ZED.TO has been called an ARG, and has been called transmedia, and it is certainly both of those things, which are kinda sorta the same thing (insofar as they’re conflated by people misusing the terms.) We’re avoiding use these terms in our own literature, because we’re trying to describe the product in a concerete way to a mass audience. But if you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re in the know, and I feel like we owe it to you to explain — what distinguishes this project from the 60,000 other projects being described the same way?
A bit of context: I identify primarily as a game designer, or if you catch me on an off-day, a developer. However, the games I make mostly come in unusual formats. The first game I ever made, in 2006, was a fairly ambitious grassroots ARG. I became heavily invested in the ARG scene at the time, which is many ways was the nascent transmedia scene before anybody was really using the word. I did a bunch of talks and workshops back when The Beast and I Love Bees were still relevant case studies. Although my interests have since turned more towards “gamey” games, I’ve always kept a place in my heart for innovative cross-media storytelling. As the transmedia concept and language began to swell, I kept track of it. So, if you want to have a discussion about this sort of thing, I can definitely do that with you.
On a personal level, ZED.TO is the project I’ve been dreaming about since I wrapped up that first ARG in 2006. That production ran for 2 weeks, had basically no budget, and told a fairly embarrassing story. The temptation to do something similar, but larger, more professional, and with greater artistic integrity has been with me for a long time. At the same time, the state of these things has progressed considerably in those 6 years. The world isn’t dying for yet another ARG, or transmedia fiction. From its inception, ZED has been an ambitious project, demanding a large attention share in order to be successful. To work, ZED needs to stand out; it needs to make a statement within the medium… or medium(s), as it were.
ZED.TO is about theatre.
My collaborators will punch me in the face for saying this, because as theatre people, they insist that ZED.TO is about so much more than theatre, that this is about creating something new. As not-theatre people, I insist that the union of theatre know-how with digital/transmedia sensibilities is something to get excited about. As a field, we are primarily dominated with techies, techies-who-believe-they-are-writers, writers, and filmmakers. We create websites, and videos, and videos that point to websites. Occasionally, we try to create a live event, because those are really very innovative, and we even hire a helicopter to spice it up. Of course, this is the icing on the cake — a project couldn’t live entirely on live events.
Theatre is a curious thing; it’s been chugging along for ages on a seemingly preposterous business model. It persists because there’s something intrinsically valuable to the real, the physical, the living. But theatre as an industry, compared to film, has been notoriously averse to change — perhaps owing to the huge age difference between the two.
We’ve already spoken about how ZED.TO is about transforming theatre. Fundamentally, this means two things: making theatre interactive, and embracing transmedia storytelling. I’ve been reading a lot about the latter lately, and people like James Carter and Max Koknar offer a lot to think about. Max’s advice — “Don’t just write/produce/devise a new play. Build a new world and loose it upon ours. Do it incrementally and make the live performance your premium content.” — is exactly what we’re doing.
There are multiple reasons for theatre and transmedia to have a love affair: it tells a richer story; it’s a cool experiment; it reinvigorates theatre. I’d like to propose that it also reinvigorates transmedia. ARGs have, for some time, been the de facto realization of digital theatre — they’re live, they’re online, they’re a story told by performers unfolding in front of you. Yet, people trying to tell cross-media stories have more or less avoided collaboration with theatre practitioners. This is a huge shame, because theatre has tons of important things to say about visceral storytelling and immersion. What’s more, an interactive show is almost the certainly the best way to offer the greatest degree of storyworld immersion to the individual participant. For all the talk about 360 content, something theatrical is the only truly 360 experience. You simply don’t get better than standing in front of a character, talking to them, face to face. “Of course,” says the ARG designer, “That shit is gold. But it doesn’t work as a core component.” Sure, there are lots of reasons why that’s true, but guess what: this is exactly what theatre-makers are making all the time, and it’s their only component.
ZED.TO is about a journey.
To be sure, we’re not the only ones thinking about this sort of thing. Fatebook, Feeder, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, and more are exploring ways of bringing transmedia and theatre together. From what I’ve seen, though, ZED.TO is a little unique in the way we’re utilizing transmedia. Rather than using different media as a way to allow further examination of the world, or let the story continue on a different platform, our plan is to use the deeper engagement we produce as a catalyst for a more meaningful climactic experience. We want to draw people into the world not merely to provide a more nuanced experience, but to increase their investment in that world. This is important, because ZED.TO is about how that world ends. The moment of cataclysm is the fruition of 8 months of interaction and storytelling, and our overriding goals it make that moment count.
Of course, 8 months is a long time, both in terms of production and participation. One of our challenges right now is setting expectations, which we’ve tried to do by describing February – July as a “ramp up” period. We’re looking for a fairly mass audience, so the high interactivity and low accessibility of an ARG doesn’t work for us. We are building in special opportunities for the truly hard core, but by and large, we have no ambition for ZED.TO to take over your life. We’re more interested in the slow burn — infrequent but regular bursts of interaction. We want ZED.TO to become an implicitly acknowledged reality at the back of your head. But it’s not just about being in the world.
ZED.TO is about choice.
Choice and interaction are two key words we keep returning to in our pitch. One of our primary goals is to really develop the concept of interactive theatre. This becomes particularly relevant when thinking about the transmedia component, because most of that is digital, and interaction is one of the key tenets of the digital revolution. A lot of transmedia work is based on the idea of letting the audience explore most of the world, but not allowing them to affect the world seems like a wasted opportunity.
I’m using the term “affect” with some trepidation. Real, meaningful interaction with a story world is more a holy grail, a lofty vision of perfection than something to truly strive for. However, we can certainly give people an experience that evokes that. We can ask people to make choices as they pass through the world, that feel real to them, and affect their relationship with that world — even if they don’t truly impact the narrative. We are, after all, in the business of smoke and mirrors.