“[A] man is always a teller of stories, he lives surrounded by his own stories and those of other people, he sees everything that happens to him in terms of these stories and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it.”
Writer and game designer Andrea Phillips, who I interviewed in this space a few years back, recently wrote a blog post about the evolution of her writing process, describing “the way that my creation of stories and my creation of games have come to use the same general process.” The gist of the post is something like this: developing stories amounts to something very similar to developing games in terms of the way that both forms demand striking a kind of systemic balance. An unbalanced game will be exploited by its players, or, as in the example Phillips uses of a game which over-incentivizes certain play actions through its point system, will bring about undesired behaviors that detract from the core experience. Similarly, narrative figures fail to generate their intended effects unless they are finely “balanced” toward specific ends. This could be illustrated by the canonical example of how showing a ticking time bomb hidden beneath a table at the beginning of a sequence will generate suspense, but if it is shown only right before it explodes, the result will be mere shock. In both cases — games and narratives — simple changes in sequence, tone, and fact can have enormous impact on the system as a whole.
Maybe that discovery was part of why I became interested in participatory and environmental media broadly and game design more specifically. The thrill of watching those possibilities open and close and those changes ripple through the system was something I wanted to design for. Why should authors have all the fun playing with the pieces and seeing how things shake out differently as the constituent elements of a story environment are changed? As Phillips puts it, it’s a wonderful game to imagine “how else we might have assembled the same cogs and gears to make [the clockwork machine of a story] run faster or quieter or keep time better.”
This pleasure, I think, is at the heart of game play, not just game design. It’s a unique kind of pleasure that comes from a feeling of real agency, of having one’s actions effect tangible consequences upon a system, and of discovering the new and unforeseen challenges associated with those consequences — and it’s what keeps me passionate about writing, designing, and playing alike.
You’re a self-identified science fiction writer working in a very hard-to-pin-down storytelling medium. How did you end up writing and designing ARGs?
I was one of the moderators for the Cloudmakers, back in 2001. As a writer, it was like a lightning bolt falling from heaven. I went through the experience and thought, “That. I want to do THAT.” It took a few years to go anywhere, though. Finally my fellow moderators, Dan and Adrian Hon, started talking about forming the company that would later become Mind Candy. I begged them to let me help out so relentlessly that they had no choice but hire me. I’ve been in the business ever since.
One of the things that is quickly becoming an issue with game and transmedia writing is the sometimes tenuous position of the writer in the apparatus of production. How do you think being an ARG writer differs from being, say, a TV writer or a novelist?
At its best, writing for an ARG is a performing art. When you write a novel, you work in isolation; you won’t get feedback from the bulk of your readers until it’s completed. And with a TV show, production schedules mean the writing is completed sometimes months before a show airs.
With an ARG, though, you can dance with your audience. If they take a shine to a minor character, you can boost that character’s role midstream. If they’re bored with a plot thread, you can catch it early and fix it. And that kind of feedback is addictive to a writer. It can be difficult to get that kind of feedback in other media at all. But in an ARG, you’re doing something close to watching their faces as they read along, so you know when you’re succeeding and when you’re failing.
In the larger realm of production and transmedia, though, I think this causes some logistical problems. A great transmedia experience requires an agility that traditional means of production just don’t have, and the writer can be placed in a difficult position, trying to maintain the integrity of the experience while working within the framework of your production schedule.
In a recent post on this issue on your blog, you wrote that sometimes “there are so many writers working on a project that it’s hard to know whose hand [is] guiding the wheel. But these are solveable problems, and solving them would benefit us all.” What kinds of first steps do you think need to be taken to advance the cause?
The first step would be looking at the kinds of roles game writers and transmedia writers fall into right now, to see if we can find common structures. In games, there’s a lot of support for the title ‘narrative designer’ right now. That’s the person who comes up with the spine of the story, whether or not they ever write a word of player-facing copy. Maybe we need to go in that direction, and separate the narrative designer from the world designer.
And given the performative element of an ARG, maybe we need to be crediting writers alongside actors. ‘The character of Alice Liddell was performed by Ada Lovelace, and written by Marshall Thurgood.’
Shifting gears a bit, I’m curious about how you tackle the complex demands of ARG writing and design. After meeting with a client, where do you begin? What comes first for you, the formal constraints (ie, the kinds of interactions you want to produce) or the story material?
Everything I do begins with a big idea. Sometimes that’s mine, and it springs into existence fully-formed — “What if everyone wrote about waking up with superpowers?” Sometimes it’s the assignment given to me by a client. “We have XYZ requirements and assets. What do you have for us?”
From there, I do a little research and a little bit of what looks from the outside like nothing at all. Going to the gym, walking to school, cooking. The important thing is that I leave my brain unoccupied so it’s free to come up with stuff, like particles popping into existence in a vacuum. As the idea simmers in the back of my head, everything about what the project should look like becomes obvious to me. It feels very much like discovering something that was already there.
Specific story elements come last for me. Tension and pacing and structure are the first things that come to mind, and the specific plot and story elements flow out of that. It’s the opposite of the way I did things a few years ago. I used to think of story and plot detail first! I’m not sure why it’s changed, but I’m helpless to do it any other way, now.
Historically, most ARGs have been event-driven time-released stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. One of the nice things about this narrative structure is that it allows writers to plan (and re-plan, as conditions on the ground shift) their stories in much the same way that they do in more traditional forms: that is, via character arcs, acts, orchestrated patterns of conflict, and so on. However, these kinds of ARGs are usually not replayable, and many people — for many reasons — feel that this is an area where the form could stand to experiment a little bit. What are your thoughts on this?
I agree that we need to experiment more. But the good news is that the experimenting is going on now.
Not to toot my own horn, but one of the things my project Routes did was creating a weekly webisode from the events in the ARG, so you could interact with the live experience while it played out, but there is also an artifact of the experience that gives the project a long tail it wouldn’t have otherwise. In the metaphor of the ARG as a live concert, that’s creating a recording you can listen to at any time. You won’t be able to do all of the same things — you won’t be able to throw your underwear up on stage or smell the guy in front of you — but you’ll get some sense of what it was like to have been there. I think this technique could definitely move into wider use.
And there are a number of entirely replayable experiences, too: Smokescreen, the Cathy’s Book series, etc. The downside of this is that you lose some wonder, some discovery, a ton of reactivity, and the camaraderie of a single community playing along together. It transforms into a different kind of experience.
So can a system for storytelling — that is, a set of story-world parameters and rules of engagement — be considered a kind of fiction? If so, how does this change our understanding of what a writer is?
Oh, it absolutely can. I’d consider My Super First Day to be a set of very loose story-world parameters that I’ve set, and I consider it a work of fiction. It doesn’t make me a writer, though; I only get to be a writer if I also participate. But I’m indisputably the creator.
You may also be familiar with Ghyll and The Song of the Sorcelator, both arguably just frameworks for writer-participants to play around with. This is one of the things I keep playing around with in my personal work, actually; where is the line between a creator and a participant, and how can you blur it in a way that will be rewarding to everybody?
As time goes on, I think the boundary will become ever more nebulous. We’re already seeing major entertainment franchises take a kinder, gentler stand on fanfiction and fanart. That’s the first step in building collaborative culture. The secret, of course, is that once you’ve given your audience official permission to collaborate with you in any meaningful sense, they’re yours forever, hook, line, and sinker.
Where do you see all this going in the next five years? And what’s next for you?
Five years is an incredibly long time. Five years ago, there was no such thing as Facebook or Twitter, and when you walked into a digital agency and said ‘interactive’ they thought you were talking about banner ads and SEO. I think in five years, the entire entertainment landscape is going to look so profoundly different that anything I have to say on it is worthless.
As for me, I have a couple of things cooking right now. I try to do enough professional projects to keep the rent paid, and enough personal projects that I feel I’m always pushing my own limits. But my personal projects are largely microscopic in scale and experimental to the point of self-indulgence. I’m thinking about trying to do a bigger, more ambitious experimental personal project toward the end of the year, and possibly funding through Kickstarter or some such thing. I’m not sure what it would look like, but I feel like it would be a shame not to try. The creative life is all about taking risks.
UPDATE: get your own copy of “How to Win at Anything” (pictured above) here
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.
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.
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.