Materials from Campfire's alternate reality game "The Maester's Path." Photo via winteriscoming.net.
A collaboration between Film Society's Convergence program and StoryCode, our ongoing series of StoryForums have provided monthly gatherings for fans and creators to discuss the art of immersive storytelling. One such meeting earlier this year promised to explore some of the most compelling and equally vexing questions related to creating successful transmedia experiences—a presentation from transmedia creator Steve Coulson covering his work on promoting the first season of HBO’s award winning Game of Thrones series.
Unfortunately I can't tell you much about it.
The Magician's Code, that most scared of agreements between practitioners of stage magic, was invoked not more then three minutes after the event began by Coulson (formerly known in London’s magic circles as Scaramouch), effectively forbidding the capacity crowd from talking, typing, or tweeting about anything discussed. The code is strict: never share the secrets of how a trick is done with non-magicians, no matter how tempting. You will understand, then, why I must tread lightly, lest I call down the vengeance of legions of card-wielding, flash powder-armed illusionists.
Coulson is the creative director of Campfire and the leader of the merry band responsible for the company’s successful Game of Thrones campaign. Campfire has become an industry leader by using immersive storytelling to engage audiences on behalf of clients that include Discovery Networks, Harley Davidson, and Snapple. The company prides itself on creating campaigns that engage audiences—be they long-time fans of a work, product, or world, or just discovering one for the first time—through creating unique storytelling experiences. As many of us have heard ad man Don Draper intone, advertising (and by extension marketing) is about telling stories. Companies like Campfire are doing just that, but not to shill for soap, cigarettes, or lawnmowers... they are in the business of building worlds.
The challenge when dealing with a product like Game of Thrones is two-fold. On one level, a transmedia producer has an enormous responsibility to a global community of millions of fans that have been reading Martin’s books for nearly a decade and a half. They have read and re-read every word and they have waited with frenzied anticipation for each new volume in the series. Martin may have created the world they love reading about, but the fans have made it their own. How, then, do you create an experience capable of living up to undoubtedly high expectations?
On the other side, HBO is not in the business of fan service. While they want every Song of Ice and Fire fan to tune in, that alone does not make for a successful series. They also have to introduce the universe of Game of Thrones (a place full of rich political intrigue, varied cultures, and deeply rooted in a vast mythical history) to people who have never touched one of Martin’s books. These goals appear to be at cross-purposes. To serve the superfan you risk alienating the newbie and to excite the casual viewer you potentially bore those who live and breathe the intrigues of the Seven Kingdoms. Coulson's team had the added challenge of doing all of this without creating new characters or narratives that added to the published canon. How do you build an immersive experience without creating a new character, without crafting your own original story?
Game of Thrones food truck featuring adapted recipes by Chef Tom Colicchio. Photo via winteriscoming.net.
The answer to that question lay in the world of Westeros itself. Martin’s fantasy realm is a rich place of horse lords and merchant princes, of dragons and dire wolves. It is a place described in intricate detail over the course of seven books and thousands of pages, making this mythical space a character of its own. Instead of telling a story set in this world, Coulson and company decoded tell the story of the world itself. They used the prolific descriptions of Westeros provided in the novels to inspire sensory experiences—sight, smell, sound, taste and touch—to turn passive audiences into something altogether different: tourists.
Take a moment to consider the building blocks of memory; I have a photo on my desk of a few friends on the beach near the Santa Monica pier. When I look at that picture I don’t just recall that frozen moment in time. I smell the salt air, I hear the pounding surf, I feel the sand under my feet, and I swear I can taste the corn dogs waiting just a few feet away in a vendor’s pushcart. Recent research indicates that long term memory is not "recalled" like video playback, but rather reconstructed through the mind’s use of multiple points of reference. In this way, memory may be best viewed as a collaborative effort between all of our active senses. By activating the senses as storytelling tools, Campfire allowed fans (both "super" and otherwise) multiple ways to experience Westeros without treading on the text. Giving audiences the chance to touch, taste, and hear the places and peoples of Game of Thrones empowered them to fill in the gaps, to create their own stories based on the artifacts created by Campfire through the clever use of inference. What does it say about the northern stronghold of Winterfell that it is defined by the smells of stone, pepper, and pine? Or how about King’s Landing, capital of the Seven Kingdoms, a place that smells of parchment and leather? Those smells summon images of rooms stacked with books and scrolls, contracts and deeds—the trappings of a vast medieval bureaucracy. You can suddenly hear the scratch of quills and hushed whispers of plotting nobles as they make their way through the Red Keep.
While Coulson could not provide numbers to indicate the scale of the success achieved by the campaign, the proof is in the pudding (or the head-cheese, one of the Westeros-inspired dishes brought to tantalizing life by celebrity chef Tom Colicchio for a fleet of Campfire-built Game of Thrones food trucks). Artifacts abound in the form of Youtube videos, campaign-related tweets, Facebook comments, and an active comprehensive alternate reality game "The Maester’s Path," and blog posts that ring with popular approval. Beyond the elements created by Campfire there are other measures for success: a second season pick-up, a pile of shiny awards for season one, and an active—no that might not be the right word... how about rabid?—fanbase that makes Game of Thrones one of the most talked-about programs on cable.
Chef Tom Colicchio on adapting recipes from Game of Thrones for the Campfire food trucks:
Join us tonight at 7:00pm in the Film Center Amphitheater for our next StoryForum: co-founder Lisa Rutherford discusses active application book-publishing project Coliloquy.