iConfidant2020 was a remote experience that was divided into two distinct groups: Betas (active players affecting the narrative) and Non-Betas (observers to the experience). This is our iConfidant2020 Non-Beta review.
It all starts with a Facebook notification. iConfidant made a new post. That can’t be right, I think. iConfidant was a side story in Darren Lynn Bousman’s 2017 Lust Experience, and it ended very badly for them. What participants thought was a chance to connect on a deep level with a specifically designed “best friend” turned out to be yet another in a seemingly endless string of tricks by the sinister organization that was quietly running the show, the OSDM; just another ploy to siphon off our emotional data. The creator of iConfidant, Stacey, was left in ruins, tricked into deluding all of us who participated without her knowledge or consent. She tried to fight, we all did, but in the end, there was nothing for her to do but disappear.
Until three years later, and this post. It says iConfidant is back, and would be accepting applications for a Beta Program to test their new-and-improved services. You’d think we wouldn’t fall for this again, that we wouldn’t recruit new people from across the world to try their hand at securing a spot, but if you didthink that, you’d be forgetting first, that this was a Darren Lynn Bousman experience, and second, how wildly thrilling it can be to let go and take the kind of risk that creeps up the back of your neck, whatever the consequence.
iConfidant2020, like all of Darren Lynn Bousman’s Alternate Reality experiences before it, is the kind of story that engages and alarms; it’s an eagerly held breath as you wait for the rug to be pulled out from under you. This one begins in April 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic that forces everyone to stay quarantined indoors for months—a near global quarantine is the kind of thing that puts an emotional distance between people as vast as the physical one. Consequently, a completely remote platform claiming to (this time for real, we promise) link you with a true friend during these dark times is immensely appealing. All we had to do was fill out an online questionnaire. A really invasive one. Some things never change.
After weeks of proving ourselves, twenty-eight out of several hundred applicants are selected to join the new Beta program. They will be paired up with a Control Group, their Confidants, and will receive multiple daily communications from them while they get to know each other. Throughout the course of the approximately five-week long iConfidant2020 experience, the Beta members and their new Confidants start out exchanging friendly emails which quickly deepened in sincerity; then phone calls, some extremely distressing in nature; then video calls, which were shared with the overall participant pool via a well-curated Reddit forum to document the entire experience. Via Reddit, it reads like a harrowing cautionary tale. Can you ever truly know someone? What if all the someones you and your friends have been paired up with have a lot more in common than you think? And most unnerving, what if your individual actions determine their fate?
Each individual selected to join the Beta Program in iConfidant2020 has a distinct and personalized storyline. Per usual with a Bousman production, the level of audience agency in this experience is unfathomable. More than many others, Bousman and his co-creator Joshua Ryan Dietz seem to understand the unpredictability of human nature, and are impeccably prepared to adjust their twenty-eight narratives throughout the experience depending on the reactions of each participant. What results is ever-changing, complex, interwoven story that envelops participants completely, and leaves many with forever unanswerable questions about what outcomes could have resulted had they made an alternate choice. Could tragedy for the Confidants be avoided? Maybe so, if someone turns left instead of right, but the most compelling thing is how little any of that matters in the face of the true message of the experience—that even in the darkest of times, with or without an immersive experience to guide us, we can still create real, meaningful attachments to each other.
What’s so unique about iConfidant2020 is how truly genuine it feels; despite the unnerving energy, despite the death and disorder, what flows underneath is a deep current of community connection, threading together both the individual narratives and the participants themselves. In a time when social isolation is the norm, this break from reality fosters a remote unity that both defies and redefines the potential of the immersive genre. At the end of it all, it’s less about the Confidants and more about the very real relationships that are built, strengthened, and sometimes rebuilt amongst the Beta Program members and those that join in to observe.
Those “observer” participants come to be referred to initially as “Non-Betas.” Non-Betas are explained their role in the experience going forward, such as it is, by way of a rather formulaic “Rejection Email.” They are encouraged to stay engaged with those who are fortunate enough to be in the Beta program, to theorize publicly about ongoing mysteries, aid in solving ciphers, and to offer general support to active players throughout. As per the email: “we are ALL part of this story.” The idea that not being selected for what’s become a highly competitive spot in a limited program doesn’t preclude you from feeling part of the story is a wonderful sentiment, however, that unlike Lust and Tension before it, those not selected for Beta in iConfidant2020 do not have the ability to receive character interaction based on their level of engagement and interaction within the community. They observe, react, and report their thoughts, but are not truly a part of the ongoing narrative. Gone is the concept that one can get out what they put in; no new paths are likely to open for anyone not “chosen” for the program. It is crucial in the early stages to appropriately set expectations for all levels of audience members.
Of course, the small size of the Beta Program group here is likely due to time and manpower constraints on behalf of the production team, who are all seemingly volunteering their time to test out this new experience, and deserve extraordinary commendation for creating so much with so little. And yet, it’s difficult to engage with excitement and follow along with so many storylines when one feels like the story isn’t happening to them. Non-Betas are likely to experience a great sense of disconnect from the community as a whole, essentially relegated to cheerleader status for others, and constantly wondering what they’ve done “wrong” to earn such a rejection. In a community that has around forty or so active members at the peak of the experience, the division between those with character interaction and those that lack that intended initial connection fosters a palpable sense of “have” and “have-nots” that may be mitigated in the future by clearly stating that all those not selected for the Beta program will not receive immersive interaction, regardless of their level of participation. So, do you need a Confidant to get the most out of this experience? Yes, certainly. The detailed and customized storyline provided to each Beta Participant and the skill of their assigned actor(s) is priceless, and without it, the developing overall story can feel incomplete and unengaging.
Despite their growing sense of ennui in the early days of the experience, after the first week or so, a sampling of Non-Betas do begin to receive bizarre communication from a character named Boyd, a disgruntled rejected applicant to the previous iConfidant program, directly appealing to their own sense of rejection. Boyd becomes a touch point for those that feel pushed away from the group at large for not having a personal story to tell as part of the growing narrative. The interactions, mostly conducted via an ever growing email chain, serve to unite Non-Betas to each other, and end up being a tether back to the iConfidant2020 experience for many who had felt adrift, even if Boyd’s purpose seems to ultimately serve the Beta Participants through his repeated warnings that they and their Confidants are in danger.
To that point, once the true lesson of iConfidant2020—real-world relationships—is apparent, that “outsider” sense seems to weigh less heavily on Non-Betas. It’s almost as if this perspective—watching one’s community grow close outside of the Beta Program—actually allows for an even deeper appreciation of the bonds that grow between all following the experience. In that sense, despite the risk of losing a viewing audience by alienating all applicants that are not accepted directly to the Beta Program, sticking the narrative out as a Non-Beta reveals that iConfidant2020 is merely the platform; the participants themselves make the truest connections on their own with each other and, much like Stacey three years prior with the original iConfidant, they did so without even being aware of it.
As a remote experience that needs all elements to work in sync to be successful, the broad story strokes are entirely told by each of the Beta Program members, who make daily updates to a designated Reddit forum, although a more casual Slack chat room is also set up for friendly chatter between participants for the duration of the story. In this vein, Beta Participants have the option to engage with their Confidants as much or as little as they choose, but it quickly becomes apparent that these new friends require a rather extensive time commitment to fully tell their stories. While the majority of public activity takes place in the evenings on the West Coast of the U.S., participants and Non-Beta Participants alike can receive contact from individuals both kind and sinister at all hours of the day. This proves especially challenging for those outside of the Greater Los Angeles area, where the production is based—several Beta Participants as far flung as the United Kingdom find themselves experiencing many sleepless nights in order to fully immerse in this world. That said, the remote nature of iConfidant2020 allows for a much broader and international audience to be able to participate overall, something that often proves difficult in ongoing immersive experiences with live-show components.
Structurally, the experience manages to organize the delivery of plot points while pushing participants to engage with both the story and each other by use of the aforementioned Reddit forum. Beta Participants are encouraged by an in-experience Moderator team to keep daily “diaries” wherein they sum up the day’s email or phone interactions with their Confidants, slowly spooling out what rapidly becomes a tense story. Later on, as the overall dread of the experience as well as the action ramps up, Beta Participants post on Reddit multiple times a day, recording phone calls, texts, and even video calls over the Zoom platform, all for the eager eyes of the rest of their community. Moderator-organized community Zoom calls are also frequent, allowing Betas and Non-Betas to mingle and discuss the recent interactions and theorize as to what they mean. The mysterious Boyd character also hosts “party-specific” Zoom calls wherein he asks participants to dance, bring props, video chat from strange places, and more. These calls in particular are a welcome joy as the tone of iConfidant2020 begins to grow darker, as a Bousman-led experience is bound to do.
Bousman and Dietz are supported by a large group of writers and performers, pooled both from his prior theater productions, as well as an impressive majority of new talents, trying their hand at immersive performance and writing for the first time to notable success. Overall, thirty actors, ten writers, and one lovable Corgi combined their efforts to tell deeply complicated and connected storylines for twenty-eight different participants. Confidants are expertly played by mostly new faces but peppered within are a few recognizable performers from Theatre Macabre, The Tension Experience, and The Lust Experience, much to the delight of long-term participants of Bousman’s productions. Overall, the amount of effort needed to both prepare and execute such an endeavor, while also accounting for the level of audience agency these kinds of works promise, is nothing short of Herculean. Bolstered with audio, visual, and puzzle support from long-time Bousman collaborator and audio engineer Morgan Rooms, the entirety of the experience felt both intentionally bizarre and yet deliberate and fully-formed.
Darren Lynn Bousman has always been known for his work as a horror director, and that tone has certainly been prevalent in many of his Alternate Reality experiences thus far. And yet, iConfidant2020 feels so different, and so necessary in a climate that forces us to remain separate. No, it’s not horror—it’s a gentle shift in reality that explodes the idea of a perfect connection and reforms it, holding a mirror to human relationships and showing the strength of our ability to bond together just as we are. We may be distanced and lonely, longing for someone to take our hands when we reach out, and the world around us may be burning, but over these five short weeks that felt like lifetimes with iConfidant2020, now more than ever, we know that no one burns alone.
iConfidant2020 is for participants 18+ due to extreme content, including death, suicide, implied animal cruelty, violence, and cannibalism.