An Experiment in Immersive Storytelling
Behind the Scenes:
Technology Trade Secrets
Have you ever been to a haunted house experience around Halloween? There are constant reminders everywhere that you aren't really being chased by that guy with the chainsaw, like all the signs that say "DO NOT TOUCH THE ACTORS" and the arrows pointing you along the one and only path ahead and all the other people walking that same path, crowded next to each other, talking loudly about what they're going to do after they leave the haunted attraction.
Imagine how different it would be if a friend took you to a dilapidated house in the middle of nowhere on a summer Tuesday afternoon, and you two went inside only to find a blood-soaked chainsaw-wielding maniac that was in the middle of carving up a couple of tourists. Even if the friend told you on the drive to the house that you were about to have a fun but fake experience, it'd still be far more terrifying than ten minutes in a haunted house you paid $20 for and waited in line for over an hour.
In order to build a realistic, immersive experience for Zarina, Absolution needed elements that felt very real. I needed to add, well, realism. How do you do that? How do you inject realism into an experience that isn't actually real? It's all about suspension of disbelief. That's a whole topic in itself, but for this piece of immersive fiction, anything I could do to allow Zarina to interact with the story in a usual, everyday way would mean the entire experience would feel more natural.
The creation of tangible items, like the ones I covered in Behind the Scenes: Propmaster Tae, was a part of the immersion, and the other part lived more in the digital realm. I needed believable photos, newspaper articles, a website and email with a foreign college domain, voicemail, and even a phone number that would be able to call Zarina and allow her to call back. Obviously, to accomplish all that, I needed a super hacker.
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How to Fake Photos
Let's start easy and get more complicated as we go. Photoshop! Except, I run Linux on my computer, so I used GIMP instead. I've been photo editing with computer programs for decades now, so it's relatively easy for me. It used to be a much harder skill to learn because software couldn't do as much, and there were no resources to teach you. Now, though? There are websites where you can edit photos in your browser, or you can download an app on your phone and do things like remove an entire background with the click of a button.
But there is actually a secret to great photo editing, and it's the same secret with video editing and even audio editing: make sure your source material is as perfect as you can get before you tackle editing. The more editing you have to do, the more difficult of a job you have.
How to Fake Newspaper Articles
You'll never believe how easy this is—click here to find out. The hardest part was writing the actual articles, making sure all the dates lined up, and making them interesting and mysterious enough to keep the story going. But the tech part? Simple.
How to Fake a Website
Now we're getting into trickier areas. The real website for the University of Zurich, where the character Amon Nagi works, is located here: https://uzh.ch/
Early on, when I started writing the story of Absolution, I had an idea of having some kind of university archives available online for Zarina to sort through, but that idea turned out to be way too much work for the time I had available, so I didn't end up doing that. It also would have included some kind of staff or student directory, with Amon Nagi easy to find. I went in a different direction with the story and didn't do that. However, I did get as far as making the website available at a different domain name. There are a lot of universities that use a slight variation of their own domain or use a subdomain for students. Following the convention I knew already existed, it was reasonable that a student at the University of Zurich might have an email address like email@example.com instead of firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go there now, it doesn't do anything. But, back when Absolution was playing out, it looked 100% legit because it showed something exactly like the real University of Zurich website. In fact, Amon Nagi's emails all had a signature with "https://www.myuzh.ch" at the bottom. So, if Zarina clicked that link, she would have been served up a very fake but very real-looking website, with only certain small changes. How this was done is the same technique that scammers use online.
It's a simple matter of registering the right domain name, downloading a full copy of a live website, hosting it yourself, and then including your own little tweaks. I'm not going to spell out how to do this, though, because that's far too technical. But, remember, it is relatively easy to accomplish if you know what you're doing, so watch out for phishing, and don't trust links. You know what? Just don't trust anything.
How to Fake an Email
If you own a domain name, you can set up a real email address associated with it, so you can send and receive emails as usual. I had already registered myuzh.ch, and I used that same domain for Amon Nagi's email address. I used an email service called Proton Mail for it, which allowed me to tie in the "fake" domain and then have a real email address for it. You can do a similar thing with all sorts of email providers, including Gmail. It's no different than owning any other domain and setting up email addresses. The important part was making the rest of the email seem as legitimate as possible—a fake photo for Amon and a phony signature block went a long way.
How to Fake a Voicemail
First, you need good recordings of actual voices. I don't care what businesses say; there isn't yet a robot voice that sounds human. I worked with a voice actress for Delilah, recorded my own voice, and brought everything together with special effects sounds in a program called Audacity. I know the program decently well, so it's easy for me to jump in and do what I want quickly. Since Absolution, I've also used it for other projects.
How to Spoof a Phone Number
I also needed a phone number for Delilah that could call Zarina, leave a voicemail, and also allow Zarina to call it back. How did I accomplish this? Well, I'm glad you asked!
And that's how it's done! Making this believable and making the voices sound good aren't nearly as straightforward as the other things I've mentioned. Spammers, phishers, and scammers use some of the same techniques, so, hopefully, you've found this incredibly detailed HOWTO useful.
Just remember that if you find yourself tempted by the evils of hacking, you can instead be a do-gooder in the world by joining the Crime Cops.
And a special bonus for anyone in cybersecurity: The Most Accurate Hacking Scene Ever.