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'

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
7 min read
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.

The book was subsequently nominated both for the World Fantasy Award and science fiction's Nebula Prize. "I wish someone would give him a great contract. But I feel that we're going to have to wait 10 or 15 years to read the next Sean Stewart novel."

Blame that on Jordan Weisman.

In early 2001, Weisman was creative director of Microsoft's entertainment group. He'd persuaded Steven Spielberg (and a reluctant Microsoft) to experiment with an unconventional game to help market the director's "A.I." movie, and had already tapped Lee to direct the project they code-named "The Beast." Soon after, they recruited Stewart to be their writer.

The hope was to build on the way people seek information online. The trio launched "The Beast quietly," telling almost nobody. But over a few weeks, traffic inched upward, finally soaring into a genuine viral hit in which a "hive mind" of millions of players solved puzzles together, shared theories, and fielded midnight phone calls from game characters with astonishing aplomb.

"We don't tell the story; they discover and tell the story to each other."
--Jordan Weisman,
CEO, 42 Entertainment

"That was the only game I ever made where I followed the community hourly," Lee said. "It was an incredible rush. Any change I made to any Web site was noticed and absorbed immediately. It was like exploring a living body."

The team left Microsoft to form 42 Entertainment shortly afterward and was immediately rehired to promote the company's "Halo 2" game. The team created another sprawling story called "I Love Bees" (after the game's first fake Web site), telling it through an online radio drama and puzzles that drove players to real-life phone booths to answer characters' calls.

The game was again a hit, winning an innovation award from the International Game Developers Association, which typically honors traditional video games. Microsoft also viewed it as a marketing success.

"We can always get massive press coverage in the enthusiast press," said Chris di Cesare, the director of marketing for Microsoft's game studios. "But even a game like 'Halo' isn't guaranteed coverage in The New York Times or Entertainment Weekly. We were able to reach an audience beyond what we could ordinarily get."

Players are storytellers, too
As Stewart played Hickok that November afternoon, across the country in New York City, players were wandering through a real-life cemetery, looking for clues to relay to people standing by online. Stewart waited for his cue to enter the game in character as Hickok, gossiping with his other co-creators about their audience.

This was more than just voyeurism. This medium requires an unusual level of collaboration between players, and even between the game creators and their audience. To a very real extent, Stewart, Lee and their partners don't know what they've created until they listen to their audience.

"We don't tell the story; they discover and tell the story to each other," Weisman said. "It goes through the filter of their millions of minds, so it's never the same in the end as what we wrote."

Watching the players sift through the game's pieces, Stewart was particularly pleased with a comment from a player named "Rose," who--after weeks of "Last Call's" bloody mix of modern gang tension and Western drama--wrote in the game's online forum that she finally understood.

"Rose" was Sharon Applegate, a mid-40s Manhattan lawyer who had been playing alternate reality games since an accident temporarily limited her to her home in 2003. After loving previous work by Lee and Stewart, she'd had a hard time with "Last Call Poker," she said in an interview.

"I didn't like the violence, and the women either being prostitutes or being beaten up," she said. "Then it dawned on me that all of these stories were about family relationships, and I could see it in a whole different light."

It is such moments that help convince Stewart and his partners that they are engaged in something that is more than just an expensive commercial. Still, there's more work to do.

For all their creative novelty, it's not clear whether ARGs can break out of their marketing role. The most ambitious attempt is being made by an ongoing game called "Perplex City," created by several people who played "The Beast." That game sells $18 packs of puzzle cards online and has attracted more than $4 million in venture funding, but has yet to demonstrate a profit.

All of this may keep Stewart from writing novels for some time. As much as he loves them, novels will always be there. ARGs, by contrast, are changing with each iteration.

"It's like building airplanes" around the turn of the century, he said. "You know they haven't reached their final form."