Convergence: Down the Rabbit Hole with “The Beast”

This is the first in a series of articles aimed at answering the question "what is the transmedia?" through an exploration of its milestones. Stay tuned for more and join us for tonight's Convergence event "StoryForum: Guidestones & Sleep No More" at 7:00pm in the Film Center Amphitheater. Looking for a hub for information about transmedia and Film Society's Convergence program? Check out our Convergence Facebook page!

We’ve been talking a lot about transmedia at Film Society. Sometimes it seems as if the whole entertainment industry is buzzing about it. Major studios use it to promote summer blockbusters, television networks use it to deepen the worlds of their shows, and record labels and video game publishers employ multi-platform storytelling to engage their audiences beyond the reach of albums or first-person shooters. Every day independent creators—filmmakers, designers, photographers, writers—are redefining how we experience stories, using an ever-evolving set of narrative tools.

Yet for all of the broad discussions about transmedia that are taking place, a widely accepted definition of what it is exactly remains elusive. There are general definitions (such as "transmedia involves telling a single story over multiple platforms"), but go deeper and conversation can veer wildly off course. At a recent Film Society Convergence event I made the rounds, asking attendees to define "transmedia." The only commonality of these definitions was the rolling of eyes that preceded each answer.  It is a question that inspires intense debate within the community of creators and frankly one of the reasons Film Society created the Convergence program—to draw the community together and engage in constructive dialogue and, perhaps, craft a common vocabulary.

Engage fans or producers in a discussion of what transmedia is and inevitably things turn to a dissection of past projects. It’s because of that we’ve decided to show rather then tell, to explain what transmedia is by providing the uninitiated with examples of immersive storytelling from the past and the present. Consider this an introduction, intended to give the curious a starting point from which to begin their own exploration of this emerging art form or, in the parlance of a transmedia producer, a rabbit hole (but more on that later).

The New Reality
In 2001 a group of game designers working on the video game adaptation of Steven Spielberg's upcoming film A.I. conceived a project that would invite audiences to explore the world of the film in a completely original way. It would use the power of the internet to deliver text, video, and sounds all "native" to the world of A.I. in the form of puzzles. This project, named The Beast by its creators, was the first attempt to create an alternate reality game in connection with a major Hollywood film.

An alternate reality game invites its audience to become players and uses multiple media platforms—websites, phone messages, even in some cases real world artifacts placed by organizers—to tell a story. Unlike a film that has a clear beginning, middle, and end, narrative in an alternate reality game (or ARG) is not locked in a specific order, but rather pieced together as elements of the story are uncovered. Collaboration is key in an ARG, with hundreds if not thousands of players working together to decode puzzles and move the story along. Collaboration is important in another sense as well, as ARGs often involve active interchange between players and puppet masters with game designers directly engaging players via in-game characters. This brings us to one of the most important rules of ARGs, one that was given to us by The Beast, the concept that "this is not a game." Characters in an ARG will never acknowledge that their world is fiction, nor will they simply parrot a script. They are controlled by living human beings and presented as real people that react to player input just like any normal person would. Stories told in this fashion occur in real time, only adding to the feeling that the events unfolding are really happening.

The starting point (the rabbit hole or trail head) for The Beast involved a single credit that appeared on A.I. posters and in trailers for the film for a "sentient machine therapist." Before too long, the strange title was investigated by curious fans who discovered a phone number for the therapist's practice. Dialing the number, a player would hear a voice mail message explaining that the doctor was unavailable as she had to take some time away from work to deal with the death of a close family friend. The message gave just enough information to send the curious digging deeper, searching for more information about the accident that was looking more and more like premeditated murder. Through websites for fictional political groups, emails from in-film corporations, and phone conversations with characters, the project’s creators immersed audiences in a complex game that blurred the line between real life and fiction.


Official Trailer for 2001’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Note the credit roll at the end, the sparkling text highlighting the “sentient machine therapist.”

A group of players called the Cloudmakers pulled their resources to solve The Beast’s puzzles and discuss the game as new details came to light. Swelling at its peak to number thousands of players, each member of the group brought with him or her knowledge that, when taken together, provided a nearly limitless pool of experience. From morse code to html to skillsets even more arcane, solving The Beast required players to work together if they had any hope of getting to the bottom of the mystery. But more than just an aggregation of knowledge, the Cloudmakers and other player groups like them became a community, a group drawn together by the challenge of the game but also invested in fully experiencing its storyworld.

While it may not be the first transmedia experience, The Beast represents a watershed moment in terms of its scale and reach. By the time it concluded the game had been experienced on some level by over 3 million players at thousands of touchpoints that included live events, countless websites, emails, and blog posts. The Beast opened the door to a whole new way of telling stories where the audience was asked to actively engage the narrative and each other. Along the way, the puppet masters responsible for the game established a set of rules that would help to define ARGs and, by extension, transmedia as an art form for and by the digital generation.

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