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Storytelling 2.0: Alternate Reality Games

Publishers are experimenting with an emerging form of interactive entertainment known as Alternate Reality Games (ARG). ARGs are mediated by the Web but they also extend into the real world, with players traveling to physical places and interacting with game characters via email, text messaging, Twitter, and even “old-fashioned” telephones.

I spoke to the founders of ARG design firm Fourth Wall Studios, the company that created the first publishing ARG, Cathy’s Book. I wanted to know if ARGs are a viable form of commercial storytelling, if they can be packaged up after the experience has ended, and if they can engage with a wider audience beyond hard-core gamers.

Q: Do you think the high level of engagement required of an ARG limits the audience? Is there such a thing as a “casual” ARG, that can be enjoyed in the spare moments between soccer practice and dinner time?

A: Elan Lee, Fourth Wall Studios Founder/Chief Designer: ARGs up until now have been like
rock concerts. Thousands (if not millions) of people come together at one point in time to collectively experience something incredible. They have a good time, sing along, maybe buy a t-shirt, but when they go home to tell their friends about it, there’s no action their friends can take other than to hope they don’t miss the next one. The traditional ARG is an experience that exists between the start and end date of the campaign, and if you weren’t there at the right time, you simply miss out.

To continue the metaphor, think of our games [at Fourth Wall] as ARG “albums” instead of concerts: something you can play when, where, and how you want. Ultimately, it is only through this “album” approach that this new form of entertainment is going to evolve into a mainstream genre of
storytelling.

Q: Many ARGs have been developed as promotional tools
for other media: music releases,
films, TV series, video games, and now books. Is there a perception that ARGs have to be in support of something else, rather than entertainment themselves?

A: Elan Lee: ARGs have had their roots in marketing because frankly, at this early stage, that’s a great place to find money. Marketers have a tougher job every day of finding ways to get their message heard above the noise, and they have a lot of money to throw at the problem. It’s a great situation for both sides: marketers get to engage their audience in a way that attracts, involves, and maintains an audience around a product. ARGs benefit in that we get to run wild and ground-breaking experiments as we birth this new art form.

Also, at least in the case of Nine Inch Nail’s Year Zero and Cathy’s Book, the ARG elements were not conceived as marketing, but as an inextricable part of the content. An album or a book was the spine of the experience, but the work of art itself was conceived as an interactive multimedia whole.

Q: Cathy’s Book was targeted at a young adult (YA) audience. Do you think YA is a strong market for this kind of interactive entertainment? Would it be possible to engage even younger children?

A: Sean Stewart, Fourth Wall Studios Founder/Chief Creative: Cathy’s Book and the new hardcover, Cathy’s Key, are designed to be
first and foremost a fun (and funny) adventure story. We’ve added a lot of “fourth wall” elements — you can call Cathy’s phone number and leave her a message, investigate clues she doesn’t have time to investigate or write to email addresses you find in the book and see what responses come back to you. Cathy even hosts a gallery where readers can submit their own artwork — the best of which will be published in the paperback of Cathy’s Key. The basic impulse behind this series is to make books — a traditionally passive, solitary activity — something with an active, social component as well.

“Fourth Wall” fiction — experiences that play out at least partly over your browser, your phone, your life — feels somehow very right for this new age; it’s a kind of storytelling that arises naturally from the world of three-way calls, instant messenger, text messaging, and shooting a friend an email with a link to something cool you saw on the Web. To that extent, it’s going to feel the most natural to the people most comfortable with that kind of wired world.

When I was in New York last year, meeting with the publisher of Cathy’s Book, my 12-year-old daughter emailed me a PowerPoint slide deck, complete with music and animations, explaining why I
should get her a Mac laptop for Christmas. Yeah, I think her generation finds interactive entertainment more natural than mine. And yes, I think it would be not only possible, but really effective to build interactive, exploratory stories for even younger kids — but to do that, we need to get away from the traditional ARGs willingness to be confusing. Most people like to have some clue what the heck they are supposed to do next. It won’t surprise you to learn that this is another crucial design issue Fourth Wall Studios has set out to solve.

Q: Reading is usually a solitary pursuit, but
there’s an almost universal desire to “live” in some genres, whether
it’s idealized period romances, spy novels, or detective stories
(murder mystery parties, especially popular in the 1980s, illustrate
this). How important are traditional fiction genres in ARG? Can there
be an element of role-playing involved? Are there genres that haven’t
been explored yet that have potential?

A: Sean Stewart: The first paid writing I ever did, actually, was for live action role playing games and murder mystery dinner parties in the ’80s. I never would have guessed that writing for those things would turn out to be extremely important training for me, but in fact the intersection of writing and theater, where you try to find ways for the audience to participate in the story, lies at the heart, I think, of the next evolution in storytelling.

We believe that immersing yourself in a world is a fundamental part of what makes fiction fun. Any time I follow a character — whether in a Jane Austen novel or a “Matrix” movie — I am imagining what that must be like. One of the biggest pay-offs in an ARG is that you don’t just imagine a fictional world, as in a book, or see it, as in a movie: you actually inhabit it. When I read a Harry Potter novel, I get to go to Hogwarts vicariously; when I play an ARG, I get to go myself. I
am finding Web sites on my browser, I am talking to characters on my phone: the world of the fiction has reached out to me.

That proposition, by the way, shouldn’t be limited by genre. ARGs have often had a thriller/science fiction slant to them, but even inside our games we’ve done romantic comedies, spy plots, documentary-style slice-of-life experiences, tragedies, and even Westerns. Fourth-wall fiction isn’t about a given genre: it’s a set of tools and approaches for letting the audience participate in any kind of story.

Q: What happens when the game is over? Is it possible to package up an ARG as a complete work (whether online or in print) to be experienced linearly? Or is the experience meaningless without real-time participation?

A: Elan Lee: Here’s where I’m going to try to get as much mileage out of the “rock concert” metaphor as I can. There is no denying the electric energy present at a concert and there is absolutely no substitute for “being there.” However, there are only so many available seats per venue, and only so many venues you can play before exhaustion sets in (both for the artist and the audience). For ARGs to evolve into a mainstream form of entertainment, they must create their own version of “albums” to complement the “concert.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we have to find a way to put a package around these things and call it a day; I only suggest that both pieces of the experience must exist for the real potential of the form to be realized.

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  • http://www.threepress.org/ Liza Daly

    Over on the Penguin Blog they’ve posted a description of the secret 7th ARG story that was unveiled in their We Tell Stories project: http://thepenguinblog.typepad.com/the_penguin_blog/2008/05/special-guest-p.html

  • http://www.deletedthegame.com Kevin Fohne

    Nice article. I appreciate the notion of creating the ARG analog for ‘albums’. At DELETED: THE GAME, we’re approaching this from an artistic standpoint and trying to create works that stand on their own artistic merit.