The In-Between Time (or when one gets addicted to LiveFeed on Facebook…)

I’ve been trying to think of a good blog post to write. It’s been a slow month, writing-wise. The only serious project I’ve been working on is prepping Willow up for the 2nd draft. The past couple of weeks, I’ve been finalizing names, places, histories, backgrounds. I’ve also put up a new word counter, seen to the right. Everything should be set for me to start writing the new draft by March 2.

But other than that, I haven’t been doing much. I’ve been toying with a story, but I’ve pretty much been slacking in the one-story-every-week goal I set at the beginning of the year. At first, I figured I needed a bit of recuperating after the intense writing session I had in January. So I played a couple casual games. Got caught up on a bunch of short story ezines I’ve been meaning to read. Did some maintenance on Facebook. Did some more maintenance on Facebook.

Around the time I found myself sitting and watching the LiveFeed on Facebook, I realized I was no longer in the Recuperating Stage. I was in the Slacking Off stage.

It’s a weird time to be in when I’m between writing projects. Granted, I should be focusing all my hard work on Willow, but the stuff I’m doing doesn’t really feel like writing, although it’s just as important. It’s more like maintenance stuff, getting all the players in place and making sure my character has gray eyes instead of green and the name of his sister is "Daphne", not "Ashley". Therefore, it doesn’t really feel like I’m writing.

Likewise with the story I’m toying with. It’s more freewriting than anything, which is what I needed to do, just letting my mind and thoughts wander while my mind plays with story ideas. But it’s not like I’m getting to the meat and nitty gritty of a story, like what makes the story tick and what not. What I’m doing is pretty much mental doodling—not really serious.

So I’m at this weird in-between place in my writing, where I’m between serious projects. On the one hand, it’s an okay place, because it allows my mind to replenish its creative flow (I was about to write "juices", but then that got me to thinking about simmering meat, which got me thinking weirdly enough about cannibalism, because I watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory last night and Johnny Depp had this great line—okay, creative "juices" seemed just to creepy to write).

But on the other hand, it opens me up to tons and tons of distraction. Like watching Facebook’s LiveFeed. Because I really, really want to know what my friends are doing at that very exact moment

What it is really, is that I have a productivity vacuum inside my head. When it’s pointed towards a writing project, yeah, I’m with it, I’m in the groove, things are rolling along nicely. But when it’s not directed towards a project, then it’s directed towards any old thing, which means I spend three days trying to escape out of a locked room… 

(Actually, you’ll be amazed at how addicting these escape-the-room games can get. Especially since the more you play, the more tricks you pick up, the easier the games get, which means you start scrambling towards harder puzzles…what? What do you mean I’m digressing agai–)

The point is…procrastination.

And the other point is…ummm….sometimes it’s good. Because when you recognize that you’ve had too much of it, it means that you’ve had enough rest and recuperation and you’re setting yourself up for your next project, which is good, because you can now look forward to your next project with eagerness, and it means that you can start looking at all the stories you have sitting in the sketching stage and think, "which of these stories can I flesh out more?" And you start thinking and start writing and before you know it, you got yourself another project to do. Which is good.

I think I’m ready for that now. And I think I need to wean myself off the LiveFeed. Too much Facebook can be a bad thing. Besides, the Facebook RSS Feed is far more useful.

Well. That was a nice rambling, makes-no-sense post. But considering that it’s something that I did after a week of nothing, hey, I’m feeling pretty productive. 2nd draft of Willow, here I come!

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And what did YOU do this weekend? Played an ARG, of course!

Here it is, Wednesday. And I am not doing any work on Willow. Why?

Because I can’t stop reading about this stupid alternate reality game.

Last weekend, I watched “Artificial Intelligence: AI” for the first time. It was okay. A little creepy in parts. I totally understand why people say it should’ve ended 20 minutes sooner; but at the same time, I understand why it ended the way it did. Overall, I liked it.

But while reading the IMDB entry, I noticed one bit in the trivia:

“The elaborate series of promotional websites included information about the characters’ lives after their last appearances in the film. For instance, one website revealed that Martin Swinton grew up to be an architect who, after being traumatized by David’s disappearance, spent his career building sentient AI houses.”

That intrigued me. After all, the movie mainly focuses on David, the boy-robot who can love. I was pretty bummed that the movie didn’t follow up on David’s family after he ‘disappeared’. Such an event would have emotional consequences for them. (And yes, I know I’m including a spoiler for the movie while at the same time being vague. If you haven’t watched the movie, then watch the movie. It’s interesting.) So I figured if I go to this so-called Cloudmakers website, it should include some information on what happened to David’s family in the movie. I thought it would be a webpage or two, at least.

Webpage? Turns out to be a lot more than that.

In 2001, a bunch of Microsoft folk got together and created an interactive online game using puzzles buried fake webpages, journal entries, emails, faxes, voice mails and the promotional posters of AI. Through all of these, they told an elaborate story of love, hate, betrayal, murder, insanity and hacking–not bodily hacking, but website hacking. All this set in the world of AI, where robots are gaining personalities and consciousness for themselves. The game ran from April to July 2001, but there is a well-documented guide that details the entire story from start to finish. And better yet, the website hosts nearly all the webpages used in the game. So basically, you can still ‘play the game’ for yourself.

So that’s how I wasted a whole weekend. And Monday. And Tuesday…and, today, I guess.

Part of the thing is that I’ve never seen anything so elaborate used to tell a story. Well, yes, I heard about such websites games before, mostly lame, obvious commercial tie-ins to movies or products that are featured prominently in the story. This game is different in that it is telling an actual story. A massive complex story (so much that the game has been nicknamed “The Beast”).

And the story’s good. Real good. It starts off with the boating accident of a man named Evan Chan, whose personal homepage you can visit here. From all accounts, it looks like an actual webpage of a man who lived, had a family, loved, life, enjoyed boating. You get pictures of his family and everything, including links to his company and to family friends, Jeanine and Laia Salla, who may be connected with Evan more than you think. Jeanine is mentioned in the AI movie credits as a ‘Sentient Machine Therapist’. Following the webpages, you learn that Laia suspects that Evan’s death wasn’t accidental and that foul play was somehow involved. And we get our first puzzle that will take you to an interesting letter…

I’m not going to go into much detail–if you want to see for yourself, read the guide. But the websites and the clues and the puzzles work to pull you in, where you act as both sleuth and observer. And you start to forget that this is a game promoting a movie–the movie itself is more of a foundation, a surrounding environment for the game and its characters, both human and artificial. When the movie characters do show up in the story, even they are characters in their own right rather than supporting characters from the movie. It’s like…it’s like a fanfic.

Take that, Enter the Matrix video game that wouldn’t load on my computer.

What really impressed me about the whole thing was the writing. Obviously, the story used different formats to tell the story from puzzles to emails to players calling phone numbers to listen to voice mails. But the writing! Take, for instance, one of the ways you got into the game. On one of the billboards and a few trailers, there are notches in the words that correspond to a phone number (don’t ask me how). If you call the number, you will get a message that directs you to a website that spawns an email message for you to send. Then on a certain date, you get an email back:

“Once upon a time there was a young man who dreamed of the sea. The waves, he thought . . . the waves beat like the world’s heart, crashing and hissing against the shore.

Crash and hiss.
Crash and hiss.

He loved the sound of the swell as it slapped and gasped against the hull of his boat.

Slap and gasp.
Slap and gasp.

And he was thinking about the rocking ocean, gentle as a mother’s arms, at the very moment he was murdered.

A mother’s arms.
A mother’s arms. “

“Slap and gasp”…Man! That’s good!

You get pages written in hacker-speak. Transcript style interviews. Rambling diatribes. Alice-in-Wonderland nursery rhymes riddle taunts. A written analysis on a woman slowly sinking into insanity. Letters written before someone’s death (and by the way, to the person who wrote the last Svetlana letter–I’m so not worthy to be a writer. <much bowing and scraping> So not worthy, so not worthy…and I’m never going to take a bath again…) So much good writing here that doesn’t translate well in book form. This game shows that not only webfiction can be done, it can be done well. (It certainly helps that the head writer, Sean Stewart, is a science fiction/fantasy writer.)

Well. I certainly didn’t expect this to turn into a review of a now defunct webgame. I was going to bemoan the fact that I wasted a good part of the week reading and absorbing this thing. That means no writing. No reading of Willow. No looking for markets for “She’s All Light”. And no cleaning. No laundry. No emptying of the dishwasher.

Oy.

But you know, I just need to process this. This whole game was a wonderful way to get a story across. And just think–this was all done in 2001. Before YouTube. Before Twitter. Before broadband. Imagine what would happen if they released that game now? It boggles the mind. Of course, there are now ARGs all over the place, as well as their cousins MMORPGs. None as complex as “The Beast”, but who knows? Course, I got dishes threatening to top over onto the floor, so I think this will do for now. Maybe I’ll use an ARG as a treat once I kick myself into writing again.

Ah, so glad I got that out of my system. Now I can get to work again. At least, until the next new fad hits me.

I don’t think I’ll watch any movies for the rest of the week.

Saturday Fun: Inanimate Alice

“My name is Alice. I am eight years old.”

And thus begins “Inanimate Alice“, an interactive story/game that I found through the Jay is Games website. Alice tells her story through moving snapshots, journaled words and haunting music. We never see Alice, but we know that she has lived all over the world, her parents may or may not be involved in some type of shadowy employment, and she keeps herself entertained through her ramped up phone/ipod gizmo called a “ba-xi”, which she uses to create a playmate called Brad.

Each chapter (there are currently four) contains a mini-game that’s not essential to win in order to finish the story. My favorite is Episode 3: Russia, where you collect nesting dolls. The narrative gets a little dark sometimes–from Alice’s anxiety as she waits for her parents to come home in Italy, to going through an abandoned laberinthine building in England. But the darkness doesn’t get too dark; just enough to add atmosphere to a wonderful story.

I wonder if anyone remembers “Madeline’s Mind”, an interactive game from Digital Planet that came out when Java was brand new. “Inanimate Alice” reminds me a lot of that old game in its haunting play, its feeling of loneliness. But Alice is beautiful in that we start to forget that it’s a just a game and we began to connect with her, all her fears and hopes, and her joy too.

Go play “Inanimate Alice“. Right now.