Images courtesy of Level 26
It’s been over a year since CSI creator and executive producer Anthony Zuiker unleashed the grim world of Steve Dark upon readers with the release of his first digi-novel, Level 26: Dark Origins, and on Thursday October 14th, Zuiker is returning to the Level 26 universe with the release of Level 26: Dark Prophecy. The date also marks a CSI-Level 26 crossover, as the “forensics-proof” Level 26 villain, Sqweegel, is scheduled to make an appearance in this week’s episode of CSI. What follows is a look back at the Level 26 franchise along with hints of what’s to come for “Special Circs” agent Steve Dark stemming from an interview with Zuiker about the series.
When Level 26: Dark Origins launched last year, it quickly secured its status as an international and New York Times bestseller, now boasting over 100,000 members at the digi-novel’s website, Level26.com. The novel was peppered with 20 five-minute videos serving as “cyberbridges” in the unfolding narrative. The story centered around Steve Dark’s near-obsessive hunt for Sqweegel, a fastidious serial killer who committed his crimes while wearing a white body condom. Zuiker notes that “the book [Level 26: Dark Origins] was very sexually deviant, very dark . . . and it was vamped that way back then beause we were definitely shooting to do things that were too-hot-for-television.”
During the novel’s concluding cyberbridge, viewers were treated to a tantalyzing glimpse of an empty, black body condom, a prelude to Sqweegel actor Daniel Browning Smith’s entrance into the CSI universe. Thursday’s episode, entitled Sqweegel, will serve as an extended cyberbridge of sorts, linking the events of the first book to the sequel. Zuiker explains that “Black Sqweegel will be on CSI as a forensic-proof killer, and when that particular episode ends, the storyline will continue in Dark Prophecy.”
Both Sqweegel and Steve Dark can trace their origins to the CSI franchise, so the villain’s guest appearance on CSI is somewhat fitting. Zuiker explains that
when you fly back and forth twice a week for ten years from Las Vegas to Burbank and work on the CSI franchise as your first television script there’s a lot of pain involved, so I’ve pretty much put the pain and pressure and stress into my art, which is things like Dark Origins and Dark Prophecy . . . I think in terms of Sqweegel the forensic-proof killer a lot of it has to do with law enforcement giving me a hard time about giving away secrets to people on CSI about getting away with things. It gave me the idea of “what if i made a forensic-proof latex suit for a villain who was a contortionist,” and see if CSI can catch that guy.
Steve Dark, on the other hand, stems from the “personal pain of doing television for ten years on a very high level.”
While Level 26 and Sqweegel are currently synonymous, Dark Prophecy aims to break from that tradition, introducing a new villain, The Tarot Card Killer. Zuiker assured me that “the Tarot Card Killer isn’t as sexually deviant as Sweegel. We’re fascinated about this whole element of tarot cards and the question of fate, especially Steve Dark’s fate . . . the treat for the reader is that the tarot cards, once put together in the celtic cross, will have one unified storyline, one big punchline from the villain that will be exciting to the reader.” Ten different blogs including Dread Central, Suicide Girls, and CSI Files, received these tarot cards along with hidden messages from The Tarot Card Killer over the past few days, hinting at a larger puzzle to be solved.
The sequel also aims to flesh out Steve Dark’s character. One of the ways Zuiker is developing Steve Dark’s character is through Dark Prophecy‘s cyberbridges. In the first book, Dark Origins, cyberbridges were best viewed as they appeared alongside the narrative. While readers who purchased the iPhone app version of the digi-novel were able to seamlessly view the videos as they read, readers experiencing the book version complained that it was difficult to transition from book to video. Dark Prophecy seeks to remedy that issue by trasforming the cyberbridges into a one-hour motion picture providing a separate storyline inside the book’s main narrative focusing on Steve Dark’s past, as told through the framework of a tarot card reading. These eleven cyberbridges are currently being released on Level 26‘s YouTube channel. As part of one of the many contests taking place on the Level 26 blog, two fans were flown out to Los Angeles to appear as extras in Dark Prophecy‘s first cyberbridge. The pair shared their experiences on set.
Zuiker explains that the creative process for Level 26 differs drastically from the process for CSI:
For CSI, you have twelve people in a room and you take three days to put an episode on the board. For [Level 26], it starts out with a ten page thesis by myself, and then we talk with the novelist [Duane Swierczynski] about doing a forty to fifty pager. And we walk through all the storylines, all the characters, we suggest what the digi-novel movie will be for book three, what needs to happen for the campaign . . . there’s a lot of philosophy talk, and a lot of heavy development that will go on.
As a result, a multi-tiered product results where readers can enjoy a traditional reading experience that ignores the cyberbridges, a digi-novel experience that incorporates the cyberbridges, or what Zuiker describes as the ultimate digi-novel experience, using Dark Prophecy‘s upcoming iPad app.
With the iPad app, scheduled for release in a few weeks, readers can watch the cyberbridges in succession, virtually bank evidence in a separate case file, listen to audio files from characters with a fingertap, and interact with the tarot cards. Zuiker predicts, somewhat jokinglu, that “eventually it’ll all be on the tablet anyway, and there won’t be any more books.”
The CSI crossover is just the beginning for Steve Dark. The third book is already scheduled for a 2011 release as part of a deal Zuiker’s Dare to Pass production company made with Dutton books, and is engaged in talks to bring the Level 26 franchise to media including comic books, cable television, and the silver screen. Despite the potential for brand extension, the focus remains on the book. Zuiker explains, “I financed this entire thing and write and direct these movies, and they’re great virally for awareness. The website is great to hold onto your audience and to try and engage them through blogs and through contact, but at the end of the day what’s really important is that the book is great.”
For now, introduce yourself to the world of Steve Dark by reading Level 26: Dark Origins or watching the cyberbridges online, but make sure to schedule in a few hours on the 14th to watch Sqweegel on CSI, and to read Level 26: Dark Prophecy.