For 14 years, Keith Arem has built up a reputation as a top talent director for some of the world’s most popular video games, like Activision’s Call of Duty franchise and Transformers, and Square Enix’s Sleeping Dogs. His PCB Productions boasts five recording studios in Los Angeles and proprietary technologies such as vocap, a voice-capture system that enables motion-capture actors to perform and do voice-overs at the same.
More recently, Arem wrote four self-published graphic novels that have been optioned for TV and film, and just finished directing his first independent film, an action thriller whose title he’ll announce next year.
Now he’s combining these arenas—the traditional narrative and artwork of graphic novels with the nonliner interactivity and world-building of gaming—into an iPad app, Infex iOS. Continuing his graphic novel, Infex, a sci-fi thriller that saw three incarnations between 2008 and last year, the app involves the user and social media in a way that blurs the line between real and imaginary worlds. It launched at 12:01 Thursday morning and is on display at San Diego Comic-Con at booth 3945.
"It’s true transmedia storytelling," says Arem, who started in entertainment as a Capitol Records composer and engineer. "It’s the creative vision of a book, with music, actors, and a social media viral campaign that brings users together as a culture and enables interaction with them on a daily basis."
The novel and its backstory—presented through the eyes of the protagonist via fictitious websites and social media accounts initially followed by half a million people—chronicles a Russian scientist who lost his wife to cancer and defected to the United States to work at a company called Ingen Bio. There, he developed a cure, only to learn that it turned people into monsters and that the government sought to weaponize it. When the scientist’s daughter is afflicted with the same disease, he injects her with the cure, knowing it dooms her future. The father is killed for his technology and the daughter grows up not knowing about his involvement or her impending metamorphosis.
The app—18 months in the making—picks up when the daughter is 26 and wants to finish her father’s research. The father’s old business partner has suspected she has been given the drug and provokes its side effects, which sets the story in motion.
As an entry point, users scan their fingers, effectively becoming Ingen Bio employees. Users sign up through email, Facebook, and Twitter for a viral campaign that leaks clues via email and social media to unlock additional story elements in the app.
The first chapter is free. Users can then choose to buy the whole book or one chapter at a time. From there, they confront a series of panels that come to life with motion comics and music when clicked. Tapping on symbols and fingerprint icons in the margins yield hidden panels of narrative.
"Every page has its own soundtrack and each panel, its own movie," says Arem. "Although they’re placed in a linear order, like a traditional graphic novel, they can be experienced in any sequence or placed on autoplay for passive watching."
Meanwhile, the viral campaign doubles as an alternate reality game (ARG). Here’s where it gets particularly trippy—app-related people you interact with on social media may turn out to be characters in the story, and you, part of the plot. "I might be in communication with a character from the story who I think is a real person," says Arem. "I might even meet them at a Comic-Con or in the real world, and they might be in character."
There’s also a plan to develop it into a TV series and videogame. "I’m writing the pilot now," says Arem.
"I’m not creating a 90-minute experience," says Arem. "The app is four to five hours of content, and dozens [of hours] including all the added social media. The games we work on have 20 to 40 hours of content. So we have to create worlds for our properties."
The new entertainment marketplace will have to appeal to a generation weaned on interactive media coming from a variety of sources. "The worlds of games, films, and television are merging, and how people are consuming content is becoming more sophisticated," says Ash Sarohia, PCB’s vice president of creative development and business strategy.
Just as Arem’s gaming experience influenced his app design, the app’s interweaving of different types of media has, in turn, influenced how Arem has approached more traditional entertainment, including the film he just directed. "There’s a hidden viral campaign going on right now that people think is real," he teases. "They’ll leave the theater asking if the world of the movie was real."