Sep 2, 2010

Main Characters in ARGs

Hi, all.  I guess this will be my first real post on this blog, and I have to admit – it’s a little weird, knowing that some of you out there might actually be listening.

I was lucky enough to sit in on a recording of CH’s Transmedia Talk podcast tonight, even though I’m not on it this week.  Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, I realized something.  It seems like transmedia writers have decided that every game needs to have a central character who is relatively normal, even if the story being told is fantastical.

In books and movies, this choice makes sense.  We need Harry Potter to be raised by muggles.  If he were raised by wizards, explaining magic would get very clunky and exposition-heavy.  We might even lose our sense of narrative expectancy altogether in that hypothetical story, since we could only guess what Harry knows that we don’t.

A linear story is a ride: we grab onto a character likely to take the paths we can follow without falling off, and we hold on tight.  But it kind of ruins the idea of an invisible avatar, doesn’t it?

In alternate reality games, at least in theory, the player is his or her own avatar, and the experience is theirs.  The players are thousands of Dantes, looking for a Virgil.  Creating another Dante seems a little redundant.

I’ve seen so many indie pitches begin with a graphic designer’s blog.  Beginning with a “normal” character seems like an obvious choice, but in the end, you have created another unremarkable site with (maybe) compelling content.  Is there any reason you can’t present the audience with a remarkable character from the get-go?

Let’s look at John Titor for a second.  John Titor was a character who appeared on bulletin boards around the year 2000, claiming to be a time traveler.  Titor was essentially an ARG character without an ARG to attach to.  He interacted with others the same way one of our characters might, answering questions, issuing warnings, distributing artifacts of his story in the form of photos and designs.

It was something more akin to a extemporaneous writing exercise than a game, but the character has become so popular and well known that more than one person has interrupted one of my explanations of alternate reality gaming to say, “Oh – like John Titor!”

Let’s also look at The Jejune Institute, whose main characters, while not entirely alien, at least profess and promise outrageous things.  This experience has been described as tapping into the root of the ARG experience – and yet it has no easily accessible guide; no Dante.  It’s Virgils all the way down.

The truth is, Virgils are a lot more interesting than Dantes, because they have seen things you have not.  They can teach, forewarn, and direct, or they can entice,  threaten and betray.  Your fate as a player is in their hands, and that is a thrilling experience.

This is a concept I have been dwelling on recently as I pace and wait to hear back on my grant application, wondering how I can make my game idea better.  I think excellent writing will be the key.

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