Before I tell you this story, I should introduce Rachael Webster. The trouble is, I’m not sure how to do that. Was she a friend of mine? Sure. A great friend. We spent nine months together as tight as Siamese twins. But she wasn’t family, and I never really met her in person. I could say she didn’t exist, but that’s a copout: she obviously existed, and had a life, and friends, and a career, at least until her budget ran out and I had to write her out of this world.
I do know she was real—as real as a fictional character can get.
Rachael started out as a character in a novel, Personal Effects: Dark Arts, by J. C. Hutchins and Jordan Weisman. But the novel didn’t stop as a novel. It was what we call a “transmedia experience,” meaning that the characters between the covers can jump to other media. They hang out on websites, at pay phones, and in videogames. In fact, you’re supposed to believe that they want to hang out with you. If you buy a novel like Cathy’s Book, you’ll see a phone number on the cover, and if you dial it, it will ring an actual number and play an actual message, which is supposed to be both immersive and spooky.
Transmedia’s kind of a fad right now, although it’s been around for years. Maybe you’ve heard of its close cousin, alternate reality games, which Weisman helped invent at Microsoft when he worked on a project known as “the Beast”—a marketing campaign for the film A.I. that went on to become the granddaddy of the genre. But all you really need to know about it is that it rests on the idea that fans don’t want to pick up a story, read it, and leave it behind. They want to get so attached to the characters that they’ll email them, talk to them, and spend day after day choosing to believe they’re real.
Not only did Rachael play the same games and comment on the same blogs as everyone else, she did it without even living in meatspace.
And yes, maybe that sounds weird. I mean, we’re talking about a form that asks grown-ups to exercise their imaginations—something grown-ups rarely do—to participate in a kind of long-distance improv theater that, as often as not, depends on the corniest setups, like aliens, and mad scientists, and hot young girls who need rescuing. The commitment goes far beyond picking up a joystick and pretending you’re a space marine, and saying that you’re a fan of the story, or you’re in it to solve the puzzles, doesn’t really get to the bottom of it. I don’t have the answers, and I can’t speak for the audience. All I can tell you is how I got sucked into one of these things.
I first heard about Personal Effects from my friend Jessica Price, who worked at Smith and Tinker, the company that produced it. The book was due out in a year, and Jessica’s team was building the campaign around it. They needed a writer to support the blog of one of the secondary characters, a late-20s tattooed hipster/gamer chick. The writer would essentially log into WordPress and be her—writing Rachael’s posts, replying to the comments, and signing her name to everything. Rachael was cast as a hardcore gamer, so the team decided she would write reviews as a way to reach out to the gaming community—and having a hot Suicide Girl-style diva behind the joystick didn’t hurt. The name of her blog, God save us all, was PixelVixen707.
So Jessica asked me, did I know any freelancers who might be up for this?
When I tell you I took the job, you should know that I was not an obvious fit. I am not a woman in my 20s, and I don’t live on the Lower East Side with my art therapist boyfriend and my tattoos. I’m a middle-aged guy in New Hampshire. I don’t run around the city solving mysteries; I sit around the house editing copy. Rachael has long purple hair; I … still have hair. Rachael stands out, whereas if you saw me in a crowd, you would probably look right past me.
So Rachael and me? Not a natural fit. I’m probably not the ghostwriter she would have chosen. On the other hand, I am a freelancer, and the hardest word for a freelancer to say is “no.” So I volunteered myself for the gig.
Rachael’s voice right was the easy part. I mashed up my style with those of my favorite female writers—Alice Taylor, Leigh Alexander, and Peggy Noonan—and adopted a brisk, crisp, fun style with a lot of asides and alliteration. I wrote some practice reviews, taking a few current games to task for one damning shortcoming or another, and started thinking up scenarios with her boyfriend and her family—little things to tie her into the continuity of Personal Effects.
Here’s the start of the first post we put up, which was backdated to January, 2008:
Amidst the hurrah over the toy drum kit and the karaoke mic and the setlist, Rock Band slips a subversive feature under the noses of every young boy who got it for Christmas: it makes you play with girls. Try the solo tour or the Quickplay, and check out your backing band: odds are one, even two women will back you on the stage. They’re rocking big hair and leather jackets, or schoolgirl skirts and purple streaked bangs - but however they dressed, they’re ready to kill it. Are you?
In September, we started publishing the posts. At first we ran one a month, but I began to write more and more of them, because that’s how blogging works: you want attention, and so you keep writing until you get it. By November, I was writing three or four posts a week, and Rachael had followers and pen pals across the game blogging community.
And that’s when people found out she wasn’t real.
This was the one big hiccup in the project: nowhere on the site did we advertise that Rachael wasn’t a live girl. Alternate reality games are a special illusion that only works if the audience discovers the trick. The worlds they build aren’t stuck in a television screen, or cheap and obvious like the backdrops at a miniature golf course. They’re pervasive, delivering their fiction straight to your everyday world—to your email, your phone, even to spaces in the real world. They’re fiction without borders, and they can make the player feel as if, to use the most common expression, they’ve “fallen down the rabbit hole.”
You don’t want to break the fourth wall to expose the trick: otherwise, your readers can’t treat the blog as part of the fiction. But somewhere, the fiction still has to give itself away, so you recognize the rabbit hole when you find it. And that’s where PixelVixen707 blew it. Rachael’s life and writing were too plausible, and the tell that Weisman gave us—a note that read, “e-mail/website provided by the people who created me”—was too subtle for anyone to notice.
I mentioned earlier that alternate reality games usually aren’t subtle at all, and now I know why. It’s easy to tip people off that they’re reading fiction when you’re telling them a story about a hokey international conspiracy run by vampires.
There was an awkward reveal in mid-November, when Simon Carless at GameSetWatch figured out that Rachael, who had just started talking about the events in Personal Effects, was actually a fictional creation. And some people flipped out, and others felt cheated. Some of my personal writer friends talked about how cheated they felt by the ruse. Some sample reactions:
J. Chastain: “Devising an extremely convoluted way to trick people into reading your hack writing doesn’t mean you're not a hack. Anyone who’d involve themself in this sort of stunt is either unbearably cynical or unbearably pretentious.”
Somebody named Z., commenting on a post about Rach’s teen years: “You, but, you’re a viral marketing scheme, not a person. You were never a teenager! Has everybody here gone insane?”
And Malcolm Ryan: “I am reminded of the joke ‘My father thinks he is a chicken. We'd take him to the doctor, but we need the eggs.’”
Rachael’s online pals flipped out. I flipped out too. After all this hard work, I didn’t want anyone to feel hoaxed—I wanted them to think this was all pretty cool, that not only did Rachael play the same games and comment on the same blogs as everyone else, she did it without even living in meatspace. It made her a strange new life form that nonetheless could function on the ’net as well as anybody else, because on the ’net, you don’t need a body.
In fact, as far as I was concerned, Rachael was real. There was no doubt in my mind. And there was an easy way to prove it: She just kept writing, week after week, month after month; and aside from a few hints and winks, she never acknowledged the circumstances that kept her online. She just kept on being herself, and after a few awkward days, most people went back to treating her as one of the gang.
So let me tell you something else about me.
Like any writer, I have my strengths and weaknesses, but my biggest weakness is voice. I’ve always struggled with it. I have trouble drawing attention to myself, online or in meatspace, and so the idea of crafting a voice and being that voice and telling the world, “Hey, this is me talking. Listen to me!” seems alien. I’d rather put the words out there, and stand around the corner while you read them. That makes me a natural ghostwriter. I didn’t mind slipping into someone else’s style and byline.
I got to know Rachael well, but not completely. Although my job title was technically “puppetmaster,” I didn’t consider her a puppet; rather, we felt like co-conspirators, like she was an autonomous person who was subletting space in my head and high-fiving me every time we got noticed.
But as I wrote for her day after day, I spent plenty of time trying to get in her head. I took liberties with her backstory, which the book only lightly explored. I gave her a dad and had her spend several posts with him. (My own dad died when I was 28, right after I started getting published.) I tried to imagine her daily routine, her pace of life, and what her body was like; I wrote a whole post where she sat in a room playing with an inflatable ball, just to try to picture how her arms worked, and how her back felt when she lay on her floor.
I didn’t want to be Rachael. But I wanted her to live her life as well as she could, and as for me, who cared? She deserved it.
Where I related to Rachael best was her ambition. As I imagined her, she had the same dreams and anxieties I’d had at her age, when I was just starting out—except that she wasn’t embarrassed to be candid. Like a lot of writers, I’m hard on myself. I have to be. To keep working, you strike a balance between self-confidence and self-criticism. Get cocky, and you’ll be mediocre; beat yourself up too much, or let the rejected pitches and lousy editors get you down, and you’ll just give up. The folks who do well find a balance.
Then there’s Rachael. She doubted herself sometimes, but not much. Her writing had swagger—something I’ve never pulled off. She wanted to be a successful writer, and she talked about it and reached out to achieve it, and every time she got a clickthrough or a comment or a coveted pat on the head from an N’Gai Croal or a Clive Thompson, she would breathe out a “Yesssssss,” and high-five her keyboard and do a little dance around her living room.
Nobody knew who wrote for Rachael. We never ran credits on the site. The focus stayed on her. And she kept blogging, and tweeting, day after day after day. I wrote more than my contract asked me too—and a lot more than anyone paid me for. I didn’t have time to publish anywhere else, and my byline almost disappeared. This was all for a project I didn’t want to disclose, but I didn’t mind. It was too much fun to help Rachael keep on being herself.
I only got to hang out with Rachael once: in San Francisco, for a week, during the Game Developers Conference.
GDC is the homecoming week of the year for game makers, and also for game journos. E3 has the pressers and Penny Arcade Expo has the fans, but attending GDC is like getting a backstage pass to the commune where the true geniuses hang out and talk AI design. I go every year, and obviously Rachael wanted to go too—and with my press credentials, I could sneak her in.
Here’s how we did it: She shared my eyes and ears, and she wrote her impressions through my laptop and my BlackBerry. When we touched down at SFO, she wrote the first tweet, and she eavesdropped on the game designers that I sat with riding into town on the BART. We were working press—except I was the one sweating the deadlines, and looking for good ideas, while she was just loving it: the front-row seat to how her favorite medium got made, the cute young indie devs celebrating after the Independent Games Festival, the parties she crashed, the demos she snarked at. The little incidents—the merchant marine telling us his life story at Murphy’s Pub, the models dressed as condoms on the show floor—went to her Twitter feed. This was the first time she could write about the real world, and she never closed her eyes.
I didn’t tell anyone I was hanging out with her. To keep up the illusion, I only let her report from demos where there was actually a mixed crowd of men and women, so it wouldn’t be painfully obvious that a guy was facilitating this. When Double Fine Productions hosted a preview of Brütal Legend that drew nothing but dudes, I decided to leave Rachael behind. People were sure she was at GDC in some form, and they wrote her directly, inviting her to meet up or get dinner. Every time she had to say no—but I kept wondering what they expected. Did they picture a woman just like Rachael, or sort of like Rachael, coming down the escalator at Moscone West? Did they know that someone totally different from her might be writing all this stuff? Or maybe they didn’t think about that at all.
We were inseparable the whole week, until we finally caught the same train back to the airport. I was so used to hanging out with her that on the night I left, as I waited for the train, I felt a wrenching sensation. I was starting to miss her, but it was harder than that: I could feel myself pulling away from a person I’d been so close to, like we’d been holding hands for a week straight and finally had to let go. It wasn’t just her companionship, or her voice. I guess it was love—the kind you feel for someone who’s impossibly close to you, when you understand each other in a way that no one else ever can.
And then we were at the terminal. I got on my plane and Rachael got on hers, and when I got back to Boston it was crummy and gray, and I was worn out.
In June, the book that started the whole thing, Personal Effects, finally shipped. Before the release, J. C. Hutchins—the most ninja-level marketer I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with—told his massive Twitter audience about Rachael’s blog, giving her a whole new appreciative audience. As before, she made friends easily without ever breaking the fourth wall. Hutchins also scored her her first professional gig: a weekly games column at SuicideGirls.com. She basked in the glory, while I buckled down and met the deadlines.
I wasn’t jealous. I didn’t want to be Rachael. But I wanted her to live her life as well as she could, and as for me, who cared? She deserved it. She would enjoy it. It was almost like I wanted her to replace me—in fact, I think I wanted her to erase me.
Then the gig ended. The book shipped and no sequel was planned, and the marketing budget ran out. Rachael might have stayed as a columnist at Suicide Girls, but then they too pulled the plug on freelancers. There was nowhere else to take this, and to be honest, I was exhausted and running out of ideas. I was isolated—almost nobody I knew could know about this, and the few close friends I could talk to had no idea what it was like.
And so I quit. And I missed her intensely, for weeks, and scrambled around thinking of ways to keep the character going somehow, under some pretense, and when I couldn’t think of one, I wrote her out of the story: she announced she had put her blog on hold while she moved to Japan to teach English. So far as I know, she’s still there.
People who corresponded with Rachael have told me they dug the interaction. I did, too. It’s not every day you talk to a made-up person. And in fact, I personally know plenty of the people who knew Rachael, and they seem to like me, too. But you know, I’m just this guy, and I go from gig to gig, and I’m not that interesting at all. Whereas Rachael is a product of my imagination, and she’s the best person I could imagine. Maybe that makes her a little bit me and me a tiny bit her. But I will probably never be that open, or write so enthusiastically, or believe in myself the way I believed in her. Whatever you could see about my psyche from what I gave her—whatever dreams and secrets and fears and regrets—well, that stuff is worth exploring. Me? I’m just some guy, and I have slow days and messy feelings and I get in my own way a lot, like a lot of real human beings.
After all, when we write, we are whoever we want to be. And that’s much easier when we forget who we really are.
Illustrations by Sarah Jacoby