Literary ARG!: Raw Shark Texts


A couple of weeks ago I toddled along to the Sydney Writers Festival to see a UK author speak. I wanted to ask Steven Hall about his RawSharkTexts website, which seems a great extension of the storyworld of his novel Raw Shark Texts. The novel — ‘a science fiction, romance, thriller, adventure and mystery’ – is described as follows:

[A] 20-something named Eric Sanderson wakes up one day in a house in England with no memory of his past. By following a series of clues, he soon discovers that he has lost the woman he loved and that he’s being pursued through an alternate world of ideas and concepts by a giant shark made of words, who is trying to devour his memory.

Not only does he have the great website, but he has done some nifty things:

The visual artist-turned writer had always envisioned the book as having a life beyond the page. The book’s “nice little tricks and traps,” as Hall calls them, include a 50-page flip-book in the middle of the novel depicting the approaching shark, chapter titles that allude to other books, special editions with extra chapters, a limited number of books printed with coloured ink, and a character from Hall’s next novel-in-progress who appears only in the Greek version of The Raw Shark Texts. Even the title is a game — a play on “Rorschach tests.” [source]

I must say, I want every version of the book! The different versions of the book with coloured ink reminds me too of Mark Z. Danielewski’a colour versions of House of Leaves. There will also be a trailer of Hall’s novel, and the article I just cited mentions Harper Collins’ trailers for books. It is good to see Harper Collins creating trailers for books, but frankly I prefer the book trailers created by VidLit. I’ve been following their trailers for a couple of years and always find them entertaining.

But anyway, I caught up with Steven after his talk at the festival nd asked him about his website. He was surprised and thrilled to see someone was interested. So, we chatted about the site, what parts were his idea and what were the publishers. And then he mentioned that he actually has an ‘alternate reality game’ ARG for the book! Well, you could of wiped me off the floor as they say. He told me about how he got the idea from the perpetual (though maybe not so anymore) ARG Perplex City and the different sites it involves. I would love to tell you about the journey (I haven’t been all the way but the beginning is pretty easy). So, I’ll leave it up to you to play: The ARG starts at this site:

What I enjoyed about it was that it gave me a way to experience the novel just as the protagonist in a way. What you do on the net is the story at the beginning of the novel. So, rather than prefiguring the narrative or continuing it (which would also be good!), it adapts it. An ARG adaptation of a novel. Nice. It seems the experience can have a good resonance either way: if you experience the journey online and then read the book you’ll reveal in the familiarity, and vice versa. It seems to be though, that it is more exciting to have read the book and then do it online. I argue that transmedia projects should start with a fixed media setting the storyworld and then move into interaction as a deeper and personal experience of it. But back to the game. It is also (or more so?) pitched at marketers and booksellers. Here is the experience by one journalist Rachel Giese:

For several weeks, novelist Steven Hall and his publishers have been playing games with me. First was the request, which arrived by e-mail, to take an online inkblot test (the results indicated a mild case of paranoia — and with what came next, no wonder). Then I received a typewritten letter in the mail with the ominous greeting, “First things first, stay calm.” It was sent to me by me, or at least, according to the signature, “The First Rachel Giese” and I advised myself to consult a Dr. Randle about my memory loss.

A few days later, yet another letter confirmed my membership in something called the Unspace Exploration Committee. That was followed by a message typed on a business card that read, “I need to speak to you,” and a telephone number. When I called, I got a recorded message from Dr. Randle advising me not to read any letters I might receive from myself and warning me not — “under any circumstances” — to read a book called The Raw Shark Texts. [source]

This ARG-style campaign to booksellers and readers is not the first however. DoubleDay undertook a fairly extensive campaign in 2005 for John Twelve Hawks’ The Traveller which I have described parts of here. There have also been books that have websites that are integrated into the novel. Cathy’s Book for instance, which is described by Elan Lee of 42 Entertainment as follows:

Cathy’s Book is another wild experiment. It’s on the New York Times bestseller list right now, which is very exciting for us. That sort of validates a lot of the assumptions that we made about the product. It’s a very, very early step. You buy the book, and it serves the absolute goal of being a book. It’s entertaining to sit down and read the thing. When someone says, I called Joe to see what the deal was with blah, well, there’s his phone number, you can call Joe yourself and see what the deal is with blah. It’s kind of like fiction enhancements–just a little bit more real. When we talk about a photograph that Cathy grabbed and tore up, as you flip through the book, there is that photograph, torn up in pieces, and the fun part is you can put them back to together and flip it over and see a phone number on the back, which you can call, which leads to the next part. But the interactive model kind of ends there. There’s no mystery that you can solve that the book won’t on it’s own. [Gamasutra]

What I also find interesting about Steven’s ARG is the fact that he came up with the idea and worked on creating it, along with all the other elements mentioned. This artist-led approach to cross-media is akin to what Trent Reznor did with the Year Zero Project for the NiN album. You really can tell the difference between multiple medium extensions that are an expression of the artist and those that are not. This is the big change we’re going to see over the next few years: more and more creators coming out with trans/cross-media projects that are a natural extension of what THEY are interested (not what they’re told to be interested in). The next step will be to create projects that are transmedia from the core. Projects that are not self-contained extensions across mediums.  But for now, wohoo! Steven.

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