Gaming the Story | Insights from The Art of Immersion by Frank Rose

A ringing cake. Sure, it reads like a lost lyric from ?MacArthur Park? but it?s actually a key moment in the history of media, marketing and perhaps even marzipan.

As recounted by Wired Magazine contributing editor Frank Rose in his recently released tome, The Art of Immersion ? How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories, the cake was part of an alternative reality game qua marketing campaign to promote the last Batman flick The Dark Knight, featuring Heath Ledger as the Joker. How a Boston couple found themselves in a bakery asking for a package that contained the cake (and a phone number scrawled upon in icing) is too elaborate to relay, suffice it to say, they (and hundreds of thousands of other participants, online and elsewhere) were enthralled.

When the couple dialed the number, a mobile phone that was stashed inside the cake began to ring. Such was the fiendish genius of the game architects at Pasadena-based 42 Entertainment and precisely the kind of touch the Joker himself might employ. Instructions followed and the couple and several others who?d enjoyed similar interactions with the game eventually went on to a private teaser screening. Throughout, a legion of fans followed and aided the unlocking of various clues online, which drew them further into the narrative of not only the game but the Batman flick as well.

Participatory campaigns, though not yet par for the course, are frequently being baked in, as it were, to extend narrative experiences beyond our screens and into our daily lives. Throughout his book, Rose examines dozens of such immersive entertainments and makes a compelling case that the best way to enjoy a story is perhaps from within. The inadvertent Zen notwithstanding (mine not Rose?s), one way to reach an audience and have them truly internalize a story (and perhaps develop an addictive need to pony up for its various permutations) is to intrude it into their external reality. Or their toilet stall ? that?s what Nine Inch Nails brain trust Trent Reznor did to promote his mid-aughts album Year Zero. A USB drive containing information germane to a post-apocalyptic puzzle that expounded upon the album?s themes was left in a venue?s restroom during a live concert. A young woman discovered the drive and realized it contained an unreleased track, which she uploaded to the web where it went viral. Moreover, the metadata of the track itself was strewn with clues to Reznor?s cryptic vision.

At first blanch, the notion of tracking all the curios and red herrings embedded in these projects might seem exhausting or perhaps only the province of those with OCD. To a rabid fan, however, it?s a portal to a parallel universe wherein they can revel in the creation of their favorite artists, characters and stories. Prior to this shift to transmedia-driven engagement, fan fiction (the unsanctioned continuation of narratives by die-hards) was where acolytes and authors shared an uneasy pas de deux. Now, some content creators pre-figure the audience?s desire for to be ?in-world? in their earliest conceptions.

Like a vampire, however, this can only be achieved through invitation. Fans willingly subsume themselves to the narrative and its myriad points of interactivity (which, increasingly, unfold in a nonlinear manner) such that they essentially become co-authors of the story, motoring it along from rabbit hole to rabbit hole ? uncovering clues and delivering their revelations to their online brethren.

?Stories become games; games become stories,? writes Rose. What?s fundamental and a likely motivator for much of the activity that swarms around TV series like Lost, video games like Halo and pretty much anything under banner ?anime,? is a propensity not just to actively indulge in a fictional universe but to indulge in it with others. As Rose later explains, ?Stripped of the apparatus of advanced civilization and pecuniary gain ? stripped of Hollywood and television and publishing ? storytelling is a simple act of sharing.?

So, don?t be surprised when someone invites you to share some confectionery creative content with them ? like perhaps a slice of ringing cake.

The Daily: Murdoch’s iPad Newspaper Can’t Wrap a Fish

For a media magnate whose empire first began to bubble in vats of newspaper ink, one might think launching the first of its kind iPad-only newspaper app would not be in their best interests. Unless, of course, the magnate is Rupert Murdoch of News Corp. whose vats runneth over ? and now with ones and zeroes.

Led by veteran newspaperman and editor-in-chief Jesse Angelo (late of the New?s Corp-owned New York Post), The Daily is being billed in-house as ?a category first: a tablet-native national news brand built from the ground up to publish original content exclusively for the iPad.? This one can glean from the new apps?s website (even apps have websites apparently) but that?s essentially where the new venture?s relationship with the web essentially ends. The Daily is meant to be consumed entirely within the sleek interface of Apple?s tablet phenom as a discrete standalone experience forged from words, images, video, infomatics and animations baked fresh daily and delivered piping hot direct to your iPad.

Sentimentalists wax fondly that ?newspapers are a daily miracle? (or in some cases, a weekly miracle), however, The Daily, for all its journalistic aspirations, serves more to remind how miraculous the iPad is. If ever there was a proof that there exists a unified field theory of media delivery ? supplanting television, radio, print, cinema and daily newspapers in its wake ? this is it. That said, Murdoch?s quotidian quota of bleeding leads and the sundry other tropes squeezed from ye olde printing press is quite impressive ? not least of which for sinking $30 million in development (and $500,000 in weekly expenses) into what amounts to a video game with news.

?My first impression is very positive,? said Roger Fidler, program director for digital publishing at the Reynolds Journalism Institute who also oversees the Digital Publishing Alliance, which brings together media industry leaders and innovators, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal. ?Team Murdoch has done what I?ve always hoped newspapers would do with their tablet editions ? create an interactive hybrid of print and web that is visually rich and enjoyable to read. It clearly demonstrates the value of involving publication designers in the production process.?

For Fidler, The Daily has been a longtime coming. Internationally recognized as a new media pioneer, Fidler first envisioned tablets and digital newspapers back in the 1980?s. Now that they?ve arrived bundled as The Daily for a mere 99 cents a week, or $39.99 a year, they might just save newspapers.

?The app has a lot of advantages, one I think simplicity for people, more of a feeling of being a curated package of information with a beginning and an end,? observed Fidler.

Or perhaps, The Daily is a so-called ?killer app? that will actually destroy newspapers but in so doing free their spirits to live in the Digital Age. Sure, the app might not save all newspapers but it will certainly help Murdoch?s newspaper holdings eventually transition into the light.

?I think newspapers have to realize that the publications being developed for the iPad may, in fact, become the dominant forum for reading news content in the not too distant future,? said Fidler. ?We clearly are seeing a steady trend of declining leadership of printed newspapers and of steady migration to digital.?

?Digital? is an abstract concept, the iPad is $600 of cold, hard cash in the midst of a recession. At that price point, will Murdoch?s new format find the ubiquity of the traditional media upon which his empire has previously relied?

?You know, people felt the same way about television when it first emerged in the 1940s and 50s, that only rich people would have it,? said Fidler. ?Now they have people with television sets in almost every room of their house and it?s become the common medium. My sense is that the tablet will evolve intro a common reading device and media device for education, for business, for a host of applications and that reading newspapers on it will be just one other important use for that device.?