Right, I’m confused about reality. No, really – a Warner Bros online marketing campaign has triggered an existential crisis, brought on by too much metafiction! Seems peculiar, but it’s the truth. Let me explain…
Warner Bros are currently winding up for the release of the rather groovy looking Terminator Salvation – official website here. As part of the campaign, they’re putting groovy viral material out online.
A key – and, I thought, fictional – figure in the resistance is someone called Bre Pettis. He’s been posting various Youtube videos documenting his increasing horror at Skynet – this is the latest one:
So far, so standard; we’ve seen this kind of thing before with Cloverfield, with Watchmen, and so on. But yesterday, Bre triggered my existential crisis.
Tooling around on Bad Banana blog yesterday, I found this – a set of 1930s warnings about how not to electrocute yourself. It’s just the kind of thing they put up, and a rather wonderful little piece of graphic history.
Digging around, I realised that it’s part of the Bre-niverse; it’s one of his Flickr sets, and links back to his blog. Thematically, it fits beautifully (and very subtly) with his anti-Terminator paranoia. Rooting around on his Flickr feed, I found lots of robot-related pictures, plus some interesting personal stuff.
‘Wow!’, I thought, very impressed, ‘Warner Bros have really fleshed this character out!’ And of course, I was pretty stunned by the reach of the Terminator Salvation promotional material; it is – I thought – so well put together that it’s appearing on blogs like Bad Banana, quite independently of any mention of the film.
That set me thinking about the kind of background information that the web helps film makers put out. Ever since the original Blair Witch Project campaign, the film industry’s been using the web to enhance films by providing additional backstory, character information, gaming experiences, etc.
These kind of transmedia narratives achieve a certain kind of marketing nirvana; they both enrich viewer experience of the movie in a very real, very satisfying way, while encouraging those viewers to spread information about the film to their friends and associates.
An ideal state of communications co-operation is reached; film makers get publicity and commitment from core fan communities, while fan communities get really cool stuff that they can both enjoy in itself and get kudos by sharing. The new media promotional ideal is achieved, and everyone’s happy.
Anyway, back to Bre. He’s so convincing! And that set me wondering – as I headed over to his website, to catch up on the news from the future – about the limits of the transmedia covenant – about the ethics of creating fictional on-line personae.
At what point do you let people know that they’re engaging with the unreal? Is the Terminator campaign so subtle that the Bad Banana folk themselves had been taken in, leading them to spread promotional material as if it was a real, historical artefact? What are the ethics of augmented reality? What can we learn from Orson Welles?
And then I reached Bre’s blog – and that’s where my existential, metafictional crisis began. Rooting around on it, moving beyond the prominently displayed Terminator material, I began to realise that he’s a real person! Who really exists!
And that completely freaked me out. For the last few weeks, following Terminator content online, I’d been assuming that he was a character in a story, played by a reasonably convincing actor – an effective fictional representation of a certain kind of technology guru.
But he’s real! And that made my head explode! Because all of a sudden, I’m living in Philip K. Dick-world, where nothing’s real but what is not. That confusion between fiction and reality is one of the unique properties of transmedia narratives, where unreality piggybacks on reality to create something utterly engaging and entirely new.
And that – wondering where the joins are – is all part of the fun. And, of course, the fact that Bre can be so convincingly absorbed into Terminator-world is simultaneously a tribute to a truly magnificent bit of real person casting, to a great performance from Bre himself, and to the subtlety and coherence of the broader Terminator viral material.