Trans-Canada transmedia: Christopher Bolton’s multi-platform search for identity, sound, and story

Christopher Bolton is a Canadian writer, producer, and actor, best known for his award-winning comedy series, Rent-a-Goalie. A few months ago, Christopher — AKA “Bolts” — contacted me asking for feedback on his latest project’s transmedia strategy. After a few minutes of chit-chat and an exchange of development documents, I realized that the project, a comedic exploration of Canadian landscapes popular and physical, entitled In Search of Gordon Lightfoot, was much more than a TV series with a few transmedia extensions tacked on just for the hell of it; no, this was something different, something much more integrated — transmedia from the get-go. And, as it happens, it was also something that sounded quite funny and more than a little community-minded in its direct engagement with audiences and Canuck mythology. Naturally, I wanted to be a part of it. A few web chats later, we came to an agreement — I would consult on the project and shadow Christopher as he worked his way through the development process, and in return he would share what he learned with me, here, in the form of a series of interviews.

09-4

This first interview is a snapshot of Christopher’s thinking as the project moves through the funding process and into the first stages of pre-production. It reveals a considered and well-informed view of transmedia and the new storytelling landscape. It is an inspired and often very funny view of the future of entertainment, and I look forward to speaking to Bolts more as his work on the project progresses.

You’ve worked in the Canadian film and television industry for a while now. What’s your background, and what’s changed since you got started?

My background is varied. Until my mid-20’s it was solely acting. In ’93 I took a stab at writing and that landed me at the CFC in 94 as a writer. I did the directing curriculum at nights and on weekends and directed my first two – and only two – short films there. In 2003 I teamed up with a fella goes by the name Chris Szarka and we formed a company to develop and ultimately produce a cable ½ hour comedy up here called Rent-A-Goalie. In there somewheres I did a few stints as A.D. and Props Man.

As for how it’s changed since I began…televisions are colour now and very crisp and clear.

It was during the production of RAG that I became interested in Transmedia though I didn’t know it was a concept with a name. I suggested ideas to the broadcaster, ideas intended to drive traffic to and from the mother ship – some UGC, a genre bending prequel movie, some mobile applications – but it was always met with a no. It was a licensing issue and I get that but…well…I’ll leave it there. I blame myself. I should have pushed harder.

When I began developing In Search of Gordon Lightfoot I met a woman named Jill Golick, a digital pioneer in Canada. She began my indoctrination into this world.

Man-oh-man, forget how the industry has changed since I started; in just 7 years, dated to when we began development on RAG, it has broken almost to the point of no-fixee. I was at a card table recently of smart broadcasting folk with impressive CV’s discussing the future of our industry. The hardcore estimate for conventional broadcaster life expectancy in Canada was 2 years and the optimistic guess, if you’re said broadcaster, was 10 years. Basis or not to such speculation I was rocked. The consensus was that cable isn’t going anywhere fast because subscription is consumer-choice. It just won’t look like pay cable does today.

The web has blown shit wide open. Access, audience contact and engagement, community building, social media, distribution platforms, the very nature of what content is (stop calling it a Television show for cryin’ out loud) is so drastically different that it needs to be called something new. There is a good and big explosion at the point that industries are colliding – tv/film/branding/communications/tech – and where the smoke clears is an opportunity to re-imagine and develop content specifically to meet the unique demands of all interested parties and, more importantly, audience. The excitement for content creators lay in the exploration of new ways to tell story. A fractured media landscape is exactly what I needed as it helps to make sense of how I think and speak.

This is a frontier and frontiers benefit the entrepreneurial spirit greatly. I think it was Ted Hope who said that it’s the era of Artist as Entrepreneur and it behooves anyone taking that notion seriously to look at how those industries conceive of and deliver content and will do in participation with one another.

The logline for my new company, Forty Farms, is…

The client is the brand is the consumer is the experience is the entertainment.

…and that could just as easily read…

The experience is the consumer is the client is the brand is the entertainment.

Ruminating on this one-hand-clapping-esque driver is a good way to get inside the headspace necessary for making resonant, profitable entertainment going forward.

What is In Search of Gordon Lightfoot?

ISOGL is the title of two of six platforms in an as-of-yet-unnamed Transmedia Project about searching for an identity, a sound, a connection to a landscape, and a warm dry spot to pitch camp for the night. The first is a 13 x 30 minute comedy that sees Ed Robertson (frontman for the pop-rock outfit Barenaked Ladies) and myself flying around Northern Canada in an iconic bush plane looking for reclusive rock legend Gordon Lightfoot. Why? Because he has something that belongs to us. We just miss him everywhere we look and become embroiled, instead, in some small town, wilderness related mayhem before a narrow escape back to the skies to search for another day. The second is a tribute record to the man himself. Our guest stars in the series will be well-known Canadian music acts who will do double duty – act their asses off for the show and then sing them back on covering one of Gordon’s tunes for the album. These two properties are designed for distribution together but that ain’t prescriptive.

The remaining platforms are a game, feature, feature documentary, and graphic novel. Our point of identification in the meta-narrative is a guy, a creative guy, who stumbles, flies, loves, fishes, hikes, and writes his journey. It’s a walk through time, media, story and Canada with a fella trying to make sense of it all. Taken together it will serve as a big ol’ love letter to this country as well as warm, beautiful, funny and musical showcase of Canada to the rest of the world. The idea is to entice more Germans – as if that were possible – to come canoe our rivers and lakes.

Do you conceive of the project as a show with a Transmedia experience, or a Transmedia experience that includes a show? Is there a difference?

I’m reluctant to answer this question because it implicates me by rendering the project’s history a little less pure than I’d like it to be. The series was to be my sophomore ½ hour effort. Discussions with broadcasters were frustrating me – one guy’s problem with it was that he didn’t like flying so he bumped on the aviation part – and I figured that it was the right time to dig in the dirt of new business models and alternative modes of storytelling. I began thinking of an extended narrative for Search, ideas I wanted to implement but that didn’t fit in the series as well as different platforms that interested me. Writing for gaming for instance has particular cache. Are you kidding me? No limits storytelling? It was like my head exploded and I knew my time in traditional would serve me well here because what that did teach me was restraint. Restraint, I think, is key to navigating a world as full of opportunity as No Limits Storytellingville.

That’s the long way round to saying that, though I didn’t conceive of it as such, I absolutely consider this project a Transmedia Experience that includes a show.

I love that you call it a Transmedia Experience because that is key to how I frame this thing. It’s a creative and production process experience and the user can consume it soup-to-nuts or in parts. Empowering the audience to participate breeds pride of ownership and I think people will respond to that. What’s really blowing me away is people contacting me with platform ideas of their own as well as reach-outs that I initiate bearing fruit as well. This dialogue between you and I is a prime example: a) it helps us both in our respective missions b) it is content c) it will drive traffic to our mutual benefit. That’s some performing shit in my opinion.

As to whether there is a difference between a Transmedia experience with a show or a show with a Transmedia experience? Abso-lute-ly and it’s as important a distinction there is in defining Transmedia. It’s essential that TM design be ground up rendering every platform essential to the broader stroked narrative. Tacked on properties will feel like tacked on properties and your audience will at best dock you points for that and at worse abandon the project altogether. It seems to be the mistake producers are making in trying to design additional platforms for their fleshed out traditional properties – done in this order it becomes re-purposed material as opposed to original, non-linear content that is platform-specific.

What got you thinking about developing a Transmedia strategy for Lightfoot? Why not do things the same way you’ve done them in the past?

What gets me excited about Transmedia is the belief that the present (past) model is broken and that the opportunities inherent in being an early adopter to this kind of storytelling are huge. It seems simple: a fractured media landscape begs a splintered approach and a savvy user demands that it be robust. I leapt at the chance to create within those parameters. And some of the best minds I know, people who’ve made good, albeit waning, livings in Traditional are meeting in dingy bars to discuss how to make ground-up changes in their industry because they don’t feel they have anything to lose. It’s electrifying to hear the talk. And it’s not griping ‘make the writer matter’ or ‘actors are people too’ stuff either. These are talented and frustrated professionals, who’ve read the writing on the wall, discussing a renovation of the system that values what they do and has everyone thinking creative + business + tech from step 1. Who was it said it feels like 1911 and we’re the guys learning that different angles and editing are good? Oh right, that was you. Spot on Mr. Watson. Makes me crave a cigarette and I don’t smoke.

Reminds me of a joke about lemon meringue pie. I’ll have my friend Jeremy deliver it to camera and post it on my site when I get a site.

Canadian TV productions have notoriously low operating budgets. How are you going to pay for all the different components of this project?

F@#ed if I know.

Kidding. Sort of.

Yes we have tiny budgets up here and they are getting tinier by the day. We shot Rent-A-Goalie for a half million bucks an episode in 3rd season and that was extraordinarily high then. Today you’d probably have to bring in a CSI for that. Not quite but, y’know, almost.

In my opinion the answer to low budgets is to go lower. Don’t try to make a $200,000 show look like a ½ million bucks because it’ll suck. Make a 100 K per episode show and don’t apologize for it. Don’t try to stretch the dollar. Don’t try to stretch anything. Just make the most awesome content you can possibly make with what you have and concentrate on what hooks – story. Necessity is the mother of invention and with today’s technologies you can make it beautiful for peanuts. The key is knowing how to make it beautiful and that is art as it’s always been. Ted Hope again – he tweeted recently that ‘A return to less could be more.’ Yes. Just plain yes indeed.

The agencies that help us make entertainment in Canada are trying hard to keep up with the changes and, on the business side of it, are thinking progressively. We’ve pitched the project to the Funds with no real ask other than a dialogue. We ask whether the model makes sense and how could they see being involved? They appreciate it because they’re trying to wrap their heads around new models as well and we appreciate the response because it helps us create accordingly. Assuming we get the Funds, and if we keep the thing indie-spirited, there will be shortages to make up but they aren’t prohibitively huge. For that we’re looking at brand relationships plus some crowd-sourcing options and a bit of private investment to top off. I’m not frightened by the financing plans yet. But then I’m the guy who writes fart jokes in these partnerships.

How has taking a Transmedia approach changed the way you’ve gone about raising development money and securing licensing agreements?

The absence of a broadcaster has cleaned rights up immensely. And, again, the wild west of the Internet means very few precedents so we’re kind of making it up as we go along. Talks with musicians, writers, performers have been positive – everyone seems to want to see it work. A western spirit of Kereitsu – a Japanese business model based on industries working with one another to the benefit of all – is what we’re looking to build. There’s power in that. The power of community.

We’ve received some development money from regular avenues for traditional deliverables like series bibles and pilot scripts for the 13 x ½ hr. I’m writing the feature script during the month of April as part of a month long script competition. With no dough attached to its development I am hungry to work completely and feverishly to reduce the time it takes to develop. That platform is a No-Budget film we want to make as a Canadian nod to the Mumblecore tradition. We were soft-offered some development dough for it but it would be recoupable so what’s the point? I’d rather put it on the screen down the road. That property sits with a different producer than the one who has the series, which is a different producer than the one who has the feature doc. So you see how the heavy lifting is spread out while the creative remains central. So there’s a bit of my own money – well, my wife and children’s too – in play on this one but that’s not a bad thing because I’m positive we can make a business out of it.

Here’s a two-parter: 1) What role, if any, do you see for the audience in producing and developing content for Lightfoot? and, 2) as an artist, how do you feel about opening up parts of the creative process to audience participation?

It is my sincere hope that the audience will do the lion’s share of the work. My favourite thing, by far, of having a popular show was that, love it or hate it, everyone had something to say about it. Inviting them to voice those opinions netted us feedback and story fodder. When I began developing Lightfoot I continued to invite that input. Everyone I talked to had a Lightfoot story – some were first-person accounts, some were major life events with Lightfoot as the soundtrack and some were tales of mistaken identity. They were all fantastic though and enthusiastically told. There is one that stands out – a guy nearing 40 now told me about a Sunday morning in the early 80’s where he and a buddy were playing hockey in an alley, taking shots against a neighbour’s garage. The puck-on-metal clang is a very common ruckus up here but it might be a little much for a rock-star early on a Sunday morning. This grizzled dude walks out in his robe and asks the children, in a charming and patient manner no doubt, to stop interrupting his sleep. The storyteller’s friend told him that was Gordon Lightfoot. I told Gordon the story and he swore it was his dad who tromped around city alleys in his robe.

An aside re. the organics of this thing – that story got back to Gordon and Gordon commented on it. Commenting is content.

So I wondered if it was possible to formalize this relationship between creator and audience and that’s the plan for ‘Search’. We are opening up the process, inviting anyone who has been touched by the subject matter to chime in. I want tales of bush piloting gone wrong and small town yarns, the instances where a song played over a formative time in one’s life. And then we want to be invited to shoot in the places where the story was originally set. We want to engage the people who helped develop the content in producing it as well. Maggie Ancaster of Herring Neck, Newfoundland gets to be prop master for a day or two. The result here, we hope, is to make shooting the show as much of a celebration of this country and it’s people as the content is. Totally 360.

This isn’t a new idea. One of the great Canadian storytellers of this generation, Stuart McLean, has been doing exactly this forever and a day. His material resonates because, beyond being talented, he sits with the people and listens to them. Gordon too. He says it’s dialogues with the people who consume his art that shapes it. Sure, he loves to play because he loves to play but it’s more than that. It’s an exchange.

Writing tv and film in the traditional manner doesn’t offer that opportunity exactly.

I’ve been warned off what this means to me as an artist but I don’t buy it. There’s a quote from Martha Graham posted above my desk that says, paraphrased – don’t be a donkey, you’re no genius. You’re a dude who types for a living. Just stay open and let flow through you what will. What I want flowing through me are the stories of the people I want to write stories for. If I can conceptualize a boundary that resonates with people, inspiring them to tell their version, my job simplifies to merely taking good notes. And ain’t it nice for Maggie Ancaster to get a credit on some quality Canadian content? Story by: Maggie Ancaster has a good ring to it don’t ya think?

I made the name Maggie Ancaster up. Any similarities to any living persons, dead or alive…yadda yadda yah.

Are there any touchstones that serve as inspiration for this project?

Stuart McLean’s stories for sure. Properties that have been sent my way since I began talking about it – Murray McLauchlan’s ‘Floating Over Canada’ is a good example. Specific properties have specific inspirations: the series is homage to John Lurie’s ‘Fishing with John’; the feature is inspired by films like ‘Wendy and Lucy’ and ‘Old Joy’; the feature doc by Werner Herzog’s Encounters At The Edge of the World; the record was a Rick Rubin inspired thing; and the graphic novel is egged on by the likes of Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Seth.

Is this the future of TV?

It’s the future of entertainment for sure. The single media property is done and so are sloughs of other givens we ‘know’ about entertainment. The audience is now referred to as the user and respecting them as a client will take us a long way. The power they have in pressing little buttons is unprecedented and so creating experience and empowering them to participate are paramount moving forward. In the not so distant future Networks will be of people around people not corporations defining content and retaining sole authority to distribute it. Speaking of which…has anyone tackled the David and Goliath story in the new era? They should.

About Christopher Bolton: Christopher Bolton began acting in his teens appearing in feature films Global Heresy, Killing Moon, A Colder Kind of Death, Dead By Monday and The Third Miracle, as well as the Showtime television movies Hendrix and Our Fathers. Additional television credits include roles on the series Northwood, Mutant X, Blue Murder, Little Men, PSI Factor, La Femme Nikita, Street Legal and The Outer Limits. Bolton earned a Gemini nomination for his guest-starring role as ‘Joey Williams’ on the award-winning series Cold Squad.

His work in film and television led him to try his hand at writing. This effort landed him a spot at the esteemed Canadian Film Centre in the Resident Programme. He entered as a writer, but left having written and directed his own short film entitled The Tooth.

He then completed a two-year stint acting on the highly regarded Showtime Network television series Street Time. It was on Street Time in 2002 that he met producer Chris Szarka, forming a partnership to create and produce the multiple award-winning television series Rent-A-Goalie for Showcase.

Bolton is the executive producer, star and creator/writer of Rent-A-Goalie. He is represented by DF Management in the US and Celia Chassel/Gary Goddard in Canada. His new Transmedia Production House, Forty Farms, will launch in May, 2010.

[This interview is cross-posted at the fabulous Culture Hacker]

Trap doors and hatches all around: Jeff Hull on infusing variability and play into the workaday world

Last month, I put out a call on the IGDA ARG SIG discussion list for information about the use of pervasive games and ARGs in museums, universities, libraries, and other institutions (for more on that, see this resource). One of the people who responded to this call was none other than Jeff Hull of nonchalance, the Bay Area urban art organization responsible for (among other things) the Jejune Institute, which happens to be one of my favorite pervasive story/game projects ever. Sensing that Jeff was a kindred soul of sorts, I asked him if he would do an interview about public space, community, and play.

It strikes me that a lot of the work going on right now in location-based experience design can trace its origins back to Situationism, sticker art, and — going way back — graffiti. There are also some obvious connections to amusement park and museum design. What are the big touchstones for you?

Wow. I’ve never had any one zero in so accurately on my influences before. For years, before we started Nonchalance, I was doing a guerrilla campaign called Oaklandish that was really attempting to fuse together the ideals of Situationism and Street Art. We’d use multi-media devices and historicaly driven content to produce happenings designed to gather large groups of people together in negative urban spaces, so they could begin to interact with each other and the space around them in new ways. It was literally “the construction of situations”, with a strong post-graffiti mindset. Haring and Basquiat are like Patron Saints to me for the very literate, site-specific graffiti art they did early on. And, yes, we absolutely had an amusement park mentality as we are created the Games of Nonchalance. When I grew up I worked as a child performer at a place called “Children’s Fairyland” in Oakland, and it was this magical hokey little fantasy world, where you could literally fall down a rabbit hole. They had magic keys where you could turn them in a lock box and suddenly hear a recording of a nursery rhyme, while looking at a diorama of the cow jumping over the moon, or whatever. There was a yellow brick road leading through the park to an Emerald City. We want to present those kinds of interactions everywhere across the civic realm, so that trap doors and side hatches exist all around you, all the time, fuzed into the urban landscape.

Over the past few years, a lot of different disciplines have been coming together around notions of embodied experience, public space, community, and play. Everyone from performance artists to game designers to educators and curators seem to be grasping at different versions of the same thing. But what *is* that thing? Do we even have a word for it?

Interestingly, most of our intern applicants have been architecture students. Somehow they’re all thinking about their work in a different way, too. There’s some kind of convergence. When I asked the question to our production manager Sara Thacher, she felt like it wasn’t necessarily useful to put a label on it, but we both agreed that the zeitgeist is happening. Sara is more interested in “why” so many different people are exploring this new “Third Space”. We agreed it is in part a reaction to the narrow confines of sanctioned activities in public space, which have been largely defined by commerce. We can legally: commute, shop, and drink a latte. Walk or run in a park between sun up and sun down. Otherwise you’re somehow suspect. People feel isolated by that. I think we’re all trying to loosen those reigns through their own individual contributions.

My name for it is Socio-Reengineering. That’s Jejune Institute terminology, and in our story it has dubious connotations, but we’re actually quite sincere about this aim. To infuse variability and play into the workaday world by re-engineering the way that people navigate and experience the space and the population around them. Sometimes it can happen in a seemingly spontaneous way, like a flash mob, and sometimes it is the result of meticulous design and effort.

One thing I really like about the Jejune Insitute is the fact that it’s a cross-platform interactive narrative that works a little bit like a gallery installation: it’s just *there*, online, on the air, and in physical space. This represents a very different approach to storytelling than that found in more “traditional” ARGs, which are typically structured around the gradual unveiling of story information leading up to a climax event of some sort. What made you pick this different path? What did you gain (and/or lose) by abandoning the unity of time?

You’re correct about the induction center as “gallery installation”. We wanted to create an immersive automated well-curated environment, and to have it exist semi-permanantly. We were outsiders to the ARG universe, and totally ignorant of it’s culture and customs. So when we finally appeared at the ARG Fest-o-Con in Portland, we learned that we had inadvertently solved one of the major stumbling blocks of earlier ARG’s; “replayability”. What we had produced could be experienced over and over again, and shared with friends, and so on. The big trade off was that it was local. People in other parts of the world are not able to experience it directly. But ideally we’ll be able to produce unique experiences in other cities in the future. Every city should have their own game!

The other thing that led in this direction was that after doing work in the streets for so long I became very curious about those semi-public and private spaces as well. What are the boundaries between them? A corporate office building has all those questions built into them. There’s this very sterile environment that is in someways meant to intimidate people. We used that to our advantage in the narrative, and at the same time subverted it by asking people to explore and reexamine that space. That was a clear incentive for us in creating the induction center.

You’ve been embedding story and play into the Bay Area for a while now. What kind of dividends has this paid in terms of building community and bringing like-minded individuals together?

For players; yes, there’s definitely been a coming together of like-minded people, especially with the recently released Act IV. It emphasizes group play, inter-dynamics, and trust so that when the group completes the experience they have truly been through a rite of passage together. We’ve been hearing from participants that they have really gelled with other players this way and formed deeper bonds. You can really see it in the EPWA protest video; all these weirdos just coming out of the woodwork to party in the streets. Ironically, because I’ve remained “behind the curtains” for so long, I don’t feel like I’ve benefitted socially from any of these activities! I’m really looking forward to coming out from backstage more and interacting directly with the players in the future.

Is civic engagement an artistic imperative?

I’d say not. Great art can be something completely personal and private.

I live in Los Angeles. Do the kinds of projects we’re talking about work best in denser cities like San Francisco or London? Or can we imagine locative stories anywhere, and on any scale?

I view these productions as being fully scaleable. It’s not so much an issue of geography and architecture as much as culture. A map isn’t unpredictable, but people can be! Once you know who the participant is then you can begin to imagine how they might interact in that particular environment. For example, I’d love to produce something for Las Vegas. There is also the “Accomplice” game in Hollywood, which operates a little more like dinner theater in the streets.

If you go back to the 1990s, a lot of people were predicting that the future of storytelling and play was going to be defined by screens, VR goggles, and, ultimately, brain implants. Thankfully, it looks like that’s not the way we’re heading — at least not right away. Where do you see all this locative stuff going in the next few years?

Mobile technology can potentially allow us to get away from the screen and back into the real world. I’m awaiting a few app features to be developed so we can take our immersive experiences to a new level, and which would allow other users to create their own real world adventures. I want my phone to let me know about the secret discovery awaiting me right around the corner. Then I want to share that discovery. I foresee every institution with real space developing their own interactive mobile applications; the Magic Mountain choose-your-own adventure iPhone game, the MOMA interactive mystery tour, or the narrative based campus orientation experience, as you had mentioned. I think at first there will be a ton of poorly designed ones, until people get over the novelty of it and recognize it as a true art form, like film.

What’s next for nonchalance?

On the practical side, we just put together a board of advisors to help us develop our business. On the creative side, we’re talking to a potential collaborator right now in the mental health field about producing a multi-sensory maze that serves therapeutic purposes. It would essentially be an inward-bound expedition through the gauntlet of emotions, with positive achievements built into it. Have you ever been on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride? It would be like that, but for your psyche. That’s one thing on the table, but we’re still looking at other opportunities.

Nonchalance‘s practice stands at the intersection of three core concepts: Narrative, Consciousness, and Space (both public and private). Founded in Oakland in 1999 by director Jeff Hull, the organization’s primary goal is to infuse more variability and play into the civic realm. Over the intervening years the team has comprised a fluctuating roster of collaborators that currently includes Sara Thacher, Sean Aaberg, and Uriah Findley. Past projects have included “Oaklandish,” “The Liberation Drive-In,” “Urban Capture the Flag,” and “The Bay Area Aerosol Heritage Society.” With over 100 free public events under its belt, Nonchalance has received thirteen consecutive “Best of the East Bay Awards,” and produced exhibits and installations for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Oakland Museum of CA, Southern Exposure and the Oakland International Airport. They are currently wrapping production on the “Games of Nonchalance,” an “Immersive Media Narrative” leading participants on a journey of urban exploration throughout San Francisco’s hidden present and past.

Learning by ARG: an interview with Mela Kocher Lennstroem

Mela Kocher Lennstroem is a Swiss games researcher currently living in San Diego, where she conducts post-doctoral research on “the blurring of reality and fiction in digital media, especially in ARGs.” I caught up with Mela via Twitter and email after she co-presented (with Ken Eklund, Stephen Petrina, and PJ Rusnak) a “mini ARG” at the 2010 Digital Media and Learning Conference in La Jolla, California — an event I wish I’d attended, especially after talking to Mela about what happened during her session.

First off, I noticed your dissertation, “Follow the Pixel Rabbit,” on your website. Even though I can’t read German, I found it interesting to flip through the pages. Speaking generally, what’s your dissertation about — and what does the Alice reference in the title mean?

I wrote my dissertation on storytelling in video games around 2002/2003. At that time game studies was still a pretty new thing at universities in Switzerland (and games not really accepted as a serious academic subject). With the reference to Alice in Wonderland I wanted to make the statement that digital games offer a magic, bizarre and wonderful world for the one who dares to enter. My dissertation is about different ways of storytelling and player engagement of video games, hyperfiction and interactive movies – latter being a genre that failed remarkably in its beginnings – just watch/play I’m Your Man!

Obviously you are engaged with a lot of different fields of inquiry, from game design to narratology to aesthetics. How did you end up deciding to study/make this kind of stuff? What path did you take to becoming a theorist-practitioner?

Besides frenetically playing Games & Watch as a child, I lead a pretty video game-free life until my roommate in college got me into Myst and Riven. I studied German literature at that point and was curious to test the traditional literary theory frameset on games – and luckily my professor was encouraging that. Writing a dissertation on the topic was a pretty natural step (since it was fun, challenging and exciting), and during that time I played lots of games and taught many game workshops for teachers and librarians. In the past years I’ve been getting more and more intrigued by ARGs and their vast potential for storytelling and blurring the lines between fiction and reality – so I was more than happy to have gotten a research grant to study, play and now even make ARGs in the USA for two years.

You recently appeared on a panel at the Digital Media and Learning conference entitled, “Storytellers, Storymakers and Learning by ARG.” As a part of the panel, you and your co-panelist, game designer Ken Eklund (World Without Oil), designed and ran a mini-ARG. What was the purpose of this game, and how did it work?

The conference theme was “Diversifying Participation”, and our team wanted to discuss ARGs & participatory learning. Since it would probably take an hour to explain what ARGs are (and people still wouldn’t get it!), it seemed more effective (and way more fun!) to have the audience engage in one first hand. The game plot went like this: One of the speakers (which ended up being me) got lost on campus and was not be able to show up for the session in time. While Ken explained this to the waiting conference attendees, he had a “stress-induced narcoleptic attack of 20 minutes” so the audience was completely left to themselves (while our other two team members, PJ Rusnak and Stephen Petrina, stayed incognito in the room for possible trouble shooting).

I wish I had been there. How many people ended up participating?

You should have! There were around 40 people in a quite tiny room so it was packed. It was amazing which strategies the participants came up with – they started a Facebook search, tried to sneak Ken’s phone from his sleeping hand, they tweeted me, tried to call and text me and physically went out on campus to search for me – unfortunately for them, in my fictional world my phone was malfunctioning and I could only send them pictures from my location via tweet to ping.fm. That constraint gave way to lots of creativity, though (as our PM team had hoped for), and the participants truly engaged in their storymaking efforts.

What kind of feedback did you get? How was the notion of “learning by ARG” understood by the assembled educators?

There was definitely excitement in the room during the game (I watched the video later on). Most of them immediately understood that it was a game, and got into play mode. My favorite reaction was the (failed) gamejack attempt of one man who offered to hold his own speech while they were waiting for the scheduled speaker. Another person doubted that I was truly lost but suggested that I might just need a bit of comforting to take up my role as speaker. Lovely!

Even from this short ARG performance, people saw the great potential ARGs bear for learning – via features like creativity, collaboration, common goals, instant player feedback, immersion, role play, problem-solving… Most attendants thought of the ARG as an inspiring experience during an academic conference stuffed with formal one-to-many presentations.

On a more meta level, how do participatory game constructs like storymaking ARGs complicate or extend your thinking on narrative in digital games? Are the categories of “story” and “game” collapsing into one another, or do the traditional boundaries still hold?

ARGs have a potential for storytelling and storymaking that video games do not have, because of the possibility for real time interaction with the puppet masters and the actual chance for the player (or the more believable illusion!) to influence the course of the game. Narrative adventure video games are in comparison to that so limited and often incoherent due to their closed programming. Of course, more open structured video games like GTA offer completely different ways of experiencing and creating a story as well which also extends beyond the realm of the screen, but ARGs just take this idea much further. But new options bear new problems, and ARGs rely on the puppet masters’ coherent and instant feedback and their fair choices – and on the collaboration of the fellow players.

To your second question: I’d rather keep the concepts of “story” and “game” apart for analytical reasons, even though they tend to overlap [in the case of] ARGs: [that is,] I can play by being part of the story or by trying to crack a code. I would say that ARGs make story playable, but they are more story than game – but then this also depends on what the player is looking for. I myself love to ‘stalk’ a character and get into the game through character interaction while others love to solve puzzles etc. – the more traditional game-aspects of an ARG.

What’s next for ARGs — and for your research in general?

I’m curious to see if ARGs will develop towards shorter, replayable and even payable game formats for wider audiences (and therefore blend with features of video games).

I myself got very intrigued by having experienced a challenging setting like the academic conference as a playground, and I hope to investigate further in that direction. I’m not a fan of serious games per se, but I do believe that “play” in general provides at its core some of the most valuable experiences for living and learning.

Thanks, Mela!

Talking story with Jan Libby

A couple of weeks ago I posted a list of content management and delivery tools for indie ARG producers. In the comments, Jan Libby (@labfly) noted that “the first element you need to organize and lay out is ‘your story’ and then later how it connects to the world. After all, this is a storytelling genre.” Knowing that Jan is a prolific and talented indie ARG designer, I asked her if she would be interested in doing a short interview about how she plans and evolves her games — and about the important role of story in ARGs in general. We exchanged a few emails, and Jan sent me these responses — along with some great behind-the-scenes images from her upcoming indie storyworld, 36nine

I wanted to dive right into some nuts-and-bolts writer stuff, so here goes. Suppose you’re setting out to make an indie ARG. How do you begin? Do you start with particular design goals (e.g. modes of participation you’d like to elicit, networks you’d like to engage with, etc), or do you look for a story first?

Whether i’m working w/a client or doing an indie, i always begin with story. Of course, with a client i will have many things to consider (brand’s voice, brand’s audience, brand’s platforms, etc.) while creating a story that fits for the gig, but story is still most important. The way the story unfolds to & interacts with the online and offline world happens organically as i write the story (but i keep that list of mechanics separate).

Screenwriters and novelists typically articulate their themes by moving a protagonist through conflict, crisis, climax, and resolution. ARGs and other distributed story/play activities arguably function in a very different way — not least because of their fundamentally participatory nature, which has the effect of fragmenting the role of the protagonist across the player community. What’s your thinking on how ARGs can engage with themes and create meaning?

My ARG stories are very much like screenplays.. except instead of the conflict, crisis, climax and resolution only happening to the character world, it also happens to my players/audience. So, as i write the storyline/storylines for the characters, i’m not only working out how the events will change the characters, but also considering where the players/audience fit into this world and how they will/may touch it/affect it/change it.

Boundaries seem to blur rather quickly in the ARG space. I wonder: do you consider yourself a game designer or a storyteller — or neither?

I really consider myself a storyteller that loves ARGs… and i still like “puppetmaster”.

I’m curious about how you structure your projects. Do you work with a storyboard from the very beginning — i.e., do you use it to discover the arc of your story — or is it something you only bring in once you know where things are going?

Usually a story has been in mind for quite some time before I begin to write it, storyboard it, etc. At some point i buy a notebook, foam core and index cards. The notebook comes first. i write and write and write and soon the notebook leads to index cards and foam core boards. The first set of boards i create break down the Acts of the ARG (this will include diff paths the players/audience may create). The next set of boards will break down the characters. Near these boards i place boards for “assets” and begin those lists. Later in the process i will connect story and characters to assets via string. i’m sure that sounds archaic but i work best when i can touch it and live with it around me like that. i can look at and rework these boards for a long time. i have boards up right now that i’ve been working on for over 8 months. i’m slowly building a world and the boards are evolving as i write scripts, build sets, props, shoot, etc. soon i will begin the ARG boards. My ARG boards will take me from day 1 to end game/goodbyes and beat out what happens each day within the storyworld (including mechanics, assets, shoot sched, etc).

In your comments on my earlier post, you wrote: “my storyboard is separated from my assets charts.” Why do you think it’s important to keep things separate this way?

I prefer ARGs with a story. Some ARGs just deliver a string of events. For me, by starting with a “storyboard” that is dedicated to story only, i can be sure i will not make this mistake.

ARGs are inherently collaborative; creators often work in teams, and games almost always involve a large amount of back-and-forth between the players and the designers. How do you accommodate for this dynamism in your story planning?

You make sure you communicate well with everyone on the team. This means you must have a great way to share information and to keep everyone on the same page. On a recent project i simply made a doc out of my ARG boards. Each day everyone could look at that and see what was happening that day and where we were headed. It’s also really important to have a great producer staying on top of everyone with a hot sheet. Everyone should know as you head into producing the ARG that some things will change due to players/audience interaction/participation. So, you must make certain that you have the time in your schedule to accommodate those changes and forks in the road. i don’t think its a good idea to shoot a ton of stuff pre-launch. i do shoot some, but most is scheduled to happen post launch so that is really is happening during the “story time”. (its like live theatre that can react/change/or not to the players/audience) And again, you make sure you communicate the changes well with everyone.

Where are things going for ARGs? And for you?

i really don’t know where ARGs are going. i think if ARGs are to survive they need to grow and change. First, we need to tell better stories. i would love to see more artists and filmmaker types dive into the genre to help push the envelope. We need to examine how ARGs play out. There are many problems with how and where ARGs are played out now. Many people have told me they’d love to play an ARG but just don’t know “what to do” or “where to go”. i’ve been playing around with different “live help” ideas. On Levi’s we had “GameTeam” who were around the boards to help out newcomers. i know it was a useful tool but its only the beginning. Also, traditional forums are overwhelming to many newbies. The forum set up hasn’t changed much since.. um forever. we should redesign “the forum” or the space where the players organize and meet. Beyond all that, i do think that “interactive storyworlds” have a big future. i’m certain that someday, in the not so distant future, some cousin of ARGs and MMORGs will deliver episodic adventures to players/audience. i like this idea that on a given night a storyworld comes alive and you are invited to step into it and for a couple hours and then check back next week for the next episode.

Thanks, Jan!

Jan Libby created the popular indie Alternate Reality Games – Sammeeeees & Wrath of Johnson (Sam II). Her year following Sammeeeees was spent writing and designing for LG15 Studios (on the Lonelygirl15 Series season 1 & 2). She then partnered on Book 3 of the horror/sci-fi Eldritch Errors with Brian Clark & GMD Studios. Jan now works primarily as an ARG/ARE and Community consultant to Media Companies and Agencies. After recently wrapping on Levi’s GO IV Game/Experience, Jan has spent the last couple months building up her next indie ARG storyworld, 36nine.

Building a vast world with an indie board game: an interview with James Taylor

James Taylor describes his board game, The Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands, as “a strange little logic puzzle with an archaic feel.” It’s a highly engaging game, with a simple set of core mechanics that give rise to some very complex and nuanced strategic gameplay. But the game is just as interesting in terms of the way it incorporates narrative, both inside the game — as an emergent property of the game’s rules and fictional frame (including the great art done by Dan Gray and Jason Pruett) — and outside the game — as a variety of transmedia artifacts. In this brief interview, I ask Jim a few questions about how his game engages players in consuming and producing story both within and beyond the boundaries of the magic circle.

Hey, how’s it going?

Heya Jeff. It’s going well, I s’pose.

Cool. So I wanted to talk to you about the role of narrative in and around your board game, The Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands. One thing that really stood out to me when I played is the way the game provokes storytelling among the players. I know you’ve playtested this thing a lot — what kinds of storytelling behaviors have you noticed during your playtest sessions?

Yeah – I did pay attention to the emergent storytelling in the gameplay. Different pieces will wind up together on islands, and players will sometimes come up with little micro-narratives for these scenarios. For instance, if the two gentlemen characters wind up together, players tend to come up with some biting (British) trash talk between them. In one of the versions of the game, I had a lot of quotes from the characters in the character booklet [that comes with the game]. I spent a lot of time getting those quotes just right, but then I ditched a lot of the quotes because I felt like they were actually getting in the way of players imagining scenarios. I’ve had to stop myself from overdetermining the experience. It’s certainly the difference between designing a game and writing a short story. With a game, people have to meet you halfway with their own creativity.

Which came first, the game mechanics, or the storytelling? What were your original design intentions?

There was a story first. But it wasn’t the story of the Sandwiche Islands. It was a dream about a warped city intersection – and trying to cross crosswalks in order to strategically reorganize a group. The game was dark and it was called The Intersection. (I think I was watching a lot of The Wire at the time.) But it was just a little too dark so I set the game in another time period and I lightened up the narrative.

As for my design intentions: I can’t say I really had any. I didn’t set out saying: “I want to make a novelistic game or a literary game, or an old courtship or an educational game”….or anything like that. I just had a dream about this thing. I got out of bed and stared at a piece of construction paper for a while, then I decided to put down a couple of blocks…or spaces. Somehow, the game managed to hold my attention for an entire year.

For part of that time, you have to understand that I was going through a break up and somehow it was comforting — and a pleasant distraction — to just play out different scenarios in the game. There are hundreds of thousands of possibilities on the game board, and somehow it was soothing to play through these while my head was all disjointed from the breakup. It was a pleasant distraction.

At what point did you decide to start building a world of story around your game instead of just inside of it?

It started with one little detail that I wanted to include. But I couldn’t fit it into the character booklet. The South Sandwiche Islands are located just south of Galapagos and the story takes place about a half century before Darwin. One of the characters, Puff, has a hobby of collecting insects and he’s always mumbling on about stuff that sounds strikingly similar to the theory of evolution. But no one ever listens to him. Again, I couldn’t fit this into the character booklet, so I expanded it into a letter, and then I realized that I had a very detailed and coherent world (and history) in my head that I could include by way of these different letters.

Of course there’s also another story level of the game’s making and creation.

When I saw you the other day, you were working on writing customized “letters” to include with in each game box. You said the idea was that everyone who buys the game is going to get a unique letter written by one of the characters in the story world. You also said that this was turning out to be a lot of work. Could you talk about this a bit for people unfamiliar with this aspect of the project?

Sheesh – I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes too high. Realistically there will probably be 3 different versions of the game that each contain different sets of letters. The idea is that the different sets of letters are all different fragments of the grander historical puzzle. But, yes, even the 3 different sets of letters are becoming time consuming. I just wrote one in the voice of an 18th century weathered British ship captain and it’s hard to get the accent right – I just read a lot Moby Dick and hoped for a spillover…

Perhaps the most fun aspect of the letters is that all (or most) of them will mention someone holding another letter, or writing a letter, within it. For instance, when the ship captain sees Jules, Jules is holding two letters in his hand – and the reader might wonder if those letters will become important, or appear in someone else’s game box. This literary conceit of referring to the actual object of the letters (which later work themselves into the text) is something that you can find a bit of in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, which was published in 1740.

So, in summary – yes the letters are a lot of work; but I think it’s manageable; and I’m willing to do that work because letters somehow perfectly lend themselves to fragmented narratives.

Are there any particular outcomes you’re looking for here — for example, are you hoping that players will begin to communicate with one another in order to share the content of their letters?

(Totally loaded question!) Sure, breaking up the history of the game into these letters is a way, I think, to create a strong fan community. People talk about stories (like movies and books) anyway, because they create a shared cultural experience, so why not let people talk about the content and in talking about it find out more about the story itself? It’s including the socializing process of media into the content. Or the content into the process of socialization.

I was taking Henry Jenkins’ transmedia entertainment class and remember reading something about building vast worlds that are so deep that no one person could possibly collect all of the diegetic information, so fans have to exchange story information with others in order to get a better sense of the story and world.

I think that was what I was aiming for in breaking up the letters into different boxes.

What’s next for you?

I recently turned down a game deal from a small/mid level publisher. They wanted exclusive publishing rights. I wasn’t ready to make that commitment. Instead, I’ve decided that I’d like to see this game sold in bookstores. I think it has literary roots. I’m set on seeing it in bookstores.

For more info, see this post from Henry Jenkins, which includes Jim’s notes on the role of transmedia storytelling in the project. You can find out how to buy your own copy of the game here.

12