Jeff, from the Nonchalance Alternate Reality Game, talks about developing the unique game and the fictional cult called the JeJune Institute
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Interviewer: I’m here at the ARG Fest and with me today is a special guest. How about you introduce yourself?
Jeff: My name is Jeff Hull aka Bobby Peru from Nonchalance.
Interviewer: What is Nonchalance about?
Jeff: Nonchalance is a production company that has created an immersive narrative experience in the San Francisco Bay area that centers around the fictional cult called the JeJune Institute.
Interviewer: What exactly happens? Do players just hear about this cult and then get involved in it, or is there…?
Jeff: Well, there’s a lot of different inroads. It started out with a bunch of flyers, little tear-off flyers and phone numbers in and around San Francisco. Some of them were stickers on electrical boxes. We tried to do obscure real world things like that, but then it took off in the blogosphere, and then word of mouth has really gotten people introduced to the institute.
Interviewer: When you released this thing, did you have everything planned out in advance, or you developed it as it went along, or how…?
Jeff: Well, interestingly we did have an end game in mind and a scope of work that we thought was going to take us three or four months to produce, but it took us that three months just to produce Episode 1 of a four-part series. So, we’ve launched Episode 1 and Episode 2, and there are two more chapters. We’re wrapping up Chapter 3 right now.
So, we did have a plan. Every single thing ended up being far more involved and more intricate and deeper than we had initially intended, so we’ve had to adapt and respond as we go.
Interviewer: Once players hear about this institute, is it they have to respond to this institute or to this cult, or is that…? Do they try to get recruited, or how’s that work, or is that giving away too much of the game?
Jeff: Not at all. You know, they are getting interested in these absurd products and services like a time camera or the memory to media center where we can record your memories, or the Aquatic Thought Foundation where you can commune with dolphins or something like that. You’re either making a phone call or placing an email or going to a website, and each of these things is going to direct you towards getting inducted to the JeJune Institute which is this faux cult as I’ve described.
The induction is really where Episode 1 happens, and a lot of people have been skeptical. They don’t want to come down and get inducted, but it’s become a safe thing. As more people talk about the experience and say, “Look, you’ve just got to do this”. And so, they’ve started to come down more frequently.
Interviewer: So, you’re saying that the end of Episode 1 is actually getting inducted into the institute.
Jeff: Well, the induction leads you on a treasure hunt kind of a constellation of clue finding events throughout Chinatown in San Francisco. The induction process takes about 15 minutes. The rest of the experience takes a couple of hours, and then it leads you to-I guess I won’t say it.
Interviewer: How long would it take then to play through all of Episode 1?
Jeff: I tell people to allot about the same amount of time you would go to watch a movie, so 90 minutes to two hours. That’s the real world experience. Now, there’s a lot of other web content and voice mails and other discoveries to be had outside of that initial experience, but really the induction-give yourself two hours.
Interviewer: Can you talk about some of the design challenges of developing this ARG, breaking it up into different episodes or any other surprises that you had to encounter as you worked on this?
Jeff: Well, probably the first one is the fact that ARG players have this convention of rules and expectations about the way it’s going to be played, and so they don’t understand that it’s actually still going to be here tomorrow or the next month. What we hear a lot of is like, “Oh, is it still going on” because they think it’s going to be like a six week thing or a three week thing. There’s basically a lot of things about ARG cultures that we’ve had to educate ourselves in.
The other real challenge is the fact that we’re doing things in real time and real space. And so, things in the landscape change. We had a pay phone just disappear, and so we had to do a workaround in terms of that and reprint things. And so we’re constantly learning these lessons as we’re producing it.
Interviewer: Where do you see then the future of ARGs going, and where do you see yourself and the future ARGs that you develop?
Jeff: Well, I feel that this real world element of ARGs is kind of where the future of entertainment media is going, not just in the ARG field but really entertainment media. It shouldn’t just take place on the screen or online, but having these type of multimedia immersive narrative experiences. It’s not just entertainment, but it’s communication and education.
So, it’s a different way to interact with each other. It’s a different way to interact with space. The opportunities to produce these types of games, we’re hoping there are going to be more and more of them but, also, for individuals to create these type of narrative experiences for other people.
We’re looking at other people who are developing software that put the tools in the hands of everybody to create a new way to experience your own city or your school or a certain historical walking tour. These are different ways to experience space. That’s really where I see the future going.
Interviewer: Do you see the future being mainly a puzzle solving and the stuff that ARGs are known for now, or do you see anything else emerging in the future? What do you think is going to need to change to make it more mainstream?
Jeff: Well, that’s a great question, actually, because I’m not really a puzzle kind of person. We do have puzzles in our game, and they really do function as a gate keeper, like you have to get to this point in an actual geographic location before going to the next point. So, it serves as a guide that you have to get the clue in this location, but the clues aren’t very difficult. They are not meant to stump anybody.
And so, what we’re really trying to provide for people is an aesthetic experiential based narrative. So, it’s about the style, the charm, the story. I feel as producers if we start really getting into that as opposed to just the mechanics or architecture of a game, getting into the style and story and the portrayal of the characters and what they’re going through and really giving them visceral immersive environments, that’s going to further the game.
Interviewer: What about social interactions amongst players? Is that something that you think needs to change, or do you think the current format of just having a player going through an immersive story or design story by the puppet master is the right model?
Jeff: I’m not really aware of the current model so I can’t say if the existing one is right or wrong, but we are trying to design things in Episodes 3 and 4 where groups of players will have to get together and do an exercise collectively, something that probably involves a level of trust or risk, really getting them out of their comfort zones and having people do that together.
Something happens when you get 10 people all trying to do something together that might take them out of their comfort zones. That’s an experience we’d like to see, so that kind of group plan is important.
Interviewer: Where can people find out more information about this game?
Jeff: I would start out with the jejuneinstitute.org, and I can also offer a phone number which is in the 415 area code, 325-4014. That will get you started on your adventure.
Interviewer: Thank you very much.