choose your own adventure' is very effective. Sometimes the different choices seem pretty inconsequential, but at other times they are huge. It is deliciously frustrating to have options closed down forever. The choices have also been constructed in such a way that the narrative feels completely coherent. I can only guess that the other permutations are equally successful; I would be surprised if they weren't. Penlington is, by his own admission, an obsessive, and this makes it unsurprising that everything slots together so neatly.
A minor criticism is that the story takes a long time to get going. The first twenty minutes or so are spent exploring the concept of the 'choose your own adventure' stories and this is a bit unnecessary. It isn't a complicated idea, and anyway, it's instantly understandable when the first set of options go up on the screen. Once the story does get properly under way, though, it works well. The 'voting' technique always feels like a thoroughly integrated aspect of the central theme and everything fits together nicely.