July 17, 2009

Project review: "Personal Effects: Dark Art," by J.C. Hutchins and Jordan Weisman

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Personal Effects: Dark Art, by JC Hutchins and Jordan Weisman

Personal Effects: Dark Art
By J.C. Hutchins and Jordan Weisman
Griffin / ISBN: 98-0-312-38382-4

So are you familiar yet with this new type of creative project that's been catching on in the 2000s more and more, known as an "Alternative Reality Game" or ARG? Essentially started with a bang by entrepreneur and USC professor Jordan Weisman with the phenomenal 2001 experiment known as "Who Killed Evan Chan?," which believe it or not began as a bizarrely cutting-edge promotional campaign for the Steven Spielberg film A.I. (and which was so successful that Weisman was inspired to start the world's first creative agency devoted just to ARGs, the appropriately named 42 Entertainment [and which by the way happens to employ one of my favorite New Weird authors of all time, the exquisitely strange Sean Stewart]), the medium gets its name from the fact that such games end up "jumping" out of the flat world of traditional storytelling, creating literally an entire fictional reality for themselves that exists among our own real physical reality, and with us randomly stumbling across these fictional elements in our day-to-day real lives. So for example, take the popular summer ARGs created each year to promote the hit television show Lost, and look at all the various ways that clues are delivered to the loose confederation of players worldwide who are trying to solve it: through fake websites that look real, telephone numbers people can actually call, fax services they can subscribe to, information "seeded" online so that it'll pop up in Google searches, even sometimes physical objects that are revealed by the show's producers during ABC press conferences and ComiCon appearances, the contents of which are blasted in Lost discussion forums for the thousands of players who weren't able to attend the actual physical event. Such ARGs have in fact turned into an astoundingly successful form of marketing for bigger artistic projects like movies and TV shows, which is why you're seeing them now more and more often -- after all, it's kind of a win/win situation, with such games not only keeping the most hardcore fans appeased but also generating a ton of traditional press. (In fact, the "Evan Chan" game inspired over a thousand mentions in the mainstream media in just the few months in 2001 it actually ran, making it one of the most effective publicity stunts in human history.)

All this of course has had a lot of artists thinking these days about the kinds of purely creative possibilities inherent in the ARG format itself, once you divorce it from its usual commercial purpose of simply promoting something else more traditional; and that's what gets us for example the brand-new Personal Effects: Dark Art, not exactly the first ARG ever released by a mainstream publisher (this was put out by Griffin, a corporate subsidiary of St. Martins Press), but certainly now the largest and most passionately supported, with the money people behind this throwing just a whole wad of resources at its multimedia component, including not only all the elements already mentioned but even a whole series of expensive fake physical objects in a sleeve in the front pocket of each and every book sold, fake drivers' licenses and fake birth certificates and other evidence linked to the tale being told in the main book. And hey, the multimedia elements were even put together by Weisman himself, based on a main story by author J.C. Hutchins who I've been a fan of for awhile, because of his willingness to embrace so many cutting-edge experiments while in the course of promoting his traditional genre thrillers; in fact, it was an interview I did with Hutchins a few years ago while running a blog about Second Life that got both of us our first mentions at Boing Boing, so needless to say I will always have a soft spot in my heart for his continual forward-thinking experiments.

So what a disappointment, then, to make my way through the project myself this week and realize what a dismal failure it is, and to be reminded of just how much even the most experimental work out there still must ultimately rely on some pretty ancient lessons about the arts to be a success. Because in my opinion, rule number one for ARGs simply has to be the following, a lesson that Weisman seems to have learned but that so few other ARG producers have: that for such an experimental, high-committment project to succeed, the underlying story fueling it has to be much better than most other traditional stories out there, much smarter and more engaging than the typical genre potboiler, instead of the typical attitude you see among so many of these producers, that ARGs can get away with subpar stories as long as you adorn them with a bunch of pretty crap. And so it is here with Personal Effects too, with Hutchins not only turning in a very rote, by-the-numbers horror tale (a genre I'm not much of a fan of to begin with), but with an overall quality clocking in on the low end of the genre scale as well, a sometimes laughably bad melodrama bound to be enjoyed only by the most diehard Stephen King fans out there (and in fact not even really Stephen King -- more like the most diehard Joe Hill fans out there).

If this were a traditional publishing project, for example, it'd be the type of book I'd give up on about halfway through, and just write one of my little weekend micro-reviews and be done with it, because of what turns out to just be a whole pile of extremely basic literary mistakes found throughout: wild inconsistencies in character development (for example, a supposed "world-famous" art therapist who half the time talks and acts like a petulant teenager); badly clashing tones in the setting (the main location is a crumbling state mental hospital from the Victorian Age that has supposedly been forgotten by society at large, yet is where the most notorious serial killer in New York history is sent for observation after being arrested); plotholes so large you could drive a truck through them (such as this intriguing question: "Why the f-ck has an art therapist been assigned to do a psychological profile of the most notorious serial killer in New York history instead of, say, a psychologist?"); antagonists so cartoonishly two-dimensional that they might as well be twirling their mustaches while tying a blonde to some railroad tracks; dialogue so ridiculously juvenile that it'll make even Joss Whedon fans cringe in embarrassment; non-white characters that threaten to actually turn racist from their sheer "Magic Negro" lefty earnestness*; and just a whole lot more that I'm not going to go into, because despite how it might sound, I don't mean for today's review to be deliberately cruel.

This then creates a troubling situation when it comes time for the multimedia elements of the project, which let's not forget are supposed to be integral within an ARG to fully understanding the story being told; because seriously, who in their right mind would read a book and hate it, yet stick around for hours' worth of multimedia exploring in the hopes that the whole thing somehow becomes better by the end because of it? Well, okay, I did, but that's because I'm a critic and it's my job; and this is when I learned of the second huge problem with Personal Effects, which is that the multimedia elements (even the ones included with the book) instantly disclose a whole series of key plot developments that Hutchins tries to string along slowly within the book itself to raise the level of suspense. And this gets again into the more general problem of trying to convert alternative reality games into plain ol' alternative reality stories; because by its very nature, a game is designed to be an ephemeral event, something to be played and finished and never really returned to again, and so it doesn't really matter what specific order an audience member actually receives the information that makes up the plotline. But a long-form narrative bound story is designed precisely to be visited again over and over, to still hold its original power even when picked up randomly fifty years later by some slacker in a used bookstore, which means that the information does need to come in a certain order, which obviously even Hutchins agrees with, since he deliberately withholds some of this information within the book to try to add drama.

So to cite an excellent example, it turns out that this accused serial killer actually worked in black-ops for the CIA all the way up to almost the moment the first murder happened; and it turns out that he was involved with some kind of spooky supernatural hush-hush mind-control interrogation project; and it turns out that something went terribly wrong during his very last mission, in the spirit-laden backwoods of eastern Europe, that may or may not have involved him making an evil psychic connection with a malevolent demon or something or other. Now, are you angry at me for what seems like the divulging of a major spoiler? Then brother, you are going to be super f-cking p-ssed to learn that I didn't provide this spoiler at all, but rather that it's printed out in plain ol' black-and-white in one of the fake physical documents right in the front sleeve of the book itself. And this is a real problem for any audience member who chooses to read all this supporting evidence before the actual book, which I imagine is going to be the case with a whole lot of audience members, just out of curiosity's sake if nothing else; because this then completely negates the 50 pages of expository filler within the actual novel leading up to this realization among the characters, 50 pages of this therapist and his Mountain Dew Extreeeeme brother traipsing around Brooklyn and breaking into apartments, and hiding bicycles in dumpsters and getting bailed out of jail by their creepy villainous dad and finding a mysterious box and then losing the mysterious box and then finding the mysterious box yet again. And this is how it should be (although like I said, could've been done a lot better), because this is how we humans like our long-form narrative stories, with a certain deliberate pacing to the information to maximize drama and enjoyment (this is how we get the three-act structure, after all); so to have elements of the project that divulge this information in a bad order fairly ruins the entire project altogether, unlike a simple game where part of the fun literally is in the randomness of the clue order.

And this then gets us into the last big problem with trying to fashion alternative reality stories out of the ARG format; that again, by its very nature, the multimedia elements of an ARG are designed to last for only a short, finite amount of time, with it being highly unlikely for example that a single one of these fake phone numbers or websites will still be around in even twenty years from now. (And if that doesn't seem so bad to you, try extrapolating the situation from your favorite classic of yesteryear; imagine if the only way to truly understand Sense and Sensibility was to also watch a supplemental live play that ran the year the book first came out, the script of which was burned and forever destroyed the day that Jane Austen died. Yeah, starting to see the problem now?) And so that of course means that authors can't relay any of the story's truly important information just through the multimedia elements alone; and so that tends to make the multimedia elements of such stories mere window dressing, shiny little doodads that have been attached to the self-contained book instead of the truly immersive cross-media experience such a project is supposed to be. And again, this isn't a problem with ARGs, because by their very nature they're designed to be played and forgotten, or at least shuttled off into a passive archived format for those who wish to simply study it after the fact; and so that really does let game designers divulge crucial information within the story exclusively through the multimedia elements alone, making the entire thing a unified whole instead of a book-based Christmas tree with pretty ornaments hanging off it**.

Like I said, despite how today's review may sound, I really don't mean to slag on the creators of this project just to be slagging on them, and as always I at least applaud Hutchins for jumping in there feet-first, for really embracing something so experimental in such a whole-hearted way even knowing full-well all the clunky drawbacks that come with it. It's just that this was such a damn letdown, after letting myself get all worked up over how great I thought it was going to be, a bold success that would not only inspire a new category in the CCLaP archives but a whole new avenue in the arts in general. Instead, it was just a reminder of how far we as a creative society still have to go, before we start understanding the true power of cross-media projects in any kind of sophisticated way, how it's going to still be years if not decades before we finally see a truly brilliant ARG, one that satisfies in transient pop-culture terms even while delivering a timeless work of art. Although I hate saying it, today I am recommending Personal Effects just to the most hardcore lovers of the experimental, those who devour cutting-edge projects just for the sake of them being cutting-edge; all of you in particular will like this project, while the rest of you sadly will not.

Out of 10: 5.8

Read even more about Personal Effects: Dark Art: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*And since we're on the subject -- I know I've given this plea many times here already, but it looks like I'm going to have to again, so here we go...ahem...Dear Middle-Aged White Male Authors: Please stop including black characters in your novels who speak in ebonics and are always spouting homespun advice learned from their grandmama. It always ends up sounding vaguely racist in this way that's hard to describe but extremely easy to spot, kind of like when you all get drunk at wedding receptions and decide that you know how to rap; and the entire thing at the end just demeans us all. Thank you for your attention to this matter.

**And by the way -- seriously, Griffin people, I understand that for the money you're spending on all this, you want to make certain that the whole thing isn't going over the heads of the hillbillies or whatever, but actually printing one of these phone numbers on a fake sticky right on the front cover is about the most unsubtle way in all of human endeavor to reveal what's supposed to be a "secret clue," other than maybe to pay Borders employees to punch customers in the face after they've bought a copy while screaming at the top of their lungs, "DON'T FORGET TO CALL 212-629-1951 WHEN YOU GET HOME!!! DON'T FORGET TO CALL 212-629-1951 WHEN YOU GET HOME!!!" This is yet another detail that made the "Evan Chan" game so successful (and to a lesser extent the equally-loved "i love bees" ARG that they did to promote the videogame Halo 2) -- that in both these cases, the incredibly intelligent and talented staff of 42 Entertainment were allowed to go wild with their ideas for divulging clues, coming up sometimes with distribution channels so diabolically clever (text buried in webpage meta tags, literally sometimes calling key players' home phones in the middle of the night and leaving creepy-sounding clues on their answering machines), it became half the fun of following the ARG in the first place. Please, mainstream publishers, have the courage to sometimes make these "secret clues" actually secret; or at the very least, please stop broadcasting them in such pandering, obvious terms. Believe me, the slack-jawed yokels aren't playing in the first place, so there's no need to keep them happy.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 6:06 PM, July 17, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |