By Haley Moore, May 21st, 2010

I think we all dream of one day having a holodeck – the perfect storytelling tool.  It would let us employ visuals, audio, touch, smell, and taste to pull the audience through our stories, allow us to mix archeaological, environmental and immediate storytelling.  In some ways, transmedia storytelling nudges us toward that goal.

But our theater, the real world, is so diffuse. If we want to convey touch or smell, we have to compile a mailing list and send out packages.  The bulk of our players generally have to make do with audio and visuals.

So one of my pet questions is, how can we broadcast more things digitally?  With 3D television already on its way, it bears saying that I’m not talking about more vivid illusions, but about actual physical objects.  Instead of a holodeck, can we just get a replicator and go from there?

Delivering Physical Objects Digitally

Of course, detailed patterns for real objects can be transmitted over the Internet, and we’ve been doing that for a while.

This complex paper model exists online in the form of a pattern that can be downloaded for free and built anywhere, by anyone who has a printer, a few basic office supplies, and patience.  I really like papercraft – I’ve already written here about my love for simpler, less work-intensive papercraft as distributed art projects.

This gives us an idea of one way we might be able to broadcast physical objects to deliver a narrative through them.  There is the issue, however, of skill.  Putting together advanced papercraft like this one is very much like traditional model building, and not every potential player will necessarily have the skill or the inclination to build a complex model.

Papercraft has a history in alternate reality gaming.  The Beast asked players to construct a real world paper crane from a digital design to solve a puzzle.  The MSN Search ARG also included a casual link to a popular optical illusion papercraft, the Gardner Dragon, that players, myself included, actually built despite the fact that it wasn’t related to the story.

DIY culture is certainly on the rise, and anyone skilled enough can create virtually anything with plans and guidance from the net.  But how simple does a building process have to be, and how important to the narrative, to reliably get players to make their own artifacts?

One alternate approach is to automate the process of making the physical object altogether.  The reprap community and Makerbot are already working on desktop 3D printers that might, in the foreseeable future, allow anyone to just straight up print out objects.  One day, you might be able to send your players physical puzzle pieces, have them build working devices, or make their own game pieces for a physical board game in real space with other players.

Some clever contributors to Thingiverse are already working on gamelike ideas that use 3D printers as a platform.  Check out the Surprise box, a digital design meant to be printed out and opened to discover the actual contents!

The technology isn’t anywhere near inkjet printers in price or availability – yet.  But in the meantime, as creators, we can design some transmittable objects that meet players half way.  The key will be to use common technologies and keep the amount of skilled work to a minimum.

Integrating It Into A Game

In terms of gameplay and narrative overall, there are some challenges to transmitting tangible objects.  Players have to want to make these objects.  There are several different ways you can do this.

Embed some information in the physical object that would not exist in its digital counterpart.  The paper crane from The Beast is one example, but I can also imagine designing an ocarina whose exact tonal properties couldn’t be known until it was printed out and actually played.

Have the players seek out other objects in the real world that interface with the ones they’ve made.  This could basically be a cutting edge take on the classic “missing gear” puzzle.

Use the transmitted objects to play some other physical game.  Imagine a papercraft tabletop war game, or a game played with irregular solid dice from a 3D printer.

Use the physical object as a costume piece to encourage roleplay.

Make the physical object a representation of some other thing in the game world that is intangible.  This works really well if the object in question is sought after, beloved, magical, or lost.  Fans will create representations of their favorite objects in a game world even without any extra encouragement.  And if you don’t believe me, check these out:

Companion Cubes (Portal)

Katamaris (Katamari Damacy)

Make the tangible object perform some neat function all on its own.  This is what drives people to download and build the Gardner Dragon, and it’s probably the best way to get people making things.  Keep in mind that an artifact with a standalone cool factor could also go viral.

Of course, barring all that, you can always just make the tangible object look really, really cool.

Broadcasting physical objects to play a game with a widespread audience also breaks a lot of common game conceptions.  For one, collectibility is right out.  Set completion is in.  Personal unlockables are out, but universal unlockables are very in.

The kind of stories that could be told using a mechanic like this would be very different from what we’ve come to expect of interactive online media.  We can’t make the same basic narrative assumptions that we make when we’re sending out packages in the mail or leaving artifacts in a dead drop. In that frame, objects have a history and their origins can be sinister, uplifting, or mysterious.  The players usually get these objects at the end of their journey, or pass them from one person to another.

In a world where the player makes their own artifacts, they are intimately familiar with each object’s origins.  They are joining the object at the beginning of its journey, and where it goes from there is up to them.

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Posted in cross-media experience transmedia

Haley Moore is a newspaper reporter, artist, and playwright based in north Texas. She has worked on several indie, fan and commercial Alternate Reality Games.


  • This is a great article, I am coveting one of those companion cube rings! Also, thanks for calling back to the MSN Search ARG, I am proud to say that I handpicked that paper craft video ^_^

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