In the summer of 1979 a man (though it could have been a woman, or even more probable a group of people working in concert) using the name R.C. Christian placed a strange order with the Elberton Granite Finishing Company. Seven slabs of granite were to be cut and arranged in a field in the southern reaches of Elberton County, Georgia. The completed structure would weigh an impressive 120 tons, stand nearly twenty feet tall, and be aligned with a series of specific astronomical features—the celestial pole, the path of the Sun, the exact moment of noontime throughout the year. As interesting as these physical attributes are, the more compelling mystery associated with this "American Stonehenge" is what has been carved into the face of the stones. Presented in eight languages are ten guiding principles for rebuilding civilization after the passing of the apocalypse.
The Georgia Guidestones are real. For some they are a public statement made by forces intent on ruling the world, for others they are little more than a roadside oddity. There are many questions that could be asked about this strange structure but one of the most compelling (at least to those concerned with transmedia) might be why it took so long for a transmedia producer to seize upon the Guidestones as the basis of an immersive experience. Enter writer, director, and producer Jay Ferguson.
Codes and puzzles provide the audience with multiple ways to interact and explore the world of Guidestones.
Ferguson, who took the stage at the May 22 Story Forum to present Guidestones, is an award winning filmmaker who turned to the web after years of working in more conventional formats. Ferguson and his partners knew that they wanted to produce a web series but research had shown them common mistakes often committed by the greenhorn web-based producer. First, the series had to be of the highest possible quality, both in terms of what was shot (the story) and how it was shot (production value). Second, they saw a terrible trend in web content: first episodes would explode onto the scene garnering amazing press hits and page views only to flat line within two or three episodes. There had to be a way to engage the audience in such a way that they wanted to come back. Third, they knew from the outset that web content is assumed to be free content so they had to create something that would also interest potential underwriters without betraying their story and turning the show into a glorified ad. Finally, their research indicated that the web-based audience wanted to interact with their media, to enter and explore the worlds presented in their fiction. With these points under consideration, Ferguson and his team set off on an odessy to create the show that would eventually take shape around those monoliths in north Georgia, an interactive web series aptly called Guidestones.
The plot revolves around Canadian classmates Sandy and Trevor,who, while working on a journalism project, discover an unsolved murder that may be linked to the Georgia Guidestones. The production value—achieved via expert hands with Canon's 7D SLR package and crisp, creative editing—is stellar, perhaps even setting a new bar for what viewers should expect from a high-end web series. Advertisers are always an interesting problem for web producers. Part of the issue is one of length; when you are only playing with five minutes in each episode every second of screen time is precious. Another concern is aesthetic and involves not being so obvious as to spend more time on your Nissan Versa beauty shots then on the characters riding in the car (riding and talking about the vehicle’s killer standard features…). Immersive work supported by payola can sometimes come off about as subtle as a board to the face, but once again the team behind Guidestones does an excellent job of finding natural points of entry for advertisers ranging from Major League Baseball to Canadian pizza chain Pizza Pizza.
These are all high points but what really sets the project apart are the ways in which the creators dealt with keeping their audience engaged and crafting a story with multiple touch points that allow the brave (and mildly obsessed) to interact with the world of the show. First, taking a cue from the film serials of old (a trope, Ferguson says, was inspired by a conversation with his father), each of the 3-5 minute episodes ends on a cliffhanger intended to leave the viewer wanting more. But what if said viewer, primed by a shocking revelation, simply cannot wait for the next episode? Well, there is no need to panic. Buried within each segment is a rabbit hole—names, websites, codes, and more—that invite the curious deeper into the Guidestones universe. When a name discovered in the first episode is entered into Google it yields a shocking news clip, providing a glimpse of things to come and allowing the Sandy and Trevor’s fictional world to overlap with our own.
There are a lot of elements present in Guidestones that make it appear to be an Alternate Reality Game in web-series clothing. The aforementioned rabbit holes, the capacity to visit the real locations in the story, seem at first blush to describe standard elements of the ARG genre. But to borrow a phrase from the ARG community, this is most certainly NOT a game. Ferguson acknowledges that the project has received kind attention from fans of ARGs but he notes that the supplemental content available is intended to enrich the overarching story. There is nothing to "win" and the stakes are the characters and theirs alone to contend with. Yet while you cannot send Sandy an email and warn her of some impending doom you can hit the web to research the same loose ends she and Trevor discover, diving deep into a world designed to actively engage as it entertains.
Another major difference between Guidestones and a typical alternate reality experience is one of time, or more aptly put, one of timing. ARG’s happen in real time and cannot be replayed; once the toothpaste is out of the tube it can’t be put back in. Guidestones on the other hand has pioneered a groundbreaking Push distribution system. A viewer watches the first episode on the show’s website. In order to see the next episode they enter their email address. That viewer has just begun their own unique Guidestones experience, and will receive episodes and supplemental immersive materials in pace with the project’s internal timeline. There is no playing catch up, no sense of having "missed" some critical window for entry. For those new to transmedia, this attempt to create an evergreen immersive storyworld may serve as a compelling entry point, a new way to literally experience entertainment.
The next event in our Convergence series is tonight's StoryCode Immersion "Transmedia Entrepreneurship with Lina Srivastava" at 7:00pm in the Film Center Amphitheater.