What’s Inside What?
You are standing in an open field, west of a white house with a boarded front door. One of the most famous first lines in video games, this sentence opens the seminal text adventure Zork.You’ll also come upon this intriguing declarative at the beginning of a brief text-based interlude in Exoriare, a new alternate reality game from Smoking Gun Studios. Released in early November, the game offers a setting bristling with conspiracies, alien artifacts, and weird science. Players explore the game world by solving ever-trickier puzzles, discovering other players, and exchanging information. Much of the play takes place in web browsers, but Smoking Gun has added a new wrinkle to the ARG formula: they’ve brought in Douglas Rushkoff, media theorist, teacher, and fiction author, to write a series of graphic novels establishing the setting of Exoriare.
In fact, you get to that Zork quotation and into the gameplay by clicking on a conspicuously flashing object found on a page of X: Rise Up, the first of Rushkoff’s Exoriare novels, a portion of which is now available on-line. (The print version will appear in early 2010.) The novel begins fifteen years ago, in Malta, where two American soldiers enter a ruin disturbed by an earthquake. Naturally, they encounter something monstrous in its depths. This novel and the ones to follow it will introduce players to the general themes and specific world of Exoriare, as well as provide clues and codes that will deliver in-game rewards, both in the current ARG and in an upcoming game for consoles and PC.
Collaborating in this way is new for Rushkoff, as is producing interactive media, whereas before he explained and interpreted them. The coordination of all of these moving, interlocking parts makes for hard work, but also compelling fodder for the theorist of both the media and conspiracies. What do those soldiers find in Malta? Is the answer in the game? Or in the book? “I don’t know what’s inside what!” says Rushkoff, and he must be careful, almost conspiratorial himself: “I don’t even know what I’m allowed to know or allowed to share.”
Nonetheless, he was able to let h+ in on Exoriare:
h+: How’d you come to work with Smoking Gun on Exoriare?
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: They were working on a giant video game world that had some of the same structural and mythological shapes and elements as a graphic novel series that I had done for Vertigo, called Testament.
Here was a company that was looking at trying to develop a game that had strategy, but also had story and a multiplicity of ways through it. At the same time they had created this kind of Bible of stuff, sort of like an Illuminatus! Trilogy of possible global history and aliens and evolutionary ancestors. I think they were hoping that I could help create some literary properties that would give people access to this. I mean, they had a world, this meta-idea of a world for their players to have battles in, but they hadn’t thought up any people to live in that world. So they needed an author to come in and say who lives there, They want to make, not just one, but a series of these big ol’ video games. These books would come out in a way that would preview or review or chronicle what’s happening in the big world.
h+: The graphic novel moves very quickly into far-out territory. Subterranean creatures, cryptic linguists, UFOs — all in the first twenty-five pages. What kind of world is this?
DR: This is that crazy shit that anyone like me has been thinking about since the beginning, since Jack Kirby, Chariot of the Gods, Man, Myth, and Magic, the Art Bell show, disinformation, the Illuminatus! Trilogy. These are the most fun things to think about, and they haven’t really been explored in pop culture since X Files.
I have to say at a certain level I don’t actually believe any of it. Although every once in a while I get tweaked enough or it’s late enough at night that I can say, “well maybe that one’s true.” I’m much more fascinated by why people believe stuff and what kind of things sparkle to the human imagination. So it’s like, oh a crop circle… that’s kind of fascinating. Whether we’re doing them or aliens are doing them, it’s equally interesting to me.
h+: If these themes have lain dormant for a while, what’s waking them up now?
DR: Usually, these things come around when there’s a highly frightening new technology. The first UFO stuff happened after we got the atomic bomb. We got some more of that when we went to space the first time. Then we got it again at the beginning of the Internet, with the X-Files. And now I think we’re getting it again, less because of 2012 than because of this whole notion of the Singularity. I think that people really do sense that machines are doing the majority of the thinking now.
I don’t know if 9/11 really affects people that way, but it did something. It’s just that all of these systems are breaking down. You know that money doesn’t work anymore… It really doesn’t. That’s weird for people.
h+: And that’s where the conspiracy theories come in?
DR: When systems break down, people start looking for alternate systems. I mean, there’s nothing people love more than being controlled, so, if the things that were actually controlling them cease to function, they’re going to create imaginary mechanisms of control, just to maintain that good feeling of being victimized. That’s when they’re going to start looking to conspiracies and all that again. On the other hand, there is that population of people who seize that opportunity to reclaim that control.
As money and artificially-enforced, centralized, value extraction disappears some people will feel capable of actually engaging in direct exchange, of being valued for what they create. There’s actually the possibility of new networks arising.
h+: You had your background with these ideas; Smoking Gun had their world. How do the two come together in the graphic novel? And how does the graphic novel then mesh with the game?
DR: The idea of a device that was either stolen or found on another planet or something, a device that reveals the UFOs flying in the sky — that’s what happened there — that was their idea. That’s one of the technologies that they have in their game that, in theory, your soldiers will go and discover when you do a mission.
So I say, “Okay, that’s kind of cool. What if I take that and make it the thing the two soldiers have found and create the back story for these two?” And then I think, “Well, what kind of soldiers would want to find it? How about these soldiers who’ve been on a twenty-year quest to find out what happened to their friend?”
h+: With so many authors and so much intellectual property, is the project contractually very complicated?
DR: They originally wanted to figure out whatever’s going to be the IP-sharing relationship, in terms of who owns what. And it seemed to me that I just want to use all the weird stuff that they’re coming up with, and I also want them to use all the stuff I’m coming up with. I want them to be able to take my characters from my books and stick them in the actual games, so people can play through characters I’ve invented. I was just like… fuck it, give me a piece of the company. They’re just treating me like an employee of the company who gets… whatever those people get, options or things like that.
h+: But then there’s the matter of weaving all of these ideas together…
DR: Every time they would change what gets revealed in the ARG or how it gets revealed or where exactly the Alternate Reality Game ends or the timeline of the overall ARG changes, that changes where in time my story happens.
I guess if I were doing this alone there would still be these problems. There just wouldn’t be arguments. There’d just be two different sets of note cards on the wall that don’t correspond.
h+: There’s been a lot of theorizing about the way narrative works in interactive media. Has your novel’s relationship to a game changed the way you approach writing?
These things come around when there’s a highly frightening new technology. The first UFO stuff happened after we got the atomic bomb.
DR: I’ve always felt a game is a game, a movie’s a movie, and a book’s a book, and never the twain shall meet, which is why if the embracing medium is not a work but a world, then you’re really free to do whatever you want with it. The Star Wars universe never ends up with this problem, because everyone knows what a movie is, and everyone accepts all these other things as ancillary to the movie, but also as other styles of interacting with that universe. You have the games and the comics; you can get the action figures; you can get so much; and it’s all part of it. Star Wars kind of started that in a weird way. Lightsaber merchandising!
h+: The story’s in the movie and the play’s in the toy lightsaber. But today’s video games are heavy on narrative.
DR: I read all of these books… Pause and Effect or First Person or what’s-his-name’s awful books on character and storytelling for games… or Marie Ryan, Narrative as Virtual Reality, or Hamlet on the Holodeck. All of these. And the more I read about it, the less I felt that there was a there there. This holy grail about somehow merging gameplay with narrative or story or passive media, it just doesn’t fly.
h+: How does your graphic novel interact with Smoking Gun’s interactive media, then?
DR: As I see it, the book brings you right up to the beginning of the game, so that at the end of the book, the player knows who he is, when he pops in the disk. It’s only establishing the world, through the lives of six or seven characters. It’s a much bigger world. I’ve tried to represent most of the main factions without killing everybody off, but you can kill your characters off and have other ones of a similar ilk or at least from the same part of the world come up. I’ve wanted to kill a bunch of characters, so that people know it’s not Lost where they keep coming back. They’re just gone. Somehow killing a lot of people in a comic book just feels high budget to me, like a luxury.
h+: Establishing a high fatality rate brings tension to the gameplay, too. What do you expect the gameplay to bring to your work?
DR: I’m thinking of other ways of chronicling the gaming experience of people, sort of live, in real-time. I’m going to write a couple of novels probably. I mean short novels, not Thomas Pynchon novels. Sci-fi novels based on the world of the game. I’m thinking about writing them as the first wave of players is moving through this universe. I’d write this novel in real-time and even let the characters that people are playing, characters that people come up with, show up inside the book. Then you get interesting IP, too. I mean, if your character comes up with a great way to kill some other thing or win some battle, and then I write about it as part of the IP of the game — whose IP is that? The way that some person played this game — is that now their property?
h+: Does this kind of writing even have a category? What is it?
DR: We’re going to see if they even want me to write books like this. I think it’s nonfiction! I don’t have to say that I’m reporting about a world that might be fictional; it’s still nonfiction reporting. It just happens to be in a fictional world.
h+: How do you think the players will take it?
DR: A lot of it has to do with the context with which someone’s doing something. When someone is playing a networked game as entertainment, then that’s the context they’re coming to it with. I don’t know if they have an expectation to be workers creating value, even though they are creating value for the collective experience just by playing it. I mean, in World of Warcraft, someone who’s a leader is definitely creating value for the newbies.
If there are squads in the game, I’d want to be playing the role of the embedded reporter!