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Interactive Writing: My Finest Hours

Updated: Sep 21, 2018

INTRO: MARY-MARGARET NETWORK BLOG POST #6 This sixth post in my series was published 3/18/10. See the intro to post #1 for the what and why of this whole naive memoir.

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Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

INTERACTIVE WRITING: MY FINEST HOURS My previous few posts were about awkward learning experiences in the interactive and gaming industries. Now let's offset those nightmares with happy stories of what I'd call dream projects. I was hired to do something I love, worked with friendly and respectful teams, and gained hands-on design studio experience. These products won awards, so clearly I wasn't dreaming. Here's what my finest hours were all about.

Total Titanic In May 1998, CircumStance Design hired me as the lead writer for "James Cameron's Titanic Explorer," a three-disc reference title for Fox Interactive. It was an outgrowth of Cameron's extensive research, set construction, and reenactment of the Titanic disaster, presenting the actual history without the big-screen love story. I wrote a documentary-length narrative voiceover in 30-second nodes, plus a few hundred pages of text links covering everything from the first transatlantic steamships to discovering the wreck of the Titanic.

Although I worked alongside an ace researcher and we had access to two acclaimed Titanic experts, I did plenty of reading on my own during those five intense months. I even turned up some stuff the experts didn't know, which meant judgment calls about whether these were obscure facts or fragments of mythology. Mostly, though, I let history speak for itself. And later, when the team was editing video, I helped parse Cameron's outtake footage. "Titanic Explorer" didn't do well as a product (blame marketing, not content!), but it did win a 1999 Communication Arts Award of Excellence for Information Design.

"Courage, Intelligence, Speed" These words concluded every mission assignment for "Spychaser," a six-webisode game developed by Phoenix Pop Productions for Foote, Cone & Belding. In December 1998, PPP hired me to write the story for FCB's highly creative marketing campaign about 3Com's networking hardware. (Remember the XJACK connector?) Players learned about these devices while eavesdropping on a crew of quirky data pirates in the hi-tech cities of Paris, St. Petersburg, Bangalore, Las Vegas, Singapore, and Istanbul. My job was developing colorful characters and building simple logic puzzles from their dossiers, emails, chat sessions, downloads, and web destinations -- each piece in 100 words or less.

"Spychaser" drew upon my favorite fiction-writing strategy: blurring the line between real and unreal. I mined the history and culture of each city until my imagination took over. As a testament to the power of local color, I was asked to tone it down for a certain episode, and those audience metrics were the least favorable. (Not that I'm bragging or anything!) Altogether, "Spychaser" drew over 170% of the expected registrants during its six-month run, and it won the 1999 Communication Arts Award of Excellence for Interactive Advertising Design.

Repeat as Necessary? I'm sure there are luckier or better-connected people moving easily between their dream projects, and I wish they'd tell me how! All I can do is catalog what led me to "Titanic Explorer" and "Spychaser," and wonder how to get there again.

1) The market was very different in the late 1990s. Money was flowing and investors had a bigger risk appetite. 2) Developers were taking chances on new talent because fresh creative content is more abundant in a good economy. 3) I had already worked with at least one team member, so I came highly recommended. 4) Written language played a bigger role in the interactive experience.

I met great people on these projects, many of whom still remember me fondly. I think I also pigeonholed myself as someone too creative for less exotic writing assignments. So while my associates kept me in mind for special projects, the dot-com bubble burst, and suddenly everyone was handling their own less exotic writing assignments internally. And any special projects probably went to the writers who'd been in the business since before Al Gore invented the Internet.

My future "finest hours" are unlikely to resemble what I described here... but a writer can dream, can't he?

Next time I'll talk about recognizing the limits of your client's budget and your own abilities, hopefully before you hit those limits at top speed.

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