Coefficient of Fiction

A Transmedia Travelogue

Archive for the month “September, 2012”

Uroboros Map

First off, I apologize for not releasing this new entry on Wednesday: That night I appeared on a panel co-sponsored by Social Media Week and the IAWTV called Merging Social Media and Online Storytelling, and that distracted me from releasing our regularly-scheduled blog. For those who want to check it out after the fact, you can watch the entire panel here. All right, now that that’s taken care, let me tell you a bit about the most recent “Fury of Solace” ARG.

During Production for the most recent cycle of the series, we realized we would be filming a lot of vlogs set in Uroboros’ apartment. To spice up the otherwise uninteresting space, we decided to put a map of L.A. on the wall behind him, and in typical conspiracy theorist fashion, adorn it with an increasingly intricate array of push-pins and multi-colored yarn strands over the course of said vlogs. But not content to stop there, we then took a photo of the completed map and used Flash to create an interactive map, allowing viewers to delve into the depths of Uroboros’ insanity and understand how each and every one of those push-pins connects to the unfolding plot.

But I always intended for this map to be more than just an intriguing piece of supplementary ephemera. I figured we could build an ARG around it. The original notion was that we would incorporate geocaching elements, have a secret link on the map which revealed the location of a flash drive that we’d hidden somewhere in real-world Los Angeles. On the drive would presumably be a video of Uroboros, admitting that his conspiracy blog the Flashlight had failed; they’d cried wolf so many times that when they came across an actual conspiracy, no one was willing to listen. But the fugitive Uroboros knew that his days were numbered, and truly believed that someone had to carry on in his footsteps shining a light on the truth, should anything happen to him. So Uroboros had set up a new blogsite called the Lighthouse, and he’d urge whoever found the his message to assume ownership of the site and keep hope alive.

Ultimately, we didn’t have the resources to set up an actual geocaching experience, nor did we have the time to film a final video with Uroboros, so instead, the secret link on the map led to a pdf, a final letter from Uroboros, which conveyed essentially the same information as described above. The only difference was, Uroboros made his would-be successor jump through one final hoop: he’d encoded the password to the Lighthouse wordpress site into the map using a book cipher, so if one of his followers wanted to pick up where Uroboros left off, they’d have to put a little work into it.

Interestingly, the Flash map had a few glitches that needed working out, and it was not in fact ready for release until late Monday night. I didn’t want to post the seeds of this ARG that late, because I knew most people would not be on Twitter at that time of night, but I was backed into a corner, because Uroboros was setting out to crash the Mason International Charity Ball that Monday night where the character was destined to die, and I wanted him to post the map beforehand. I figured I could just have the Fury of Solace Twitter account draw attention to Uroboros’ unusually-scheduled Tweets the next morning. But I failed to take into account that we have an international audience. One of our fans in England was awake and checking Twitter when Uroboros posted the clues that Monday, and by the time I woke up the next day, he had not only found Uroboros’ hidden letter and successfully decoded the WordPress password, he’d actually posted a blog to the site! So we had an in-canon blog that was started by a now-dead character, run entirely by a fan. Exciting stuff! As I understand it, there were quite a few similar instances of blurring the lines between in-canon narrative and fan sites in the grandfather of all transmedia web series, “LonelyGirl15” (which, interestingly enough, counted Maxwell Glick amongst its cast members, the actor who portrays Uroboros).

Uroboros’ secret final message also instructed the fan who found it to alert his former Flashlight collaborators on Twitter that the new conspiracy site the Lighthouse was open for business. Our very game fan did exactly that, and made the character @RealJackBower a co-administrator of the site, so now I, as that character, can use the Lighthouse to further advance the story, but so can our lucky fan in the UK. And by allowing fan contributions, hopefully the Lighthouse can develop the community that the Flashlight lacked.  For a recap of the entire ARG, click here.

These last several posts have been a deluge of information on “Fury of Solace,” I promise we’ve got some upcoming posts on different topics. And I’ll have an announcement to make about an exciting new Transmedia venture very soon. Stay tuned!

Incriminating Messages

Historically, ARG’s were an important part of how we chose to tell the Fury of Solace story, and I wanted that to continue into our new cycle.  But said new cycle was much more expansive and complicated than anything we’d produced prior, which didn’t leave ample time or resources to mount ARG experiences as ambitious as what we’d tried at San Diego Comic-Con, so I decided to tread on familiar ground by coming up with more Twitter-based ARG’s.  I was keenly aware that not too may people were invested in our new character Uroboros, and that was troubling because the lion’s share of our new cycle was going to be told from his perspective.  Originally, the character of Fury of Solace was supposed to largely ignore Uroboros until the protest in Episode 4.4, but I realized we needed to move up that timetable.  Fury of Solace had thousands of followers and Uroboros only had about 30.  It seemed to me that the best way to draw attention to Uroboros was to have him interact on Twitter with Fury of Solace.  But at the same time, the story required that the two characters not be allies, per se, so I concocted a Twitter ARG that represented a short-term, tentative alliance between Fury of Solace and Uroboros.

In this new version of the timeline, Fury of Solace was paying enough attention to Uroboros to be intrigued when the latter started posting internal Mason International security footage that Uroboros had illicitly acquired by hacking the pharmaceutical company’s mainframe.  As discussed in an earlier post about the Twitter prologue we ran in the lead-up to our new cycle of episodes, Uroboros had hijacked the Mason International Twitter account and seen incriminating Direct Message exchanges between the pharmaceutical company and factions linked to a the mysterious criminal kingpin called King.  But it occurred to me while I was devising the first of our new ARG experiences that there was more to mine from the “Twitter hacking” idea, if I could contrive a reason for the fans to be the ones doing the hacking.

So here was the plan: Fury of Solace and Uroboros have a conversation over Twitter suggesting that Mason International might still be using its Twitter account to carry on some of its illegal business.  Uroboros insists that after Mason International had regained control of their Twitter feed, the company upgraded their security such that their Twitter account was now impenetrable.  But Solace suggests that if they could only find the Twitter accounts of some of the other players in Mason’s crimes, their Twitter security might not be as tight.

At one point, Uroboros had posted on his blog a crude chart mapping out the various organizations that he believed were shell companies in King’s criminal empire.  Since Uroboros had established a connection between Mason International and King, the other companies in his chart would be the first potential Mason co-conspirators that our anti-heroes would seek out.  So our first order of business was directing Fury of Solace’s Twitter followers back to the graphic, and encouraging them to see if any of those companies had accounts on Twitter.  And of course our fans found some of them, because I’d created the accounts a few days earlier.

Next, we had to find a way for our heroes to hack into one of these accounts, @KonigInc, and contrive a reason that the fans needed to be inextricably involved in the process.  Basically, I knew I needed another party who had inside knowledge of the conspiracy to step forward and offer to divulge Konig Inc.’s password.  I had two options for this: we could either introduce a heretofore unseen whistleblower via a newly created Twitter account, or we could go back to our old staple, the enigmatic prophet Augur.  Augur was intimately involved in Fury of Solace’s origin, and in our first Twitter-based ARG, he posted clues which allowed The Orphan to gain access to one of Fury of Solace’s password-protected videos and thereby save Max Mason’s life.  As a prophet, fans were willing to accept that he had access to knowledge that he wouldn’t otherwise have had.  Ultimately, I decide to go with Augur on this one, mainly because he had a few Twitter followers of his own from earlier in the series, and since this ARG already hinged on the involvement of the new character Uroboros who I knew very few people were following, I thought it would be needlessly confusing to introduce another new Twitter account out of the blue for a one-off whistleblower and expect fans to find that account and play along.  It was easier to go with an established character, which is ultimately what we did.

But the question then became, why can’t Augur just give the password to Fury of Solace or Uroboros?  What possible reason could there be to insert some fan into the process as a middle man?  The conceit I ended up using was this: Augur wanted to give the password to an uninvolved third party, because he feared that whatever incriminating evidence was uncovered would be more easily dismissed if it came from the mouths of two people with outspoken anti-Mason-International agendas.  So Augur Tweeted that the first third party who sent him an @ reply would be given the password.

And not only did one of our loyal fans play along, he even checked the settings for the KonigInc Twitter account and attempted to login to the e-mail address attached to it using the same password.  I’d had the foresight to make the password to the e-mail address different from the Twitter password, but still, I hadn’t necessarily expected anyone to delve that deeply.  Not only that, the same fan wisely pointed out that he could continue to access the account to keep tabs on the supposed Mason International shell company, which made me realize that I could occasionally send more DM’s from the account and see if our loyal fan ever picked up on it.  You can find the recap of this entire ARG here.

Stay tuned for another entry next Wednesday!

Twitter: Over, Under Around and Through

When we released the bulk of our initial “Fury of Solace” material, back in 2008-2009, fans were very actively interacting with the characters on Twitter, and that was an important part of the unfolding story.  I actually managed to keep the Twitter accounts active for a decent amount of time after we had stopped releasing new material,  but as our production on this latest cycle stretched out to multiple years, it became unrealistic to upkeep the Twitter accounts when no actual story was taking place.  So the character Twitter accounts fell quiet, and we had a good amount of follower attrition.  However, as we were gearing up for the release of this new cycle, I wanted to reinvigorate the Twitter audience, reach out to our old die-hard fans and get the Twitter pages jumping again, because that kind of Twitter interaction would continue to be an important part of our storytelling process as the show went forward.

So we came up with a four-week Twitter prologue, concocting one major story point for each week leading up to our release, which would give the characters a talking point for each week, something to discuss and argue about, and to invite fan input as well.  And not that this came as too much as a surprise, but fans don’t necessarily jump onboard for Twitter chatter alone.  Some of our die-hard fans from back in the day did take part, however, and in so doing they reminded me once again just how smart and savvy our fans really are.  Not only did they ask all the right questions, they even discovered character accounts that I have not to advertised in any way shape or form to this day.

Back when we started the series, there were maybe four different character Twitter accounts.  Now there’s about 5 times that many.  And I’m trying to encourage organic discovery of these accounts to some degree.  So, as mentioned above, some of the character accounts aren’t officially listed anywhere, they can only be found by fans who pay enough attention to the central cast to notice who those characters are sending @replies to.  And even during the Twitter prologue, before we released any of our new videos, some of our die-hard fans proved just how much they were paying attention.  We’ve actually introduced a few characters on Twitter before they’ve shown up on screen, which has been an interesting storytelling experience in and of itself.  I know the folks over at “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” have been doing that as well, to great effect.

I was also able to use these Twitter plots to bridge some holes in the overall story.  For instance, a large part of the story in the new “Fury of Solace” cycle centered around a warehouse owned by a company called Konig Inc.  Konig Inc., we learned, was just a shell company with ties to Mason International, the “evil” pharmaceutical company that both Fury of Solace and Uroboros are attempting to take down.  Now,  Konig Inc. was first introduced into our story on Uroboros’ conspiracy blog, The Flashlight.  But looking back at the old posts, when Uroboros first became aware of Konig Inc., he didn’t realize it had any ties to Mason International at all: at the outset, Uroboros was interested in Konig because it was one of dozens of shell companies allegedly owned by a mysterious crime kingpin called King.  The writers and I knew all along that this King was ultimately going to be linked to Mason International, but it occurred to me that that connection was not officially established in any of the videos we had planned.   So I devised a way to link the two in one of the stories from the Twitter prologue.

One week of the prologue centered around Uroboros hijacking the Mason International Twitter account and using it to dispense some of the pharmaceutical company’s harmful secrets.  Since Uroboros wasn’t going to come into his own as a central character until our new cycle was released, the primary purpose of this Twitter story arc was to bring Uroboros into our audience’s consciousness by allowing him to interact with some of our more established characters.  But I realized I could kill two birds with one stone.  If Uroboros gained access to the Mason International Twitter account, he would also be privy to the company’s private direct message exchanges.  And it occurred to me that this was our best opportunity to connect Mason International to King and his criminal empire.  After Mason International regained control of their Twitter account, Uroboros reported that he had seen DM exchanges between the pharmaceutical company and factions that were known King collaborators.  And that important story connection was thereby made!  And I of course chronicled the entire event via storify so that it could be referenced back to as part of the ever-evolving narrative of the show.

In this last case, we were able to make the Twitter chatter not only relevant to the plot, but actually integral to it, and this is something I’d recommend doing from time to time if you can swing it.  Fans will be all the more likely to engage in social media discourse with the characters if they know that it will sometimes put them in a position to learn key plot points before the rest of the world.  But, admittedly, you have to walk a fine line with this: A large percentage of your fan base are going to be casual viewers who only watch the videos and aren’t particularly interested in delving into the transmedia experience, so it’s important that you find a way to convey to them any off-screen developments that are necessary for them to understand the overall story.  In our particular case, we used a storytelling device I introduced in an earlier post as the “third-person narrative,” a short paragraph or two of written text that accompanies each live-action episode, to contextualize it, and link to relevant supplementary content that enhances the viewing experience.

Example of third-person narrative.

That’s going to be it for this week, but stay tuned for a new post next Wednesday!

Miracle Mile Paradox

I’m devoting this week’s entry to an L.A.-based ARG that just wrapped up this past Sunday, the Miracle Mile Paradox.  The experience was produced by Transmedia L.A., a local group that hosts monthly meetups and ad hoc events to bring together Los Angeles-based transmedia enthusiasts.  If you’re in L.A. and you’re into this stuff, I strongly suggest you sign up for the free meetup group and come to a meeting!  Miracle Mile Paradox is now officially over, so I don’t feel bad posting spoilers here, but if you want to try to piece the whole story together after the fact before reading any further, this piece on ARGnet is a good place to start.

MMP kicked off back in March when rare antiquities collector Rex Higgs stumbled across a set of blueprints for a mysterious device called the Time Switch.  Rex promptly set up a Kickstarter to fund his construction of the machine, the proceeds of which were used by Transmedia L.A. to fund the ARG itself.  After successfully assembling the Time Switch, the device began receiving transmissions from a woman named Jane Winthrop…  messages from 1932.  Shortly thereafter, Rex received a cease and desist letter from a company called AIC, which claimed to be the sole patent holder for the Time Switch.  It soon became clear that AIC was using said technology for their own nefarious purposes, and that they would quash anyone who got in their way.

The ARG’s creators really made the stretch of Wilshire Blvd known as Miracle Mile a character unto itself, incorporating the Mile’s rich history into the story, and involving more than 30 local businesses in the unfolding plot.  After receiving repeated death threats from AIC, Rex was forced to hide his Time Switch from prying AIC eyes and go on the run, but not before seeding clues in several dozen Miracle Mile locations for his in-game friends and local participants to find.  Clues like his business card, which fans could only retrieve by talking to a real-world employee of one of the above-mentioned businesses.   Rex’s card entreated his would-be allies to call him ASAP.

Rex’s business card.

After calling the number on the card, players began to receive text messages leading them to other sites, where they could uncover information like the secret location of the Time Switch and the code to get inside.

Players knew they were on the right track when they saw this sticker in a store window.

Since Rex was in the wind, he was forced to rely on the kindness of strangers to go to the Time Switch location at certain prescribed times to receive further transmissions from the past.  Jane’s transmissions were garbled however, which fans attributed to AIC interference, and on top of that, her messages were encoded.  Cleaning up the garbled messages and cracking Jane’s code were just a few of the ways that non-local fans could get into the action.

I wish I’d had the opportunity to play through the entire ARG from the beginning, but the lion’s share of it overlapped with the release of my transmedia series “Fury of Solace,” so I was only able to jump in for the tail end.  That said, I was excited to be able to attend the final event this past Sunday, where about a dozen loyal players got the opportunity to see Rex and the Time Switch in person, and help the eccentric collector destroy the Time Switch and hammer the last nail in the coffin of the evil AIC Corporation.

Rex and the Time Switch.

Now, I was bound to be a fan of this project: I’m a sucker for a good time-travel story, and “fighting an evil corporation” is probably one of the most recurrent themes in my own writing, up to and including “Fury of Solace.”  And the more I delve into Miracle Mile Paradox, the more I’m convinced that me and the MMP team are on the same wavelength.  Not only are both of our transmedia projects centered around fans hacking into the accounts of evil mega-corporations, but we each, completely independently of one another, chose the same building, 5455 Wilshire Blvd., to be the stand-in for our respective evil company’s corporate headquarters!  Not only that, the live anti-AIC protest that Transmedia L.A. staged with characters and fans alike is strikingly similar to our original plan for the anti-Mason International protest that Uroboros spearheads in “Fury of Solace.”  We, too, wanted to stage our protest live and invite fans to participate, but important story points were scheduled to take place at our event as well, and we ultimately realized we didn’t have the infrastructure to stage a live event with fans AND get the footage we needed for the episode, so we had no choice but to drop the ARG component of that particular event.

With about 30 characters from soup to nuts, and a transmedia trail that included character blogs, websites, Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, LinedIn profiles, Pinterest boards, Foursquare check-ins, and real-world interactive events, Miracle Mile Paradox was nothing if not an ambitious project.  Once the story wrapped up and we were all officially “out of game,” I had the opportunity to chat with one of the project’s brainchilds, April Arrglington, who was kind enough to give be a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the project.

MMP was lucky enough to have a team of writers, each of whom handled the social media presence for two or three characters, maximum.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, we experimented with that kind of character delegation for “Fury of Solace” when I assigned the bulk of the Uroboros story to one particular writing-team, and even that little taste made me realize that if you have the resources at your disposal, that’s the only way to go.  For one thing, divvying up the characters amongst different writers guarantees that they’ll each have distinct voices.  For another, and I can say this from experience, trying to manage 20 different character Twitter accounts single-handedly is a surefire way to develop Multiple Twitter Personality Disorder!

If I hadn’t been so busy releasing and managing “Fury of Solace,” I probably would have taken part in MMP from the beginning.  As it was, I was forced to try to reconstruct it at the very end.  One thing that does seem to be missing is an authoritative recap of everything that’s come before, though admittedly there are so many disparate threads that chronicling it while the game was in progress would have been nothing short of a herculean task.  Plus, I assume the creators didn’t want to deprive new players of the joy of digging through all of this stuff themselves (though coming into it at the tail end was a bit overwhelming even to an ARG veteran like myself).  But MMP’s rabid fans did do their best to bring new players up to speed, posting recaps and speculations on the in-game message boards, fan-made wikis and Unfiction threads.  Unfiction is actually a great resource for discovering all manner of ARG’s, follow the link and check it out if you haven’t already.  But if you’re going to post there yourself, make sure you read their rules carefully; they’re pretty strict about distinguishing between in-game and out-of-game posts, and about the guidelines when it comes to ARG creators posting trailheads to their own projects.

For people like me who want to get a bigger picture of the entire MMP event, exactly what went on behind the scenes and just how engaged the audience truly was, April is preparing a detailed case study of the entire experience, which she’ll be presenting at this year’s Storyworld Conference.  This year, Storyworld is being held in Los Angeles, from October 15th through 17th.  I’ll be attending, and I highly recommend that other transmedia enthusiasts do the same, if you can scrape together the cash.

That’s it for this week, folks.  See you next Wednesday, same transmedia time, same transmedia channel!

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