Google’s Niantic Labs is doing a transmedia project with novelist and discredited memoirist James Frey. It’s an intriguing partnership that, like Frey’s books, plays fast and loose with notions of what the “truth” is.
The difference is that Frey presented his first books as nonfiction accounts of his struggles with drug addiction. Niantic’s next project with Frey, by contrast, is a fictional battle between 12 ancient tribes and a race of malignant, manipulative aliens.
So this time, at least, few people will be likely to take Frey’s writing too seriously.
It might be the perfect job for a writer of Frey’s background. It shows some interesting potential for augmented-reality games. And, of course, Google is making the most of the partnership.
Niantic Labs is a sort of startup inside Google, focused on making augmented-reality games. Its first game, Ingress, had players align with one of two different factions and then move through the real world to find game-world “portals” that they had to try to control. Along the way, players had to solve puzzles and find clues.
Many people have tried to make augmented-reality games over the years, such as a real-world Pac-Man game that had costumed people running around the streets of a city instead of a virtual maze. Game designer and TED speaker Jane McGonigal has made a career out of augmented reality that mix real life with game mechanics. But Niantic’s Ingress was probably the most successful such game by far, with over 7 million people downloading the software and 30,000 people participating in real-world Ingress events. That’s a lot of traction, showing that augmented reality may be finally starting to take off, and it’s no doubt why Google is plunging into an even-more ambitious second release.
But the selection of Frey is what’s especially intriguing to me. He wrote a memoir in 2003 called A Million Little Pieces and followed it up with another in 2005. Both were commercial successes, and these even found endorsement from Oprah Winfrey. But in 2006, some facts emerged that cast Frey’s stories — which had been sold as nonfiction — in doubt. After a showdown on the Larry King show in which Winfrey raked Frey and his publisher over the coals, Frey lost his literary agent, his publisher, and his reputation. He subsequently apologized, but his career as a nonfiction writer was over.
Fortunately for Frey, American literature has plenty of second acts, and his has been to turn himself into a novelist. (Frey’s website makes no mention of his checkered past, of course, but to his credit it does link to his Wikipedia entry, which does cover the topic in depth.) He now specializes in young-adult fiction and has most recently published a novel called Endgame: The Calling, which challenges readers to solve puzzles embedded in the text. It’s the first volume of a planned trilogy.
Endgame the novel is now turning into Endgame, the interactive transmedia game from Google and Frey. When the mobile game comes out, players must solve puzzles and take virtual control of real-world locations, just as they did with Ingress. The twist is that the winners will be written into the second and third volumes of Frey’s trilogy, so the course of the game will affect the novels’ plots.
Google has already published a teaser video for Endgame, which talks a lot about the “truth,” which appears to be one of its major themes. The character appearing in the video talks about her discovery of “The Ancient truth, which is the simple idea that we need only look within ourselves to find wisdom, meaning, and morality.”
That’s an especially ironic statement for a character in a game paired with a novel written by a lying memoirist to make. What is truth? What is reality? Is it the virtual world Google is building around the real world, or is it the real world itself? Is it the exaggerated stories in the memoir Frey published in 2003, or is it the deeper truth of his personal struggle with addiction?
All I can say is, readers and players of this game better watch out. They’re going to disappear into an Alice in Wonderland world, in which right is wrong, wrong is right, the truth is inside you — or maybe out there — and nobody knows what’s real and what’s virtual.
It’ll be good practice, though, for our future lives, when employers utilize game mechanics to help us perform our jobs better, doctors prescribe video games designed to help us exercise or lift our depression, and wearable gadgets like Google Glass add a layer of virtual information on top of everything we see in the real world. Who will be able to tell what’s real and what’s not real, when the virtual and physical worlds mix like this? Perhaps people who grew up playing Ingress and Endgame will have a leg up.
In other words, welcome to the future.