Experience Arcana: A Thinkwellian’s Instagram-Based, Top 10 Game of 2020
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The Los Angeles Times recently named Arcana, a horror-based interactive social media narrative I co-created with my team, AOTW, as one of the top ten games of 2020, just behind the likes of Animal Crossing and Mario Kart Live. This came as a true shock. We feel extremely proud and also humbled beyond belief. How did our Instagram-based never-before-done month-long super-hard-to-explain project get on such a list?
ReView asked me to talk about the process of getting Arcana up and running. But to do so I feel I first have to remind readers that Thinkwell is made up of incredible artists, many of whom are working on creative projects outside their job description. From Chris Durmick’s Three Stooges TikTok page to Sara Beil’s incredible live theatre events on Zoom, we are a bunch of strange, talented creatures who bring our know-how, creativity, and lived experiences to the work we do at Thinkwell.
My outside experience is primarily as a theater maker. And in the last decade, my theater efforts have been focused in a subgenre called immersive theatre, which blurs the lines between reality and performativity, and challenges the relationship between performer and audience member. In 2019, I worked with a team of brilliant creatives on a four day long city-wide immersive theatrical game called “All of Them, Witches!” in New Orleans, in conjunction with the Overlook Horror Film Festival. We intended to adapt our project and turn it into an evening-long Los Angeles-based experience. But then: COVID. Suddenly, the idea of having audience members in close quarters with performers was off the table. We had created an immersive theater experience that was, in every way, not permissible during the global pandemic. For a while, we attempted to re-tool the script to make it a COVID-safe one, but eventually we started from scratch, determined to create something that was tailor-made for the at-home always-safe needs of the pandemic. (I liken this moment to our creative process at Thinkwell, when we assess project parameters, and figure out how we can flex our creative muscles within a box, no matter how rigid the walls may seem.)
Arcana developed quickly into a narrative focused on the isolation, loneliness, and heartbreak that COVID was causing. But Arcana was never explicitly about COVID. We wanted that element to be subtextual. To do so, our protagonist, Jade, was set up as a loner, recently abandoned by her dear Robin, living alone in a big house with a spooky attic. Weird stuff started happening to Jade: dreams, visions, and visitations from creepy fox creatures. We put everything on Instagram. And as spectators got more involved with Jade, they started playing the game of her life by solving riddles tucked inside artwork, or decoding a cypher that had to be assembled from numerous posts. Eventually our audience became friends with Jade. We had our audience hooked, and that was only week one! In the following three weeks, the narrative moved into other forms of social media, direct email messages, internet-based world religion research, and some serious puzzle solving. Our players dove head-first into user-created communities like Slack and Discord to collaborate, communicate, and squabble over how to solve mysteries inside the narrative. Some players remained spectators, happy to watch the story unfold, but not keen to spend hours solving complicated riddles. The entire time, we observed from “beyond the veil,” keeping tabs on player delight and frustration to ensure we could adapt and evolve alongside our audience. This was real-time adaptation and pivoting, which enhanced our ability to give the audience real agency. In the final week of the narrative, our audience decided upon the outcome of dear, sweet Jade (who, by then, wasn’t so dear nor so sweet.) You can re-live the entire experience at Arcana-Game.com.
Our process, internally, had to adapt and evolve as we created the experience for audience members. My writing partner, Eva Anderson, and I would brainstorm and break episodes, which we would then pitch to the rest of the team. Then, our production team E3W (Natalie Jones, Austin Keeling, Aaron Keeling) would collaborate with puzzle mastermind Tommy Honton to figure out how to put the narrative/script into action, aided by a wonderful performance by Nerea Duhart, who played Jade. Keeping tabs on everything was our ever-watchful and brilliant producer, Mali Elfman. Just as we figured out how to produce week one, we were in “pre-production” for weeks two, three, and four! It was a whirlwind, and one that I’d gladly step into again. The LATimes enjoyed the whirlwind, too!
The question of how to give audience members a flexible amount of agency to influence the outcome of a narrative experience, whether it be in a theme park setting or while roaming an illuminated garden, is one that we enjoy discussing at Thinkwell. My experience producing Arcana will surely influence how I think about experience design as a Creative Director for Thinkwell, and I can’t wait to apply that knowledge to future projects.
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