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The Institute and Some Thoughts on Immersive Interactive Storytelling

Michella Rivera-Gravage on Friday, Oct. 11th

On Friday, I ignored my regular bedtime and met up with some talented, hilarious and foxy women to watch a 9:30PM screening at the Roxie of The Institute, a film about the Jejune Institute. If you are unfamiliar with Jejune, it was an alternate reality game (ARG) that took place in San Francisco from 2008 – 2011, designed by Nonchalance. It is centered around a cult-like new age-y organization and the group that wanted to take it down. I got to participate in the Jejune Institute ARG while it was still running, and it was quite a unique and other-worldly experience. I saw the Financial District and Chinatown in a completely different light. I explored the area looking through the lens of a complex narrative, that lost me at time but was totally thrilling. Unfortunately, I did not get to play through all the chapters. At a certain point, it felt like it was the end but apparently it was not!

The film The Institute tells the story of the ARG through the eyes of its players and game characters while walking you through the different chapters. Hearing the players talk about their experiences was an effective way to convey what the Jejune Institute was to the audience. It is fascinating when the creators of the Jejune Institute discuss making the game. The film deftly intertwines fiction and nonfiction much like the game did. If you are at all interested in the Jejune Institute, I would recommend seeing this film.

I have a couple of questions for intricate transmedia projects that unravel over time and and require a deep level of engagement. One, will people spend the time to really understand it? We have access to so much (easy) entertainment, what can drive us to spend at least a few hours researching on the internet and wandering the streets following the path of a fiction a world? I suspect, if the story world is compelling enough, if the interaction design is well thought out and human centered, the unique and uncanny experience is enough to draw people out. This is something I would like to see more, an experience that asks you to see the world differently, that challenges your perspective, and moves you — emotionally and physically.

Seeing The Institute reminded me of A Machine To See With, orchestrated by the artist group, Blast Theory, from the UK. I got to experience A Machine To See With at the 2010 Zero1 Biennial. Guided by recorded cell phone instructions, I was placed in a storyline, where I was plotting to rob a bank with another participant. This project was so interesting because it recreated the cinematic experience without using actual film or video. I actually had that “felt like I was in a movie” feeling which I only ever get when I experience something extraordinary and dramatic, like a car accident, crime, earthquakes, etc. In my opinion, both these immersive interactive projects are very successful in engaging an audience through exploring a physical place with a fictional narrative overlaid on top.

My second question is, how can social issues be infused into immersive interactive projects? A lot of transmedia projects are built for commercial brand strategy and big media projects. But what can we can do as cultural workers and media artists in this space? Lance Weiler’s work is a good place to start looking at innovative socially-driven transmedia projects. Another good place to look is ITVS-funded interactive works. It is exciting to see what is happening, and what is going to happen!

See more of Michella Rivera-Gravage’s work here.

Corey McCall with the video game controller that measures the level of excitement in the player. Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

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