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Tron sequel trailer

I justify this as a Gameshelf topic by being twelve. Once upon a time.

Behold the movie trailer for the sequel to Tron:

Tron: Legacy splash image
(Trailer page)

(Some of this trailer escaped the marketing firewall last year, in handheld shakycam. This is an updated version, official, available in hi-res. You want to watch it in hi-res.)

It is weird and lame and probably incorrect to say that Tron defined the visual aesthetic of computer games for a generation. It just defined coolness for the computer game world for me, forever, because I was twelve. Everything about it was awesome.

I even remember the ad that played before the movie, for Atari video games. It used a cheesy pixelization graphical effect (probably cost millions of dollars, and was a trivial Photoshop filter within a decade). I remember thinking "Is this awesome? No, it kind of ain't," and then I realized it wasn't the movie yet.

I don't know if this Tron: Legacy will be any good. The original certainly wasn't any good. I am going to squinch up my hands and hope for "awesome" instead. The artists who worked on this trailer have the right magic in their sights.

As a side justification for this post, the marketing machinery is using an alternate-reality fiction model:, Who knows, maybe they'll get a game into it. That would be desirably recursive.

(In other "oh lord my childhood is taking over the world" news, Henson Studios has confirmed that The Power of the Dark Crystal and the Fraggle Rock movie will be in theaters in 2011. Holy mazumba.)

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Something I learned about Alternate Reality Fiction

This week I learned something you can do with alternate reality fiction that you can't do with regular, localized fiction. You can create text that's part of two separate stories.

(You can go back to my previous post on alternate reality fiction, or here's the short form: it's the sort of fiction that has pieces of a universe supporting it. Web sites for fictional companies, fictional people blogging and sending email, so on. When it's a game you call it an "alternate reality game", but it's not always a game, right? You can support a novel or a TV show that way. So, "alternate reality fiction.")

(Yes, I am now using the flimsiest excuse for posting this on a gaming blog -- it's a followup to my previous post on this blog. Sorry, Jmac.)

Now follow along; this will take a bit to set up. Let us venture into the world of fanfic.

(Not because there's anything specifically fanfic about the idea. It's just the first example I noticed.)

Take a look at this web site: Looks like typical corporate crap (except for the disclaimer). But if you're familiar with the Stargate TV show, you'll recognize Cameron Mitchell as a character from the last two seasons. (If you're really familiar with the TV show, you might guess who JD Nielson is. But that's not important right now.)

Now take a look at this flyer for the company (270kb PNG image). Indeed, the guy at the bottom right is Ben Browder, who plays Cameron Mitchell on the show. So you're getting the picture -- these two artifacts belong to the same storyline, in some sense. Maybe the flyer doesn't appear on the web site because it's not professional enough, but they fit together. Right?

(I created that flyer, by the way. The amateur photoshopping is all my fault. So is the fact that it's completely silly. The role of JD is played by Michael Filipowich. The web site was created by synecdochic.)

Now take a look at this livejournal account. (Now emigrated to dreamwidth -- Ed.) It lists as its web site, the location matches, it's got a "fictional person" disclaimer, and the name is shown as "Cammie"... wait. Nobody ever calls Cameron Mitchell "Cammie" on the show. Does Ben Browder look like a "Cammie" sort of person? No no no. Further, if you look at some of chemicalfuel's journal entries -- and those of vtwopointoh, who is JD Nielson -- you will rapidly deduce that Cammie is a woman. Cameron Evangeline Mitchell.

So you look back at the web site, and you think, hold on -- there ain't no pronouns on that page. It does not specify whether Cameron (or, indeed, JD) is male or female. So the web site is consistent with the flyer, and it's consistent with the Livejournal pages. But they're not consistent with each other. They can't all be the same storyline.

(Unless it's a storyline with magical sex-changing technology. Which is not actually beyond the bounds of the Stargate universe, and certainly not beyond the bounds of fanfic. But you'd want some corroboration before you took that interpretation.)

At this point I will spill the beans. These sites are sideline material for a bunch of Stargate fan stories by synecdochic and ivorygates. Two disparate serieses of stories. In the Broken Wings series, Cameron Mitchell is permanently disabled after his Antarctic crash, and so he retires from the Air Force and starts a software company. The Mezzanine series has exactly the same premise, except that Cameron Mitchell is a woman. Different things happen. (Each series has a JD Nielson, who are both guys, but they're not quite the same guy.)

The site is ARF material for both storylines. This is something I have not seen before.

Why not? Normal fiction has no ambiguity about its boundaries -- at least, that's the modern convention. You know when you're looking at fiction; and (we generally take for granted) you know what fiction you're looking at. The publisher slaps "Hogwarts year N" or "a Repairman Jack novel" on the cover to make it obvious. But when you dissolve the first assumption, and release material which pretends to be real life, the second assumption gets fuzzy to. Why shouldn't a work fit into two different sequences?

I am not, understand, talking about the crossover story. In a crossover, we point at two storylines and pretend they're the same -- Batman is fighting Spiderman, which means Gotham City is more New York than usual; they're the same place. Or Spiderman took Amtrak. (Or, since the two worlds continue to ignore each other's premises outside the suspended disbelief pentagram of the crossover, we might consider that we've created a third storyline, of limited detail, which shares some premises of each.) But however you consider it, the crossover text represents one story. Batman meets Spiderman.

To truly match the case, you'd have to write a story in which a man named Bruce Wayne meets a man named Peter Parker, and one of them is a superhero, and the other is a regular dude who lives in New York / Gotham City. But the text wouldn't tell you which. It would fit into either the DC or the Marvel universe, but in each case it would mean something slightly different. (Perhaps something radically different!)

I know I'm way out on a theoretical limb here, and maybe you can't think of a reason to write such a story. But you could try. Somebody should.

ARF (or ARG) material is, I think, more suited to these tricks than plain prose -- simply because such material is usually not a story per se, but a small piece of a story -- or sideband information which enriches a story. It conveys by implication; which means you are imputing meaning based on context; which means the meaning can change in different contexts.

Regular prose stories also convey stuff by implication, to a lesser degree. And (pace my original claim) I can think of some novels which pull tricks in this vein.

  • A scene in Rosemary Kirstein's first Steerswoman novel, in which a boy dies while trying to open a cursed chest. In this case, there is "really" only one storyline -- but the reader knows something that the protagonist doesn't (or at least has the chance to figure it out). So the characters see one storyline; the reader sees two, made up of the same incidents.

  • Sharon Shinn's Archangel (first of its series). Again, the reader can see a storyline (science fiction) where the characters see another (theological fable). This works because both are good stories; they have weight and emotional heft and change the characters' lives.

  • Inversions, by Iain M. Banks. A better example, because it reads differently depending on whether you think it's part of a series or not.

  • And, to bring this whimsically back to Stargate, the original Stargate movie. The people who made the movie are not same the people who made the Stargate: SG-1 TV series. This led, at one point, to the movie writers publishing a set of tie-in novels which were also sequels to the movie's story, but went in a completely different direction from the TV show (and its tie-in novels). Two storylines with the same first chapter.

The first two of these examples display differences in interpretation. The characters may disagree with the reader about what happened, but we can reasonably say that the characters are wrong (or uninformed) -- there's only one sequence of events.

The latter two examples are more interesting, because the reader can take different views on what's going on -- depending on context, as I said. This doesn't change what the story is directly showing us; but it does change what else we believe has happened. That is, the implied, off-screen events vary. That's the right parallel. The site doesn't have events, but it does have directly conveyed information (the names and bios of two people) and off-screen information (their existences, including gender).

Here's where I ought to tie all my rambling together into one glorious conclusion that illuminates the future of Narrative 2.0. Haw haw.

No, I have no idea where I'm going with this. It's a gimmick! It's neat. People should use it more.

What if there were a community web site dedicated to ARFs (and ARGs), which became a focal point for participating in them? People would be discussing the various projects, but some of the people would also be fictional, and be conveying in-character information as they interacted. (Go where the fans are, right?) You could take it as a giant crossover where all ARGs meet (St. Elsewhere!), or you could take each fictional world separately. In this world, character X knows about the AIs infiltrating society. In that world, character Y sees the fnords, but person X is just a guy playing an ARG. Get it?

(For all I know, ARGNet or Unfiction already does this.)

Less apocalyptically: what if Chaz Villette invited JD Nielson over for dinner?

What if an ARG included several different universes, all playing out on the Web, unaware of each other's existence but sharing web sites and (alternate versions of) characters? Three universes, say.

(Recognized those Michael Filipowich images, did you?)

Pick your own path.

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Alternate reality fiction

I have not blogged about Shadow Unit, because this is the Gameshelf, and Shadow Unit is not a game. I love Shadow Unit. It's a collaborative storytelling project by four well-known fantasy authors. You might call it a series of short stories about a mutant-hunting FBI team. You'd be closer if you called it a prose work with the structure of an episodic TV series. It's great writing; X-Files with human beings instead of Hollywood/TV heroes. It isn't a game.

I say that because I didn't do anything; I read the episodes as they were posted. (And I dropped some cash in the hat.) No interactivity, no game. Easy distinction, right?

But would Elizabeth Bear, Will Shetterly, Sarah Monette, and Emma Bull agree with that? Do they feel like they're playing a game? I'll ask around. But let's stay outside the circle of creators for now.

Or... maybe not. Shadow Unit has imported some of the aspects of an ARG, an alternate reality game. Supporting web sites pop up. Characters in the story have ongoing Livejournals.

You can comment in these journals. (As long as you don't break the fourth wall.) People do. Real people have long conversations with fictional people. They trade recipes and favorite TV shows.

Who's playing now?

Let me reach back to my post about Alternity, the Livejournal-mediated Harry Potter RPG that started recently. I called that a "game", even though it's got a bounded circle of creators and no ARG elements. Why was that a game? For one thing, the circle is larger -- twenty-ish? But mostly, I was thinking of the game model. You and your friends could set up your own game of "that thing", with your own scenario. "That thing" is fairly structured; it has rules ("journal posts only", the 15-minute correction rule, etc). The creators are continually making posts in these constrained ways. Whereas Shadow Unit's "thing" is both more nebulous and more generic: traditional short stories appear on a web site.

But then, the Livejournals have a rule... Okay, I'm constructing a difference out of degrees. Never mind.

A new one is launching tomorrow: Continuous Coast. (Or is it called "Mediators"? These alternate reality thingies don't name themselves!)

You can read a slideshow about this thing, by creators Reesa Brown and Kit O'Connell. They presented this at Arse Elektronika 2008. They're working with fantasy author Steven Brust, plus a cast of thousands, on a... a...

I have no idea. We'll find out more on October 9th, or so I hear.

It has some web sites and blogs, as I linked above. It has a Twitter feed. But of course that's not the Twitter feed of the project. It's the Twitter feed of the Mediators, the ?police ?steering committee ?resident psychiatrists of a city that is clearly not on Earth, and perhaps not in our universe...

So is this a game? It is impossible to describe without the perspective of ARGs. Continuous Coast is an alternate-reality presentation, in the sense of ARGs. ARGs are games. Continuous Coast is not -- by the early descriptions -- a MMO puzzle-quest in the sense of I Love Bees. It is described as interactive, in that the circle is open. Everything is Creative-Commons licensed, and the creators invite everyone to play in the sandbox.

"Play" invites "game", doesn't it?

Let me fling out some terminology. Shadow Unit and Continuous Coast are ARFs: alternate reality fiction. "Alternate reality", again, in the ARG sense: that which spills out from the page and mixes and blurs into our reality. "This is not fiction." Web sites, stories, art, all lived in-character.

(No relation here to "alternate history", the subgenre of science fiction that deals with what-if divergences of history. Sorry about that confusion. "Enhanced reality" and "ERGs" might have been a better term, back when the Beast and the Bees came along; but that spaceship has sailed.)

I'm not trying to distinguish ARFs from games, in the broad sense. I'm just trying to distinguish it from the well-described category of ARGs. I don't care whether ARF is a "game" -- doesn't matter, it is play. People will interact to shape an experience that comes as much from them as from the original designers.

Really, I want to drop a different division down the cloud, and say that an ARG is alternate reality interactive fiction -- the subset of ARFs which involve specific challenges for the players to defeat. We could even distinguish between multi-player ARIF and solo ARIF: imagine a game that's spread across web sites and in-character blogs, but which is sized for a single player to work through without help. (I don't know any examples of this, but I want to avoid wiring in assumptions.)

Or maybe that's silly terminology, because it's all "interactive", ARFs and ARGs and journal games and the lot. We take for granted that alternate-reality presentations are participatory. The whole point of bleeding into your reality, right, is that you live in your reality. It wouldn't be AR if you weren't involved.

Or, as Brown and O'Connell write: "21st-century storytelling blurs the line between canon and fanon."

Damn. Now I want to go back and rebuild my lamented Myst Online from scratch, using these ideas. I knew they were missing something...

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