Noah J Nelson on Wednesday, Jul. 29th
Christian Marcus is in over his head, and I can tell he’s loving it. Hopefully it won’t kill him.
Marcus, a scenic designer by trade who is the wizard behind some of the most beautiful bars in LA (No Vacancy, Butchers and Barbers, Pour Vous), and his fiancé Erika Diehl have found themselves at the center of a web of lies and deceit that is being teased apart by a couple of thousand people around the world.
That is, they’ve started an Alternate Reality Game, of sorts. Partially by accident.
The Lost Tears of Kali first came to the ARG community’s notice thanks to an article in the LAist which teased the existence of the fictional city of Empire Falls. The online component of the game has more in common with early text based adventures than the Rube Goldberg-esque ARGs of the Aughts which were bankrolled by movie and game studios looking to build up rabid fanbases.
What piqued my own interest wasn’t the online component, but the lure of the live events that are a promised part of the Lost Tears package. The spaces that Marcus designs are some of my favorite in Los Angeles, each crammed full of details which suggest layered narratives. This makes me eager to learn just what he has up his sleeve when story is the point and not a side dish.
As it turns out, live events are the entire point because Lost Tears grew out of—and remains a key part of—Marcus and Diehl’s wedding plans.
“We got engaged on December 25th—Christmas,” Marcus told me while the three of us sat in Los Feliz’ Parisian themed Cafe Figaro. “I’ve known Erika for about six years, we’re best friends, it’s fantastic. When it came to deciding what our wedding them should be—couples have to figure that out, its a big deal. We finally arrived on the fact that it should be an Agatha Christie, 1930’s murder mystery wedding.”
The couple has a lot of friends from the entertainment world, and when they made the descision to go with a themed wedding the pressure was on to make it one to remember. They also wanted to find a way to make the wedding and reception parties as inclusive as possible. With three parties in total, and months between the different events a challenge, and an opportunity, arose.
“We didn’t want our West Coast friends to feel left out of the actual wedding,” said Diehl, “because not everyone is going to be able to go. And vice versa: we didn’t want our friends and family on the East Coast to feel left out of the parties going on here. So we thought: let’s tie them all together in this story arc they can follow online.”
Marcus and Diehl began putting the story together, with Marcus taking on the graphic design duties. They put the Empire Falls mini-site up at a subsection of his design studio’s website. Then Marcus began teasing the work amongst his small group of Facebook friends. Diehl shared those teases. Then a friend shared it with their friend. Marcus picks up the thread:
“Then the LAist called us and said ‘I read this on a friends page and I’d like to talk to you about it.’ And I literally said, oh BLEEP Erika. What do we do?” (Editor’s note: he really said “bleep.”)
Seeing opportunity again—Marcus had always wanted to run a narrative experience that went beyond the theme work he’s done in the hospitality industry—the couple went for it. They didn’t exactly expect what would happen next. The sign-ups exploded.
“We woke up the next morning and I’ve never seen… I had to go back seven pages in my email to get to the first one,” said Marcus.
Now Marcus is squaring off against the same kinds of rabid ARG fans who are adept at exhausting even seasoned teams. For the first two months of the storyline—which is slated to last around 14 months in total—Marcus has been putting in the equivalent of a full time job, and then some, each week. The more Marcus put into the world, the more the fans they’ve acquired are eager to consume.
A good chunk of that pressure might shift as the event card comes into play. Marcus and Diehl have expanded the original “three party plan” into a monthly series. The first of which—The Empire Falls Polo Gala—is set to take place this weekend in Pacific Palisades. It will be the first real test of the couple’s vision of bringing their fictional world to life, but one that takes place on their home turf: event planning.
The wave of interest in Lost Tears is a testament to just how eager ARG fans are for new mysteries to play with and within. It’s a style of experience that has lost some of the deep pockets it had just a few years ago, but has retained a dedicated core of fans. Marcus and Diehl weren’t looking to start an ARG, and in some ways don’t see what they are doing as being the same or beholden to the conventions within that community.
After all, Lost Tears is a labor of love for the most part. Which doesn’t mean that Marcus isn’t savvy enough of an entrepreneur to not find a few ways to offset the time he’s sinking into project. The public events won’t be free—the Polo Gala is a $10 ticket—and they are selling props that fit within the Empire Falls world on the website.
Following Lost Tears over the next few months should prove interesting. Can they keep up with the demand for content, or will the community find a rhythm around the live events? The demand of the most die-hard ARG fans for richly developed worlds with layers of mysteries is probably beyond the scope of a two-person team who also have an actual wedding to plan… but something has a chance to emerge here.
The core idea of an alternate reality game or fiction doesn’t have to be the purview of a professional team with a large scale budget. Bespoke experiences meant for small audiences are no stranger to the gaming community at large. They often take the form of role playing games—live action and other wise—and elaborate scavenger hunts. Lost Tears fits somewhere between those experiences and a big ARG.
If Marcus can bring to bear the attention to detail he’s brought to bars like No Vacancy to the Lost Tears live events, then all the chaos will have been worth it.