INTERVIEW: Curtis Holt – The Layman’s Guide to ARGs

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IWhat Is An ARG? The Layman’s Guide to ARGs, one of the ARGs I mentioned was Entropy. Today we have an interview with the creator of Entropy, Curtis Holt. The ARG is in its final stages, effectively over, and Curtis is working on new projects already.

Hi Curtis! Let’s go with a simple question to start off with: What is your role in the ARG Entropy?
I am the sole creator of Entropy – I produce all of the artwork, manage character interactions with players, do all of the voice acting, develop the companion software and oversee the publishing administration for the associated games. Entropy is my brainchild.

What inspired you to create Entropy?
Continuously creating things keeps me from feeling anxious, and I use it as a way to process emotions. I adore science fiction stories, and though there are so many pieces of work I could point to over all kinds of entertainment mediums, the only puzzle-based stories that have actually inspired me enough to participate and even create fan-art for are the Elite: Dangerous alien mysteries. So I would have to say that they are a strong inspiration. Combine these interests with an obsession for existential simulation theories relating to self-regression and we end up with Entropy.

Why did you take the step of creating Our Nation’s Miner to go along with Entropy?
Our Nation’s Miner was an old game project released in December 2015 that I was never truly happy with. Entropy provided me with something that I had never had before – an audience that was waiting for ‘the next thing’. From a psychological perspective it provided me with a motivational force to keep me moving. I have a confidence issue with my work where once I get bored of a project I usually abandon it because I can’t see it through the eyes of a potentially-interested player or viewer. Having an audience helped massively in staving that off. Realizing this, I decided to ride the wave, using it as motivation to revisit an old project and make it into something that I was actually happy with.

If you had had a bigger budget for the project, would there have been any significant changes?
For sure, my largest complaint has always been an empty budget for the project. The ARG would have looked immensely different if I had more resources to utilize. I would have been able to create much more in-depth, longer, and higher quality pieces of content.

You have a very specific aesthetic look for Entropy. When during the planning/creating phases was this decided?
Some parts, like the blue-heavy color scheme, just come naturally as a matter of preference. Most of the work is improvised, and in some cases on-the-fly, such as early on in the ARG when I was producing artwork in response to realtime conversations with the players. I’ve always had a proclivity for creating artwork that is heavy with spiritual symbolism and hidden meanings. Using this as a glue to merge traditional fantasy with science fiction is where my personal style comes from, and this why the aesthetics for Entropy are what they are.

If you had to create an ARG based on some media, be it show, movie, game, album, anything, what would you pick and why?
All of the above. This is why Entropy spans multiple mediums – YouTube videos, text-based stories and games. Originally, I wanted Entropy to have more of an episodic video format to it like a consumable sci-fi series, but I didn’t have the resources to make that happen. What has happened instead is that the ARG has helped to establish the ‘Hyperverse’, which is essentially a personal multiverse IP that I can keep creating stories for. I intend to create more short films, games, books and albums (and even brand new ARGs) in the future to saturate it with more content. There are already some projects in production to carry this forward. The reason I’m interested in reaching out to as many entertainment mediums as possible is because I’m just interested in absolutely everything. I’ve been fortunate enough to grow up on-set, seeing how blockbuster films are made from behind the scenes, thanks to my father (Mark Holt) who works as a special effects supervisor. I’ve actually been a child-actor in an exhibition for a museum that has since closed down, where viewers could shoot and fire rockets at me to demonstrate how military firepower was represented in film and TV. All of these experiences help to kindle the interest in creating mixed-media projects.

Do you have any advice for those interested in ARGs but don’t know how to start?
There are a few pieces of advice I would give. Firstly, tell a story that feeds in as much emotional weight as you can muster. I believe that there’s an obsession that all creatives share – an unending energy to create things. Create a fictional world and use it as a lens for focusing that energy. As well as this, you don’t have to know all of the answers to every question about your world. People relate with messy stories because it echoes the chaotic reality of life. Nothing is black and white and not everything has to make sense. Observe your first players – as they speculate, they will come up with ideas you would never think of. Utilize that information to create new twists and adapt your story to feel more compelling to them. If at all possible, become a player of your own ARG. It’s quite easy to lose perspective on the player experience when you’re stuck in your own world as the creator, so occasionally separating yourself from that position will help you stay grounded. If you’re creating multiple characters, go crazy and get them to act in ways that make you feel uncomfortable – it will be more compelling and people will remember it.

Was Entropy the first ARG you made? If not, how many did you make beforehand, and which was your first?
Entropy was my first ever ‘ARG’ in a traditional sense, but there were times in the past where I started working on projects with a similar mysterious, existential sci-fi feel. The name ‘Entropy’ is actually one of my placeholder project names. I have a few names that I give to projects if I don’t know exactly what I want to do with them, and now this one has been immortalized as an ARG.

You somewhat integrated parts of Entropy into Waking Titan, with the W/ARE game development contest. I’m guessing you got the OK from Alice & Smith for that but was that a strenuous process?
That was an interesting time. I was continuously seeking counsel from the amazing community manager at Alice & Smith, who had actually been participating in Entropy, as to whether it would look like I was trying to intrude on Waking Titan – an impression that I wanted to avoid. So, there was never a point where I didn’t have a bridge of communication. Dedicated Entropy players enjoyed the occasional easter-eggs that referenced the work of A&S, so I weaved in a narrative where Entropy acknowledged the existence of Waking Titan as a piece of fiction that existed within our verse. A beta version of Our Nation’s Miner was created for the W/ARE competition which contained clues and secrets for the ARG. I was disappointed when the project wasn’t listed for consideration in the competition because it meant I would have to abandon some of the cooler ideas for that chapter.

How much time did you have to prepare that specific part, especially since you had to develop the demo game for WT, the version for players of Entropy and hide stuff in the latter version?
I had about two weeks to get everything ready for the submission. In that time, I refactored the game into something presentable, established a website for ‘Lord Bytesworth’ (the development alias I use to publish game projects), and started to build a new version of the private data sharing network called ‘ByteNet’ to share information between the ARG applications. I knew that some data in the game needed to stay hidden to avoid spoilers. Since I had already been sharing earlier beta versions, I had built up a good idea of where to hide things in files so that the players of Entropy wouldn’t be able to find them. All in all, that ended up being one of the most productive fortnights of the year, so despite the game not being shown for consideration, the motivation really helped to push my development skills.

Now we’ve got three tougher questions for the end: What makes an ARG for you?
What really makes an ARG for me is a deeper purpose. I find it difficult to connect to stories that are created to be just one thing – such as ‘to be scary’, ‘to be puzzling’ or ‘to be mysterious’. I want to see more complex meanings, lessons and theories presented; things that could change player’s lives in some way and teach them to see the world from different perspectives.

Why do you think ARGs, despite often being linked to pop culture, are rarely in the limelight?
I believe that a large number of people would be interested in ARGs, but the percentage of potential players that actively go out of their way to seek them out is miniscule. But again, I think it becomes a matter of purpose. People will engage in an activity if they can get something out of it. When ARGs are attached to popular franchises with dedicated fanbases, they see a rush of activity because the players expect that they will, collectively, get something for participating and completing the tasks. In the case of Waking Titan, players were waiting for updates to No Man’s Sky. In the case of the Elite: Dangerous mysteries, players were expecting new alien content to appear in the game. Asking why the general population doesn’t take notice of the majority of ARGs would be like asking why the general population doesn’t take notice of the majority of corner shop Sudoku books. I think the real question that potential ARG creators should be asking is: ‘What can ARGs do to better engage the general population?’ I think in the coming years, we will see more and more people experimenting with ways to do just that.

Last, but not least: What really makes an ARG stand out for you?
What makes an ARG stand out to me is the expression of feeling. If someone started recording with a low-quality webcam, told a story that they had been working on and gave a riddle, that would stand out much more to me than a sheet of ciphered text sent out by a AAA company trying to start a high-budget marketing campaign. I also find artwork very engaging – I don’t think there’s such a thing as perfect or imperfect artwork, but I know that there are a lot of people out there with confidence issues in their work, like I had, who have excellent stories to tell but no means of surpassing that motivational threshold to put it out there. I’m looking forward to seeing more creative twists in the alternate-reality genre.

Curtis Holt is the creator of Entropy, a fan of ARGs himself, and is known on Twitter as Lord Bytesworth and Curtis Holt. He also has a Patreon and can be found on his Discord server or his YouTube channel