Experiencing Alternate Realities
Explaining what Eldritch Errors is presents challenges, both for those of us crafting the experience and for the participants involved in it. It is similar to a number of things: you can talk about how it is both like and unlike an alternate reality game, or how it is both like and unlike live action roleplaying games. Each of those labels works on some level for setting your expectations on the kinds of experiences you might have participating in Eldritch Errors, but they might also suggest things that aren't as true.
Describing what Eldritch Errors is should frankly be the job of the other site; I'm cheating if I have to do it here. However, there is no client whose ultimate needs must drive this production, so the intentions of what we hope to craft stem from the experiments that we want to explore, not from a marketing need. Eldritch Errors didn't appear from a vacuum; it is the continuation of past experiments that also shed a light on the kinds of experiences participants have already had ... and what you might expect from Eldritch Errors in the future.
Alternate Reality Productions
Production for the feature film Nothing So Strange began in late 1999; it finally started reaching an audience at festivals in January 2001 and we ended up self-releasing in 2003. Like many of the independent films I love, it isn't a perfect film, but it received warm critical praise instead of financial success. We used the phrase "documentary from an alternate reality" to describe the film, in great part to separate it from the excellent (but more comedic) work of Christopher Guest that gets labeled as mockumentary. People still call it a mockumentary anyway.
Long before the websites for Nothing So Strange served any promotional purpose, they were an intimate part of making the film during 2000. They were a repository of props and essays by performers. They were a meticulous assembly of conspiracy references by the producers. They were an immersive exchange between people who stumbled upon our bizarre experiment and those participating in it. Most of the performers in the film didn't even know what they were getting into, and our antagonist and victim are both public figures who didn't even get asked if they would like to participate.
So, for example, the cast might receive an email, telling them to show up at a certain place and time and hold a meeting where they draft a constitution and mission statement. When they arrived, Brian Flemming the director would already be setup and filming. During that experience, there is no cut or scene or script - the action is improvised, sometimes in ways that end up defining the most interesting moments of the film. The first rule was verite: it must be real. The cast was able to do this in part by keeping track of what was happening at the Citizens for Truth websites. Most of the participants weren't even professional actors, only a few experienced cast members were scattered through the mix. Flemming liked to pride himself on the fact you couldn't pick the professionals out from the non-professionals by their performances. He was on to something.
It was a natural extension to then take those people and drop them into real situations that are far more public, while also having some actors (like David James and Laurie Pike) act as much as producers as actors in the classic film production sense. There was a lot of inspiration drawn from Medium Cool by Haskell Wexler (including shooting at the Democratic National Convention among protestors 32 years after Wexler shot at another DNC in a different city.) The mixing of the fictive and the real, and their reactions to each other, was at the heart of both films. Sometimes the real even called me and asked me to make my fiction less realistic!
Even if we had never encountered alternate reality gaming, what we're doing with Eldritch Errors would have still been the next phase of that same experiment in Nothing So Strange. Now many of you are among that cast, and the experiences that people have in Eldritch as protagonists greatly resembles the way Flemming engineered the experiences of the cast in an unconventional film production dedicated to verite. Welcome to the new experiment.
Are You Experienced?
In 2002, Sean C. Stacey coined a little phrase, alternate reality game, to describe a grassroots game called Lockjaw, created by the players-turned-developers from a game (The Beast) for Spielberg's movie A.I. in the summer of 2001. Brooke Thompson should really tell you more about that period of time, since she was one of the developers of Lockjaw. I didn't really pay more than passing attention to that particular development (and the wonderful world of Unfiction and ARGN) until 2004 when a project we were running for Sharp Electronics started getting called an ARG by some of the participants. I remember those early conversations with Michael Monello, one of the producers of The Blair Witch Project and another of the developers of Legend of the Sacred Urns. The ARG community had come to many of the same conclusions that we had about what was fun, but had invented a new lexicon to try describe it that was confusing to outsiders.
It wasn't until the same core team (part of which would go on to become Campfire NYC) worked together again for Audi that some of ideas expressed by the ARG community were part of the design concepts, and The Art of the Heist could thus be called "our first alternate reality game" in 2005 (at the least, it was the first that was intended to meet those expectations.) GMD Studios did one more classical ARG in 2006 with, in fact, the aforementioned Brooke Thompson. There are some things about the ARG metaphor that are fascinating after drinking deeply from that well (earning all of three sentences in Wikipedia history of ARGing.)
The most interesting of those ARGish perspectives is the gamic design principles of agency, and the subtle difference that creates in design when it replaces the broader category of interactivity. It isn't enough to let the audience wade into the story, they must be left with the feeling it wouldn't haven't happened if they hadn't waded into it. That intersection between game and narrative has always been one of my biggest fascinations, as I was technically a game developer before I was a web artist or online brand builder. We were big in Europe in the 1990s, natch!
I'll leave it to others to debate whether Eldritch Errors is or isn't an alternate reality game; it probably is at least a chaotic fiction (a slightly broader umbrella term that includes ARGs also coined by Stacey.) Either phrase does a good enough job of setting up the expectations of participants, even if neither definition fully explains what we're experimenting with. If I had to pick a label, though, I'd call Eldritch Errors an "immersive narrative experience" and draw part of that definition from Nathan Shedroff's work in experience design, especially some of his work in 1995 while at vivid studios, because we're all at least slightly influenced by what we play:
"The most important concept to grasp is that all experiences are important and that we can learn from them whether they are traditional, physical, offline experiences or whether they are digital, online, or other technological experiences. In fact, we know a great deal about experiences and their creation through these other established disciplines that can-and must-be used to develop new solutions. Most technological experiences-including digital and, especially, online experiences-have paled in comparison to real-world experiences and have been relatively unsuccessful as a result. What these solutions require is for their developers to understand what makes a good experience first, and then to translate these principles, as well as possible, into the desired media without the technology dictating the form of the experience."
Experience design is broad, so putting "narrative" before it lets you know it isn't a work of truth like our community experiences for PBS Online, while tacking "immersive" at the beginning helps make it clear that this isn't just a mediated experience (media is a part of it, but not the totality of it.) It still doesn't quite convey that there is still a game in there too, but then it also doesn't convey we want to scare you and make you learn something about computer security as well. You have to unbundle those concepts by realizing what makes up an experience ... or by becoming experienced.