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Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Beast (arg) or, She Varies The Scarf According To The Seasons

Greetings T B-T readership,

I sat Wigmore B in front of The Beast and she failed. To be fair to her, this was almost inevitable. The game is ten years old and so complex in its design that it is little wonder that some portions of it have fallen derelict and  certain links are dead. In fact, the game wouldn't exist at all now if it wasn't for The Cloudmakers community, who archived and mirrored most of the website crumb trail so that, armed with Adrian Hon's chatty and moderately gadzooksy Beast Guide, you can kinda, sorta, piece together the narrative, follow the websites that still exists, and grasp the idea of the experience of a decade ago.

Do you want to try playing The Beast now? The rabbit hole is in this trailer. Imagine yourself 10 years ago, popcorn sweaty and alert.
 Find the strange thing, follow it through.

It was also fairly unreasonable to expect her to piece together a series of puzzles that required round the clock  sleuthing fuelled by an entire community of about 400 players. And ask her to do it before tea. Adrian Hon's guide to the game unfolds in a sort-of real time, acting as a kind of week-by-week summary of the puzzles solved and narrative points uncovered and is crammed full of weird digressions, conspiracy theories, and rather charming grumpiness.
This idiosyncratic commentary is much more interesting than clicking through a dead game. Which is a little frustrating when experience is what you crave. As any gamer knows, XP points are how you level up, become better, stronger faster. Nothing's as dull as watching someone elses screen as they save the princess, the planet, the cookies or whatever. I got a comment in my last post from aliceemma who alerted me to the work of performance professor Heike Johns:

"And also, maybe for Transmediums, like old Roms (she actually looks like that, but adapts the weight of scarf to the seasons), recording is about retaining a record that IT happened, rather than WHAT happened, and the experience of reading/writing rather than what was written?"
-- aliceemma 

Ah academia, is there any fuck drier? Though clearly some of us know how to accessorise. That said, we're a decade too late, the chubby kid looking through the window.

In that spirit, I was delighted to find this article by Jay Bushman, one of the original Cloudmakers, entitled Cloudmaker Days, which details his experience of playing The Beast and joining the communitiy of Cloudmakers back in 2001. These experience appear include but not be limited to:

The development of a hive mind
 There were the crypto experts, who could crack ciphers before the rest of us finished reading them.

There were the masters of speculation, who would extrapolate minor clues into grand theories of the master narrative. There were the provocateurs, those who could be counted on to provoke fierce arguments while staying just inside the lines of acceptable behavior to avoid being banned. And behind it all were the beleaguered Mods, fighting a constant battle to keep the whole unwieldy contraption from 
falling apart."
-- Bushman, from Cloudmaker Days

Vociferous flame wars with rival community Spherewatch, and a tendency among certain players to witheringly dismiss any latecomers to the game, or those those who provided obselete and commonly-known information, leading to the instigation of the Trout policy.

- Thrilling cross-country meetups in LA, New York and Chicago where players were tested by the game's puppetmasters, and intimate face-to-face relationships were formed.

The key line in Bushman's article for me is a quote from Elan Lee, one of The Beast's puppetmasters/writers: 
“one way to measure an ARG’s success is the number of wedding invitations he received from people who met through the game.” (including Adrian's brother, Dan Hon, if his Ted xTransmedia talk is to be believed.). This was a Transmedia experience that infiltrated people's lives in an immersive and incredibly exciting way. It changed people's paths, their way of looking at the world. 

That's all very well. However:

"So now you find yourself at the end of the game, waking up as if from a long sleep. Your marriage or relationship may be in tatters. Your job may be on the brink of the void, or gone completely. You may have lost a scholarship, or lost or gained too many pounds. You slowly wake up to discover that you have missed the early spring unfolding into late summer. You wake up to find you have been drowning. You wake up." 
- Andrea Phillips "Deep Water", 26th July 2001 

So it is with human passion, even passion for storytelling. For three months, the members of this small community had their lives subsumed by a narrative world. Behaviours were intense. One of the Cloudmaker moderators and now Transmedia writin' Big Cheese, Andrea Phillips wrote Deep Water, an interesting, but perhaps a little intense article (it was written just after the game ended) about the addictive nature of working, reading and solving a storyworld:

"I would ask the PuppetMasters to take my words into account if and when they embark on the hinted-at heir to our story. Please, if it is possible, design the game in a way that does not need to consume the very lives of the audience. But if we are truthful with ourselves, we all would know the Puppet Masters are not to blame for giving us what we want. I know that I will more likely than not be just as passionately embracing the new story as I did the first. I can expect no different from anyone else."

This is obviously an extreme, the worst, the nightmare. Its final, resigned tone chills me a little. Is that what I want from the Rebecca Wigmore Multiplatform Thrill-Ride Transmedia Poppin' Story Narrative The Like Of Which You've Never Seen? Such intense attachments can make you want to run away and hide in Middlemarch. 

Transmedia allows dynamic interaction between author(s) and audience, it's a living thing, a beast. This Beast's audience was literate, ultra smart and creative. It's no coincidence that former Cloudmakers Jay Bushman, Adrian and Dan Hon and Andrea Phillips are all now incredibly successful transmedia producers and writers themselves. This isn't some bullshit Exquisite Corpse 2.0 , it can become a dynamic creative collaboration, with all the glorious human potential for co-operation, community building, problem solving and kindness and all the abject shittiness, pettiness and bullying we've become quite famous for as a species. I've wiled away a million hours marvelling at Jane McGonigal's lovely pale hair and advanced theories on the potentialities locked in gamers, that they possess the complex problem solving and cooperative skills needed to tackle some of the world's geniune social problems. It's such a generous, deeply inspiring talk and she wears such an attractive dress that I'm embedding it here. You should watch it.

Jane McGonigal: Gaming Can Save The World

Additionally, although I'm unsure of what she'll be wearing and whether or not it will reflect the New Austerity trend re: hemlines and beyond, Andrea Phillips is presenting what looks to be a fascinating talk at SXSW called Hoax Or Transmedia? It's all about the ethics of pervasive narrative, at where writers/producers draw the lines of reality. I would kill a dog right in front of you to go to South By South West. If The Beast teaches you nothing else, it's the power of a commited community focused on common goals.

I am in desperate need of a community. 
Nobody needs to get married, not yet.
Nobody needs to solve a murder, not yet.
For now, I just want to talk.


alice emma said...

Yeah, so i'm not gonna comment if you liken what i say to dry fucking.

Becky said...

But your comments are the sweet, sweet lube of my academic dialogue!