Gamers are no strangers to unusual passions, and in reality, April Arrglington's isn't all that weird. In fact, "transmedia" entertainment simply describes what everyone is already doing anyway - things like tweeting while they watch TV, or making up fan fiction on message boards. But for Arrglington, a Panama native who moved to Los Angeles in 2003, it's the embodiment of her passion for storytelling, and according to her, proof that she can see the future.
Her most recent project in transmedia - essentially, telling a story or sharing an experience over multiple platforms - was the roughly ten-week-long Miracle Mile Paradox, an alternate reality game (ARG) involving time travel and a historic LA neighborhood. She served as story producer and project manager for the game, which was equal parts online discussion and real-world problem solving.
Arrglington and I met at a bustling LA cafe on a Sunday night, and her foamy cappuccino and pineapple cake sat untouched as we delved into the theories and practices of transmedia storytelling. She had just come back from an augmented reality conference in Long Beach, Calif., and was looking forward to the second annual StoryWorld transmedia convention in October. There, she and her colleagues at Transmedia LA will present their findings from the Miracle Mile Paradox.
The project began with a Kickstarter - but before that, there was simply an idea. "A lot of the people in Transmedia are very excited about the idea of telling a story across multiple platforms," she said, but they often spend the bulk of their time theorizing and proselytizing instead. The team at Transmedia LA, which was formed in 2009, wanted to "get their hands dirty" and work up their chops by actually creating something.
"Everybody was on the same wavelength: we wanted to do stuff, versus talk about stuff," Arrglington said. But, they discovered, that's not such an easy task. The game took place on Twitter, LinkedIn, WordPress, and other sites, via phone calls and text messages, and in person at live events. "How do you really manipulate all these different platforms at once?" she asked.
The Miracle Mile Paradox followed the plight of modern-day oddball Rexford Higgs, a fictional character played by a real actor, who wears suspenders and scours flea markets for old music boxes, antique calculators - anything old with moving parts. He stumbles across a blueprint for something called a "time switch," and soon attracts the ire of the evil corporation known as Agent Intellect. An actress from the 1920s and a futuristic entity named Cassandra sided with Rex, and by the end of the game the Agent Intellect Corp. had been thwarted and the integrity of the fabric of space-time maintained.
The majority of ARG games, Arrglington said, are only based in cyberspace, with few real-world components. But the Transmedia LA team wanted to see how real they could make the Miracle Mile Paradox - how far down the rabbit hole they could send players. So most of the $9,701 raised on Kickstarter went to renting out a space in the Miracle Mile area of LA's mid-city. The remainder went to things like web hosting, phone numbers, and real-world props like an antiquated-seeming letter for players to pore over (plus the obligatory t-shirts and posters for backers - Kickstarters love t-shirts and posters).
Players who heard about it online could follow the scavenger hunt in the Miracle Mile area and attend semi-scripted live events, while others simply stumbled on a sticker or one of Rex's business cards in real life. There's a rule in ARGs, Arrglington said: "If you have a phone number, it actually calls somebody." The same goes for emails, blogs, social media accounts, and even real-world addresses. So players who got in touch (by whatever means) received responses from Rex himself (not to mention the 30 or so other characters), often with information and instructions.
These guided players from the iconic lampposts in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to business and landmarks all around the area, with clues and puzzles at each point. It culminated with the discovery of the real-world time switch - made from an antique television - in the rented space. There was even a camera in the room for online players to watch their real-world counterparts' discoveries. The whole thing lasted one or two hours and involved about a mile of walking.
It can be difficult to drum up interest in alternate reality experiences that aren't tied to larger properties (viral ad campaigns for The Dark Knight and Halo are good examples), and in retrospect, Arrglington said she wishes they had done more promoting. As it stood, most of the people who did contribute funding to the Kickstarter were themselves somehow involved in the world of transmedia. It's a movement that's largely funding itself, Arrglington said.
But she and her colleagues are constantly dreaming up ways to attract mainstream audiences. It shouldn't be too difficult, to be honest - hardcore fandoms are like armies of culture-gobbling Pac-Mans - they consume their preferred fictional worlds tirelessly, and from as many directions as possible. Star Wars diehards read the books, play the games and wear the t-shirts in between trilogy marathons; Trekkies smear movie makeup on their faces and direct cryptic hand gestures toward one another.
And the sooner everybody catches on, the better, Arrglington suggested. "That's going to be essentially what's going to save entertainment from where we're standing on right now," she said. "There is a huge opportunity in creating and expanding a universe in a way that fans are more interactive and immersive in the story."
"Are you familiar with the game Journey?" she asked me. She had run into Eric Koch, senior producer at Sony's Santa Monica game development studio, at the augmented reality conference just days before. He had explained to her how "[Journey] doesn't feel like a game; it feels like an experience." That resonated with her; earlier, she had described debates over how interactive an experience needs to be in order to be considered transmedia. Journey was and is massively praised, but some players were turned off by their inability to truly impact its rather linear world. Thus, the argument is familiar.
But to Arrglington, who said she likes to "keep it simple," it's irrelevant. "Either you want it or not, this is already how people are doing things," she said. "This is where we're heading."