This Book Is Only Half the Story

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, May 31, 2009

A video game blogger named Rachael Webster created a minor stir in the blogosphere last year, when it turned out that she didn't exactly exist.

Sure, Webster has been cranking out interesting enough commentary at a site bearing her supposed nom de blog, PixelVixen707. She even got herself quoted in an article or two at other gaming news sites along the way. But you probably won't bump into her at, say, the video game industry's big trade show in Los Angeles this week. After all, she's a character in a book.

"Personal Effects: Dark Art," published next month by St. Martin's Press, is a creepy page-turner about an art therapist in a mental institution trying to figure out whether one of his patients, a former CIA spook, committed a series of brutal murders. "Rachael Webster," as it turns out, is the protagonist's punk-rock girlfriend.

Get to the last page of "Personal Effects" and you'll have many answers, but to fully enjoy this book, you'll need a Web connection and an interest in puzzles.

"Personal Effects," a collaboration between thriller writer J.C. Hutchins and game designer Jordan Weisman, is part book and partly the latest entry in the hybrid entertainment form known as "alternate reality games." Play the game correctly and you might be able to pick up on details that the protagonists missed -- and, perhaps, end up with a different perspective of the book's events.

To do that, you call up phone numbers mentioned in the storyline, which will play a protagonist's voicemail greeting. If you've been paying attention, you'll know the passcode and, thus, you'll be able to hear some saved messages. To bolster the online verisimilitude of the book's world, a half-dozen or so Web sites have been created, ranging from the game blog to a site purporting to belong to the "Brinkvale Psychiatric Institute." The book's front cover is actually a pocket, packed with a small stack of documents and photos referenced in the book; just more pieces of the puzzle.

Weisman is already known for his inspired and slightly crazed-seeming viral marketing schemes, such as one called "ilovebees" that was used to promote Microsoft's Halo franchise. In that bit of weirdness, the idea was that a beekeeping Web site had been hacked by a bit of artificial intelligence. Players, who came to the site after the Web address was flashed subtly in a Halo commercial, followed clues from one site to another, collaborating online to assemble the pieces of the story that Jordan's team had thrown across the Web. By the time "ilovebees" wrapped up, hundreds of thousands of people were following the saga online.

Last year, to promote the latest Batman blockbuster film, the Dark Knight, Weisman's firm bought billboard space around the country and filled them with advertising that appeared to promote "Harvey Dent" for district attorney. Dent is, of course, a character from the world of Batman, but the billboards served to kick off another round of puzzle-solving madness.

Weisman was a pioneer in this area, but his once-startling style of blurring one medium into another has solidly caught on across pop culture. After all, at this point it would almost be disappointing if the paper company from "The Office" -- or the one from "Heroes," for that matter -- didn't have its own Web site. And when J.J. Abrams, the producer of enigmatic shows like "Lost," guest-edited the May issue of Wired, it was a no-brainer that he would fill the pages with a mostly-clandestine set of puzzles, over which readers online collaborated to solve.

"Every medium that we use in everyday life can be used as a medium for storytelling," said Weisman, whose Seattle firm, Smith & Tinker, employs a team of imaginative operatives, such as whoever is actually writing the PixelVixen707 blog. Using tools across a variety of media is a way of breaking the world of fiction's "fourth wall," he says. "It allows us to get past the screen and into the world that the characters inhabit."

"Personal Effects" is the second such "transmedia" book to bear Weisman's name; "Cathy's Book," aimed at young adults, debuted on the New York Times bestseller list when it was published in 2006. As for Hutchins, this isn't the author's first experiment with non-traditional storytelling; at his Web site he has long encouraged users to create, and post, their own riffs on his imaginary worlds in the form of audio voicemail messages or video clips.

"Some people will look at this and see a gimmick-packed book, and that's fair," he said. "But what we're gunning for is a 'Sixth Sense'-style twist that can only be experienced beyond the pages."

Whatever happens next, the book's publication has already been positive for Rachael Webster's career: Imaginary or not, she recently started a column for the popular and geek-centric erotic site SuicideGirls.

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