Sunday, April 12, 2015

Interactive Fiction and Fan Transmedia, Circa 1997

Today I belatedly discovered on Gizmodo a happy little history of a project I worked on back at the dawn of the interwebs: "The Secret Douglas Adams RPG That People Have Been Playing for 15 Years."

In the mid-'90s I worked as the web producer for The Digital Village, a multimedia company whose first product was a CD-ROM game titled (in the grammatically clunky but franchise-forward marketing spirit of Tom Clancy's Splinter CellDouglas Adams's Starship Titanic.

During the many moons the game was in development, we decided to help Douglas's fans cope with the suspense by creating a series of in-fiction websites – which eventually turned out to be one of the earliest examples of an alternate reality game.

The intergalactic travel agency website Starlight Travel was the first chapter, written by Michael Bywater and coded by Yoz Grahame. We then popped that propaganda with the "accidental" leak of a password to the Star-Struct Inc. (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Starlight Lines Corp.) Starship Titanic Construction Intranet. Yoz slapped together a rudimentary "StarStruct Employee Forum", the party started, and it's been fan-fiction-tastic for going on two decades since.

As long-time forum inhabitant Carolyn Wilborn wrote to Yoz when the site was in danger of falling victim to the dot-com bust:
Many, and maybe most, people watch TV to relax. They want to be told a story. All of this is well and good, but in my experience with the Forum, I saw something far more interesting. While the producers and programmers work to find a way for us to play with their creations, we are busy building our own. The StarStruct Employee Forum is interactive fiction. We didn't sit around and discuss what the game will be like or how we liked the book. We created characters, we put them on the ship, we invented storylines and conflicts, and we wrote a kind of story. It was often chaotic and frustrating, but it was (is) great.
I've been thinking a lot about this kind of interactive storytelling lately, with a project in the works aiming to mash up live theatre, interactive digital effects, and online co-creation. But when you're cooking up something new, it's always good to be reminded that we didn't start the fire...