The DEW Lab

The Bureau: A Real-Time Mystery

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To recap: The Bureau is an interactive web-based narrative told in real-time over 5 weeks. It’s part blog, part video game set against a series of gruesome murders in a small Washington town. Followers of The Bureau engage with the devices and materials on the desk of Agent Michael Kim, the lead investigator assigned to the case. As new developments in the case emerge, the lines of communication swell–emails are sent, calls are placed, evidence is distributed and theories are formed. Followers witness these developments in real-time through Agent Kim’s tablet and cell phone.

The Tablet

The above screen-shot is Kim’s FBI-issued tablet. It functions much like a real-world tablet, sporting a custom interface with 4 different applications: Criminal Data Viewer, Email, Evidence Analyzer and a the Case Calendar. The entire setup is a collection of jQuery scripts that have been pulled together into one interface. This also includes a notification system for case updates and user feedback. If new developments have emerged since your last visit you’ll know at a glance from the main application page. In fact, the game itself is designed to use your preexisting browsing habits–if you frequent a blog or blog-style news site then The Bureau will be quite familiar. For instance, casual readers might visit several times a week, reading emails and assessing evidence retroactively. More dedicated readers may visit more frequently, reading a heated email exchange between two detectives as it unfolds in real-time. And while either strategy will offer an engaging experience, the characters involved in the narrative are not as straight-forward as they may first appear and evidence isn’t always accurately assessed at first glance. In other words, if you’re an armchair sleuth, you will find a richer, more complex case beneath the surface.

For example, much of the evidence that enters the Pine Point Police Department is scanned and digitally documented. Such objects are readily available through Kim’s tablet. By examining the evidence with an attention to detail you can uncover clues missed in the initial assessment, opening new avenues of inquiry as you attempt to identify the killer before more victims are claimed.

The Evidence Analyzer allows visitors to examine minute aspects of a scanned piece of evidence. Individual sections can be captured, establishing new links that can be used to open up the case

The tablet also contains Kim’s work email. There you’ll find discussions between the FBI agent and the local police as they work together and, at times, against one another, in order to solve the case. Such emails can be thought of as blog posts: short, quick exchanges of information that move in reverse-chronological order. However, since it is Kim’s tablet, you’ll only have access to the messages he sends and receives. His tablet is, however, connected to the Pine Point Police network and with some sleuthing through the tablet’s console there might be a way to synchronize email accounts across the network, provided you can deduce some account passwords.

The tablet comes installed with a primitive but highly-effective console that can provide access to otherwise off-limits data

Users may find other useful programs through the command-prompt, including a now-defunct A.I. designed to aid in criminal investigations.

The Phone

Michael Kim isn’t just an FBI  agent–he has a personal life, text messages, emails and all. Readers can follow the non-professional side of Kim through his cell phone as he keeps in touch with his girlfriend Alice back in Seattle and explores aspects of the case best left off of the local police department’s servers. What’s more, Kim isn’t entirely free of suspicion in the investigation–his motives and his involvement with Pine Point will likely never be more candid than in his personal communications.

Visitors can explore Agent Kim’s personal communications through his cell phone. This includes emails, text messages, phone calls and information he’s chosen to keep secret from the local police

That just about covers it for this first preview. But rest assured, when The Bureau launches July 19th these will be just some of the features driving the unique, real-time story.
7 Days in Pine Point

Well, Agent Michael Kim has been on the case for a full week now and what an eventful week it’s been. Here’s a quick recap of the past seven days in Pine Point [spoilers abound]:

  • FBI Agent Michael Kim arrived in the small town to find out who killed Theresa Edwards
  • He got off to a rough start with his fellow law enforcers and the sheriff was under the ‘guilty until proven innocent’ mentality, given that Kim’s business card was found on the victim
  • The investigation led to a carnival vendor with a penchant for drugging drinks
  • A motel manager was killed–and based on his initials (NET), it appears his killer has a predilection for palindromes (TENET anyone?)
  • Oh, and Mike has secretly made contact with the killer, his relationship is taking a backseat to his work, and his Season 1 DVD of Twin Peaks has been delayed (curse you Amazon!)

Developer Diary #1

I have to say that I completely underestimated the workload required to maintain one man’s life. And now that I’m managing two lives–oh boy! That’s not to say that I’m freewheeling here–there is a definitive arc to the story and a lot of the material was prepared before hand but I left the minutia (text messages, personal emails, interpersonal conversations) out of the initial preparations. I did this, in part, to allow for real-world events to enter the dialogue–weather, for instance, impacts what two people will casually discuss (and it also determines certain  plot elements as well–like a body left out in the sweltering heat too long).

But it’s also made it clearer what exactly I’m engaging in here. (Because, let’s face it, a ‘real-time murder mystery’ doesn’t say a whole lot to the tech-savvy audience). And then it dawned on me. As I sat there writing a series of text messages between Kim and his girlfriend I realized that 1) I was essentially live-blogging a fictitious event and 2) I need to get out more.

But for better or worse, I view The Bureau as a proof-of -concept and although I don’t think I can match the quality I aspire towards in terms of visuals or writing, I believe that someone with some actual talent for such things could really own this idea.

That said, the best is yet to come as some unlikely characters team up to put an end to a new threat–that’s on The Bureau 24/7.

2 Weeks in the Woods

It’s been fourteen days of murder, mystery and mayhem in Pine Point. This past week saw a number of major developments, including the revelation that the killer is a palindrome-obsessed deviant. Here’s a quick recap of events in Pine Point from July 26th to Aug. 2nd [spoilers abound]:

  • What was thought to be an isolated murder has turned out to be the first in a series of killings
  • What’s more, the murders appear to come in paired–two deaths per business card left at the scene. Each card has a word, the letters of which correspond to the victim’s initials
  • Agent Kim has linked the words to an ancient charm known as the Sator Square: a 5×5 grid of letters that forms a multidirectional palindrome
  • In the meantime an unknown individual has been consistently testing the network security at the Sheriff’s Department
  • Oh, and a narcissistic A.I. continues to query inquisitive visitors with riddles in exchange for behind-the-scenes information…

Developer Diary #2: Writing on Multiple Layers

When I initially conceived of this project I wanted to leverage the numerous layers of content that blog-readers have become accustomed to. For example, blog posts consistently reference other blog posts, sending readers in a range of chronological directions: lateral, backward, and even forward (through retroactive updating of earlier posts). There’s an emerging literacy here in the ability for readers to move with ease between these posts that have wildly different time-stamps. If you could map the jumps in time it might look like a blog comprised of Francis Burney’s Evelina after a couple of rounds with the I Ching. In other words, this demonstrates that the author’s ability to control how the reader progresses through the narrative is significantly diminished in the online experience. That’s hardly a groundbreaking statement but I think the trade-off here is largely an untapped area of artistic exploration.

For as the author loses the ability to dictate the flow of the narrative, the reader gains an unprecedented level of subjectivity. That is to say, web-based narratives can make nearly any printed document look like a rigid prescription (of how to read and how to interpret what you’ve read). With a complex collection of entry/exit points and texts that are inherent multi-layered, digital narratives are poised to exploit the shortcomings of print by engaging readers on a variety of levels on-screen*.

Part of what pushed me to create The Bureau was a drive to harness that subjective experience. And so I designed 2 distinct layers of content distribution, loosely defined around the levels of reader engagement:

  • Casual Content: This level is catered to by the straight-forward content–the daily case updates, the recaps of distilled events, the readily at-hand information that is largely about a crime and the investigation.
  • Depth Content: This level requires that reader participates in the process of uncovering information. Examples include the email accounts that can be hacked and then synchronized, the locked personal notes on the cell phone, and the insight offered by the A.I. that exists on the console.
Essentially I was hoping to tap into my own blog-reading behaviour. I tend to skim the blurbs and summaries on the news-blog sites and when I find something of interest I drill-down into more content. I knew going into the project that it would prove difficult to include narrative content that the majority of readers will never encounter. Essentially, any such content would have to belong largely to a meta-narrative–no major plot elements could be revealed here. The trade-off though is the opportunity to flesh out the motivations for characters and events–preludes to betrayals, relationships, and discoveries. In other words, these additional sources provide the undercurrents for the more visible crests of the waves of casual content.
However, as with all aspects of this project the ideas are more robust and lofty than their actual implementation. But I hope by the end to have a working demo of how an author might capitalize on this emergent literacy that has remained relatively untapped and unexplored.
 
* I certainly wouldn’t deny that print provides the opportunity for  immensely complex and multi-layered texts BUT those layers are, in accordance with the constraints of the medium, explored in the mental space (I’m looking at you Ulysses). However, if the web functions as an externalization of the brain’s neural network (as some have claimed), then it’s not absurd to assert some of those meta-layers could be explored or enhanced through links, meta-data, HTML, etc.  

3 Weeks on the Case

Three weeks have passed since Agent Kim arrived in Pine Point to solve what appeared to be an isolated, if twisted, murder. Now the case has expanded to claim multiple victims while the killer invokes an ancient charm called the Sator Square. Here’s a quick recap of events in Pine Point from July 31st to Aug. 6th [spoilers abound]:

  • When it was revealed that the second murder victim may have been involved in a series of unsolved crimes, the sheriff had the evidence buried. That was all well and good until someone leaked department data to the press. When the story hit newsstands, the sheriff was forced to resign over his familiar connection with the murder victim and now suspected rapist
  • When that same story landed on the front page the police feared the killer would vanish among the mass exodus of tourists and carnival workers that would follow the cancellation of the Pine Point Festival. But when the festival prematurely ended and the killings continued, the police truly had their work cut out for them
  • Then the big break came when Agent Kim linked 4 unsolved cases in the 90s to the recent killings–it seems that the Sator Square palindrome had been started back in 1995 with the combined initials of two women that went missing that year. Two more deaths in ’99 spelled out the 2nd word in the palindrome of five.
  • Kim then matched those deaths and the 12 year gap between them and the present murders with the life and times of Clark Duncan–a Pine Pointer known to police for sadistic behavior and a man that happened to be incarcerated for most of the 2000s for unrelated crimes.
  • Oh, and Mike almost got his Amazon delivery except his hotel room was partially destroyed in an explosion–true story!

Developer Diary #3: Writing for a Live Audience

Another one of the advantages to telling narratives through the web is the ability to distribute content live and in real-time. Live blogging has become a hit for major sporting events, while Twitter over runneth with Tweets from breaking news stories (or an Apple event). Things change considerably when the events that are to be covered are fictitious. They then become even more complex when not only the events but the settings, the people, the history, and even the very media are a work of fiction. In respect to those aspects, this has been a truly unique writing experience.

For although much of the content was written and plotted before the site even went live, as I’ve mentioned before, I wanted to have a spontaneous element present in the minutia. This allowed me to incorporate various real-world events into the story but it also provided a time constraint that parallels that of the text itself (for example, emails and text messages attain their character from a quick and almost thoughtless reflex). In a way, it’s a little like those writing retreats you hear about where authors bang out a book in 30 days. But just so we’re clear, those retreats are for talented writers. I have tried to stay true to my characters and to present what seems like authentic material for them but I still crave to see this story telling method in the hands of some talented writers who, given a premise, live-post/blog/tweet the content.

This live-aspect, in turn, generates a far more intimate relationship between author and reader. I’ve been able to fine-tune aspects of the site in response to reader feedback. But on a larger scale authors could explore comments and forum posts to gauge reader response. They could quickly perceive what is being received on the other side of the transmission. I think that exposes the very ethos of this project: to tell a story that can be told no other place.  Or, to tell a story that can be told no other way. That’s the kairos waiting out there to be seized by story tellers and web designers alike.

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