Perplex City

ACG Unabridged: Adrian Hon

This week's ACG Unabridges brings you Adrian Hon of Six to Start, straight shooter and one of the geniuses behind the smash hit health game Zombies, Run! Adrian and I go way back; we were Cloudmakers together, and later he was my team lead on Perplex City. He never fails to astonish me with his scope of vision and ambition. He's a terse one, so most of his juicy stuff made it into the Guide proper.

Interesting to see what he had to say about Zombies before it came out...

Q: Can you tell me a little about your favorite projects? 

From a player's perspective, the best game I've played was The Beast - it had an intoxicating mix of fiction and real world gameplay, and it was truly cutting edge. As for the projects I've worked on, there are probably three key ones (four, if you include Perplex City, but I assume you're talking about that elsewhere!). 

We Tell Stories (2008) was a project we did for Penguin Books who wanted us to work with seven of their top authors to create stories that could only be told online. It was a fantastic opportunity because they gave us so much freedom, so we created a story told over Google Maps (The 21 Steps), a story written in real time by two people (Your Place And Mine), and a new kind of Choose Your Own Adventure story (The Former General). It was a critical and popular success, and I think that was down to the simplicity and the strength of the stories, and crucially, the fact that people could begin them with just a single click and zero instructions. Not only did it win Most Innovative Website at SXSW, but also Best of Show. 

Smokescreen (2009) was for Channel 4 Education, and was essentially a single-player ARG that took over your browser. The goal of the project was to educate teenagers about online safety, and we did that through a 13 part story. We really pushed the boundaries of what was possible with in-browser technology, and I think we succeeded in telling a really immersive story that could be played at your own pace at any time. The downside, however, was that it had little community feeling or multiplayer interaction. Smokescreen won Best Game at SXSW in 2010. 

Zombies, Run! (2011) is an original game we're creating for the iPhone and Android with Naomi Alderman. It's still in development right now, but it's self-funded (along with Kickstarter pledges) and we're aiming to tell a highly immersive audio story while you're out running in the real world - and we're also planning to integrate an ARG into the fabric of the game. What's great about this project is that we're able explore the full range of possibilities of what smartphone can do in terms of location-based and augmented reality storytelling; but the challenge is, as ever, making the game fun and accessible rather than gimmicky. 

 This is bonus material from A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, out on June 22 -- just six weeks away. Preorder your copy today! And once you do... why don't you get it signed in advance?

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Transmedia Talk

I was absolutely delighted to be a guest on Transmedia Talk a couple of nights ago, and now the podcast is up! Go listen to the podcast, if you're... you know... into that kind of thing.

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A New Leaf

The old PXC story team have been talking about old times lately -- how much we loved working together, and how much we loved our players. So we decided to write a little unofficial Perplex City fanfiction as our gift for the Restitution of the Cube. We hope you enjoy it!

Hello there! You remember me, right? Of course you do! We were great friends once, a long time ago, and we had a lot of amazing adventures together. —My name is Scarlett. Surely you haven’t forgotten me? Or us?

No, of course you haven’t. But you’re probably surprised to hear from me, after all this time. I must say, it’s a little surprising to be writing this! It brings back a lot of old memories, and not all of them so very pleasant, either.

But I have some news I needed to share with all of the people most important to me, and I know it’s been a long time, but trust me when I say you’ve been among the most important of anyone. So of course I had to find a way to tell you!

But first a bit of catching up —

I completely abandoned the idea of becoming a journalist not long after… certain events, around the last time we were in touch. You’ll understand me when I say my appetite for uncovering dark, dangerous secrets has entirely vanished, won’t you? And you won’t think the less of me for it, I should hope.

Instead, I’ve been working on a project with the Beauty Alliance. Randal Tokei is a visionary, you haven’t the foggiest what it’s like to be around him. Just standing near him makes me sharper than a week of Ceretin, I swear it’s the absolute truth!

We’re building an amazing collection of polymer balloons hovering over the ruins of Anjsbourg. They’re a war memorial, of a sort. Each balloon contains a letter to a person in Anjsbourg when the city… fell. We’re matching each person with a counterpart in Perplex City today, as best we can — children to children, bakers to bakers, and so on. Each Perplexian has written a personal apology to Anjsbourg, which we send skyward. The balloons are engineered to stay a few thousand feet in the air, no matter the weather, and at night they glow in soft colors and look a bit like ghosts.

It’s beautiful and sad and eerie, and it’s naturally made me do quite a lot of thinking about the nature of wrongdoing and forgiveness. All of those apologies floating in the clouds won’t change the past, but they can be a reminder to the future about the dark places we end up when fear and anger short-circuit our better instincts. And so I’ve found a place for forgiveness, finally, after all this time.

—It took me all this time, mind! For a long time I looked for solace and even another family entirely, which is how I met my brilliant Rory. You won’t know Rory, though, will you? He’s just finishing up his second round of Academy work — a sweeping psychosocial analysis of the collective guilt of Perplexians for war abominations long past, and how it’s shaped our self-image as a culture.

It’s… controversial, to say the least, and he’s receiving death threats already. It’s almost like old times.

Anyway, the thing is… he’s Rory Earlywine, and yes he’s the son of that Nathan Earlywine, so as you’ve already guessed, my father isn’t particularly pleased with me. But Nathan himself has proven to be the most darling, welcoming man over the last few years, when I really just needed warmth and support and… well, to be completely honest, some distance from my blood relatives.

And Rory has been just exactly what I needed. He knows when to leave me alone and when to say something sweet, and he has a way of making me laugh like and making the world brighter, instead of the dark place it had become for me. So when he asked me to marry him, of course I said yes. And then I thought you might like to know how I seem to be getting a happy ending after all.

Actually, Rory is why I’m able to get this message to you, he called in a favour through his father’s office. While I was at it, there are a few others you might want to hear from.

Look at me, talking about everything but the point! Rory is big news, of course, but to tell the truth, I wanted to write and tell you about me and Violet. We’re finally OK, and I thought you deserved to know.

She’s been in the habit of sending me a gift every few weeks, all this time — sneak previews of the latest Joya/Alejo duet, or baskets of strange, fuzzy Xia-Hifan fruits, or a pair of crystal earrings with live flowers embedded in them, created with the new technology from Viendenbourg — that kind of thing. Penance, I thought, and I gave all of these blood gifts to other people so I wouldn’t have to look at them, or worse, think about them.

But then I spent all of this time in Anjsbourg. I was often there entirely on my own, and of course I spent a long time thinking about everything that happened, and especially about her. I kept turning over what she did and what she might’ve done differently, like it was a maze I might find a shorter path through if only I tried hard enough. But I never did.

I came back to Perplex City to spend the Academy Break with Rory. I heard Violet was back in town too when Garnet said he’d spoken to her.  And then when she sent me an invitation to a private viewing of the newly redone games gallery at Deep Blue… well, I decided it was time to stop avoiding her.

She was alone at the bar when I walked in, nursing a drink and sending out waves of don't-come-near-me. She’s changed in the last three years, you know. Or maybe she’d changed before, and I never noticed. She seems taller, somehow, and faint around the edges, like she isn’t completely here, like she’s lost an important part of herself.

Vi was startled to see me, but she recovered quickly. She crossed the room and took my hands into hers and kissed me on the cheek. ‘I’m so glad you made it,’ she said. And I could tell from the shimmer in her eyes that she didn’t just mean that about spending a few hours in a jazz club.

‘Me too,’ I said. And finally, finally, my chest loosened up and I hugged her. I felt like I’ve been trapped inside the Cube for years and only just now got out. I felt like I'd been sad and lost and lonely, but that I didn't have to be anymore.

Since then, Vi and I have been talking almost every day. I… well, I have a sister again.

Anyway, since all of this has been going on, of course I’ve been thinking a lot about you. And I just wanted to let you know that we’re all OK, over here. I miss you — I will always miss you, I think — but there are sunny skies ahead for me, and I hope for you, too. May you have a solemn and very joyful Restitution of the Cube.

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PXC & Me

I am positively delighted to say that I'll be talking about Perplex City at the next New York City Transmedia Meetup.

For reasons I'm sure I don't need to spell out, Perplex City is a bittersweet subject for me; for that reason, I haven't spoken about it much, except in private conversation. But I'm really looking forward to talking about the game now, with the benefit of some time and distance. I'll be sharing what we did wrong, what we did right, and what lessons I wish everyone would take away from it (but that hardly anybody has).

It's at 7pm on Nov. 30, at the Murmurco/BASIK offices -- the address is 1201 Broadway, Suite 704. I really hope to see you there. Please do say you'll come!

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The Case Against Chekhov's Gun

Chekhov's Gun is generally regarded as a brilliant principle for writing tight narrative. The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov wrote:

If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. 

He elaborates that if you don't plan to fire your firearm in a subsequent act, then it doesn't belong in your story, and you should remove it entirely. 

The widely accepted interpretation is that nothing should be present in your story unless it's serving some critical narrative purpose. Judicious application of Chekhov's Gun can rid your story of elements that aren't doing anything for you. 

It might well be you're better off without that methodical scene in which a character checks into her hotel room, takes a shower, and goes to sleep for the night. And it's true, if you leave too many loose ends floating around, your final scenes risk leaving the reader feeling dissatisifed.

Generally, the novels I enjoy most adhere (loosely) to the Chekhov's Gun principle. For single-media narratives, it's an important reminder to be aware of what work each scene, paragraph, sentence is performing to keep your story rolling along.

There are problems with Chekhov's Gun even in traditional media, though, particularly where it meets up with Occam's Razor. From time to time, I've found an author adhere so zealously to the gun principle that an entire story unravels into tired predictability.

If your story is so tightly wound that every element serves a single distinct function, the discerning reader can often deduce what that function is. Yawn. So the principle is always best used with a bit of caution.

In transmedia, though, you just might be better off forgetting you ever heard Chekhov's name.

Locate Your Exits

I learned long ago from Uncle Jim that everything in a novel should reveal character, advance plot, or support theme. This is much looser, and it's something I can very nearly agree with.

For transmedia,  I'd add one more item to Uncle Jim's list: Adding color to your world.

Part of the juggling act that is telling a transmedia story involves creating depth and richness. You need to signal that there are more and deeper stories going on in your world than the single narrative at hand -- your world has to seem bigger than your characters. That means introducing elements that provide color and flavor to your transmedia world, even if they won't be immediately relevant to the story you're telling.

But there's another reason to do this in transmedia, too. You need to build in escape routes and back doors, because you never know when you'll need to make a hasty exit. This is particularly the case if you're planning on telling an ongoing narrative.

I wrote two years of Perplex City Sentinels, and in the process left so many guns lying about that you'd think a war would break out by the end, so to speak. Nothing ever came of Crispy Heaven's health violations. We never went anywhere with 78-year-old puzzle design superstar Alan Willow, and the cracks in the Mobius Strip were, indeed, nothing but ordinary wear and tear, never to be spoken of again.


But for every throwaway piece of color we never touched again, there was another that we picked up onto our needles and knit into the fabric of the story weeks or months or years later, because suddenly it solved a problem we didn't see coming, or added a complication that made for a more interesting story. A mayoral election produced  a new political nemesis for Sente Kiteway. A recording mogul became the employer to a sociopathic killer. A name fabricated for a single quote became a double agent working for the police to undermine a secret society.

We never knew what we'd need next, but we knew we could look back on our established canon and be sure we'd find something that would help us out of our latest pickle. We did this so often that it became our team motto: Ita est tamquam haec consulto fecerim. It's like we did it on purpose.

Your takeaway: The multithreaded and sometimes reactive nature of transmedia means that you can't always go back and revise your first act to include a gun if it turns out, now that you're in the third act, that you really needed one. Sprinkle your story with guns, just in case.

This is true of both spiderweb and sequential transmedia. If you establish in the movie that Bob dropped his gun into the river, you can't have him pull it out of his pocket in the comic that immediately follows. It's a curious opposite to narrative structure in a single-medium story. In transmedia, if you don't leave yourself loose ends in case you need them later, the resulting overarching story might actually be weaker.

Continuity can be a real storykiller.

So what do you think? Should we abandon Chekhov and his philosophy on ballistics for transmedia, or can you make a case for keeping him around? Take it away, Machinites.


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