Our daily development blog series for the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab’s alternate reality game S.E.E.D. continues with Philip Ehrenberg, Learning Design Specialist and former Design Lab Fellow. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Chicago. Serving several roles on S.E.E.D., he oscillates daily between game design, media production, supporting mentors, and documenting the program. As a fellow, he worked on last summer’s ARG The Source, browser-based game A Day in the Life, and Ci3’s digital storytelling initiative South Side Stories. Previously he was Project Manager on the ARG The Project.
As this development blog has noted several times over the past few weeks, the manufacturing of an already-extant world and narrative pervading into our commonly accepted one is part and parcel of alternate reality games (or ARGs). One manner by which ARG designers practice this is to seed transmedia elements throughout our game. As Christopher Russell discussed in his post on transmedia storytelling, we frequently fracture our narratives and distribute them across real world and digital spaces so that no one player (or, as often turns out being the case, designer) has a complete collection of narrative moments or the media produced for and during the game. While S.E.E.D. primarily relies on invisible theater and extensive set design to convey its narrative, the game is not without a handful of media pieces produced rapidly by our design team.
This year, the Game Changer Chicago designers have tried to ensure these elements flit from innocuous to conspicuous, blurring the line between distinct narrative and gameplay moments, so players are constantly left on their toes. This stands in stark contrast to the approach of our previous summer ARG, The Source, in which the primary manner of driving the game’s story was through a series of video blogs issued by the protagonist and her friends. Filmed in advance, edited during the five weeks of gameplay, and released to players on a fixed schedule and platform, the media plan was fairly firmly established from the get-go. This avenue comes with its own pros and cons, but in either case it dramatically affected our capacity to make large-scale narrative divergences on the fly. Not so this year, with our transmedia being produced nearly immediately before its release and attempting to take into account the latest team dynamics, subtleties of our narrative invented by the players, and the technical constraints that constantly arise in making a science-fiction narrative real.
The ways we use and distribute these media pieces helps us establish particular tones and aesthetics for our narrative’s various factions, the Temporal Archivists that directly oversee the players, the future corporation ProPhyle, and the disruptive resistance movement The Scattering. Communicating across different media, we succinctly establish different logics by which the players can interact with these groups in the course of their day-to-day activities – the Temporal Archivists directly, for instance, versus recordings from the future groups. In order to better demonstrate our commitment to pervasive and varied transmedia experiences, as well as flexibility to how players our gaming our own game, below are a few more concrete examples of the media we have produced and how they tie into our overarching philosophy.
1) Video: For the vast majority of our players, the start of the game was heralded by a screening of the Project Harvest: Orientation video. We had a number of goals we were attempting to fulfill in the very first moments of the game, namely to convey a succinct overview of the narrative, but also to immediately establish the tone for the Temporal Archivists: slightly sinister, prone to corporate oversight, susceptible to goofiness. The first thing they saw on the Monday summer morning on which the game began was a strange performance space filled with odd adults in lab coats and unfamiliar faces. For this reason, we wanted an engaging piece of media that they could watch and even laugh at to diffuse the otherwise tense and uncertain mood. Early research and discussions of aesthetics led the media team to watch an immense number of real corporate orientation videos in order to determine which features of the genre we just had to reproduce and which we could subvert for our purposes.
2) Radio: One of the stranger features of each team’s daily work space is the presence of a clock radio. Players know that these devices may spontaneously turn on at random times (in reality, going off to alarms carefully set by the designers at the start of each game day) to play team-specific messages from “The Scattering,” a future resistance group that communicates solely through audio transmissions. These messages, having broken through the airwaves controlled by ProPhyle and the Temporal Archivists, are highly distorted and stand in contrast to the crisp and perfunctory audio of ProPhyle’s announcements delivered to their Crop. Of course, as we are actually broadcasting these missives over an FM channel, we have encountered a number of constraints that have affected how we produce the messages. For starters, improperly tuning the radios yields terrible static, and even on an optimal transmission the signal can be weak. We try to repeat each message over a limited time span, resulting in players leaping from their chairs, rushing to the radios, and trying to transcribe the glitchy messages, even recording them on their teams’ iPads to play back later. This speaks to our strategy of redundancy in the narrative, in which we are sure to convey important points numerous times across numerous mediums.
3) Digital Media: While we have limited in-game social media presence this year, we have continued to integrate narrative and gameplay moments through digital devices. Using a PirateBox, an offline file-sharing system, teams can covertly communicate with each other past while circumventing the Temporal Archivists. They use the technology for sharing hints and uploading media relevant to gameplay exercises, and we have used it to covertly distribute surveillance footage and in-game documents so that the narrative is placed right into their hands. Moreover, hacking challenges during the third week saw the creation of a remote desktop for each Archivist, which players needed to compromise to find critical information. Designers populated each desktop with in-game and non-diegetic material to create the illusion that this was an actual person’s computer, complete with profile pictures, random applications, and favorite playlists. Such efforts took into account our latest reformulations of the narrative and directly tied into the gameplay and learning goals of the week.
With such an immensely talented design team - skilled in video and audio production, Photoshop and Illustrator, and random digital technologies – we’re able to consistently produce content from day to day, even as the game is going on, allowing varied media to pervade the game and still reflect all of the immediate developments. Moreover, players immediately connect to these transmedia elements and see the infinite possibilities for creating games and narratives in alternate reality games. These experiments will be especially helpful for them as they transition to producing their own games in the next two weeks of the program.