Games, Worlds, Simulacra, Virals: Part 2

It all started with a trailer running before showings of last summer's blockbuster Transformers. Handheld, seemingly amateur footage of a party in downtown Manhatten. Lights go out and suddenly a huge roaring resounds across New York. Before long explosions are flattening the other side of the island and the Statue of Liberty's head is rolling down the street. The trailer finished with "From Producer J.J. Abrams" and "In Theatres 1-18-08". That was all. At the time it (Cloverfield as we now know it) caused a sensation. As the producer of Lost people knew that the Abrams signature was an invitation to find out more, that this trailer held out the promise of a rich, involved information mine that would gradually reveal some answers to the many questions prompted even as more were posed. Media interest in the trailer was piqued and soon USA Today was arguing that the film was based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft while the Guardian claimed a definite tie-in with Lost (the Observer followed up the story here).

Viewers were first directed to 1-18-08.com, a website that consisted of a photomontage manipulated by the user. Soon other sites were up and running, including those for Slusho!, a fictional softdrink familiar to fans of the Abrams produced series Alias, and Tagruato, a huge mining conglomerate. Both sites were convincingly done and soon a metanarrative was building that encompassed speculation of all kinds about the as yet un-named film and a tantalising trail of clues as to its plot.

As well as personal pages of characters on myspace and this site (log in jllovesth) the viral evolved an internal logic, so before long an anti-Tagruato environmentalist site for a group called TIDO was found. On the site TIDO deny responsibility for destroying a Tagruato oil rig, a denial which was followed by the release of this trailer showing a rig collapsing into the sea. All of this gives only a snapshot of the overall complexity: as this analysis demonstrates most of the viral work, often taking the form of news reports, was done in languages other than English. Gradually a picture emerged from the dense network of clues and puzzles that pointed to the major events of the film, giving the plot background and substance whilst garnering near priceless acres of newsprint and becoming one of the dominant memes of 2007.

Four days before the films US release and almost everything about the film has been leaked. However in the process of publicising the movie it's content has become part of a narrative that the film both describes and yet which also supercedes the film.

However the team working with Abrams wasn't done yet. As described in this Read/Write Web article Lost fans in the Mid West started to see billboard ads for Oceanic airlines with a URL that directed them here. As fans of the show will know Oceanic Flight 815 is the plane that crashes thus prompting the subsequent drama that is the show. Anyway the site was a provocation and a new ARG, Find815, was launched. The iconography used in the game was consistent with that in the program; new characters have been introduced in the game that harmonise with those on TV and key mysteries from the series are inextricably worked in to the ARG. Find 815, which is currently in full flow, follows Sam, an Oceanic engineer whose girlfriend was aboard Flight 815, as he attempts to find out what happened to the craft when the official investigation is abandoned.

A new model of storytelling is on offer here, a model that just so happens to engage large numbers of people on the internet and generate press interest. As Cloverfield director Matt Reeves has said "All the stories kind of bounce off one another and inform each other[...]To us, it's just another exciting aspect of the storytelling." Publishers and writers are in the business of storytelling and given the ravages of the writers strike on moving image media are presented with an historic opportunity to explore this new, metafictional, ludic, reality bending narratology. Artistically and commercially, even philosophically, a new frontier has been opened in this most fundamental of human attributes.

A series like Harry Potter is already transmedia in that it exists in virtually every media on earth, and some. What it doesn't have is a sense of unity between the different media; the film doesn't complement the book, it is the book; the game doesn't complement the film, it is the film. There is one story set down in the books that is then the template for everything else. There is no Harry Potter myspace page other than what is essentially an advert for the film, for example.

Imagine say the new Dan Brown as intimately conceived with a viral ARG. Brown's novels have a very definite sense of place and this could be used to fascinating effect (Google maps mash ups etc). Dan Brown tours already take place in London, Paris and Rome; what about if they became an integral part of a wider mystery? The gap between the story and the world would vanish as people become part of the story. Its post-structuralist literary theory, literalised.

There are some indications that writers are embracing this model. Boing Boing reported on Shadow Unit, who are creating "a fan site for a show that never existed". The SF writer Elizabeth Bear and mastermind of the project gives a rough outline: "Over the next couple of months, the site will be updated on a weekly or biweekly basis with new information, vignettes, character sketches, character bios, a community message board, and other exciting things". Moreover "there will be a series of novellas and novellettes, and one complete novel". Shadow Unit works through a mixture of free and subscription content and breaks ground in terms of offering publishers and writers an example of how to radically expand their storytelling.

Creating fictional myspace profiles is not uncommon for books now and last year the publisher Canongate gestured more fully in this direction on the website for The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall.

In his famous discussion of simulacra and hyperreality the philosopher Jean Baudrillard cites Disneyland as being the ultimate simulacra, a copy for which there is no original. Building Disneyland isn't exactly easy and is probably beyond the marketing budgets of most publishers. However as Jeff Gomez points out in a recent post on Print is Dead, writers today have, via the internet, a means of getting involved with their texts beyond writing them. Creating a fictional myspace profile is do-able and adds an intriguing twist to a reader's relationship with a character. Whilst the resources required for an ARG on the scale of the Cloverfield virals is vast, as are those for full on ARGs like Perplex City, conceptualising, planning and executing interesting metafictional elements and the creation of a web based narrative are within reach for many publishing projects.

Doing this requires commitment from writers. What works so well about the Lost ARG is how perfectly it coheres with the vision presented in the series, and this sense of unification is necessary for building a transmedia story. Otherwise its just stories.

In summary then, I think we are seeing a new breed of story emerging that blends viral marketing campaigns with alternate reality games to produce a narrative that forms part of the story told in traditional media formats. In doing so many old distinctions, between say fiction and reality or marketing and content, are being challenged or breaking down. Recent examples spearheaded by the producer J.J. Abrams have demonstrated the complexity, artistry and publicity boosting potential of the model and publishing companies are making steps in this direction. Our understanding and definition of what stories are and how we tell them are shifting in new and exciting ways. The terms of this post's title are blending into one, a concept we have, as yet, no other word for than the neverending constant that is "story".