Monday, July 28, 2008

ARGs and the Changing Face of Fiction Online

A fascinating pair of posts ran recently on two separate websites about the ARG (alternate reality game) marketing techniques around The Dark Knight (which, as it just came out in the UK, I have not yet seen.) The first post on Movie Marketing Madness describes in excruciating detail every piece of 'alternate reality' created by the Dark Knight’s agency. It is an amazing and exhaustive list: I don't think it's hyperbolic to state that this is probably the most complex and involved ARG to date.

The second was a post labelled [RANT] on sci-fi blog io9 called The Argument Against ARGs. I wouldn't even call it a rant: the author does a good job summarizing the basic history of ARGs (although the excellent ARG for Nine Inch Nails' Year Zero album isn't included, and it beats the socks off iheatbees) but outlines a very real problem with ARGs. Money quote(s):

    I see nothing wrong with making advertising more fun, and there's no doubt that a lot of people enjoy playing ARGs. What I do have a problem with is the way ARGs seem to have no lives of their own – they feel like they exist solely to advertise another story. At least videogame tie-ins to movies are marketed as their own, standalone items.

    With a few notable exceptions, ARGs are basically treated like walk-in commercials a lot of the time. But commercials can't really masquerade as games: It's foolish for entertainment companies to assume that they can get audiences to forget that they're being virally marketed to. And yet I think ARGs are temping as advertising campaigns because their structures inspire so many of the fan behaviors that media companies translate into instant dollar signs. But getting people to run around and do things is not the same as inviting an audience to enjoy a compelling narrative with a bunch of pals. So with an ARG I get a crappy cell phone instead of a cool fan community? ...

    [w]hat I'd like to see are ARGs for their own sakes — ARGs that involve fans not because they give away posters or free showings, but because they are genuinely compelling tales that you actually want to interact with. A best-case scenario for ARGs might be that they ditch parent stories altogether, becoming their own entities.
Emphasis mine.

This is exactly my problem with ARGs and why they may very well be the next great form of entertainment.

Allow me a digression for a moment. One of the best books I've read in the last five years is Mark Z. Danielewski's stunning House of Leaves, which is many things to many people: a very unique horror novel, a satire of literary criticism, and potentially 'just plain fucking weird.' The book itself is a labyrinth of footnotes that lead to more footnotes, different colors of text that may or may not have meaning, size and positioning of text, stories within stories and stories within footnotes. There's even a 'soundtrack' of sorts – the author's sister is indie music artist Poe whose album 'Haunted' is essentially a soundtrack for the book. Many of the track names mirror chapter titles in House and the title track specifically mentions 'this house of leaves' in the lyrics, and has other references to the book as well.

As I read House I began to wonder: how would this book work as a movie? Is there any way to translate these disparate elements, many of which are intended to be clues to discover the underlying plot, to an entertainment medium? My answer at the time (keep in mind, this was 2002 or so) was to release it as a DVD and include the footnotes / secondary stories as extra features accessible during the movie, or as a commentary track.

Which really isn't a bad idea, but doesn't really account for the full breadth of the book's rich puzzle and mystery. House of Leaves is essentially a mini-ARG in that it combines several elements to form a mystery with various clues. It follows a tradition of literary 'puzzles,' most notably modernist works like Ulysses and T.S. Eliot's poems, and takes it a step further by introducing a different world of magical realism and strange happenings, where houses can be bigger on the inside than the outside. A mini-ARG.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Cathy’s Book, an actual ARG and bestselling book by Jordan Weisman and others (full disclosure: I worked for Jordan's old game company, WizKids, and many of my friends for his new company, Smith and Tinker.) In fact Cathy's Book is exactly what the io9 writer was talking about: an ARG for its own sake, not selling a product. But even Cathy's Book just scratches the surface of what's possible with the myriad variety of content deployment mechanisms the Internet provides.

My job forces me to think about how to bring those mechanisms together to 'tell a client's story.' Storytelling is what PR really is, when you get down to it. Except online those stories are less about shouting at people or performing a play for them and more about involving them in writing the story yourself. Kind of like (nerd alert) running a roleplaying game. Although you have a goal in mind, the way in which you get there is based as much on player input (community input) as it is your own 'story.' The nonflexible gamemaster sucks, as does the nonflexible PR storyteller.

But it also affords massive opportunities to do exactly what Jordan did and what the io9 writer proposes to do. If 'all media is multimedia,' surely we gamemasters and storytellers should discover new ways to tell our tales online? And surely, purely from a storytelling standpoint, we can do that with ARGs for their own sake?

I pose this not as a marketer but as a writer: if literature is already becoming more gamelike and games are becoming more literary, doesn't it make sense for us to be thinking of this space not as a way to sell tickets to movies or things only tangentially-related to the ARGs that marketers create but as a new and unlimited canvas for us to start telling engaging tales to audiences who clearly want this sort of thing?

The ARG's future and its literary possibilites and implications are something to watch indeed.

Photo "Art Is Resistance - London" (from the Year Zero ARG) from Jennaphoenix' Flickr stream.

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