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  For The Record:  Walsh on Writing Alternate Realities  
Posted 2008-02-29 by Tony Walsh
The Austin Chronicle published an article about games and storytelling today, written by Joey Seiler, frequent contributor to Virtual World News. I'm quoted in the article, and while I won't go so far as to say the quote was out of context, it doesn't reflect what I would have said given the context the quote now appears in.

In the article, I talk briefly about extending the Halo game universe across multiple media, but neither I or the article mentions the groundbreaking Halo Alternate Reality Game known as "I Love Bees." As an ARG writer and designer on the award-winning Fallen and Regenesis games, I am well aware of this precedent, I just didn't think to mention it in the interview, although it was obliquely referenced.

My interview, in its original context as an email thread, follows for the record.

Seiler: Since you're talking on what the video game industry can learn from ARGs, what does that change for the writing side of things?
    Walsh: Bringing ARG sensibilities to video games could mean a greater opportunity for character development and world building--at minimum we might be able to bring greater depth to characters and create more robust 'lore,' but ultimately a game's entire universe would extend across multiple media formats. Hiring a writing team to create transmedia narratives prior to and following a game's launch could be a great way to retain fan interest in game worlds and personalities between chapters or sequels.

Seiler: One of the things that particularly interests me is how the growing interest in casual games, social experiences, and massively multiplayer games is changing the way writers approach video games. You've looked at everything fro Metaplace to WoW to Facebook. What's your take?
    Walsh: Even traditional games are moving more and more towards multiplayer--a single-player game can only entertain a player for so long. While single-player and limited multiplayer games offer a writer a lot more control over the story, some of the most exciting possibilities are provided by players as storytellers. It's fine for a writer to lay out tightly-defined storyworlds, but I think the successful games of the future will provide player with story hooks and loose ends with which to co-create shared narratives within a cohesive framework. This being said, there will always be a market for well-crafted interactive stories with limited player options.

Seiler: As someone who's worked in both the more traditional game industry and now in the broader digital / cross-media environment, how do you see writing change when it's for "serious" applications instead of games?
    Walsh: Actually, most of my career has been spent working with interactive digital media (such as web-sites and Flash games) rather than console and computer games. In the last several years, I've worked largely on cross-media and convergent entertainment projects. Writing for games is geeky-fun. Writing for serious applications is accountant-fun. One of my main areas of interest is in making serious applications more game-like. When the business world can relax and play a little bit, it makes everyone's job that much more enjoyable.

Seiler: I was also curious about the pragmatics of hiring a writing team to maintain an ongoing, ARG-style video game.
    Walsh: ARG production is very complex. In my opinion, ARG writers need to understand gaming more than video game writers. Video games are typically a "canned" experience, whereas ARGs are a lot more organic and responsive. An ongoing ARG-style video game would probably need at least one game designer on the writing team, and would be writing a lot of material "live" or at least for rapid conversion into game material.

Seiler: I was talking to some folks about it today at the Metaverse Roadmap in relation to the Matrix Online experience. They created an ongoing story with new chapters and events instead of simply expansion packs. It's a fascinating idea to me, but it also seems fairly difficult and expensive.
    Walsh: Totally difficult. And in a perfect world, totally expensive. The problem in my experience is that ARG producers either don't seem to be asking for large enough budgets, or clients aren't sufficiently educated about the complexity (and therefore hefty resourcing requirements) of ARG productions.

Seiler: It seems like you're talking more about writing Halo books, videos, and so on, though. Right?
    Walsh: Not exactly. I'm more talking about being able to chat with a future Cortana over the phone or AIM, or discovering "real" corporate web sites that might be on the cusp of AI breakthroughs. The seeds and threads of the Halo universe working their way into our contemporary reality. Maybe a fictional version of the SETI project makes contact with what we later realize is the Covenant; maybe scrolls uncovered in Egypt are actually ancient blueprints for a Halo weapon. There are lots of ways to extend the fiction of video games as believable real-life artifacts, characters and stories.

Seiler: Any thoughts or anecdotes on how gamers react to storytelling popping up outside of their games? I know some people love, but some hate it.
    Walsh: I've never heard of anyone hating well-produced "spinoffs" of their favorite game, but your mileage may vary. If ARGs continue to grow as a force spanning marketing and gaming, I think ARG-style extensions of game stories will be the norm, not the exception.

Seiler: How does a storyteller sell the YouTube experience to someone who's already finished the fight?
    Walsh: Not sure what you mean exactly, but here's my best response: The fight is only as finished as a game publisher's willingness to contract a sequel or prequel. As long as a franchise is healthy, there's an opportunity to expand it across multiple media.
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