SXSW Interactive: Brian Clark of GMD Studios
Editor’s note: For those of you who played Art of the Heist last year, or who are currently enjoying Who Is Benjamin Stove?, you might already know about GMD Studios, the driving force behind some of the biggest Alternate Reality Games to date. Brian Clark, who co-founded the company in 1995, has become a valuable and active member of the ARG community. His energy and creativity have helped in taking the genre to new heights, and Dee Cook was lucky enough to sit down with Brian during the SXSW Interactive festival for a few words.
What is your favorite movie?
My favorite movie? Probably my favorite movie of all time would be Bladerunner. [Ed. Note: Possible spoilers for Bladerunner.]
The director’s cut or the original version?
Oh, definitely the director’s cut. No narration, no Mickey Spillane voice-over with the extra wrinkle that the Bladerunner’s a replicant (Oh, no, spoiler alert! Spoiler alert! I spoiled the movie!)
Did you see the narrated version first?
Do you think that made you appreciate the second one better?
No. I think once they took the voice-over out, it left more to speculation. Peoples’ motivations and machines’ motivations became less clear. We didn’t need to have Harrison Ford tell us about Rutger Hauer dying. We could just watch that scene and not have to say, “Maybe in the end he valued any life, even his own.” I think that the film company underestimated the intelligence of the film-going public.
I read somewhere that Harrison Ford said he did the narration badly deliberately so they’d have to cut it.
Really? That’s a great detail – a little sabotage.
True, but I don’t know whether it’s an urban myth or not.
Yeah, but it’s interesting.
What is your best ARG moment?
I think probably Rose defending Virgil. Rose is like the sole voice saying, “Maybe Virgil’s just misunderstood.” Watching this one person care so much about this character and become a sort of apologist had some real subtlety to it. I know that a lot of times in Heist we starting writing Virgil for Rose…
Oh yeah! We were like, “Oh, Rose will like this.” We’d play into that… I think equally interesting was having to completely rewrite the end of Heist when Coachella didn’t go through.
I had read that one of the missions was designed for failure, but it wasn’t originally supposed to be Coachella.
Were you able to transfer some of what was supposed to happen there to another mission?
We wrote a whole new villain. Emile/Cybergosse as the villain didn’t even get conceived until after Coachella fell through. We had to sit down and think, “Okay, if they didn’t get this SD card, who would have gotten it?” We just went through the list of the characters and said, “Hey, you know, it would be kind of interesting if Emile was Cybergosse. There’s nothing inconsistent about that; let’s try that wrinkle out.” The guy who ended up playing Emile was Ben Rock, who was the director of all the Easter egg films. He was just in one photo of that birthday party that Virgil had and we said, “Guess what, Ben? You’re our villain now!” Little did he know he was going to take a laptop to the face later. He said, “I signed up as a director!”
Not a stunt person!
How much pressure did that put on the production team not only to have the Coachella failure, but to have to rewrite?
A lot. The great thing about interactive narrative is that instead of waiting to get audience feedback until you’re done, you get it all along. It’s a little scary as a storyteller to give yourself permission to rewrite a whole story. You can imagine, we went to McKinney Silver and said, “We have a new villain!” They said, “Uhhhh…” I think that once you get used to that, though, it’s actually great. In the end you can kind of give yourself permission to say, “Yeah, I think we’ll probably rewrite the ending a little one more time.” And it’s fine. You accept that that’s possible, that it’s not a disaster to rewrite stuff based on what has actually happened.
Looking back, are you glad that it happened?
Oh sure! Doesn’t it all feel like it was coherent? It doesn’t feel like there was a minor meltdown in production, right? In reality what happened is, when they dropped off the cars they didn’t unlock them. The car was there, the SD card was in the car, but there was no way for the players to get in the car.
For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.
Exactly. For want of a nail, you write a new villain.
Can you give us any news on current or future projects?
Well, people seem to be enjoying this ARG called Who is Benjamin Stove? I’ve heard it’s a lot of fun. We’ve got some more things we’re talking to people about. Certainly I think the biggest difference between this year and last year was last year you had to sort of trick sponsors into doing an ARG. “Gaming” was maybe sort of a dirty word that made people think that the audience was all going to be 16 year old boys.. all these sort of stereotypes. Now agencies are coming and saying, “Hey, we want to do an ARG,” or asking for it as a product by name. On the Benjamin Stove project, the client is very aware of everything that’s going on and is always asking, “How do we make sure that the ARGers feel like they’ve had a great experience? How do we make sure that they see this as a great ARG?” Whereas before, people were a little scared of the game texture, now there’s a sort of wholesale embracing of it. I think that that’s going to turn into a lot more projects, a lot more ARGs.
What do you attribute the the more openness to? Past successes?
Yes, I think so, and especially metrics of successes. Like in the Heist campaign, the fact that McKinney’s talked about a lot of the numbers like how many people were engaged and what the costs were. Conversely I have another client who did a Superbowl commercial and they drove 15,000 visitors to their website out of a half-million dollar television commercial.
And that was just 30 seconds.
30 seconds. 30 seconds of attention for a half-million dollars. When you start comparing that to the kind of stuff that happens with ARGs, you find something that’s far more immersive, far more engaging, and think about the kind of ARG you can make on the budget of one Superbowl commercial. People are willing to take risks, they’re willing to experiment, and they’re especially willing to experiment when they feel like they’re walking down a path that’s been trailblazed at least a little bit. It makes it seem a little less risky to them. Especially when you’ve got companies like Microsoft and Audi, consumer-brand companies, hopping into this arena.
One of the interesting things about Benjamin Stove is that nobody has any clue, at this point, who the sponsor is.
Was that the sponsor’s idea or was it yours?
Our idea. We’ve always preached to people that you can lightly brand things; you’re either aware of who the sponsor is or you aren’t. What we’re hoping with Stove is that people will find out who the sponsor is (you can rest assured that no marketer is going to leave something unbranded the whole time) and the same kind of goodwill will transfer over, even though there hasn’t been a logo on every page and a constant reinforcement of who it is. ARG communities aren’t dumb. When that detail comes along, they’ll notice it, they’ll write about it, and they’ll talk about it, and we’ll end up at the same thing. I think it’s an experiment in just how lightly you can brand something and still get the effectiveness out of it. I think audiences are all for that. There’s no reason to dumb things down.
If you could design any ARG you wanted to, what would it be about?
I certainly don’t have anything to announce yet, but I’m talking to people about a Philip K. Dick project and seeing whether or not there’s a good fit there. I think if there’s any one author who personifies the kind of fiction that ARGers love, it’s Philip K. Dick. All of his characters are stuck in their own alternate realities. They’ve had the rug pulled out from underneath them and have had to assess what they believe about who they are, what their reason is in the universe, why things are happening, and Philip K. Dick’s themes are hinged around the idea that reality is a social consensus; there’s no such absolute thing as reality. Reality is foldable. There’s a great Philip K. Dick novel called The Man in the High Tower which is set in an alternate reality where the Axis powers won World War Two and the U.S. is occupied. It’s divided in half, half of it’s occupied by Germany and half of it’s occupied by Japan. The characters in this story end up becoming galvanized by a piece of fiction, a fictional novel about a world in which the Allies won World War Two. This idea that your perceptions of reality can shift, and that the lines between fiction and hallucination might be thin..
Like the abyss looking back at you.
Absolutely. I’m really fascinated by stories like that that don’t have to be about invasions or aliens or ticking time bombs or kidnappings. I think there’s an opportunity to do things that are much richer than that in the interactive space if people are willing to take those risks as a storyteller.
What new technology or ideas would you like to include in future ARGs?
Video community. I’m starting to think that discussion boards are an interesting way to do community but not the penultimate. I’m really looking forward to doing an ARG project where the basis of player community might be more immediate or visual, auditory. Look at what people are starting to do with video blogging. I start to wonder if there are ways for the community of players to communicate with each other beyond just the written word.
How would that affect future generations who would want to look back and research these past ARGs? Are they archive-able?
Sure. Aren’t television shows archive-able? You can always make a DVD of them or keep them up on the web or transcripts. I think the real excitement is that, especially for anyone in the video game generation, we’re used to the television set being something you can manipulate, whether it’s an XBox or Playstation or an Atari 2600 or Palm. We’re used to the idea that this video stream is something we should be able to fiddle with and adjust. I love the idea that that will become more and more common in the next five to six years. I think people who are able to figure out ways to build video-based community will create something that feels even deeper or richer than a message board, which I think sort of favors the well-spoken. That makes it a little less accessible than the commonality of conversation. I think some people become intimidated by the idea of trying to communicate thoughts in text.
It can go either way, too. There are some people who are better in text than they are in person.
Sure. I think that’s one reason why the ARG community is so appreciative of good writing. Essentially their participation in it is writing as well. But when you think about – my dad sends me videotape all the time now of family members or old movies he’s dug up and digitized on his computer. There’s this idea of communicating with someone through video that’s maybe not even of you, as in, “Hey son, I’m sending you this video message to talk to you.” Instead it’s, “Here’s your sister’s school play.” That stuff is always intensely emotional. Video has a way to be intensely emotional that text asks more from a reader in order to accomplish.
Video engages more of your senses – not only sight but sound.
And not just that but the power of the human face. The human face is such a subtle thing that provides so many different layers of context in one line. I’m a huge fan of the Battlestar Galactica series, and part of what I love about it is the acting. So many of the important items that happen aren’t actually in the lines of the script but are in the silent moments between the characters.
One thing that I’ve noticed lately is the rotoscoped commercials, and you can tell the difference between that and a cartoon character, with all the different twitches and head shakes and nods.
Yep. And then rotoscoping, where you’ve got the cartoon but there’s also something more organic about it.
It’s almost eerie to watch these cartoon characters that look like people act.
Our brains are wired to interpret facial expressions from other humans. A huge portion of our brain is all about that. It makes sense that that’s a powerful dramatic device. We’re so used to trying to read that context in a normal conversation between two people. It’s the same thing with children. You ever notice how little babies, who can’t communicate or don’t necessarily understand all the context, but they can read and imitate faces?
I think the built-in focal length for a baby is 18 inches, so that a nursing newborn can focus on their mother’s face.. so you start out that way – hard-wired.
Absolutely! Anything that’s hard-wired into us like that seems like a great way to handle storytelling, right? It would be natural and intuitive to people.
Thanks so much to Brian Clark for taking time out of his hectic South by Southwest Interactive schedule to give us this interview!