Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Alternate reality fiction

I have not blogged about Shadow Unit, because this is the Gameshelf, and Shadow Unit is not a game. I love Shadow Unit. It's a collaborative storytelling project by four well-known fantasy authors. You might call it a series of short stories about a mutant-hunting FBI team. You'd be closer if you called it a prose work with the structure of an episodic TV series. It's great writing; X-Files with human beings instead of Hollywood/TV heroes. It isn't a game.

I say that because I didn't do anything; I read the episodes as they were posted. (And I dropped some cash in the hat.) No interactivity, no game. Easy distinction, right?

But would Elizabeth Bear, Will Shetterly, Sarah Monette, and Emma Bull agree with that? Do they feel like they're playing a game? I'll ask around. But let's stay outside the circle of creators for now.

Or... maybe not. Shadow Unit has imported some of the aspects of an ARG, an alternate reality game. Supporting web sites pop up. Characters in the story have ongoing Livejournals.

You can comment in these journals. (As long as you don't break the fourth wall.) People do. Real people have long conversations with fictional people. They trade recipes and favorite TV shows.

Who's playing now?

Let me reach back to my post about Alternity, the Livejournal-mediated Harry Potter RPG that started recently. I called that a "game", even though it's got a bounded circle of creators and no ARG elements. Why was that a game? For one thing, the circle is larger -- twenty-ish? But mostly, I was thinking of the game model. You and your friends could set up your own game of "that thing", with your own scenario. "That thing" is fairly structured; it has rules ("journal posts only", the 15-minute correction rule, etc). The creators are continually making posts in these constrained ways. Whereas Shadow Unit's "thing" is both more nebulous and more generic: traditional short stories appear on a web site.

But then, the Livejournals have a rule... Okay, I'm constructing a difference out of degrees. Never mind.

A new one is launching tomorrow: Continuous Coast. (Or is it called "Mediators"? These alternate reality thingies don't name themselves!)

You can read a slideshow about this thing, by creators Reesa Brown and Kit O'Connell. They presented this at Arse Elektronika 2008. They're working with fantasy author Steven Brust, plus a cast of thousands, on a... a...

I have no idea. We'll find out more on October 9th, or so I hear.

It has some web sites and blogs, as I linked above. It has a Twitter feed. But of course that's not the Twitter feed of the project. It's the Twitter feed of the Mediators, the ?police ?steering committee ?resident psychiatrists of a city that is clearly not on Earth, and perhaps not in our universe...

So is this a game? It is impossible to describe without the perspective of ARGs. Continuous Coast is an alternate-reality presentation, in the sense of ARGs. ARGs are games. Continuous Coast is not -- by the early descriptions -- a MMO puzzle-quest in the sense of I Love Bees. It is described as interactive, in that the circle is open. Everything is Creative-Commons licensed, and the creators invite everyone to play in the sandbox.

"Play" invites "game", doesn't it?

Let me fling out some terminology. Shadow Unit and Continuous Coast are ARFs: alternate reality fiction. "Alternate reality", again, in the ARG sense: that which spills out from the page and mixes and blurs into our reality. "This is not fiction." Web sites, stories, art, all lived in-character.

(No relation here to "alternate history", the subgenre of science fiction that deals with what-if divergences of history. Sorry about that confusion. "Enhanced reality" and "ERGs" might have been a better term, back when the Beast and the Bees came along; but that spaceship has sailed.)

I'm not trying to distinguish ARFs from games, in the broad sense. I'm just trying to distinguish it from the well-described category of ARGs. I don't care whether ARF is a "game" -- doesn't matter, it is play. People will interact to shape an experience that comes as much from them as from the original designers.

Really, I want to drop a different division down the cloud, and say that an ARG is alternate reality interactive fiction -- the subset of ARFs which involve specific challenges for the players to defeat. We could even distinguish between multi-player ARIF and solo ARIF: imagine a game that's spread across web sites and in-character blogs, but which is sized for a single player to work through without help. (I don't know any examples of this, but I want to avoid wiring in assumptions.)

Or maybe that's silly terminology, because it's all "interactive", ARFs and ARGs and journal games and the lot. We take for granted that alternate-reality presentations are participatory. The whole point of bleeding into your reality, right, is that you live in your reality. It wouldn't be AR if you weren't involved.

Or, as Brown and O'Connell write: "21st-century storytelling blurs the line between canon and fanon."

Damn. Now I want to go back and rebuild my lamented Myst Online from scratch, using these ideas. I knew they were missing something...

Comments imported from Gameshelf (Oct 9, 2008 at 8:39 PM):

Sean Spacey, ARG consultant and administrator of the Unfiction ARG-discussion site, coined the term "chaotic fiction," which is kind of appealing. But he may have intended it to apply more broadly.

Kit (Oct 10, 2008 at 4:58 AM):

We've been hard at work at Clabs and there is new content to be had today. It shouldn't be too terribly hard to find, either. Our launch is indeed an ongoing process, largely because M2I-translation is still a new technology, subject to many bugs and errors -- not to mention that Zayza has many concepts for which there are no equivalents in English.

Thanks for this post, you've given me a lot to think on.

Reesa (Oct 10, 2008 at 10:51 AM):

Yes! I've been waiting for someone to find the right term. Even though the acronym is reminiscent of other imagery, I'd been calling it ARS - alternate reality storytelling, and yours has less syllables. I like chaotic fiction as a term as well, but it doesn't sound as easily comprehensible to folks as ARF does.

We tend to refer to the project, on Tellus at least, as the Continuous Coast project. Different pieces of it will likely have their own names as it grows. And after all, the Mediators are only one part of a very rich and diverse world.

Andrew Plotkin (Oct 10, 2008 at 3:02 PM):

Excellent. I will go forth and look for more material.

(I tried to post some of the following as a comment on Dreamcafe, but I must have blown it...)

The first I heard of the project at all was on Wednesday, when I saw Reesa's Dreamcafe post. I immediately went googling, and found the AE slideshow in short order. That pointed at the CLabs site. Some friends went on from there and found the Twitter feed.

So at that point I felt like I had Found The Stuff -- which was exciting. Of course I had (have) no idea if that was all of the Stuff. (Who says there's only one Twitter feed?)

(I did spent a few minutes looking at the gfire music site, trying to figure out if that was an actual event happening on Earth with real musicians... the abbreviation "ATX" is not obviously a real place to us East Coasters!)

I have deep faith in the ARG lesson, which is that your fans will find everything. So all of your material will be appreciated. That isn't necessarily the same as enticing the maximum number of people to appreciate it, though. An outsider, faced with an in-progress game community, can feel like he has too much to catch up on to enter; in that sense, a lot of material is almost counterproductive.

I have no brilliant advice about that, though. I've never run one of these things. The one I have been most involved in, as my post says, was the (deceased) Myst Online game. And the lessons there seem to be mostly negative.

Kit (Oct 10, 2008 at 7:57 PM):

Your comment got caught in our spam filter, but I've freed it.

We've had similar thoughts about this topic but not necessarily any definitive solutions. One of the main ways we're hoping to combat it is to have multiple points of entry to the world -- as many as possible really, to encourage different ways to introduce yourself to its complexity.

Anyway thanks for sharing your experiences, this kind of feedback is invaluable. (Oct 25, 2008 at 5:49 PM):

Sorry, just had to laugh at calling him Mr. Spacey - it's actually Stacy.

Anyways, back on topic:

There is kind of a thing in the ARG community where players do end up finding most of the stuff - in some ARGs (especially Cloverfield, for example if you call that an ARG) where players actually cracked a password protected maintenance page and got at stuff ahead of time, etc. Players are good at finding patterns and connections which lend themselves to finding things fast.

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