Fourth Wall Studios pushes immersive storytelling beyond a single screen

Fourth Wall Studios creates alternate-reality experiences, producing transmedia interactive content immersing players in storylines spread across computer and mobile devices.

The company is currently three episodes deep in its flagship series Dirty Work, a story about the messed up lives of a crime-scene cleanup crew in Los Angeles. Dirty Work earned Fourth Wall Studios the award for Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media at the Creative Arts Emmys last month, the first ever award of its kind.

"Our founders come from backgrounds in alternate-reality gaming," Fourth Wall executive producer Jackie Turnure told Polygon at New York Comic Con today. "AR allows you to experience a story viscerally, because you're actually going to answer a payphone or you're getting a package in a mail, you're going online and cracking codes.

"However once they were done, they were over, and if you joined campaigns in the middle you didn't really get the whole experience because you've already missed out on half the story."

"It goes beyond the single screen experience."

"This isn't a mainstream entertainment concept, but there are some cool things about it our small audience did love," she added. "Fourth Wall kept those cool parts and focused on creating an experience that was more repeatable and accessible, and so they came up with Rides. It goes beyond the single screen experience."

Rides is Fourth Wall's in-house browser platform on which they distribute their games, interacting with both computers and mobile phones. Players will receive pieces of the story on their phone through text messages from characters or recorded calls of a characters' inner monologue.

This kind of "story gaming" hasn't been used by many companies, says Fourth Wall's Zach Schiff-Abrams, and some of the major storytellers out there, from authors to directors to game developers, aren't really thinking about how they can spread the experience across multiple media.

"We refer to [Rides] as being ‘interactive' rather than ‘immersive,'" Schiff-Abrams said. "A phonecall is a unique way of experiencing content. We're not just sending video to your phone. We decided to use the phone as a tool to hear people's thoughts, and that's why in phonecalls for Dirty Work you hear characters' thoughts.

"We view the real world as a whole other toolset for augmented reality, not just a canvas," he said.

Turnure says that Rides decides what features they want to incorporate in a show, then after the script is written decide which features to keep. No phone call or email is superfluous.

"We don't email you just because we can," she explained. "Sometimes the phone element is completely different from one project to another. For Dirty Work it's a way to hear internal monologue. For Flare your phone is a hand radio. We look at what the story calls for first before implementing them."

Schiff-Abrams believes that entertainment models have not stepped up to the challenge of evolving along with current technology. As hardware advances and smarter programs are developed, Schiff-Abrams thinks mobile phones will be the key to creating effective AR experiences. When cameras can recognize objects for what they are, augmented reality programs can be used to transform them into different things.

"We want to empower the creative community by giving them these tools."

"Once we have the technology that allows a phone to recognize a glass when you point it at a glass, we can develop programs that turn that glass into a dragon, or a hot naked woman, or a hot naked dragon," he said. "That's something we're invested in figuring out and bringing storytelling into that realm."

"We may not be telling the best stories out there, but we want to empower the creative community by giving them these tools, " he added.

We asked if Fourth Wall planned to bring its augmented reality content to gaming hardware, as both the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita have alternate-reality functions.

"We have been approached," admitted Schiff-Abrams, though he would not say by whom. "We've given it 100 percent thought. But above all the studio is built around supporting our platforms. Dirty Works was created exclusively for the Rides platform. People have approached us about making a television show, and it would be absurd of us to ignore those revenue sources, but we don't begin the stories thinking, ‘Okay, we're making a video game or film.'"

"Everything is made for online," added Turnure. "We'll keep making experiences for Rides but would definitely keep in mind these spin-offs."

Fourth Wall is working to make the experience embeddable, allowing Rides videos and accompanying components to be transferred to other pages as you would a YouTube video. The company is also exploring the option of bringing their stories to the iPad as well as Rides-compatible supplementary apps.

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