A novelist turned gaming innovator

As part of a team creating the biggest "alternate reality games," writer Sean Stewart adds literary grace to online gaming. Photos: In search of clues on 'Last Call Poker'

DAVIS, Calif.--Sean Stewart leans over his laptop in the little garage he's converted to a home office and joins an online poker match, posing as legendary gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok.

He's in the game to win virtual chips, of course. But the other gamblers want more. This "Last Call Poker" Web site he has just entered hides a complicated story that players have to figure out in stages, and they've guessed the Hickok character that Stewart is playing might help. But the 40-year-old novelist turned virtual game maker can't resist teasing them a little first.

"We can't ever know a man's heart," he answers one player's probing question, a sly grin on his face as he types, "until we put a bullet through it."

Last Call Poker

Stewart, on a sunny November afternoon here, is improvising inside a sophisticated online game that has put him and his co-creators squarely at the leading edge of the digital entertainment world. The fact that he has almost no experience with traditional video games makes his pioneering role here all the more striking.

For three years, Stewart has been the chief writer at a game development house called 42 Entertainment, the leaders in a nascent gaming genre that fans have dubbed alternate reality games, or ARGs.

Part puzzle-infused scavenger hunt, part interactive fiction, ARGs are among the first entertainment forms genuinely native to the Net, culture watchers say. Unlike the online cartoons or games that differ little from their offline counterparts, ARGs like 42 Entertainment's just-completed "Last Call Poker" are woven from the fragmented, deeply community-driven fabric of the Web itself.

"Anytime you have a new medium, people copy and paste old media onto it," said Bryan Alexander, director for emerging technologies at the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education, a group that helps colleges integrate technology into their curriculum. "But eventually people figure out what the medium can do itself."

This is not a game
Like most big ARGs before it, "Last Call," which recently ended for active participation but can still be seen online, was an extraordinarily complicated marketing campaign, in this case for Activision's just-released "Gun" video game. It was free, whether people wanted to play poker online, join in the community, or just follow a story that has remained archived even though the live events are completed.

Behind the poker game was a rich saga of violence, greed and family ties, told through video clips, hundreds of pages of text written by Stewart and co-writer Maureen McHugh, comic books, audio clips, improvised online poker chats, and in-person "Tombstone Hold 'Em" tournaments that have drawn players to cemeteries around the country in the search for clues.

"The things that make us happiest are the moments of real emotion, where the story grabs you."
--Sean Stewart,
head writer,
42 Entertainment

Players had to earn story updates, often by working together to solve puzzles online. For example, on the day Stewart was playing Hickok, players were asked to track down a specific, real-life church hymnal in order to decipher a code, the novelist said. (As usual, it took just hours before one of the players, a librarian, found the book on microfiche and solved the puzzle.)

Stewart didn't invent this kind of game--that honor goes, as much as to any one person, to the CEO of his company, Jordan Weisman, who first brought the team together while at Microsoft in 2001. Elan Lee, a former video game producer and 42's chief designer, has served as the games' equivalent of a movie director.

What Stewart has done is give this young genre its most distinctive voice: literate, infused with a noirish poetry, and rich in the character typically lost in conventional video games.

"We all three have a background in game design, but all three of us are even more committed to eliciting an emotional response," Stewart said. "The things that make us happiest are the moments of real emotion, where the story grabs you."

Double life
Stewart's office shelves tell the story of his double life. A row of his novels has as bookends the prestigious trophies he's won for several of them, including the 2000 World Fantasy Award. Next to them is a copy of Microsoft's "Halo 2" game, which one of 42 Entertainment's ARGs helped launch. He has never opened it.

Sean Stewart
Credit: News.com
Sean Stewart

These two lives rarely cross. At a science-fiction bookstore in San Francisco, clerks praised him enthusiastically ("We love him. It's a shame they don't keep him in print..."), but mention of his online projects drew blank looks. And few ARG players say they've actually read his books.

A lanky father of two with an intense, steady stare, Stewart spent his early years in almost comically tough environs, with winters at his mother's house in frigid Edmonton, Alberta, and summers with his grandparents in simmering Lubbock, Texas. The resulting sense of being always an outsider--a Texan in Canada, a bookish boy clumsily helping his cousins tar roofs in Texas--has inspired many of the most memorable characters he's created since leaving college.

His novels are unrepentant fantasies, laden with nightmarish magic that floods Galveston, Texas, like a Gulf hurricane. They are peopled with ghosts and gods that act as extensions of the characters' own psyches. But the books are always fundamentally about the characters' real-life relationships, not about the magic itself.

"I wish he would write more books," said Kelly Link, a fellow writer whose Small Beer independent press picked up Stewart's latest novel, "Perfect Circle," after it was dropped by a bigger publisher.

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