Feb 26, 2013

AUTHENTIC, she said, IN ALL CAPS

The short: Christy Dena is funding her project, AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS, and it has just over 2 days left to make the cut.  It’s a narration-augmented web game for the iPad about finding the courage to be yourself in a satirical underworld run by quantum theorists.  The demo was nominated for a game writing award.  It’s going to be great.

authentic pointing!

The long: 

She sat down to type.  She paused, hands hovering over the keyboard, a howling coming from the wind inside in the laser exhaust output. She was tired, but the time was now.  Only 64 hours left to go.  It had to be done.

The narrator is a staple of storytelling on rails.  It’s the voice of the novel.  It made The Wonder Years so poignant and Arrested Development so funny.  We mock the poor, neckless narrator of  The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and marvel at the intracies, exaggerations and contradictions it can bring to light in a film like Goodfellas.

Narration in interaction is another matter.  It’s a technical and social challenge to make narration that works together with your player/audience, and all too often this falls flat.  And yet, we’re seeing an indie resurgence of truly amazing narration in games.  Bastion polished the narrator concept to a high gloss, and The Stanley Parable used it to elevate interactive narrative to the level of literature.

So how do we capture some of that magic in a web-based, ARG-like adventure?  Alternate Reality Game players are used to getting their core narrative thread from recap blogs, which lack a certain immediacy and ability to create dramatic moments.

Christy Dena (who, if you don’t know, is a brilliant Aussie transmedia designer with a CV so long you can wrap it around your neck twice) is about to show us, with the help of her cohorts Craig Peebles, Trevor Dikes and Simon Howe.  Their project, AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS, is an iPad app that takes you on an audio tour of the web, adding that core narrative voice to the artifacture of a web story.  The writing promises to be top notch: even the demo picked up a nomination for “Best Writing in a Game” at the Freeplay Independent Games Festival.

The project is halfway to the funding line as I write this, and the countdown has rolled over into hours!  Go check it out, if it sounds like your cup of tea.

Nov 27, 2012

The Personal Cameo Sitting – Prepare to be Transformed

The $500 reward in our Kickstarter campaign, the personal cameo sitting, is an amazing reward, and I’m really surprised that no one has yet taken me up on it.  The reason for this is that I haven’t really talked about it very much, and as we go into 25 hours left of funding, I want to correct that.

The first and most banal thing you will be getting in the personal cameo sitting is a custom cameo – fully custom. It will be as unique to you as the 7 cameos in Laser Lace Letters are to each of those characters. In these cameos, the patrons are transformed into creatures of myth and power, their existence distilled into a moment of deeper meaning.

The personal cameo sitting is more than just a custom cameo. It’s a chance to become the star of a Laser Lace Letters story. Your Laser Lace story will trace the origins of that meaning.  For, just as each of these stories answers the question, ”where did these disappeared people go?”, they also tell us just how they came to appear on their cameos as unicorns, rabbits, foxes, and robots.

You and I will be working together, to produce a brand new story, and to offer that new story to your fellow patrons if you so choose.  It’s also the rare chance to bring my entire unusual set of skills – and the new laser cutter I will have command of – at your disposal.  Unlike the other stories in Laser Lace, yours will run the gamut of my storytelling and propmaking capabilities.  Does your character collect ancient Egyptian artifacts? You can expect to find one in your story. Perhaps she carries a pocket watch that was given to her by a relative now long gone. That pocket watch will be coming to you in the mail.

Every one of these stories comes down to a moment of truth, where a secret is revealed – your character’s true self. What will it say? More importantly, what will it be?

Nov 10, 2012

A skeptic’s approach to storytelling

A few years ago, I wrote a guest blog for Deus Ex Machinatio about how quacks are great storytellers.  They create a parallel world – a world of magic and boundless opportunity – and put you, the audience, at its center.  For a while, as you listen to a charlatan’s sales pitch, a world of wonders orbits around you.

All of the glory and hope of the quack’s storyworld is invested in the central totem –  the product.  Hope is stoppered up inside the product like a genie in a bottle (and the fact that we can neither see this genie, nor its effects, is just more proof that it exists!)  It doesn’t matter if the product is a literal bottle, a book, a bracelet, or a DVD.  The product soaks up the story; that’s what you’re really buying when you buy one of these things – a fantastic, if dubious, story where you are the hero.

The best artifacts of a charlatan’s storytelling also reflect the story back to you, and that was the jumping off point for my skeptical approach to storytelling.  On the surface of my stories, you can see my skepticism coming out as mimicry and mockery.  I’ve invented both fake magic and fake quackery, but a skeptical approach can run so much deeper in the way that you approach a story.  Laser Lace Letters isn’t a story about quackery per se (although, there’s some quackery in it), but it’s every bit as connected to the way I navigate the world as a skeptic.

I spend a lot of time thinking about evidence – examining things scientifically, interpreting evidence to come to an understanding of what it says about the world, or marveling at how sparse it is.  When you’ve listened to enough conspiracy theories and other dubious claims, you know how to write a story that leans heavily on a few key pieces of evidence, and how those key pieces should look if you want to tell a convincing story – by turns stark and beautiful, clinically official and viscerally immediate.

The challenge is in turning your reader into the investigator, letting them build their own pinboards full of facts and connections.

Ultimately, that’s what being an artifact creator is – giving someone the pieces with which to build a vision of your world.

And yet, being a writer, I know that the telling of a good story isn’t about hard facts – it’s about cadence and tone, synchronicity, happenstance, coincidental themes that seem to breathe life into the universe and give it a mind of its own.  The universes I build out of fake evidence are lucky enough to have an invisible, omniscient hand that crafts them into places full of meaning.

I’m also fudging the investigative process a little by bringing meaning and pathos to the surface for anyone to discover.  In the real world it takes other kinds of storytellers* – reporters, biographers, documentarians – to make the connections between disparate elements, process them, and turn them into a more straightforward type of story.  In this ginned up little microcosm I’m creating, the evidence speaks for itself – something difficult to achieve in the real world.

Explore some of my evidentiary fiction for yourself – back Laser Lace Letters on Kickstarter.

*Sometimes, we artifact creators go back and revise the evidence to fit the narratives we’ve built or found elsewhere.  For example, the snake oil bottle at the top of this page, which looks like a close crop of an old advertisement, seems to be a modern image made from an altered version of a historical ad.  There is a constant cycle between perception, imagination, and creation, the upshot of which is that this image is all over the web, in articles calling out everything from acupuncture to social security.

Oct 25, 2012

Laser Lace Launching


After six months of constant prototyping, intense planning and caffeine-fueled story development, my new project, Laser Lace Letters, is finally going up on Kickstarter today. It’s a unique project with elements of handcrafting, fragmented storytelling, and design. Also, it brings together two of my favorite things: steampunk, and lasers.

(If for some reason you LIKE reading press releases, you can also get that here.)

Laser Lace Letters is a line of laser-cut felt cameo pins that I designed and prototyped at Dallas Makerspace.  I’ll be making for everyone who pledges for them during the Kickstarter. They’re designed to be worn like a button or a badge: on a lapel, a backpack, a purse, or even on a hat.

If you’re familiar with laser cutting, you know that most things made on a laser are made from sheets of material, which means they’re usually quite flat; but that’s where Laser Lace will surprise you. The cameos sit in the center of a special doily, which is cut flat, but designed to be woven into itself to create a wreath of twisted color around the image in the center.

But inside the beautiful packaging for each cameo – a laser cut envelope tied with twine and sealed with wax – is a little story world for you to dig into. There are seven cameos in the line, and each represents a character living in an alternate version of Victorian London, where an all-woman airship corps keeps the peace, tiny robots ferry messages to secret lovers, and the rich build extravagant country homes in the sky.

Their stories are told through items like:

  • A charlatan’s pamphlet about the appearance of aethereal cities in bolts of lightning.
  • The letter a young socialite left for her family, the night she ran away.
  • A help wanted advertisement, calling for door-to-door sales girls to hawk pocket robots.
  • Plans for a machine designed to evaluate people’s souls – and act accordingly.
  • The report of a police officer who saw his partner vanish right in front of his eyes.

If funded, I’m going to release the stories two ways: as tangible stories that include their respective cameo pins, and as a digital book that you can read anywhere.  On the Kickstarter you can buy either one, so whether you like the crafting side of the series more, or the storytelling side, you can get what suits you.

I’ve also been working on some online supplements – or teasers, if you will – that will give you an idea of what to expect from each story before you decide which cameo to buy.  The characters have distinctive stories – from Sarah, the aviatrix who left her lover for a chance to fly one of Her Majesty’s airships; to Linnaeus, the mad scientist looking for a way to cross over into the other universe to find his missing son; to Lucy, an assassin who uses a fleet of tiny robots as her weapon of choice.

When Yomi Ayeni launched his project Clockwork Watch, I knew immediately that we shared a perspective on steampunk that would make for a good collaboration. So for the past several months, I’ve been working with Yomi to mesh our two stories. Our stories both take place in the world, and bits of Laser Lace are already scattered across the Clockwork Watch in-game blog, the London Gazette.  Most of the voices in the above video are also from members of the Clockwork Watch team who beamed their recording across the ocean to bring life to the characters.

Inspiration for Laser Lace was drawn from Jordan Weisman’s artifact-laden book projects – with Sean Stewart on “Cathy’s Book” and with J.C. Hutchins on “Personal Effects: Dark Art.”  Laser Lace stories are like miniature versions of those books.  As far as I know, no indie creator has attempted something like this before – and I can see why.  It’s calling on all the tools in my mental Swiss army knife, and I’ve even had to hack together some new ones.  It’s been a long, big, complicated road to get this project to the point where money is the most needed resource.

Here’s what that money is going to buy: a small hobby laser cutter, around $7,000 in printing services, and supplies ranging from felt to card stock to sealing wax. Once I have the laser cut parts, the cameos will be finished by hand here in Texas. I hope to be able to do all of the handwork myself, so everyone gets something I created from start to finish.  It will be a rare auteur project in a world of big teams.

I’m absolutely abuzz with excitement today!  Let’s come together and make this happen!  You bring the beer, and I’ll bring the party.

Sep 18, 2012

Unboxing: Byzantium Security

Last week, I took a personality test that may or may not have brainwashed me, and this weekend I got a black bubble mailer full of puzzles and secrets from the testing organization, Byzantium Security International.

Black packaging seems to be code, by the way, for “transmedia is happening here.”  I mean, take a look at my last three mailers.

In any case, here’s what’s inside this particular black package – a nice, out of game letter telling me that this is a promotion for the new Cinemax show Hunted, and a puzzle box.  I really like the fact that the letter was folded in such a way as to give me an in-game message above the fold, and a polite promotional letter below.

It’s shaped like the Byzantium Security logo (more or less), and rattles when you shake it, which means there must be something inside.

There’s something poetic about this puzzle box – and this might be me reading too much into it.  If you haven’t played through the test yet, go do it.  Everything in the experience is designed to make you feel smart, with nerve-wracking and sometimes disturbing tests that (mostly) turn out to be easier than you expected.

That’s pretty much the experience of opening this puzzle box.  Opening it involves a bit of guesswork adjusting your grip and pulling at pieces.  But once it begins to move, you’re rewarded with a gorgeous view of the box opening like an iris.

The puzzle is made of three pieces, one of which has a little hollow that hides a gunmetal-colored miniature USB stick, bearing the Byzantium Security logo.

Each piece also has a set of three letters etched into a face that’s hidden when the box is closed.  (Etched with LASERS, by my reckoning!)

Thank goodness we’ve got some clues here, because the files on that USB are all password protected.  I’ve unscrambled the letters to form a word, but that doesn’t seem to be the password.  Any ideas?  Tell me on Twitter.

I’m not able to give this a proper review because I’m a bit pressed for time this week, but I will say this is a classic piece of ARG swag.  It’s a puzzle box with a puzzle inside.  I love how every item is its own call to action – the box invites you to open it, the USB invites you to look at the files inside, the files themselves are encapsulated in a ZIP file called UNLOCK_ME.zip.

The campaign was created by Campfire, which is famous for its ability to build atmosphere and establish a mood.  This item is similar in tone to the rest of the campaign – on the outside, it’s a rather naturalistic and simple test of your abilities – and on the inside, it’s a polished and highly artificial experience.  It’s also a highly personal one – the puzzle it leads to exists on a physical piece of media in your possession, not on a website.

The only thing I can find to criticize about this object is that sometimes, you can open the box too quickly, sending one of the three pieces flying.  My dad and sister managed to send one skittering off the kitchen counter and break it – luckily, though, the wood glue was close at hand.

All in all, it’s a very slick, simple artifact that gets right to the heart of its subject matter.  Now if I could just figure out that password….

Aha!  Password cracked!  It had to be capitalized (not all caps or all lower case).  The files contain a bunch of high quality promotional stuff for Hunted, as well as a video and links that urge you to visit the two main landing sites for the experience.  I was expecting more puzzley goodness or some extra narrative bits, but if I’d experienced this in the proper order (mailer, then website) the site would have probably been enough of a payoff.  Still, looking at a multi-page announcement press release for the show is always going to break the flow of your immersive experience.

As always, if you’ve got something you’d like to see carefully photographed and then scrutinized here, send it my way.

Sep 4, 2012

Package Prototypes

I’ve been working on the packaging for Laser Lace.  I posted some photos of the prototype before, but now I’m to the laser cutting phase.  The graphics need some tweaking, but so far the results look pretty good.

 

These boxes are lasered from various craft papers mounted on poster board.  They’re tied with cord at the moment, but I might change it to ribbon to add a dash of color and control the shape of the bow a bit better.

I was playing around with these materials to see which I liked best; it turns out they’re all pretty great.  I have a special place in my heart for the paper in front, though.  It not only looks like leather; it feels like leather too!

Aug 30, 2012

Swag Review: Deadly Affairs

This is the start of a series wherein I review the physical objects from various transmedia projects. If you have a project and you want to send me something for review, drop it in the mail.

Today, I’m looking at a box I recently got from Investigation Discovery, leading to a short ARG that’s playing for the new show Deadly Affairs. The team was kind enough to send this to me after it was released to players, because I told them I wanted to start reviewing game swag.

Before I opened it, my mother saw the package with its return address (Susan Lucci, Investigation Discovery) and was perplexed – she’s the ID fan in the house, not me. By now you might have seen it, but here’s some lovely photos anyway.
We’ve got a shiny black box with the program branding on it:

…and inside, a card…

…and tied to the card, a key.

This isn’t a very complicated or very ambitious mailer. The key is a craft store buy, and I happen to know that because I built the key for the Ladies’ Mechanical Companion out of an identical one.

This is basically serving the same role as a postcard – just like the Random Acts of Fusion viewmaster that was sent out last month, and which I’m still writing my review of. From the mismatched sticker on the front of the box (it’s more matte than the box itself, making the sticker look cheaper than it likely is) to the fact that there it contains so little for its size, my first impression is that there could have been a lot more going on here – especially because the design of the website tugs at my artifact-loving heart strings.

Can you imagine if the mailer had half this stuff in it? Family photos, ticket stubs, a fashion label tag, a receipt for a romantic dinner, a business card, a tiki-themed party invitation, a napkin with a phone number – by the time you read this, this list will be incomplete because new virtual artifacts are being added constantly. All with little, elegant calls out to the experience’s various bits of content, in old school ARG style. Love. So much love. Getting the equivalent of this in the mail would have been so boss.

So the question is, if you’re going to send out a postcard mailer, why even bother tying a key to it and putting it in a box? In this case, it works with the overall experience design, and I think this shows how far a strong design goes in making a good piece of tangible work.

Players’ first interaction with the website was to open a virtual box using a “key” (a code provided on the card), so Deadly Affairs sent out physical boxes with physical keys in them. The relationship between the artifact and the online experience is clear, and the call to action is simple but compelling – if you give someone a key, how can they NOT use it?  It’s trip and fall simple.

There are no puzzles here, nor is the mailer in character, but it sets up Lucci’s role in the experience – half Greek chorus, half eyebrow-cocked gossip. Hers is the voice of someone who knows a story, but wants to draw out her story as long as possible, dropping little hints along the way to keep you at the height of suspense. (I can only assume this is the way the show will feel, too, because it’s the way *every program on Investigation Discovery feels.* I can’t be the only child of ID fans who gets the urge to google the case fifteen minutes into a show.)

Ultimately, a lot more could have been done with this, and it still feels like a waste of opportunity and resources not to include some of the artifacts from the virtual box in the physical one. But for what it’s supposed to do, it works. I can’t see shoehorning in more items just to have more items if it doesn’t work with the structure of the experience. Hopefully, ID will start doing more stuff like this, because if any brand lends itself to ARG, it has to be them. Maybe next time we’ll get something more robust.

Note: I have two friends working on this experience. I am not, nor am I privy to any of their creative decisions on this project.

Have some swag you’d like to see lovingly lambasted?  Go right ahead and send it to me.

Aug 12, 2012

Laser Lace (something)

Hi everyone. Did you perchance visit the Great Ralpholio in his Google Docs fiction enclave, or check out this daring story of air bravado? If you did, you’ve already met two of the characters from my new project. (Or is it three? Hm…)

Anyway, I’ve been doing some work getting the website for the project ready, and I think I’m ready to unveil it (now that I’ve finally moved that pesky doily). Are you ready for this?

Ladies, and gentlemen, I present – oh, who the hell left their mail on my mockup?

Seriously, people, mail your Labor Day cards at your own desk!

As you can sort of see, the site is looking pretty tasty.  Links and more details as soon as I clean up this mess.

In the meantime, if you want to hear more you can follow me, @toenolla on Twitter, or if it’s more your style, you can follow the project’s brand spanking new Twitter account, @laser_lace.

Aug 7, 2012

The Great Ralpholio wants to see you.

Yet another little tidbit for my project, the Laser (Something Something).  The Great Magician Ralpholio needs your help with something.  Hop to and help him out.

Aug 4, 2012

The beginning of something….

Today, the London Gazette in Clockwork Watch reads thusly:

Angel Falls from Sky to Thwart Department Robbery

Angel Corps recruit Sarah Bittern, 19, unmarried, leapt from a damaged airship last night in an heroic effort to capture a robber fleeing the former offices of the Department for the Advancement of Sciences.
Ms. Bittern, who was patrolling the area aboard the HMD Desiderata, continued to chase the man first via motor glider and then on foot, after the Desiderata ploughed into an unlicensed wireless tower. The ship’s captain, Ms. Hildebrandt Beam, 41, widowed, was injured in the resulting crash. According to her shipmates…

(Visit Clockwork Watch for the full story.)

Who are these new characters, you may ask –  the daring Sarah, the mad Linnaeus, the brave Hildebrandt?  Well, they’re part of a project I’m working on, and throughout the coming months you’ll see them pop up throughout Clockwork Watch to help the story along.  Yomi and I are working closely to make our story worlds intermesh (like…clockwork, one might say.)

I’m still scuttling about, getting things ready for a proper unveiling.  At this point, I can tell you that this is a tactile project – meaning you will get some tasty handmade items in the course of interacting with it – and it will feature at least a few robots.  Beyond that would be telling, but at least I can tell you the name of the project, right?  It’s called…oh, who the hell left that doily there?

Your mother doesn’t live here, people.

Anywho, it starts with “Laser” and if all goes well, it will end in delight for a great many of you.  If you want to stay informed, you can add this blog to your RSS feed here, or follow me on Twitter here.  You can also find me on Clockwork Watch here.  I’ll be bringing you more on the project as the news develops.