Sunday, December 28, 2008

Creepy (Halo)

Originally written for Halopedia:

Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs, have been highly useful to the Halo franchise for presenting material in a unique manner. Both I Love Bees and Iris have provided the Halo universe with invaluable material in addition to their primary purposes of keeping the fans sated preceding the releases of Halo 2 and Halo 3 respectively. The unique means of presenting such aspects of the Halo universe involves the fans to a degree not usually found in fictional media, in which they become part of the story themselves. It is my opinion that this aspect of ARGs affects the relationship of the fan to the fiction and forces a connection not usually present in which the fan takes a voyeuristic role.

The “voyeur” theory I’ve heard is one with which I usually don’t agree. The perspective is that when an individual appreciates fiction, they take on a voyeuristic role in which they act as an observer of the fictional subject, treated for the moment as a legitimate aspect of reality. An example could be of a movie depicting a private moment between a boyfriend and girlfriend.

I generally disagree with the theory. I believe that for the purposes of the example, the fan and the fiction do not exist in the same way. When I watch the movie, I do not see myself as a voyeur trespassing on a private moment thanks to the magic TV screen. I either empathize directly with one or more of the subjects, or I compartmentalize the diegesis as existing entirely separate to myself and view the scene from an omniscient perspective. However, due to the reality-bending nature of ARGs, the “voyeur” concept gains new relevance.

The I Love Bees story has a particularly intriguing pair of scenes, played out in both the axon audio drama and in literary text seen on the website. The gist of the story is that AIs from 2552 have taken over an average American’s personal webpage in 2004 after a mysterious accident and they’re trying to figure out what happened. The main AI (Melissa) has fragmented into three separate personalities: The Operator, the Sleeping Princess, and still in the future is Durga. The Operator doesn’t realize that the Sleeping Princess is anything but a “rogue process” and is trying to track her down, so the Sleeping Princess hides in the “Error 404” area of the site, which is only accessible through trying to get to a page that doesn’t exist. She is kept company by the Seeker, which is a Covenant AI spy with minimal intelligence that infected Melissa like a Trojan horse virus, and they together listen to audio files captured by Durga in the future (the audio drama) that have floated across the temporal connection.

In one of the files, the characters Durga and Jersey, a civilian whose personal computer plays host to the Durga fragment, discuss the creepy nature of Durga’s spying habits. Melissa was a powerful smart AI designed for purposes of gathering intelligence, specifically on the Covenant. While Durga suffers from amnesia because Melissa’s memories are in the other fragments, she still retains the compulsion to spy on various individuals of interest to her and captures audio files from their chatters (essentially the 2552 version of the iPhone). Jersey at first loves the power of having “God’s own spyware” and uses her to spy on the hot girl down the hall, Janissary James, but soon becomes overwhelmed by discovering the intensely serious and real natures of other persons’ lives.

As he notes to Durga in the file creepy.ogg:

Jersey: You know, I just had a creepy thought. (…) How spooky it would be if someone was listening to us right now.
Durga: To us?
Jersey: Spying on us, you know, like we’re listening to them.
Durga: (animatedly) That would be impossible. I would know.
Jersey: Yeah, I guess you’re right. But if they were, creeeepy!

This scene is emphasized when the Sleeping Princess offers her commentary on the situation. As it turned out, Jersey’s fear was warranted after all as people were listening to them. The Sleeping Princess in turn agrees with Jersey’s sentiment and tells this to the Seeker. The Seeker at first does not understand the concept and the Sleeping Princess has to explain it to the alien AI. When it does understand, the Seeker then comments “creepy”.

This creates a very unusual scenario. The premise of the I Love Bees ARG involves Dana, the webmistress of the website that has been taken over by the AIs, calling for help. The fan, then, is an active participant in the story, in which they take the role of essentially themselves trying to help uncover the mysterious nature of the AIs. The fan can email the Sleeping Princess and can take calls from the Operator, and can directly influence the storyline by participating in games they set up.

This means that when the fan observes, they truly assume the “voyeur” persona. The audio drama is depicted as something real, as is the AI commentary. While possible to empathize with specific characters, the boundary between diegesis and reality is strained. Not only is it voyeuristic to listen in on Jersey and Durga, but also to read the conversations between the Sleeping Princess and the Seeker. The fan has access to a wide body of the diegesis, from the audio files to the thoughts of the AIs to even the message board posts of other users, who are in some ways as much a part of the story as is Melissa. The fan thus takes on a similar role as Durga, God’s own spyware, and I have to wonder at the implications.

The nature of the Alternate Reality Game is different from many other forms of media, and can open these unusual philosophical conundrums. I’m not sure if there’s even any moral question involved in this instance, other than a vague feeling of “creepy”. I feel fairly confident that at some point (hopefully before the SPDR gets wide awake and physical) huge capitalistic corporations will adopt ARGs as a marketing technique, at which point the philosophical issues will get more vast and interesting. One thing’s for sure, the ARG is a highly intriguing concept.

No comments: