Considering that games like Proteus have recently had people arguing about what truly is a game and what isn't, the upcoming iPad experience Authentic In All Caps is likely to make some people's heads explode.
It's part web browser and part radio play, with a talented voice cast including comedian Ben McKenzie delivering dialogue that tells a story while also delivering clues about the world, leading the player to solve puzzles and find the next webpage to visit.
Of course, it doesn't actually exist yet. Australian writer and design Christy Dena has launched a crowdfunding campaign on Aussie Kickstarter equivalent Pozible to raise $15,000 and get the game finished. "I've done a couple of prototypes, which was to test the systems and get it all working," Dena told me during a recent interview. "Now it's a case of going into final production, record all of the dialogue again with all of the cast."
I spoke with Dena at length about the origins of this unique project, and she divides her inspirations into two broad categories: the technical and artistic roots of the project that inspired the format, and the emotional roots that formed the basis of the story.
"I'd been working on a few alternate reality games, these highly dispersed experiences going across a whole lot of websites and live events," she began. "In researching them, creating them, and playing them, I found that there was a design issues there, that not everyone goes to all of the websites. Not everyone does everything, and the more fragmented a project is, the less sure you can be that your audience and players will come with you."
"The cynical way to look at that is the say, well, fragmentation doesn't work, but I saw it more as a design challenge - it can work, but how can we get this wholeness across the total work of art, and to get that intensity and drama and experience."
The concept of simultaneous media usage was also an inspiration - people consuming two different types of media at the same time, such as playing a game on a handheld while watching a TV show. "I was looking at research into what are the best combinations, in terms of content and media, and they found that surfing the internet while watching a documentary on television worked really well, because you could phase in and out."
The final piece of the puzzle was a trip to the Louvre Museum in Paris, and an automated audio tour that she took with a pair of rented headphones. "I went to the Louvre and I did the Da Vinci Code audio tour," she recalled. "There was a narrative to guide you through, and things like, right at the beginning when you put your headphones on, while everyone ahead of me was walking up the stairs, the headphones said, 'Don't go up the stairs! Turn left!' and it took me down a service elevator. It took me to all of these different spaces and got me to do all of these different things, and suddenly I realised: audio."
All of these disparate elements came together in an unlikely but compelling form. "My thought was an audio tour of the web," Dena said. "It started off with that idea of a tour, but as I worked through the development it became a kind of radio drama. It still takes on the principles of being guided, but more in fiction."
All of those experiences had dictated the form of the project, but it was something much closer to home that prompted the story: her mother's sudden death from a brain aneurysm. "It was a sudden death, unexpected - she wasn't ill or anything like that, she was just suddenly gone. We were very close," she explained. "I travelled down because they had to run an autopsy to work out why she died, and during that time I went through and listened to the last piece of music she had on in the car. What was the last email that she sent? Where was her bookmark in her book?"
"She'd written her final letter to all of us, in anticipation of dying, which was quite a surreal event. She had been preparing for death, even though it was very sudden, because she had somehow felt that she was going to die and prepared all this stuff, which was quite freaky but made the whole experience more substantial and meaningful. So I went through a kind of philosophical autopsy, trying to understand what was going on."
"Some people told me to just get back to work, said it didn't mean anything, but for me, with a big life experience I like to take everything I can from it and honour it. That's what lots of people said: death doesn't matter, move on and keep working."
"So I had all of this stuff in my head, and I started writing a drama, and it was pretty grim and didactic, really, and I thought, oh this is terrible. So then I thought, bring in the comedy! It freed me up, meant I could go to extremes, because at the heart of comedy is truth, but it's a pill that people are willing to swallow. So it developed from there."
The result is Authentic In All Caps, a full production radio drama with a large voice cast and many distinct characters, and full environmental audio and sound effects, coupled with an in-game web browser. Dena was coy when I asked her what the story is about, but she revealed a few details to whet my appetite. "There is an overworld and an underworld," she told me. "In the underworld, all philosophers are gamblers, all artists are assassins, and the crime lords are all quantum theorists. Our protagonist takes on a bet to discover the meaning of death, and that has a whole lot of consequences."
"The idea is that every website is a place, so if you go to the morgue website, you're actually at the morgue. if you go to the philosopher's casino website, you're actually at the philosopher's casino," she began. To make this work, the game development has involved the construction of a host of real, live websites that anyone can visit. "They are actually live websites, but obviously they'll be silent," Dena explained. "It's the audio element that will make them really come alive. The app recognises which site you're on and will trigger the correct audio, then if you go back to the same website it will trigger the next audio, and so on."
"There's a mix of a lot of different ways to get to different addresses. All of the websites that are on the main story track are out of plain sight, and you have to be cued by the audio in some way. So it could be a hidden page that they guide you through to find, or some puzzle that you need to solve, or you need to go to a web page and type something in because the audio is giving you the address. I'm mixing that up, because one of the things I personally enjoy in projects is that you have a system, and then you change it in an interesting way."
The game's Pozible campaign is still working on achieving funding, and will come to a close this Friday. Dena is hopeful that it will achieve its goal, but has a contingency plan in place should it fail to attract enough backers. "If we don't make our funding target, there be two things that happen," she explained. "It'll be delayed, and it'll be shorter. I won't do three episodes, I'll go back and re-write and make a more contained experience."
Obviously, Dena has a clear idea of the story she wants to tell, so she would prefer to have it reach its goal, become fully-funded, and allow her to tell the entire story without having to edit it down. If you would like to lend your support to this unique Australian project, you can visit its Pozible campaign page.
Full disclosure: The author has pledged money to this project's Pozible campaign.