Four Rules for Building an Alternate Reality Game (ARG)

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming GIFCON presentation speech on my Rats in the Walls project, which was a limited ARG that took place from March–May 2015. This part of the speech talks about the four guiding principles I used to structure the whole project.

kilroy rats walls tompkins invocation

What defines an ARG?

If you look at other ARGs, like the ones for the film The Dark Knight or the games Portal 2 and Halo 3, you’ll notice a couple uniting traits: these are multimedia stories, they allow audience participation, they pretend to take place in the real world, and they are actually essentially marketing campaigns.

Real-World Stories

“Real-world” means that ARGs have a lot in common with a hoax. A great example of an early alternate reality story is H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, where the world of the story and reality became indistinguishable and suspension of disbelief was achieved to the point that Wells managed to cause a national panic. ARGs are identical to everyday life, but there’s a divergence from reality where the story takes place. Conspiracies and espionage stories do well because they take advantage of a hidden dimension that seems real.

Utilizing Multimedia

“Multimedia” means that you’re not constrained to work on a page. Using Twitter as a platform meant I could incorporate videos, pictures, text, hashtags, and reach people online and on their phones. Much of the work I did was live performances, chalking circles, walking around with a sign, and handing out flyers. I also worked with a friend of mine to create a promotional video for the project.

Since the project was meant for the Twitter Fiction Festival, much of the “narrative” aspect had to be communicated in a way that matched the medium. To create the “events” of the purely fictional parts of the story, like trains being abducted or the communications between Kilroy and Bill Bratton, I had to create a number of fake Twitter accounts that reported on events as if they were real people reacting to developments happening around them.

Audience Participation

On the other side was audience participation. ”Audience participation” means that you’re allowing people to take part in the story’s development. This is where the ‘game’ aspect comes in with an “alternate reality game”—the audience become players attempting to guide the narrative. In this respect, DMs, hypertext authors, and game designers have a much better handle on creating these narrative structures than traditional authors: you have to learn to create contingencies and alternate outcomes and plotlines, so that players’ choices have significance. Other aspects include being able to manage players, keeping them interested, and stopping them from breaking the game.

Marketing as Storytelling

The “marketing” aspect is interesting. With an ARG, your story is your marketing, and you gain your audience by catching people’s interest. ARGs, when done right, are really a form of viral storytelling, which means being shared and talked about is as important as the story itself, because that’s how you get readers. Publicity from ANIMAL New York, the HP Lovecraft Historical Society, and photographers like Daniel Albanese helped gain exposure through news outlets, but ideally, you’d want to make your ARG as shareable as possible. Tapping into specific communities and targeting certain kinds of people online or in real-life is essential.

Four Rules for Building an Alternate Reality Game (ARG)

A Manifesto for Neo-Fantasy

When people ask what I write, I usually say “fantasy.” From there, people ask if it’s like Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, and I would go “Ehh, kind of.” I can name some of the books that influenced me, like Mountains of Madness or Wizard of Earthsea, but they aren’t good comparisons to what I write now. So I’m coining a new phrase: “neo-fantasy.”

I use the term “neo-fantasy” because nothing else seems to fit. The stories I’m writing are mythopoeic, but the label ‘high fantasy’ doesn’t work because these are the stories of individuals, not of empires, quests, or battles between good and evil. Dark themes like cannibalism, murder, and even outright horror appear in my writing, but don’t define it, like dark fantasy. Moral ambiguity and grittiness are often present, but my stories don’t rely heavily on them, like grimdark. Slipstream’s blending of science fiction, fantasy, and literary elements seems right, but the emphasis on cognitive dissonance and confrontations with reality doesn’t.

“Neo-fantasy,” as I see it, is a kind of hybrid between mythopoeic fantasy, literary fiction, and something like cyberpunk. These are some of the characteristics:

  1. Comprehensive worldbuilding. It is set in a secondary world with a fully developed history, cultures, magic, and setting. The realism, depth, and verisimilitude of each of these elements is especially important—the worldbuilding must be thorough and comprehensive.
  2. Magic is crucial. The use of magic is usually connected to the conflict of the story, and is often its solution. Magic is generally handled in a systematic, analytical way comparable to computer programming, but has a metaphysical dimension to it: magic usually represents a conduit to meaning, truth, or a greater reality. It is not reducible to a ‘science’, however.
  3. The conflicts in neo-fantasy always have a personal element. Emphasis is placed on internal struggles and an exploration of the characters.
  4. Neo-fantasy is essentially humanist. Humans are empowered to shape their lives and the world around them, and there are no limits to the power or understanding that humans may achieve. There are beings more powerful than humans, but they are either derived from humans or able to be surpassed.
  5. Neo-fantasy’s primary goal is to explore the sublime. ‘The sublime’ represents the extremes of wonder and terror within life. Reverence, awe, and despair are also key themes.

My short story The Crownless King is a good example of neo-fantasy: the story takes place in a world with a strong history and magic system, and the central conflict is whether the protagonist, the wizard Samal, will save his apprentice Iz or let the weight of his past crush him. They key themes of The Crownless King are despair, horror, and death, but against it all stands the small hope that the human spirit can survive.

The term “neo-fantasy” may never come into general usage, but that doesn’t matter to me as much as having a term that I can use to unite all of these thoughts under one umbrella and articulate them to people who haven’t read my work. Everyone wants to be part of something new, avant-garde, and fashionable, but the wars over genre and theory matter less than the stories themselves.

A Manifesto for Neo-Fantasy

Watch Me Moderate a Panel on Robots, AI, and Sci-Fi at Columbia University!

This was so much fun. The panel was titled “T-1000 to HAL 9000: How Realistic Are Hollywood’s Robots?”, and we got together NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, sci-fi writer Matt Kressel, Professor Peter Asaro, and Dan Abella, the director of the PKD Film Festival. The panel starts at 2:26:00 in the video (it should automatically start there).


Watch Me Moderate a Panel on Robots, AI, and Sci-Fi at Columbia University!

Writing Hypertext Fiction: The Dream-Eater

Since college, I’ve wanted to write a story using hypertext, partly because of Serial Experiments: Lain. The show weaves together a bunch of different references to conspiracy theories and cyberpunk elements, including references to Xanadu, the life-long work of Ted Nelson. Xanadu was one the first hypertext projects, and was meant to lay the groundwork for “a global community united by perfect information.” There’s a great article in Wired about it, which includes a profile and interview of Nelson. Here’s the clip from Lain:

Fittingly, there’s another fantastic article in Wired about why hypertext fiction is a defunct format. In short, it’s generally considered too difficult to write and too hard to read, all without bringing substantial advantages over traditional, linear fiction. Print versions of hypertext literature, like House of Leaves or Choose Your Own Adventure, are either messes or lacking in depth.

As I’ve said before, any kind of ergodic literature should be intuitive and feature a narrative that matches the format. That’s what I’m shooting for in this new story, which is about time and dopplegangers.

The story has a working title of “Dream-Eater.” It takes place in an underground city that’s divided into two caverns, which have opposite day and night schedules. The story begins with a narcomancer, a dream-mage, waking up and realizing that his sleep schedule has been broken and he’s been sleeping for the past 24 hours. To compound that, he can’t remember what parts of the previous day were real, and which parts were just his dreams. In that 24-hour period, though, someone that looks like him has been carrying on his routine: cleaning clothes, talking to his friends, etc. The story is about him trying to reconstruct what happened before he went to sleep and what his doppleganger did while he was sleeping. It’s also about his slipping grip on reality.

To chart out the flow of the story and divide it into nodes, I started writing notes:

IMG_1883 IMG_1884

The arrows on the left represent links to other nodes, which in this story lead to memories (which are fragmented and need to be pieced together), dreams, thoughts, or texts, like books or sheet music that don’t need to be included in the main text. The idea is to have the surface level of the story in the main nodes, but the deeper layers that reveal the truth, like thoughts and memories, hidden in a series of lower nodes that branch off the main narrative at strategic points. This way, the mystery isn’t just exploring the world and reality, it’s exploring the inner space of the protagonist.

Writing Hypertext Fiction: The Dream-Eater

Short Story Updates: “The Crownless King” and “Old No-Eyes”

Despite working my full-time job at Outer Places (which included an interview with P. Craig Russell, who’s scripting the new American Gods comic), I’ve been doing a lot of writing. I’ve got two stories on deck this month, one out for submission and one in the late stages of revision. At this point, I’m offering copies for people to read and let me know what they think. Here are the descriptions:

The Crownless King

When I took the draft of “The Crownless King” to a monthly Brooklyn Sci-Fi Writers workshop back in November, I was blown away by the feedback: people said it was “strange, eclectic”, “original,” “gruesome”, “fantastic,” and “fucking spectacular.” It was super encouraging, especially considering that I’d been working on the story for about seven months and eight drafts. You can read an excerpt and check out some of the sketches from the early draft, back in January 2016, here.

“The Crownless King” revolves around a wizard and his student holed up in a frozen tower buried under snow in the aftermath of the end of the world. While they’re preparing to head up to the surface, the wizard (named Samal) decides to teach his student (named Iz) a very old, dangerous piece of magic, which is ‘the crownless king’: the ability to remove one’s head.

People loved the lore and history woven into the story, as well as the parts dealing with self-surgery and magical flesh-work. It’s one of the first stories where I get to showcase my world’s take on wizards, magic, and ghosts. Here’s are some notes/sketches I did around the magic of ‘the crownless king’:


Old No-Eyes

This is another one I brought to the BSFW writing group, this time in December. “Old No-Eyes” came from a much bigger and more complicated story involving Yute, the subject of my post on psychopaths and madness, and the Nokizi, the book of necromancy and mathematics that I ended up writing especially for that story. I wanted to focus on those two elements, so I cut it all down and wrote a new story, which is “Old No-Eyes.”

“Old No-Eyes” deals with Yute, an eccentric, ruthless necromancer with a talent for mathematics, and his former, backstabbing colleague named Tenza, who needs Yute’s help decoding a bizarre occult book written by an anonymous madman who calls himself “Old No-Eyes,” who claims that the text will teach the road to immortality to anyone who can decode it.

I’ve been passing around this one since December, and again, the response has been overwhelmingly positive: despite being a psychopath, people love Yute and his twisted sense of humor. People also liked the way mathematics was worked into the story and the depth of the worldbuilding. It’s the first of my stories to dive into the world of necromancy and introduce Yute, who’s one of my favorite characters. Here’s a sketch my friend Joel Clapp made of him:

One of Joel Clapp's initial sketches of Yute, based on Charles Manson
One of Joel Clapp’s initial sketches of Yute, based on Charles Manson

Want to read A COPY?

If you’re interested in receiving a copy of these stories, I can send you a link to the private postings on Medium or a PDF via email. Shoot me a message at christophmahon [at] gmail [dot] com or hit me up on Twitter @DeadmanMu.

Short Story Updates: “The Crownless King” and “Old No-Eyes”

New Essay in Clarkesworld Magazine: “Frodo is Dead: Worldbuilding and The Science of Magic”

I’ve said this before: magic should not be science. Magic can be systematic and internally consistent, but it shouldn’t be reduced to a human tool, like astronomy or chemistry. A lot of writers and worldbuilders don’t seem to understand the difference–didn’t Arthur C. Clarke famously say that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic?”

But there is a difference. That’s what my new essay is about.

In this essay, titled “Frodo is Dead” I wanted to show how basing magic off of science, ration, and the Enlightenment philosophies that informed them inevitably leads to a breakdown of its fantasy world by turning it into a mirror of our world.

You can read the essay here on Clarkesworld!

New Essay in Clarkesworld Magazine: “Frodo is Dead: Worldbuilding and The Science of Magic”