A Look into the World of Transmedia Storytelling and Alternate Reality Games


         In a search for similarity, one particular aspect of the human psyche stands out. This is our underlying desire for beauty, which differs from person to person.  Regardless, we are all compelled to seek it out in life. And when we find it, a feeling of content resonates within.

        Yet, when you examine the prominence of books, movies, and television shows, all of which offer an escape from one’s own reality, you realize that a vast majority of our population finds beauty in the escape, in the adventure, and in the pure exhilarating excitement of fantasy. And, this is where Transmedia Storytelling and Alternate Reality Games thrive.

        Transmedia Storytelling can be explained as the act of telling one universal and continual story through various mediums. Alternate Reality Games utilize the act of transmedia storytelling to actually create an interactive alternate reality that goes along with the story itself.

        Through utilizing public space and recruiting teams of creative people from mural artists and graphic designers to writers and set designers, these forms of art are able to appeal to the public in an aesthetic and totally immersive manner. One step beyond admiring art; Transmedia Storytelling and ARGs let you become a part of the art yourself.

        We got the chance to talk to the three biggest names in the game when it comes to this genre.   We spoke with Ken Eklund, who considers himself to be a creator of “Serious Alternate Reality Games,” we spoke with Yomi Ayeni, the self proclaimed “grassroots insane storyteller” about his creation of the expansive, immersive, and mystifying world of “Clockwork Watch”, and finally, we spoke with Steve Peters, a legend in the Transmedia/ARG world, about his work in collaboration with huge companies and productions.  

        Ken Eklund has sought to create something beneficial from his passions in science and art. Art has been known to influence change through the act of creating conversation about important topics and also through the act of raising awareness about particular ideas.

        “Scientists think that people make that decision logically, because that’s how scientists make that decision,” Eklund explains, “But the rest of the world operates on the level of advertising, which is that decisions are made at the emotional level, and art is where that story gets put forward.”

        In his first ARG, World Without Oil, Ken Eklund succeeded in truly transforming the way that people lived. The game asked players to live as if they were in a serious oil shortage. Through the use of news updates via a website and mock protests, the oil shortage was made to seem real.

        Participants were asked to document their own individual lives through video, images, telephone calls and blog entries. All of these entries were submitted to the collective website which people could visit, examining how people of all different occupations and from all different locations were getting by without oil.

        People made real life physical changes. Backyards were transformed into gardens and people started bicycling to work. Through the creation of a game, change was motivated about an important and relevant issue in a way that preaching could never succeed.

        “I think the most important thing for me about an ARG is the idea of an Alternate Reality, which is not something radically different than where we are, but instead something that overlays the world as we know it,” Eklund tells us.  “For an ARG to maximize its potential, there’s indeed this idea that it could actually be happening, there’s a reality to it.”

        And that is part of the reason why his Serious ARGs are so effective, the ideas that he is proposing are not far fetched. Yet, while it is still considered a game, the act of getting involved doesn’t seem as such a chore. And, all the while, this activity that you are getting involved in is creating change.

        His most recent project, FutureCoast, featured voicemails leaked out of the future. People were given the chance to create their own voicemails, projecting their individual fears (and hopes) of the future of climate change into a single message. These voicemails were collected, organized, and posted on a website for everyone to listen to.

        “I wanted to put together a situation where I could get climate change scientists and climate change skeptics to participate in the same thing without yelling at each other,” Eklund explains. “This is a structure where there is room for them to both tell their own story. And that’s what FutureCoast is about, not about what is the future going to be, but what are the possible futures that are ahead for us? And everyone can describe a possible future, so everyone has a right to be there.”

        FutureCoast had Creation Workshops and exhibits within many different museums and festivals. At the Smithsonian American Art Museum, participants were invited to listen to voicemails and then to craft an artifact based on the voicemail itself. At Bloom Festival in Santa Cruz, they set up an old phone booth on the edge of the cliffs by the ocean where people could leave voicemails themselves.

        “People were lining up all night to make their voicemails,” Ken tells us.  “It was a good moment to feel extended in time, when the veil between us and the future was thinner.”

        “Chronofacts” or artifacts from the future were also placed in various towns across the world. These Chronofacts could be photographed and sent in to get decoded to play a particular voicemail. Thus, an exciting public scavenger hunt aspect became a key part of getting people excited and involved.

        “When you make a phone call, when you find a Chronofact, all of a sudden it’s not an event that is happening somewhere else, it’s an event that you are a part of, it’s now your event. FutureCoast essentially belongs to all of these people.”

        Eklund further explains the effectiveness of his projects: “I think the whole climate change question has led the science community to this point where they go, ‘If we were really to tell this whole story about climate change, the reason we have been failing at it is because we have not been embracing art as a necessary partner in telling that story, so we’ve lost control of the narrative of it. We command the science, but the science is not enough to persuade people.’ Art is really good at persuading people, it’s good at communicating to them that there is a problem and communicating to them that there is a hope we can fix it.”

        Yomi Ayeni, a man who admits that, “My philosophy is if you want that edge of the seat experience, I will give it to you in abundance, your life is never going to be threatened, you will never be in any danger, but I will take you to the edge and bring you back down.”

        After finding frustration in the alienating aspects of the Steampunk culture, Yomi sought to create a world that everyone could not only feel welcomed to enjoy, but also to create. And so, the world of “Clockwork Watch” was born. Simply put, its a collaborative storytelling adventure that takes place in a steampunk reality.

        At first look, the Graphic Novels might seem to be the primary component of this story, upon looking deeper, you will realize that this world is not nearly so limited. In between each release of each Graphic Novel, an (at least) nine-hour immersive theatrical experience is held.

        Many are familiar with the popular Site Specific Theatre performances like Sleep No More. Yomi’s immersive theatrical experiences can be seen as an evolution born from this style of storytelling.

        “I don’t do site specific theatre, I do living theatre,” Yomi tells us,  “There’s a big difference. I don’t tell the same story over and over to a different audience.”

        In fact, not only does he not tell the same story over again, but he doesn’t really tell a story himself. After setting the environment, some of the characters, and some simple story beats, Yomi then allows for the participants to create the actual theatrical performance themselves.

        “It’s an experiential sort of thing,” Yomi says. “I try to write and do things that mirror life, that gives you variables.”

        Given the chance to enter into an alternate reality and actually become a character is apparently the precise beauty that so many people have been craving. One participant at a live event told people that he represented a Trade Union and preached that the Clockwork’s were going to take all of their jobs.

        “He took control of the situation, it became his story,” said Yomi, “He became the first trade unionist within the narrative, and at that point I had no plans whatsoever to introduce trade unionists within the story, but it is now a big part.”

 “It’s giving people that alternate existence where you can play make believe,” Yomi tells us, “you can let your mind go, you can slip into this realm, and not be someone that you aren’t; you can still be yourself, but the world around you is different and it runs parallel to your existence.”

                The entire story is constantly evolving through the collection of submissions from readers. Anybody is not only allowed, but also actually encouraged to contribute to the story itself. Submissions are all posted online as part of the entire canon. If they keep along with the story beats, they become articles, if they don’t, then they become letters.

        What initially was conceived as three graphic novels and one feature film (created at the end, as a result of everybody’s collaborative creation of the story) has now become nine graphic novels and one feature film. This has been created as a option to escape into a beautiful and exciting reality alongside a community of inspiring and creative individuals.

        But, the immersive and participatory aspect is not the only thing that makes “Clockwork Watch” stand out. The image value of the project has much attention to detail.

       If you speak to anyone about ARGs and ask who has been one of the most influential components of the movement, the majority of people will respond with the name, Steve Peters. Steve Peters is the creator of ARGNet, co founder of No Mimes Media, and an ARG expert.

        He began as a player himself, getting hooked on one of the first games, “The Beast.” As he became more involved within the community, he decided to collaborate with others to create his own ARGs on a grassroots level.

        “It was a new, exciting, use of technology, a way to impact people, and your audience was huge,” Peters recalls, “And, it was kind of addicting, when you first make one of these, and you watch thousands of people crawling all over it and talking about it and it’s a big mystery and they just love it. It is really an amazing feeling. It’s very gratifying to see so many people enjoying what you’re doing, becoming challenged by it and having fun.”

        His talent and popularity became so evident that he soon started working with big productions. He has worked on ARGs for The Dark Knight, The Nine Inch Nails, Pirates of The Caribbean, and many more.

        However, despite their big reputations and multi million dollar productions, Peters has always been keen on not turning these ARGs into an advertising gimmick.

        Creating these in depth games is no easy task. Their constantly evolving interactive aspect can make it much more difficult to manage.

        “It is performance art. It takes place in real time. It’s responsive to the players,” Peters tells us, “You can respond to what they are doing or not doing right or if they are not finding something, or if there is something broken, or if they are going down a trail you didn’t anticipate. Then you scramble in the background to try and redesign something to get them refocused without being too obvious. Because, there are no guardrails in this thing, and it can either work for you, or work against you.”        

        The use of public space is also very important to Peters who feels that humans are craving more and more real life social interaction these days. Although he primarily uses technological platforms for his ARGs, he does like to interweave physicality into the whole project.

        “The world is your canvas. You can use anything creatively. We’ve used fireworks to put messages in. We’ve used murals in walls. We’ve used things under bus benches. And we’ve used websites and phone numbers,” says Peters, “So, from a production standpoint, you’ve got video production, you’ve got audio production, you’ve got web production, you’re building stuff, you’re using all these different types of media. So, for me that’s what I love about it.”

        And another great aspect of these games is the community building benefit. Although you can play these ARGs by yourself, you are encouraged to work with others in order to figure out the game. Players come together to find clues, to share clues, and to offer ideas. In the process of all this, a community is created. Peters likens it to the concept of music festivals.

        “It has a lot in common with music festivals,” Peters explains, “It’s not so much about the stuff that’s there, you come back from them with relationships, with people that you’ve met, and you’ve all gone through this experience together, that no one else has, and that right there creates a really big bond.  So, I think there’s something really strong there, generally given the human society now, that’s really important to people. That, to me, at the end of the day is what gives ARGs and Transmedia storytelling an advantage is that it can provide these things, where others cant necessarily.”

        Peters imagines a future where one day there will be an “Interactive” tab on Itunes, or an option on Netflix for your movies to become “Enhanced.” Yet, he believes that this genre of entertainment is still in its very early stages and it may be a while before we have those options.

        Through the creation of community, use of multiple platforms of media, complex ascetic value,  and its influence on important social/environmental ideals, Transmedia Storytelling and Alternate Reality Games serve as a unique and intriguing addition to the world of art and entertainment.


Written by:  Molly Ebner

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