IF ... THEN ... OR ... ELSE ... HOLY CRAP!
Immersive experience designers make a big deal out of the fact their storylines and productions are dynamic or branching or adaptive to the audience's agency. In reality, that's frequently more lip-service than reality, with only minor details of an experience truly responsive to audience involvement. For Scream, we had a four part set of guiding principles:
- Whatever situation the protagonists find themselves in should feel like the one we intended, however complex the real planning is behind the scenes to make that happen.
- The diversion of storylines should be intense but brief, in terms of the overall length of the Book.
- Each of the potential divergent strands should feel equally exciting even if they are different.
- The Scream, a shared experience, is the climax, not the live event (which isn't a shared experience.)
It is a fair question if we met all three of those goals in the highly chaotic situation we found ourselves in. To give you glimpse into that, though, here's a chart of what our planning looked like for one chunk of a week -- a chain that starts with "Are investigators coming to WV?" and concludes with "Does the online audience try to negotiate for DC's release?" through four different primary story configurations (one with a further branch):
Knowing the answer to the first branch was part of why we pre-announced the dates of the experience, the second branch required getting a head count (without making it seem like any headcount choice would be wrong, it would just help push towards "splitting up"), and the third required Howard pushing to see how far the community had explored how they might bridge the communication gap. If you had asked me a week before the event, I would have told you I thought the answers were "Yes, yes and yes but limited" -- you were four miles from your cabin, outside of walkie talkie range. Once we got there, we discovered the answers were instead "Yes, no, yes" -- leading to #6C instead of #6A, #6B, or #6D (which the first answers led towards.)
If you look closely, you can even see the planning dilemna we found ourselves in ... we had a solution for "they aren't splitting up" ("Plot #6C") and we had a plot for "they don't have a communication channel" ("Plot #6D") which had an interesting #7A/B fork later. Imagine the crew already on the mountain, and Brooke and I gone nearly "all work and no play" in a deserted Shining-esque ski lodge a mountain over, debating which of those two would work the best even as we're unleashing the portions that those two plots have in common.
Brooke and I came closer to the blunt cooking knives in the ski condo than I like to think, as we were also operating under limited information, stress and surreal conditions. We even looked into driving up to walkie-talkie range of the mountain, but the real life fog made that too risky ... so again, like in many points of this chart, the "on the ground" action shifted into the "online experience" end.
Some coincidences worked out in our favor, but if you has asked me for my favorite plotline it might have been #6B (the one where Arthur walked up to the payphone and hung up the phone on the person leaving an update message received from walkie-talkie through an unexpected relay person halfway up the mountain provided by Forsythe before introducing himself.) That one only happened, though, in the case where some investigators had decided on their own that they didn't want to go camping (so that they had some excitement in Cass while also providing the communication relay.)