ARGs and the Ending That Wasn’t

The best stories rarely make it into the final draft of a book. I’m convinced of this.

In the First Edition, I wrote what I thought would be the epilogue. It was the story of  Richard Garriott’s mother as she spearheaded the creation of the Leonardo’s Children Museum in Enid, Oklahoma. This wasn’t just any museum project. Helen Garriott wasn’t raising money or advocating the city government. Nope. She helped design the museum, helped get it built, and then she helped gathervolunteers to assemble the structure.

The guy who helped build massively multiplayer virtual worlds was raised by an astronaut and a woman who helps a town create and assemble an interactive children’s museum.

It was, I believed, the perfect end to the story of virtual worlds and communities. It brought together the beginning strands of Richard’s life in a way that illustrated our larger theme.

At least until we read the chapter in the context of the book. Then we realized that structurally it was completely disconnected from our narrative, and thus ended up on the cutting room floor.

Oops, I Did It Again

I’d like to tell you that I learned from this misstep in the Second Edition, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. As John and I talked through how the story should progress, I found myself returning to the idea of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) as the next evolutionary step in massively multiplayer online worlds. For years I’d argued this was the logical end to the book.

Even as I just wrote that last paragraph, my stomach ached. I was convinced that these transmedia stories would play an important role in the future of computer games.

I wrote about EA’s Majestic, Microsoft’s The Beast, and Mind Candy’s Perplex City. We talked to dozens of ARG developers and creators, and eventually wrote about 5,000 words that wrapped up the book in an interesting way.

Well, interesting in that it neither wrapped up the book, nor was connected to our narrative in any discernible way. While I’d been pretty stoked about the novel way we’d approached our ending, it just didn’t fit the historical narrative.

Once again, we found ourselves abandoning our ending and heading in another direction. This time, we came up with an ending that is solid (and our readers have agreed so far). We’re happy with it, and it ends the story the way the story should be ended.

Still, I wanted to share the last few graphs of what the book almost said.

* * *

The last graphs of the unpublished Chapter 32: The Alternate Reality

Alternate Reality Games have yet to find a consistent mainstream foothold in the computer game industry. There is still no ARG equivalent to Ultima Online, World of Warcraft, or Star Wars: Galaxies. What has taken hold is the idea of transmedia storytelling, a word that surely raises the ire of those involved in the computer game industry. Transmedia storytelling, a term popularized by Dr. Henry Jenkins in his book Convergence Culture, examined the ways in traditional media outlets — television production companies, film studios, and book publishers — have started leveraging story worlds (e.g. Star Wars) into properties that stretch between the television screen, the movie theater, and the bookstore in order to keep audiences engaged (and purchasing) with particular stories.

While there is a massive groundswell of transmedia story world development in the film, television, book publishing, advertising, and marketing industries, these story worlds haven’t taken off: computer game communities. The economics of constantly creating new theater and the community engagement over an extended period of time have proven difficult hurdles to leap over.

Still, these interactive worlds are now closer to the early days of Dungeons & Dragons than any computer game, and they are being played and created by a whole new kind of developer. Many of these folks are writers who may have grown up playing computer games, but just as likely grew up reading Choose Your Own Adventure books and writing their own stories.  And just like Garriott and so many other game designers who came of age during the nascent time of Dungeons & Dragons and computer gaming, this new crop of story world creators is likely to push the bounds of storytelling, gaming, and virtual communities into a place about which we are only now starting to dream.

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This newsletter is the outgrowth of The Downtown Writers Jam podcast. What that means is I will collect information about the authors I interview, book happenings around the Web, and other literary events that I find interesting. Without you, I'm just a crazy guy sitting in his office furiously screaming on the page for no reason.
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