EMDD Seminar: Sean Stewart + transmedia engagement

In the world of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), there are few figures more influential than Sean Stewart. His work includes the groundbreaking ARGs The Beast, created for the film AI: Artificial Intelligence, Halo 2’s I Love Bees, and Year Zero for Nine Inch Nails. His latest work, the game series Ink Spotters, is an innovative new take on hidden object games featuring linear narratives that reveal themselves non-linearly, leading to a unique experience for all players.

Sean spoke to our class on January 21st, and it was a great opportunity to connect with such an influential figure in the world of ARGs and transmedia. After reading so much theory and seeing examples of the intriguing transmedia projects that are out there, it was helpful to actually speak to someone who has been involved in so many monumental projects. To see the end results of these projects is one thing, but to be able to talk to someone who made them about the processes they used and the difficulties they encountered along the way made things more tangible and really put the production, not just the final product, into perspective.

One of the most interesting points Sean discussed was how he got into the field of transmedia storytelling and creating ARGs. After toiling as a sci-fi author for years, in the early 2000s he began working on stories that could fully embrace the capabilities of technology to produce works that would span multiple mediums and have a structure that would be impossible to pull off in a traditional novel. As it happened, around this time Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment, his production company, were looking for people to produce a multimedia experience around the film AI. Through a mutual friend, Sean was introduced to the project and thus The Beast was born. As an author who has felt similarly frustrated with the limitations of the medium, it was incredibly encouraging and exciting to hear Sean talk about how he explored ARGs and the ways a story could be told and how communicating via the methods that people use every day to tell that story could result in great things being created. Having Spielberg on board probably didn’t hurt, either.

Even though ARGs and other transmedia productions can seem infinitely complicated and nearly impossible to pull off, Sean stressed that the fundamental reasons why people engage with them are essentially the same reasons people enjoy watching movies, reading books, or playing games: they want to be transported to a new, believable world where they can make a personal connection with the characters or storylines. Making the audience feel like they have a personal connection to the story through engaging and fully developed characters and letting players contribute their own efforts to unlocking the entirety of the story are essential elements of any ARG, and these fundamentals are applicable to all forms of media.

One of the biggest issues I personally have with ARGs is the fact that so many of them are tied to specific places or times, and if you don’t live in a large city or have lots of free time to devote to them, it’s difficult to experience an ARG in the way it was intended. Sean was very much aware of this fact and said that constraint was one of the primary reasons why Year Zero was developed to provide a story that all took place at one point in time, and information that was revealed as the game went along did not as much move the story forward in a linear sense, but instead gave more rich information about the story world, allowing players to jump in at any time while still being able to participate in a fully-formed experience.

Speaking with Sean gave me a lot of confidence to produce media that’s daring and experimental. Hearing him talk about his successes and failures along the way and the ways he’s been successful in a media landscape that is constantly changing was great encouragement. Knowing that smart, humble, and confident people like Sean Stewart can produce such radical work gave me the confidence to push forward in making projects of my own