At ARGFest 2010, we had the opportunity to take part in a workshop that discussed using physical items within a storytelling experience.  An ‘artifact’, sometimes debatably referred to as ‘swag’, can take a story out of its packaging (words in a book, scenes in a movie) and make it tangible, adding to its reality for the audience.

The workshop, run by Haley Moore and Michelle Senderhoff, focused on the value artifacts have within a storytelling experience and the ease with which they can be made, creatively, even with little to no budget.

The most fun and interesting activity was the hands-on artifact creation exercise. We were given a brief, but wild short story to work from, with the task of creating items to place in a safe that would serve to fill in the mysterious backstory of one of the characters. The outline presented to us was this:

…help a hot brunette recover his grandfather from mysterious kidnappers who have also stolen his uncrackable safe and hidden it in an unknown location.  After remotely blowing up a courier car sent to retrieve the safe, and getting the coordinates of its destination from an apparently indestructible GPS unit, the players find themselves in the woods, unearthing the safe.  Its contents may reveal a secret about the hot brunette’s grandfather that he never would have guessed, or they may raise even more questions.

We were then led to a table strewn with craft supplies and unique items one might pick up cheaply perhaps at dollar stores or garage sales.  Of course, having a much larger budget to work from would afford the ability to create highly customized, quality props, or manufacture lines of items that can be distributed, transported, collected, etc.  The intent here however was to present a challenge to be creative in the context of an ARG without a notable budget.

With only the items on hand, what ended up being produced for placement in the safe was not simply a collection of the grandfather’s items that would tell his story, but would hint at an additional mystery. Composed of what at first glance were unrelated heirlooms, on closer examination they actually had interconnecting properties that would lead to the revelation of a grand secret.

For a full rundown, Haley Moore documented the workshop’s artifact creation task and outcome at Workbook Project. It’s well worth the read!

For this demo ARG, the dead drop was aimed to bring players together somewhere in the search for a safe. To take advantage of that, the items within the safe would hold additional value in their shared discovery by players.  Each item left a dangling question or had a curious property begging for closer examination, which would reveal a new mystery. A letter, for example, had a strange symbol stamped on the bottom. Each item was also connected with the rest; they’d always only be parts of the connected story – the symbol was a partial outline of another item that was found in the safe, which led to the key that would be used to decode part of the hidden message, all within the safe.

The real value

This workshop demonstrated that a good mystery is always welcome, and helped to demonstrate the value of artifacts when used within a transmedia story, or ARG. Rather than simply creating individual items for use in the story, the workshop attendees wanted to create something even more valuable to their players than just physical items.

For those players in this ARG who would venture out to retrieve the safe, the most memorable thing that they would take home with them wouldn’t be the artifacts themselves, but the experience they shared with others, the collaboration, and the story they unraveled together.

Unique/Rare artifacts

A simple artifact itself may hold little to no physical value. It may even be poorly constructed of cheap material. But it’s the value placed by individuals themselves through association that make it a treasured item and enhance the storytelling experience as a whole – whether for the one who takes it home, or to those who had a hand in its discovery from across the world, over the internet.

Artifacts can help any range of storytelling experiences truly come alive. Especially in grassroots ARGs, the inclusion of unique physical elements incorporated into the story is an enormous benefit to the project, and the shared value is held by the community who experienced it.

Mass produced artifacts

At the other end of the spectrum, items produced en masse for large scale marketing campaigns for an existing IP and distributed to masses of fans may even be simple and produced relatively cheaply, but their inherent value is, generally speaking, in the memories the player has of the experience and of being a part of something much bigger. Physical artifacts, of any caliber, help bring a story to life.

This kind of “swag”, however, could be controversial. There’s a stigma associated with it, that players may want the swag items only for their inherent hype value, even as a way to gain money off a popular property. Quite often items from mainstream media projects will end up on eBay, with hefty prices attached because they know that fans who missed it will dish out the dough to have them in their collection.  In these cases, we need to ask if the items serve to play a role or enhance the storyworld for the fans, or if attention is gained only temporarily for the items themselves, being collectible or holding monetary value.

Story-enhancing artifacts

An example of a story that incorporates real world artifacts is the novel series led by Cathy’s Book. Each novel comes packaged with numerous items described in the story, each telling their own little bit of the larger picture.  As the reader progresses through the story, the mysteries described on the pages therein can be explored first hand with the actual physical items.

There is great benefit to expanding a story into the real world for the audience through relevant props and artifacts. This artifact workshop not only demonstrated how simple artifacts can easily be created, but also how being wrapped in an experience, a real-world context, can bring a story to life – personal and memorable on an entirely different level. They don’t need to cost a small fortune, nor do the artifacts themselves need to be high quality – just relevant.  Their value is found in far more than just their physical form – it’s the experience to which they belong.

ARGFest museum

ARGFest ARG Museum 2009, by ineffabelle
Go to Youtube

As a side note, a regular component of the annual ARGFest conference is the ARG Museum. This is a wonderful exhibit of artifacts and swag collected by players over many years of ARGs and transmedia campaigns. It contains anything from unique and rare items created for grassroots projects, to highly coveted quality collectible items manufactured for popular franchises. If you attend the next ARGFest, please be sure to check it out, and perhaps you’ll find some inspiration for ways to bring your story off the page!