I want to talk about a project that didn’t end up happening and share a story about my personal realizations of my own success. How I reached the point where I don’t desperately need to work on a project for a major recording artist, but I can choose and wanted to work with one. This is also the platform to show my goals for this project: Enabling the players to realize their own potential in art.
This is the story of “Who Killed Amanda Palmer?” – The Alternate Reality Game (ARG)
The unreleased version by me, Seg.
This will be a two or three part series of posts. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and one 3000+ word post isn’t good for anyone. It may take a day or two between posts, but I’ll get to it. This would be a good time to subscribe to the Seg On Media RSS feed…
Before I continue, I want to make crystal clear that there is no ill will between me and Amanda Palmer & associates. Things didn’t work out and it was nothing personal. Incidentally, the album is available pretty much everywhere. I also want to note that I’m not going to comment on the ARG that was released for the album as it’s simply not my place to comment. That said, I am glad that a project did happen when I was unable to produce the project.
To give some context, I need to start this story when I was living in Boston and going to Emerson College. During my time there, a musical duo by the names of Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione started their rise to fame as a punk cabaret duo called: The Dresden Dolls. I found out about them as I had a number of classmates at Emerson working for them in various capacities. Specially BriAnna Olson who was to work on my thesis Antidote, but other conflicts came up that prevented us from working together.
When I finally got to see them perform at the Avalon, I certainly became a fan. I have a soft spot for a woman who sings and plays piano (see: Amanda Rose Smith, Regina Spector). I also found myself watching Brian intensely. As a former jazz musician, let the record show that I would want Brian to be my drummer. He intensely listens and observes the other musicians in his work. I can put more words to this, but I’m detracting from the point of this post.
More important than the performance of Palmer/Viglione was the spectacle off the stage. Many members of the audience themselves were performers in their own right. Mostly along the lines of a dark circus performance acts, but creating an atmosphere transcending beyond the concert performance itself. This is what I love about Dresden Doll concerts; The audience becomes apart of the performance. At the end of each concert, I feel a lacking that these individuals will mostly hang up their traits until the Dolls perform again. This I find the most depressing part of a Dolls concert.
The participatory nature of the audience and my college buddies working with her illustrates a trait I see between Palmer and myself. We both share the gift of seeing the potential in people. Palmer has better success in turning what’s inside of people to the exterior. When I was living in Michigan, the general despair of the area made this goal much harder. Sadly, the only way of success is living the Detroit Dream: Get the fuck out of Detroit. I wish I could do more, but ultimately the best thing for me was to leave Michigan and hoping that my Journey greats hope for others to live the Dream.
I made these conclusions well before I graduated from Emerson and well before recent events. Interestingly, these thoughts would prove useful when I was called to work on the project.
“I know a guy…”
In March 2007, I left Boston for a job with Telltale Games in the San Francisco Bay area. I started working with people who created titles that got me into the business in the first place. In order words, I landed a job with my Dream company. No longer was I working to get into the industry of my chosen art form, I was now getting paid for it and working with the best people in the art form.
In Jan 2008, my close friend Lindsay realized a mistake she had made for the past few years. She had never introduced me to Beth Hommel. This was a mistake as we had been living relatively close to each other (Boston vs. NYC) and certainly would have benefited from each other as being artists and both of us play/screen writes. There are few people in this world that I will trust blindly, and Lindsay is one of these few special people. For Lindsay, I trust Beth.
During this time, Beth ends up meeting with Amanda Palmer and all of the sudden Beth is her filthy assistant. Thus another person in the long line of friends that work with Palmer. I’ll let her tell her own story (Beth: Link!).
Shortly after, Beth asks me if I knew anything about ARGs. I give her the skinny and a few quick examples. Causally pass that it’s part of my realm of work, though I have not done an ARG myself. A few weeks later she tells me about Palmer’s solo album “Who Killed Amanda Palmer?” and my thoughts on an ARG based on that title. Like most things in the entertainment biz, the proposal needed to be done yesterday and with no prior context. There would be an album, and after some Internet sleuthing I found out a book by Neil Gaiman would also be penned. No context beyond that.
Killing a Rockstar
With little content to go on, I resorted to my existing convictions of Amanda Palmer and of her celebrity. The death of Amanda Palmer is not about the real existing person, but of the idiom of Amanda Palmer. What did this death mean then? For anyone familiar with the book American Gods by Neil Gaiman, I took a page of the mythology presented, blended with Clay Shirky‘s theory of the collective cognitive surplus. What I call the Clay Shirky Gin theory.
In practice, I would fashion the plot as ‘something’ killing Amanda Palmer, releasing the collective cognitive energy created by her fans. Her death creating a surplus and someone wanted that power to themselves. While the game progresses in figuring out who killed Amanda Palmer, it’s really about enacting justice over the killing by taking back the surplus. In other words, the players take back their own part of the surplus and invest the creative abilities in themselves; Not the celebrity.
After talking with my cohort Margot Cannon, I wrote what can be counted as an academic paper on the Amanda Palmer Idiom. A risky move, but I had no access to the originating material this game is to be based off of. Instead, I wanted to focus on what I knew, this construction of the idiom. Hoping that I would be given tangible elements to work from.
As for implementation, I would make good use of the Dresden Doll art army. There are a large number of artists on the rolodex of the Dolls, and I could not single handedly produce an international ARG. Nor would I think to quit Telltale to do this gig. My roll would be as ‘puppet-master’ or lead designer, then make art requests. This way costs will be low for the Palmer camp by using ‘internal’ labor and my small team (Margot and I) as primarily consultants. Time was also against us. These things usually take a year to plan. We had 4 months till the album drops.
Selling the Drama
Mistake #1: Way too academic of a proposal. I was on the phone with Palmer’s manager Harvey Leeds who said it was too cerebral. The talk I had with Harvey gave me some grounding with the client I was pitching for and the practical I should be aiming for. It’s Harvey’s job to make sure the album and concerts tickets are sold. Which shouldn’t be read as a sacrifice to artistic decision, but it is a parameter to keep in mind. More importantly: Keep. It. Simple.
I made a bad choice, and lucky to get a second chance. That weekend, Palmer would be performing at the Filmore as the Dresden Dolls in San Francisco with the Vermillion Lies. I would finally meet Beth in person and have an audience with Amanda Palmer for ten minutes.