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.
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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. (more…)
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The mad scientists at Walt Disney Imagineering Research & Development are up to their tricks again. This time the Imagineers are taking pieces of Disney history to create a story–The Optimist–that will culminate at the yearly Disney fan expo D23 in August.
Alternate Reality Games blur the line between the real world and fantasy, it's right there in the name: alternate reality. Part of the fun is figuring out what's in-game and what is real, which means that using historical facts as the backbone of an experience helps keep the illusion of reality in place, but can also lead to players learning a thing or two.
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If you’re familiar with Alternate Reality Games you know they can be incredibly involved affairs. Days and weeks of uncovering clues and discovering strange twists and turns. It can be exhausting. Yet that initial burst of discovery can be hard to top as an expeirence… it’s something hard to describe if you haven’t been initiated into that world.
While reading a blog post about musician/transmedia artist Olga Nunes at my friend Sara Thacher’s blog I learned that Nunes is going to put on a one-day ARG-style scavenger hunt in San Francisco. This Saturday. Yet again a reason why I wish there was transporter technology and/or bullet train service between LA and The Bay.
Details from Nunes’ own announcement after the jump: (more…)
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A new film, The Institute, about one of the most talked about immersive art projects in years could be the next Exit Through The Gift Shop.
For three years a most peculiar game played out on the streets of the San Francisco Bay Area. Responding to a series of strange fliers players entered into a world of New Age gnostic technology and missing persons, questing to understand a philosophy of Nonchalance and unravel the mystery of the Jejune Institute.
In the small but fervent Alternate Reality Game and transmedia communities, the “Games of Nonchalance” that the Jejune Institute was a component of have taken on a somewhat legendary status. While many of the most ambitious ARGs are still produced under the auspices of marketing campaigns Jejune was brought into the world by artist Jeff Hull and his team at the artist consultancy Nonchalance (1).
Last month in Oakland I had the opportunity to screen a semi-documentary (I’ll explain that in a second) that lays out the story of the Jejune Institute and talk to the film’s director. While Spencer McCall’s The Institute is still a work in progress, it already stands as a thoroughly engaging and immersive introduction to the world of ARGs and the strange narrative that centered around Jejune. Like Exit Through The Gift Shop before it, this film has a complicated relationship with reality.
“This is a documentray about a fictional narrative, said McCall when we spoke a few days after the screening, “and if I didn’t approach it in the way that it was presented I would be doing it a disservice.”
McCall came to the material through word of mouth.
“I ended up going through the first act the way that a lot of other people did,” said McCall. “A friend of a friend told me aout it and I went down there and chekced it out. I was really confused and weirded out and kind of upset at what I had just expereicned, becasue I didn’t know what it was I had experieneced and nobody one would tell me anything.”
The director admits that he did not even complete the first act of the story on his initial attempt. However that first encounter stuck with him.
“It just started really resonating and playing in my brain and I just kept batting back and forth. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I ended up becoming obssesed and going back a whole bunch of times.”
Within a few months of that first encounter the dog cloning company that McCall was making videos went out of business (2) and the director saw a listing on Craigslist that he thought might be for work with the creators of Jejune.
“I just sort of went down there and they wanted to know my story. What I could bring to the table.”
For over a year McCall was Nonchalance’s go-to video guy. That gig came to an end in April of 2011 when the game was brought to an end.
“When [Jejune] shut down I found myself sitting with a whole bunch of hard drives with what seemed like hundreds of hours of footage. I just started thinking about about it and realized that I could put this all together into a feature length story; which is something I always wanted to do, and hoped I would do before I got into my 30’s. So I just went for it.”
McCall assembled the material, and after considering doing a full behind-the-scenes version of the story that would lay out how Hull and Nonchalance pulled off the game, decided instead to tell the story of the game from the player’s perspective. Of the twenty or so people that McCall interviewed for the film only eight made it into the telling.
Like its spiritual fore-bearers Exit Through The Gift Shop and Orson Welles’s F for Fake, The Institute puts part of the burden of discerning truth from fiction on the audience. McCall intimated that the reason for this approach was to honor the source material.
“Jeff and the makers of this went so far out of their to disguise the fiction and to do everything they could to make people really think there might be a hidden history to this whole world,” said McCall. So I wanted that kind of experience to be in the movie, where people had to just decide for themselves what was real and what wasn’t. We don’t spell it out for anyone.”
The technique is used for more than just narrative effect. The is a theme embedded into the structure of the alternate reality genre– one that forces the audience to question the nature of everything they see around them. There is a reason, after all, that the Chinese government has banned movies that involve alternate realities (3). McCall chose to play with that theme directly.
“I think that’s an awesome message for media and for a transmedia experience. We see so many messages presented to us all the time and usually we just blindly believe we understand what’s real and what’s not. The news is real and a television program is not real. I just wanted people to question what they’re told. I think that’s something that’s really important and that’s forgotten with media.”
Spencer McCall’s The Institute is undergoing a few tweaks thanks to the friend and family screening held in Oakland, and is on track to make a debut on the festival circuit this Fall. In the meantime, Nonchalance has staked out the a URL for The Latitude as the frontispiece of their next experience. At the moment just a placard, fans of the Jejune Institute are eager to see what the puppet masters have planned.
(1) Nonchalance is also behind the Oakland based arts collaboration/gift shop known as Oaklandish.
(2) Not kidding. These kinds of weird details just flourish around Nonchalance somehow.
(3) Considering how important the Chinese market is becoming to Hollywood in terms of box office, we are likely to see a chilling effect on this kind of material here in the States as well.
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The technological arms race that has given us wi-fi and social media has left our society with a fractured attention span in a broken media landscape. Consider how we watch TV: smartphone cradled in one hand, iPad just a lean away.
“You’ve got these connected devices that are taking up a lot of your attention. It creates this conflict, it’s competing. You’re watching a show and then your phone rings and it’s a friend and you got to pause the show and go talk to your friend. Or then you’re chatting on Facebook. All of these kind of invitations into your life that compete for that very precious little band of attention.”
This is how Elan Lee, co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Fourth Wall Studios sees the new normal. It’s a problem that everyone in the entertainment industry is trying to crack: even movie theater owners are thinking about allowing texting during films, a sign taken by some that the barbarians have won. Where others see a crisis, Lee and his studio see an opportunity.
This month they launch Dirty Work— a cable TV style comedy about crime scene cleaners. But it is nothing like cable TV. It’s the first showcase series for the interactive platform they call RIDES. The show starts with a call to your phone, which lets you eavesdrop on a conversation taking place on screen. It’s a technique used to create “gee whiz” moments. Later on the phone trick is used to let the audience in on a character’s thoughts. Instead of letting smartphones and laptops compete with the show for the audience’s attention, RIDES allies with them.
“It collects all of those things together,” said Lee, “your Facebook account and your Twitter and what you’re looking at at the moment. Your telephone number and your ability to leave text messages and on and on. It synchronizes them all together so they all work in unison to tell a really, really good story.”
THE FUTURE OF STORYTELLING [BETA]
At Fourth Wall Studio’s cavernous offices— housed inside a post-modern office park in Culver City intentionally designed to appear as if it barely survived an attack by Mothra— Lee demoed the first episode of Dirty Work for me. Sitting nearby were the studio’s executive producer Zach Schiff-Abrams and head of production Jackie Turnure. RIDES was two weeks from launch at that point, with known bugs present. There were just as many nerves in the room as there would be during a video game demonstration, Lee and company on edge that something new would go wrong with the latest build of RIDES. If Dirty Work were just a pilot for a TV series there’d be no fear of an experience destroying software bug.
For the purposes of the demo Lee sends the signature “wow” content of Dirty Work— the phone calls— to the screen. This is always an option for viewers, but it robs the experience of its punch. Dirty Work itself has solid production values, to the point where the thought “web series” fades away from the first shot. Below the picture window a timeline lurks, anchored by data points that signal the approach of a phone call, text message, or bonus scene.
“One of the things that user testing revealed,” said Jackie Turnure, “was that there is a tension between anticipating and recognizing on the timeline that there’s about to be extra content coming up and then excitedly hovering. Waiting to click on it, but at the same time wanting to watch what’s happening. That tension of anticipation but also avoiding distraction, that’s what I think we’re getting right 80% of the time right now.”
It’s possible to watch Dirty Work— any RIDES content for that matter— straight through without interacting with the extra content. As the show plays out that material is collected into an inventory, which RIDES gives the viewer the option of picking through during the act breaks. It is an inversion of the classic commercial break from television. Instead of stopping down the action to watch some ads, RIDES takes a pause to let the viewer dig deeper into the world of the story.
As a show Dirty Work has a lot going for it. The crime scene cleaners set-up will give the writing team an endless supply of weird scenarios to put the cast through, which includes recognizable actors from 24 and Breaking Bad. These actors serve as a talisman to ward off any lingering notion that a web distributed series is a second string affair by nature.
Hours later, at home with my own second string DSL connection I log into Home: A Ghost Story, the early beta demo Fourth Wall released. It is here that I finally undergo the singularly creepy experience of a ghost calling my phone, perfectly synched to the action on screen. It’s a kind of magic that brings with it the physical shock the opening shots of The Dark Knight did in IMAX. Who knew a simple phone call could carry so much metaphysical weight?
THE ARG EXPERTS
Lee and studio head writer Sean Stewart had a pretty good idea. They were the co-creators of the first Alternate Reality Game, a promotion for the Steven Spielberg film A.I. affectionally known to its players as “The Beast”
“They were stories that would reach out to you and live in the same world that you lived in,” said Lee. “So all of a sudden you’d be playing the game and in the middle of the night a character from the game would call you on your cellphone and that’s when the next chapter would begin. And it was really cool. It was really fun. It felt kind of like crafting the future somehow.”
At the time he was working on “The Beast” Lee was the lead designer at Microsoft Game Studios.
“When we finished I was all excited because I was like ‘This is awesome! Let’s go build a ton more of these. It really feels like we’re on to something here.’ Then my boss at Microsoft said ‘Explain to me exactly how that makes more money than a game for the XBox which I actually hired you to build?’”
So Lee resigned from his position at Microsoft and went on to co-found 42 Entertainment, the company that pioneered Alternate Reality Games as a marketing tool for video games and movies. For the past decade the creators of ARGs have been developing a host of storytelling techniques that leverage all of our modern technology to create incredibly immersive experiences for a small but very intense audience.
“One of the things that we did was spend five years confusing the living hell out of people, and saying ‘We’re going to make the most impenetrable stuff you ever saw and it’s gonna be AWESOME,’ said Sean Stewart. “And it was pretty awesome. But it was kind of impenetrable.”
Stewart sees the work on RIDES as a chance to use what he and his colleagues have learned to reach a wider audience.
“Dirty Work reaches out to you if you wish it to— on your phone, in your email, via text— but you can consume it in a way that’s more familiar,” said Stewart. “You don’t have to stay awake, hop on one foot, run to your local campus, answer a ringing pay phone in the middle of the desert. It looks like other stuff that you do. The idea is that we’d like people to actually feel comfortable having a new media experience, instead of having to be the coolest kid in their dorm to do this stuff.”
TRANSMEDIA’S CROSSOVER MOMENT
Fourth Wall’s challenges are bigger than just tempting audiences into a new storytelling paradigm; they have to convince other media makers to embrace the new way as well. The past few years in Hollywood, thanks in a large part to the work of the ARG creators, has seen the term “transmedia” become the hot buzzword. Even if no one can agree on what it actually means. The time is ripe for a transmedia product to crossover into the mainstream, but the makers of mainstream media are still reluctant to play.
“You want to take the best writers, the best actors, the best craftspeople, the best [directors of photography] and a lot of those people are not working in games,” said head of production Jackie Turnure. “They’re not working in kind of crazy transmedia companies. They are out there making really high quality film and television, and you want to attract those people, because until the work we make can compete with the kind of work those people make, audiences are always going to see us as a second class citizen. As some kind of poor man’s version.”
“There is an expression that we’ve found ourselves using many times,” said Turnure, “that is ‘We’re building the plane as we’re flying it.‘ We’re building the platform at the same time that we’re building the content, and those two things influence each other greatly. Those are the big challenges. That we are kind of figuring out things that we thought would work and then didn’t, and that then impacts the way we make our content along the way.”
To thrive, Fourth Wall Studios has to be more than just a media production company. The technology is, obviously, central to what they are doing. The closest analogy is this: when a video game company makes a new game engine they ship a game with all the bells and whistles to show off what their new baby can do. Games like Gears of War are walking, talking, exploding, profit making calling cards for their home studio’s technologies. Ultimately the goal is to get other game studios to license the engine. According to CEO Jim Stewartson, the platforms that Fourth Wall Studios are building— RIDES and a mobile augmented reality set-up currently called “Elseware”— are toys they intend to share with others.
“Our goal is to create and experiment enough with these tools,” said Stewartson, “to build this platform so that it’s robust enough that other people who are even more creative than we are, who have incredible stories to tell, will be able to take the platform and the tools and be able to expand them and make them better. In the long term we see what we’re building as a movie camera and a movie theater. We want to be making movies with those, because at the end of the day that’s what we do; but we’re hoping that there’s something much bigger that will enable anybody to play in this world.”
To get to that point even the most mundane, sacrosanct parts of production have come under scrutiny. Writer and producer Jay Bushman— who started off his career as one of the players in “The Beast”— explains.
“We’re all used to screenplay format, which is a format that was developed a hundred years ago out of the physical necessity of the filmic production process,” said Bushman. “It was a difficult and interesting challenge, trying to take a format and make it do things that it didn’t want to do. We’ve talked about trying to come up with a new format. We’ve tried to talk about just starting from ground zero.”
BACK TO BASICS
That a group of some of the craftiest storytellers on the planet are rethinking the shape of the screenplay in a office park not far from where Howard Hughes when crazy seems completely appropriate. These are, after all, overloaded ADHD laden times. The cadre at Fourth Wall, who have been living on the edge of new media for the past ten years, are conscious of the historical moment. CEO Stewartson likens the moment to as a step as big as the one from stage plays to movies. So far the attempts to make that leap have been like “taking the Matrix and putting it on your iPhone. That’s a terrible experience. Just like watching a stage play on a movie screen is a terrible experience.”
“What we’re hoping to do is start looking at how the internet wants to tell stories.“ Stewartson said. “How do your devices want to tell stories? In the same way that the movie camera wanted to tell stories. We don’t see it as an evolution. We’re at one of those inflection points like the printing press and the movies and television that really took things to a completely different place.”
All of which is enough to make your head spin if you entertain the possibilities. The team at Fourth Wall is forced to stay much more grounded. They, after all, have to ship their platform and shows. Moreover, they have to connect with audiences, which puts the emphasis back on the basics of storytelling. This is reflected in the name RIDES, which Lee says was settled based on the similarities between the form and that of a roller coaster.
Executive producer Zach Schiff-Abrams, who came to Fourth Wall from a successful movie producing career, boils the choice of the name down to something even more fundamental.
“People want to be taken on a ride,” said Schiff-Abrams. “They want the storyteller to guide them along that path. Sure that path might take circuitous routes at points, but they desperately want to be taken on a ride.”
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Opinions expressed in Game of Buzz are those of the author alone.
Ridiculous headline, we know, but you clicked on it.
News leaked last night that the latest video game in Microsoft’s super-franchise Halo will be unleashed upon a ravenous gamer public on November 6th of this year. Already gamers are declaring on Twitter that they’ll be taking the day off, which is a long-standing tradition amongst Halo players.
November 6th also happens to be election day.
Now it may seem silly to ask… okay it IS silly to ask if the release of Halo 4 will have an affect one way or other on the election. Yet here we have a major pop culture distraction coinciding with the single most important day (whether you like it or not) in American politics.
Rev up the speculation machine! Set prognostication to cheeky!
Gamers stay up all night playing Halo 4, and are too wiped out from co-oping, death matching and attempting to be the first to finish the campaign that they never make it out of the house. Turnout for 18-34 year-olds is the lowest on record.
Patriotic gamers take this as a sign that Election Day should be a national holiday. Call in sick en masse and justify the 23 hours they will spend playing Halo 4 with a trip to the polls. Nationally the turnout for males 18-34 is the highest on record, save for Ohio, where poor polling conditions cause gamers to give up on standing in long lines, go back to racking up Covie kills.
Activist gamers set up Red vs. Blue LAN parties near polling places, encourage their fellow gamers to get out the vote and then celebrate by fragging their political opposite numbers face to face style. Young Americans of differing political persuasions finally start talking to each other again. All future political issues to be settled by best 3 out of 5 team on team deathmatch tournaments.
All of American history turns out to be an elaborate ARG promotion for Halo 4. Microsoft reveals that they created time travel twelve years ago and have been waiting until just this moment to reveal their mastery of space and time. iPhones and iPads across the country disintegrate into component elements. Giant holograms of Bill Gates cackle above every major city. Majority of male 18-34 year old demographic doesn’t not notice or care because they are too busy complaining online about day one DLC.
Obama wins electoral college, Romney wins popular vote. Supreme Court intervenes and declares that the two must settle the election in a one one one deathmatch.
For The Record:
We’re partial to Scenario Two.
[via The Verge, h/t to Machinma’s Andrea Rene]
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The holy grail for gamers and game designers is immersion: the sense of being totally wrapped up inside the game world. Some pursue the quest by way of advances in technology, many through the strength of narrative, and still others through the blurring of the real and the imaginary.
Ford Ivey, who knows a thing or two about immersive games, thinks he’s found the secret formula that uses all three techniques to create a new breed of gaming. This isn’t the first time Ivey has made a move to revolutionize immersion in games. In the late 1980’s, Ivey started the New England Role Playing Organization, the most successful Live Action Role Playing (LARP) game on the continent.
“I’m one of only two people in the world that I know of who made a living off of a LARP,” says Ivey.
LARPs, for those who don’t know, are role playing games where the players dress and act the part of their characters. Ivey has taken his experience running those kinds of games and is applying it to a whole new genre he hopes to pioneer, something he’s calling Live Urban Gaming.
An Osiris Sanction G 36A weapon, close up. Photo: Noah Nelson
“Most LARPing is in the hotel back room without any kind of atmospherics,” says Ivey in a meeting room of the Costa Mesa Hilton which played host to Southern California’s Wyrd Con, a convention for live action games and interactive theater. He came to Wyrd Con to drum up interest in his new project. “They’ll do some costuming, but not much atmosphere. Or a game like NERO that is out in the woods, campgrounds and that sort of thing. This is designed to be run in a city, amongst all the people who are out in the city normally, and you are about your mission and all of those people have no idea what’s going on with you.”
Ivey is talking about The Osiris Sanction, a game he designed along with his long time collaborator Aidrian O’Conner. The game is a conspiracy thriller whose storyline looks like a mash-up of The Matrix and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon. Players are pitted against a global conspiracy whose primary anatagonists live inside a virtual computer world. As the players uncover the arms of the conspiracy, they will eventually take the fight inside the virtual world.
That’s the story line, the game itself is played on three layers. Most players will, after signing up at the website, enter into the BETA layer of the game. This plays out online in a form familiar to players of ARGs (alternate reality games): brain teaser puzzles that must be solved with teamwork in order to move the plot of the game along.
Those puzzles lead to the ALPHA layer– real world meet-ups with non-player characters (NPCs) who pass on information to the players after vetting their trust-worthiness. Those meet ups lead to more puzzles, with everything culminating in the THETA layer.
Two G36 As, a P90, and a MOLLE Tactical Vest. Photo: Noah Nelson
It’s here where The Osiris Sanction leaves behind its ARG and LARP brethren. THETA is the combat layer of the game, meant to be played in buildings that Ivey plans to rent out. A live action squad based shooter with non-combat objectives thrown in to make the experience more than a shoot-em-up. The players will begin the run in a ready room, where, like in a video game, they choose their weapons and roles.
During the run players may be called upon to disarm bombs — tripwire triggered devices with a countdown timer and a flashing alarm that signals game over if they don’t manage to shut it down. Their user interface? A screwdriver, wire cutters and a handbook with the color key for which wire to cut. Hurt Locker the game. Or they may have to hack into a computer using a thumb drive encoded with a program written in flash that simulates the hacking process. All while coming under fire by an opposing team of NPCs.
Ivey and O’Conner tried paintball and airsoft guns for the combat portion of the game. Not liking either, they went to “a laser tag system that kinda, sorta maybe worked a bit, but maybe not all that well. And then we found out that that system had been discontinued by Hasbro. We couldn’t start a national game based on a gun that you had to buy from eBay.”
Ford Ivey demos the Osiris Sanction G 36A weapon to reporter Noah Nelson. Photo by Mike Minadeo.
They continued their search for the technology, and recruited engineers to help them make it. The gun system, while still being refined, is ready to roll out. After having fired off a few rounds I can definitely say it is the best laser tag gun I’ve ever played with. Precise over a long distance, the weapon feels less like the toys found in laser tag arenas and more like something the military practices with
“Now I can disassemble an airsoft gun and put the laser diode in the barrel. We have like a 300 yard range with a fairly cohesive beam.
“But the game isn’t really about the guns, the guns are only about a third of it. I went to a lot of effort to make them look and work the way I wanted them to, because that’s the payoff of all of the plot lines. You get to go in and fight the bad guys.”
Ivey is piloting the game in his home turf of Virginia, and making the gaming convention circuit in order to build up enough of a fan base to take the game national. The current plan calls for launching the game in four cities. New York and Los Angeles are two of the markets Ivey is targeting.
While the combat layer of the game is based on a shooter mechanic, Ivey hints that the technology is small and malleable enough that other fictional scenarios may be possible. The goal for the game maker is to remove the barriers to immersion that the abstracted rules of LARPs impose on their players, and move all the mechanics into the technology. Letting the players play, and the computers take care of the rules.
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