An Experiment in Immersive Storytelling
Behind the Scenes:
Propmaster Tae

What makes an interactive horror/adventure story remarkable?

Props, of course. See? I'm remarking about it now. Zarina remarks about it as well. Remarkable.

At this point in the development of Absolution, I had written a lot of what I wanted to happen and identified quite a few physical items I needed to tell a compelling interactive story, but I didn't actually have any of the things I needed. Amazon, Etsy, eBay, and other online stores can be great for all sorts of shopping, but none of them (yet) have the shopping category: Interactive Werewolf Story Props. 

Many of the props I ended up using in the story came about by me staring at a wall for a few minutes, deciding that making it was outside my skill set, and then asking Tae for help. Tae's always been crafty, and between the two of us, we've been able to come up with clever solutions to all the problems life has thrown at us.

Following, I will detail some of the work involved in making a few of the props used in Absolution, along with notes from Tae. I'll also point out a few areas where I was able to lend my expertise. You'll see that the split here is about 99% Tae and 1% me in terms of creativity, artistic skill, and work involved.

Giovanni's Journal

Early on, while writing the story, I had an idea of slowly revealing old journal pages to Zarina that let the mystery unfold. I decided that creating a bit of separation, a feeling of being nearly tangible, would add to the mystery and excitement. So, I thought having Zarina receive photos of journal pages that were obviously real would do the trick. The problem was that I didn't have old journal pages. I wrote up exactly what I wanted to appear on them, then translated them (more on the translations in a later Behind the Scenes), and took the entire idea to Tae for help.

Handwritten journal pages on off-white paper.
I bought this paper at a craft store. Because my handwriting is mostly illegible, Tae wrote these. She used a fountain pen with a reddish colored ink.
A handwritten journal page sitting in the sun to dry.
Here's a completed page sitting out to dry.
Clean and neat handwritten journal pages, ready to be aged.
The full set of journal pages, ready to aged. Tae intentionally created some mistakes to make it feel more real. After all, Giovanni was not infallible.
A table with blank test pages, a mug of what appears to be coffee, cotton balls, a sponge, scalpel, eye dropper, and paper towels.
A blank tester page to refine the aging process.
Tae holding up a page after smearing it with an aging concoction she made.
The mug is a weak mixture of coffee and water.
Tae working on a page to age it. The page has been crumpled, flattened, and smeared with coffee water.
Blotting, smearing, rolling, crumpling, and a lot of smushing.
Another page, half torn off, that's been aged and is now drying.
As you can see, the fine work of a fork and toothpick gave the page roughened parts (and not just the edges).
An aged page with a hole near the bottom for additional authenticity.
Parts of the pages have been torn and thinned to make them appear more worn.
Two pages that have been properly aged.
The rough edges and chaotic discoloration really add authenticity.
Another properly aged page with two cotton balls sitting on the table above it.
The cotton balls were used to push the coffee mixture deeper into certain parts than others.
All five pages, aged and ready to be photographed.
All five pages, aged and ready to be photographed.

"Using coffee in this way is a well-documented aging technique on the Internet. It's a go-to for a lot of craft people and is also used in scrapbooking to make things look old, aged, or just not bright/crisp white. The tea and coffee concepts are exactly the same, but they'll give you slightly different depths of color. With coffee and tea grounds, you can put some on the paper to leave almost dirt-like or mildew spots. I think I saw this once on The Carol Duvall Show on HGTV."
Photo of Tae Hernandez
Tae Hernandez

All five pages stacked and ready to be photographed. An assortment of colored latex gloves sits on top of them.
While popping in for a visit to the dentist, I asked for an assortment of colored latex gloves, to which the dental assistant very kindly obliged. This, of course, was way before the pandemic when latex gloves were growing on trees. I wanted different glove colors in some photos to add a subtle hint that the photos I was about to take were taken at different times.
A latex gloved hand holding a journal page over a university-looking desk.
A public library makes an excellent faux university setting. Yes, I got some pretty strange looks.
Another page held by a latex-gloved hand at a desk.
I was going for suspension of disbelief and not full realism. If these were actually hundreds of years old journal pages, there's no way anyone would take them out of an archival setting to photograph them. Also, nitrile or vinyl gloves would be used, or possibly cotton or no gloves at all. But that's based on my own research, and the average person is unlikely to know that. Therefore, latex it is—because it looks good, and that's what I hand handy.
Another photo of a journal page held by a latex-gloved hand.
Evidently, Amon is a little irresponsible with the archives. I blurred the background of this to ensure that no one ended up in a story without their consent.
Another journal page held by a latex-gloved hand. This one is beside the base of a table lamp.
I kept moving around in the public library. Each picture was taken in a different location.
A latex-gloved hand holding an old journal page in front of a monitor showing a foreign news website.
For the last photo, I pulled up an online newspaper from the area Amon Nagi lives. I also hand wrote out a little shopping list for him.

Note on Amon Nagi's Door

A handwritten note in German stuck to a door with tape.
Here's how this one started. I stuck a simple handwritten note in Sharpie to a bedroom door in my house. I took this photo and then edited it for the final version that Zarina received as a cliffhanger at the end of Chapter 2. The final version only needed to be realistic enough for a suspension of disbelief but not realistic enough to pass a thorough inspection.

Puzzle Under Zarina's Car

A magnetic key stash box to be placed under a car.
The next Behind the Scenes goes into the challenges of puzzle craft. This part of it was a practical problem of getting the puzzle to stay under Zarina's car for her to find. It was already a solved problem with under-car spare key stashes. I just needed to get one and test it on my own car first.

Effigy of the Wolf

Some props needed more attention than others, like this one. The story culminated in a full moon ritual, with a lycanthrope curse-breaking using an earthen statue of a wolf. This prop was all Tae's handiwork. It was going to be physically handled by Zarina, so it had to seem extremely authentic.

A box of red sculpting clay.
A trip to the craft store for some clay.
A small wooden box.
And a wooden box to place the effigy.
A bit of hair bundled up with clay.
In the story, Ksenija Horvat places some of her own hair inside the effigy.
A silver bullet necklace broken off of the chain.
A silver bullet that isn't meant for a gun was surprisingly hard to find. I found a necklace, and Tae managed to cleanly break off the fixture.
The bottom of the wolf effigy showing a hollowed out area.
Tae made the inside of the effigy hollow to stash a few things. She also very cleverly (somehow) made a weak point so it would break at a specific area when Zarina smashed it. It worked incredibly well, and I have no clue how she pulled it off.
Tae sculpting the wolf effigy.
Tae found a few reference photos online and then got to work.
Closeup of the wolf effigy showing the details.
Nearly finished wolf effigy made of clay.
Close up of the front of the wolf effigy.
Just look at those wolf paws.
Side angle of the wolf effigy.
Side view of the wolf effigy.

By now, you should be wondering about the reference photo in the background. It's a sculpture by William (Bill) Harling. You can see more of his work on his website and some photos on Flickr.

Tae holding the wolf effigy just after she put bloody fingerprints on it using a rusty red paint.
The wolf effigy wouldn't have been complete without Ksenija Horvat's bloody fingerprints on it.
Fully dried wolf effigy placed inside a box without the lid on it.
Wolf effigy getting boxed up.
Tae presenting the wolf effigy inside the box.
Another angle of the wolf effigy inside the box.

"Pure logic on choosing the material here: authenticity. Mud, blood, and rage. An earth-based clay is more authentic based on what existed when it was made in the story."
Photo of Tae Hernandez
Tae Hernandez

The box with its lid on it and tied up using old looking twine.
Tae also aged the box and tied it up with old-looking twine.
The tied up box sitting in a hole in the ground.
Yes, I really did bury it. I got some very strange looks from police while doing this.

Faking Aleister Crowley's Book

Sometime before Absolution, Zarina and I were at an art exhibit along with other friends and saw a photo of Aleister Crowley.

Aleister Crowley wearing a pyramid hat.

Zarina had no idea who this man was or what the hell he was doing. I gave her a quick rundown of Aleister Crowley and his life. Later, when I was writing Absolution, I decided to throw in a special reference for Zarina in the form of a fake curse-breaking ritual "created" by Aleister Crowley himself. Of course, this was a complete forgery of mine, made exclusively for the Absolution story.

Fake Aleister Crowley ritual pages being cut out with an Xacto knife.
I sized the pages to fit inside of another book so that I could scan them with a flatbed scanner and make it look as if the book were real.
Pages placed inside another book.
I placed the pages inside of another book, making it seem as if these two pages were actually from a book Aleister Crowley had written. He didn't write this, of course. Aleister Crowley did write a book titled "Amrita: Essays in Magical Rejuvenation"—that part is real. You can see how the flatbed scanner fake worked out right here.

Ritual Tools

What's a ritual without ritual tools? Boring. These implements are tied in directly to the fake ritual I created.

A small glass with wire wrapping around a crystal.
A little wire wrapping and a crystal go a long way.
A container of salt, a ritualistic dagger, glass with crystal attached, sage, rose essential oil, and a blue cloth.
Ritual supplies all ready to go.

If you've read the entire Absolution story, you'll know that there are more props than this. I chose these specifically to highlight some of the more intricate crafting skills required to pull off the story. The other props took time and skill as well, but I had good photos of the process for the props shown here, and these are the ones that took more time or trickery to do.