Last week, as the Artifex Union's (mostly successful) bid to halt all digital production of media came to an end, the floodgates were opened and properties that had been stalled were finally released to the public. This month, we look at the most intriguing of these: AlephStudio's transmedia experience, The Widow in Red, a trilogy told in three parts across three different mediums: movie, book, and game. It's film noir with an anime edge, all in glorious 3D augmented reality.
The Widow In Red is a triple release, the first of its kind. First, there is a movie, a film noir piece relating the story of Mick Johnson, a Chicago private eye with a eye for the dames and a passion for the ponies. He's run afoul of the mob and is holed up in his office, trying to figure out where his next meal is coming from, and whether Capone's boys will be coming for him that night, or if they'll give him a pass. He is visited by Richard Brasingthwaite, man of society and wealth, and asked to follow his much younger and prettier wife whom he suspects is having an affair. Second is a book, which picks up the story a year later as Johnson attempts to extract himself from the trouble which occurs in the movie, Finally, the third piece is an augmented reality game (ARG), where the player dons a pair of special glasses, jacks in a pair of earbuds, and sets out in his or her local surrounds to find clues to clear Johnson's name.
It is impossible to review this without certain base-level spoilers. You have been warned. Turn back now.
This release fascinates me on several levels. The scope and detail of the plotting across all three components is staggering. The year is supposed to be 1928, but it is not a 1928 that you've ever seen before. The hooch wars are in full swing, but you'll notice something different from the get go: odd tech pervades the novel. This is film noir meets anime meets Tesla. Electro-katanas and derringers, fedoras and ninja robots, the feeling is a sort of Noir punk, a logical extension of the Gatsbytech fad (which was an extension of Steampunk, for those keeping score at home), but polished and smooth. While at first there's a bit of cognitive dissonance as Richard Brasingthwaite asks his samurai to wait outside when entering Johnson's office, the transitions and melding of cultures after that is so well done that you stop questioning and simply accept the world you are shown.
Johnson, played by a slightly digitally retouched Bill Pullman, is a down on his luck private investigator who is about three days from losing his office, which is also his home since his last girlfriend kicked him out. As already mentioned this fits the noir stereotype to a T; tired, dishevelled, half in the bottle and desperate for work. Enter Richard Brasingthwaite, banker and man about society. Brasingthwaite, (Kenneth Branagh) explains that he believes his wife is having an affair and wants to have her followed. Johnson names his price, and sets about tailing the lovely Georgia Jennings-Brasingthwaite (Dakota Fanning). Other stars make cameo appearances, from James Gandolfini as Al Capone and Josh Brolin as Elliot Ness to porn starlet Ambrosia Beaujolais as Johnson's estranged sister. It is a rich and talented cast, and one that makes the whole experience come alive for the audience.
I do not want to give away the delightful twists and turns of the case, so let me say this: as par for the course, nothing is what it seems, and our P.I. winds up in over his head and in serious trouble at the end of the film. And here's the genius: upon finishing the movie, the watchers are given a link to print the book to a local printer or order it online to continue the story. The book and game are sold as a package, so when the book is printed or sent to the reader, the glasses come with it (or can be picked up with a voucher from a local big-box store). You are instructed to read the book first, then play the game.
The book picks up a year after the original story, with Mick Johnson on trial for murder. The book is penned by genre veteran Jared Axelrod and rings with authenticity. The author never merely leans on cliché to make his point, there is always a fresh point of view, a descriptive twist of phrase which keeps the narrative moving at a fast clip. The Noir-punk setting comes shining through, right down to a sword duel between our hapless protagonist and a party which we will not name at this time. The prose is equal parts Dashiell Hammett, Philip K. Dick, and Harlan Ellison: hard-nosed, twisted, and unrelenting. By the time I finished the novel, I was exhausted, but I was dying to find out what happened next.
The next morning, I put on the glasses, and the world changed.
To truly appreciate the sophistication of the game, you really need to understand the history of Augmented Reality games. They've been around as experimental phenomena since 2000 when Bruce H. Thomas released ARQuake as a proof of concept. AR would mostly be a set of university experiments until 2008 when Wikitude released the first AR travel browser for the G1 phone. As the power of smartphones and tablets grew, so did the use of AR: by viewing the real world through the camera and using the GPS, compass, and accelerometer, the device's camera image could be overlaid with markers, text, and any number of inventive whimsical uses. By 2011, augmented reality was making inroads in stores (being able to view clothes on your person without trying them one), on television (a common use was the first-down line during NFL games), and in games (such as the Nintendo 3DS or the iPhone game Paranormal Activity:Sanctuary). As technology advanced, so did AR. The holy grail was to miniaturize the technology and combine it with sophisticated 3D rendering to build an immersing virtual world overlay on the real world.
AlephStudio has nearly found the grail. To begin, you put on the glasses, and the world around you is transformed. A microcam is concealed in the bridge of the glasses and the the game is run via a microchip in the frame which speaks over the local 6G network to AlephStudio's servers. You sign in and then the game begins. I was completely unprepared for the sophistication of the gaming technology. The microcam in the bridge of the glasses scans your field of view and overlays images of the game world over your surroundings. Furniture is transformed into their period counterparts. Colours are changed, patterns are altered. Looking out of windows reveals not your home town, but the streets of 1928 Noir-punk Chicago. You put in the headphones and the surround sound takes over...a knocking on 'whichever door you are closest to' starts the game.
So you are standing there in 1929 Chicago, which bears an uncanny similarity to wherever you are in reality, when you hear the knock. You cross through real space to open a real door; there before you is Dakota Fanning as Georgia, pointing a gun at your chest. Let me tell you, it was so real, right down the scent of her perfume (sprayed from micro-atomizer in the frames of the glasses) that my heart skipped a beat.
The wonder doesn't stop there. The program will adapt the map of the game to wherever you are. This means that if a scene needs to take place in a bar, it will scan the metadata for your area looking for a bar of the right size, shape, and distance from your location and guide you to it. Once there, the software takes over, repainting the surroundings, inserting the cast of players which are needed for the scene. You will find clues, interrogate suspects, and even run from the cops along the way. Bioware's TrueChoice engine governs the way the plot evolves, and the player has the freedom either to explore at will or to follow the path of the game as originally plotted. As you might expect, there are hundreds of possible endings to the game. I have only experienced five thus far, and while some were not as satisfying as others, each was a memorable experience.
All in all, the total package offers about 30 hours of entertainment when you consider the movie, book, and game together as a single unit playing straight through without exploring all the game has to offer. If the player chooses to follow the sub-plots and back alleys, that entertainment time stretches into the hundreds of hours. One of the real thrills of the game is the return of the cast from the movie, all there in front of you, in full 3D augmented reality. Each encounter would have had me on the edge of my seat if I were watching it, but I was IN THE GAME, and the excitement was truly surprising, even for a jaded hack like me.
Did I mention there is a multiplayer mode? Oh yes, friends, there is a multiplayer option. Break out the costumes and get ready for a treat. The multiplayer scenarios are either Mick Johnson's case files or more nebulous plots that are reminiscent of the How To Host A Murder games that were popular around the turn of the century. The software within the glasses will use 6G, WiFi, or Bluetooth to pair with your friends' glasses, drawing a shared world which is just short of having a personal holo-deck. No real world costumes? No problem; the game contains a virtual butler or fashion consultant who will fit you in virtual clothes from the AlephStuidio in-world store. Buy an outfit that you like and when you wear it, other players with the glasses will see you outfitted in your new duds. Be careful, though...virtual clothing coverage is a little buggy and the rapid movement of limbs causes the clothes to fall out of sync with the body. All I'm saying is, unless you're using these virtual outfits in the privacy of your own home, be sure to wear some real clothing underneath. Remember: the real world still sees you as you really are.
I am aware that this review has been uncharacteristically gushing up to this point. The Widow in Red is a monumental achievement, and I do believe that it will forever alter the way we perceive fiction moving forward. That being said, there are a few problems which, considering the scope of the attempt, seem almost petty to bring up, But let's face it---I'm a critic. Petty is my bread and butter.
The processor in the glasses has tremendous difficulty with rapid colour shifts and patterns. So, for example, if you are moving from a beige room into a boldly coloured space , the processor cannot quite make the transition look as seamless as it should be. I experienced lag time and sound distortion as the GPU fought to keep up with the shift in background landscape and the glasses get uncomfortably warm if you play for more than two hours at a stretch.
Now...as enamoured as I am with the property, this tech is going to cause problems. This is the first game to take full advantage of real-world locations that are not open spaces like parks or party halls. People playing the game are going to get odd looks and questions from the 'Mundanes' surrounding them when speaking out loud to a person that only they can see and hear. Normally, this is only permissible if you mentally unstable and wandering the city streets or are in a church. I expect we'll be seeing some interesting stories in the coming months about players being ushered out of pubs for breaking the social contract or even being hit by cars as they ignore the safety warnings that come with the game. That being said, the implications of the technology are staggering; there are already stories that contacts have been developed which allow for the same kind of visual interface. Kudos to Vernor Vinge for foreseeing this in his classic book Rainbow's End, there's no doubt we will see an evolution in gaming in the near future.
In closing for this month, let me say that I do recommend the whole experience. It is time-consuming, in a good way, and while the price might seem steep at first, the hours of fun you'll have will be more than worth the initial investment. If this release is a success look for copycat games to start hitting the shelves in the next two weeks.
As always, you can find me on Qlatch. Drop by, say hello, and let me know what you thought of The Widow In Red. Until next month, here's lookin' at you, kid.