Alternate Reality

[December 2009] I’m not a 13-year-old boy from Western Maine, but I pretended to be one on the internet.

That sounds a lot worse than it really is. It wasn’t an undercover sting to flush out predators. It was part of an alternate reality game (ARG) run by Scribner to promote Under the Dome.

In September, I was asked if I would play Scarecrow Joe McClatchy in this unannounced game. That’s an intriguing aspect of ARGs – there are no big announcements or ads. Instead, subtle hints direct people to certain web sites, or hidden messages must be detected and decoded. Then the game is afoot.

Scarecrow Joe was the pivotal character in this ARG. He was to step out of the pages of the book and become a real person. His primary stomping grounds was his personal blog. Starting weeks before the game launched, I wrote daily blog entries to lay the foundation. We wanted to have a number of elements in place before people discovered the site, including discussions of different kinds of codes that would be used later on in the game. Since Joe had myriad interests, I mixed discussions of cryptography in with talk of skateboarding, Red Sox baseball and science fair.

One of the main conceits of an ARG is “this is not a game.” In fact, that’s the title of a very good novel by Walter Jon Williams that I read earlier this year. In the novel, the puppet master in an ARG (a person who corrals players in the right direction when they seem to be going astray) uses her players to solve a real-life set of mysteries in an process akin to massively parallel computing.

That novel proved to be excellent reference material. It helped establish the boundaries and framework of the alternate reality for me. Scarecrow Joe lived in Chester’s Mill, a small town in Maine that was sealed off by a dome on October 21. He had a life before the dome, and a new reality after. He was not aware of the impending publication of a Stephen King novel about a town in Western Maine cut off by a dome, although he was aware of Stephen King the author and had read some of his books. It’s a fine distinction, but one that I needed to adhere to. As far as Scarecrow Joe was concerned, he was not part of a game.

We had a couple of complications to handle with our ARG. Dome Day, October 21 in King’s book, was a Saturday, which impacted where certain characters were when the town was cut off. Nine-to-fivers weren’t at work in neighboring towns, for example, but Scarecrow Joe’s father was away at a flea market, something he always did on Saturdays. The townspeople didn’t have to deal with closing school for a couple of days.

Also, the plot of King’s novel ended before the day the book was released, November 10, though we wanted to keep the game going beyond publication day. For that reason, we couldn’t stick to the timeline of the book. That and the fact that we didn’t want to divulge the book’s plot, especially not the ending—especially not before the book was published!

So, we decided to be inspired by the book but not enslaved by it. The world of the ARG was a parallel universe to Under the Dome. Some elements were conserved, but we diverged after the dome came down. I was given carte blanche in that regard. All I had to do was hit certain benchmarks and make specific clues and messages available on particular days to keep the game rolling along. The rest of the storyline was up to me.

What does any of this have to do with writing, you might ask. My part in the ARG involved writing from a fictional character’s perspective daily for about two months. I had to inhabit a fictional world and keep it alive in the minds of the participants. In short, it was very much like writing a novel, except I was doing it in front of a live audience and could interact with them.

I also had to “Joe-ify” my writing. The youngster had his own vernacular and speech patterns, so I often had to write at first as me and then translate the text into Joe-speak. I didn’t have to dumb him down, since he was supposed to be supersmart, but I had to make him, well, thirteen. I haven’t been thirteen in a long [long] time! When in doubt, I went back to the book and found passages of his dialog that I could adapt for my purposes. At other times, I reached back into time and revisited the 13 year old me who grew up in a small, rural area not so terribly far from Chester’s Mill, Maine.

The game went live when a link to Scarecrow Joe’s blog appeared on the official web site for Under the Dome. At that point, people still didn’t know it was a game. They just thought it was an interesting bit of promotion. I entertained myself reading what people wrote to and about Joe, including speculation about who was writing the blog. I was pleased that no one suspected it was me, which meant that my real internet persona could act as a shepherd, too, encouraging players with subtle direction.

People started engaging Scarecrow Joe in conversation. Players subscribed to his blog entries and befriended him on King’s message board after he joined. I decided to test out Twitter and quickly discovered the power of that social network – Joe racked up followers on Twitter much faster than he did on the blog and his tweets reached a wider audience.

The puzzles were just for fun in the beginning. Joe mentioned the hidden messages in the icons before commercial breaks on Fringe, for example, and posted links to web pages for the Caesar cipher. Ultimately the puzzles grew more sophisticated, using King’s newly posted pdf of The Cannibals manuscript as a lookup key. Diligent players found messages hidden in the web pages created for Chester’s Mill businesses. Several of those who cracked the final part of the puzzle were rewarded with free books, including a signed limited edition of Under the Dome for the first person to log in to the mystery URL at the end of the trail.

The webmaster was busily scurrying behind the scenes, setting up the puzzles and hiding the clues. All I had to do on a daily basis was be a rather precocious thirteen-year-old computer geek with a fondness for skateboarding. I didn’t have to create Scarecrow Joe out of whole cloth – I had the character and some of the situations from the novel to work from. However, I did have to interpret the character, put him in situations that weren’t in the book and interact with real people who wanted to strike up conversations with him. Most played along with the premise that they were interacting with a fictional character. One challenge for me was in handling people who wouldn’t or couldn’t, who insisted on breaking the wall between the fantasy of the ARG and reality. The ones who wanted to talk about events in the novel that hadn’t yet happened or who wanted Scarecrow Joe to pass messages to Stephen King.

Scarecrow Joe was part of my daily routine for nearly two months, and it was a challenge to keep him from encroaching on my regular writing time. I had to keep him compartmentalized, but I needed to keep him alive, too. Constant care and feeding required. Some days it was easy to come up with something for him to ramble about—other days it was difficult. I didn’t have a script, so I was flying by the seat of my pants.

At the end of the day, it was a fun experience, putting on Joe’s raggedy sneakers and wandering about in Chester’s Mill before and after the dome came down. In the final analysis, it was a game, and my part involved writing a fictional character confronted by unusual circumstances. Not so very different from the rest of what I do as a writer.

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