unfiction: a history
The above video is a history trip and explanation of unfiction and
the origin of the term, dating back to the original UnFiction website.
A text and image breakdown of the topic can be found below.
- a form of fictional storytelling that utilizes varying measures of interaction
immersion, or multimedia delivery beyond traditional bounds of the mediums used
to conduct an experience under the roleplaying premise, “this is (not) a game”
(it's basically playing pretend on the internet as a storytelling method)
The UnFiction Website
The original header for the UnFiction site's "Unforum," used for discussion, tracking, and sharing of projects.
While the concept of directly presenting a fictional tale under pretense of a legitimate story is as old as the false advertising of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the popularizing of this storytelling framework
can be credited to the total commitment and multimedia marketing approach of The Blair Witch Project.
As an independent project that could steer its own course for filmmaking and promotion, the team behind The Blair Witch Project chose to market the movie by walking the same path used in its creation: sell the idea as hard as you can that this actually happened. Punch a hole between realities, blurring the lines between truth and fiction, and give viewers a way to access an alternate timeline in which this event truly occurred.
The Blair Witch Project was marketed as genuine found footage, with a website mocked up with false police reports, fake newsreels, and information requests on the missing characters. Missing person posters were made and circulated. A fake documentary special was even created for the Sci-Fi channel, discussing the monster legend investigated by the missing characters and their resulting disappearance.
The effort was a massive success, making The Blair Witch Project the 10th highest-grossing film in the United States in 1999, returning over 4,000 times its budget. Not only was it shown you could make an excellent film for a shockingly small amount of money, a storyteller could use the internet and even other media outlets to expand a story well beyond the boundaries of the movie theater and create extremely exciting buzz.
No surprise, then, that Hollywood took notice, and their effort to experiment with this new method of storytelling would not only result in the formation of the first alternate reality game, but the very creation of the term itself.
In 2001, Stephen Spielberg presented his new film, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, which had a surprise for anyone who looked closely at its trailer and even its poster: a credit for miss Jeanine Salla for her role in the film, “Sentient Machine Therapist.” There was also a coded telephone number which, when called, presented instructions leading to an email discussing “Evan Chan,” a murder victim whose violent end involved Jeanine.
In the first few weeks, only about one hundred people discovered this secret, but their number quickly grew when they came together online and formed a community, which they called ‘The Cloudmakers.’
This whole event spawned quite a title for the ARG that ended up making the art form’s initial phase stick: The Beast. For a time, followers even called the act of making an alternate reality game “beasting,” because this entire form of storytelling was so new, there just wasn’t a term for it.
Following the success of The Beast, EA Games tried to get into the field with a subscription-based title called ‘Majestic,’ and ABC came up with an online companion to their sci-fi show, Alias. Meanwhile, the Cloudmakers assembled to create their own game, code-named ‘Lockjaw,’ and it was during this process
that the term 'alternate reality game' was born.
The UnFiction website arrived in 2002 and brought with it a forum, the UnForum, a place to discuss and catalog 'alternate reality games.' It was created by Sean Stacey, who went by the username “SpaceBass.”
A blog written on November 10th, 2006 recounts the origins of the term 'ARG' and Sean’s thoughts.
The original UnFiction site's home page
Opening to Sean's 2006 blog about the ARG term
In the blog, Sean goes on to talk about his observations concerning alternate reality games, attempting to figure out what qualities of a project actually define it as an ‘ARG’ and what elements people go wild over. How do you even define these things?
A lot of thinking went into Sean’s discussion, leading to a need for alternate reality games to be placed in a greater context. What he came up with was “chaotic fiction.”
The original thinking behind the term "chaotic fiction" did have logic behind it--as long as you were discussing a project or storytelling experience that relies on interaction and audience input to concoct a narrative or reach any form of conclusion. As we've come to discover over time (and as many who were part of the early UnFiction forums realized), an ARG often will come with several predetermined aspects and only some games have a "chaotic fiction" element to them. Quite often, ARGs came and went with total author control, delivering stories via challenges that had to be overcome, but ultimately weren't affected
by player input from the start of the narrative to the end.
That doesn't speak yet of all the projects that have come up for about a decade now which don’t even classify as games, but have still been called ARGs and lumped in simply because of their immersive "playing pretend" nature. Chaotic fiction as a term doesn’t work for these, either, because they’re not chaotic—they break rules, but to say it’s chaotic or for the purpose of a chaotic fiction outcome isn’t accurate.
In Sean's blog entry, the chaotic fiction argument is presented as one that in many cases could work, but didn’t fully stand up as a proper umbrella term in 2006—and if he could’ve seen into the future when he wrote the blog, he would’ve had so much to consider that the blog may not have even been written due to the sheer amount of contemplation needed to categorize all of what would eventually emerge; the majority of material now associated with "ARGs" is linear, non-audience-influenced work that doesn't require the rigorous gameplay and collection aspects of alternate reality games to gain story rewards.
Debate on the proper terms by which to call alternate reality games and their various types raged for years, exploring ideas like "transmedia storytelling" or "multimedia." One term, "cross-media," was popular for a bit, but that alienated stories that existed solely on one platform and one media delivery method.
And throughout all the discussion of categorization, the engagement with media from the field and the UnFiction website grew, fueling the emerging artform.
Screenshot of the UnForum's menu
The UnFiction site and UnForum were incredible resources for anyone who wanted to get into the field or find new projects--and it would still be today, had it not been for a case of tragedy.
Details are still somewhat fuzzy about the circumstances, though there was talk at the time about a tree falling on the home of either Sean Stacey or a fellow webmaster, which may have damaged equipment.
What we know for certain is that on July 26th, 2017, a post was issued by the UnFiction Twitter account alerting users of a grave predicament for the site.
Members of the community attempted to solve the issues, but no one knew how to effectively salvage the old forum and all its data, let alone bring the whole package up to date. As result, the UnForums and all its years of archived information on projects in the field went down. At this moment, the pages captured by the Internet Wayback Machine are all we have.
Since the fall of UnFiction, the viral power of new projects has grown, and the rate at which projects appear has only increased. This has brought up conversations and considerations about the term ‘ARG’ and if it even really applies to the majority of what’s been showing lately.
The irony of it all—and the years spent on the UnFiction Forums reigniting the debate—is that the answer was there the whole time.
Sean’s surrogate catch-all term, the name of the site itself, was all we ever needed. When you look at the prefix for the word in conjunction with ‘fiction,’ the adoption of the term as an umbrella name is actually supported by the history of alternate reality games, dating back to the Cloudmakers and the very project that created alternate reality games: The Beast.
Un-fiction. We know that fiction is storytelling—it’s not real, it’s fake, it’s make-believe. Fiction is playing pretend. The prefix ‘un’ literally means “not.” Combine the two, and you get “notFiction.”
The UnFiction site has a glossary for terms that date back to the days of The Beast, and one of them is “T.I.N.A.G.”—“This is not a game.” Here’s the full definition:
This is (not) a game.
This is (not) fiction.
Un, as prefix, means "not."
This is (not)fiction.
Use of unfiction as an umbrella name for media in the field catches anything playing by the code of TINAG (this is not a game) presentation. Alternate reality games, interactive projects, and immersive narratives all fall under this idea of playing pretend en masse as a storytelling method and can be
accurately labeled as unfiction, giving someone who knows the term a sense of what they may find
without inaccurately expecting an ARG or wrongly categorizing a project as one.
The term also honors the origins of the field through recognition of the defining mantra for A.I.'s game
The Beast and the Cloudmakers who played it. It also directly recognizes the website that served as a
major hub of tracking, discussion, discovery, and overall love and commitment to the field for years.
It is a fact that we would not be witnessing as strong or widespread an artform as we do today if it hadn't been for Sean Stacey's UnFiction site, the UnForums, and the community that inhabited them.