An Experiment in Immersive Storytelling

Late in December of 2016, I received a series of letters from my friend Zarina in the mail. She was out of town for family holiday things and had apparently sent it before hopping on a plane. Curious.

Two letters I received in the mail. Personal information blacked out.
Some personal information redacted.
Padded envelope mailer from Zarina. Written on it is "Surprise Bonus Package!! (Because getting mail is fun)"
Getting mail IS fun, Zarina.

I opened it to find several printed screenshots of tweets from celebrities and an article from the New York Times.

An article printed from the New York Times. The article has been blacked out. Blue pen written in the margins reads: The only thing worse than the content of this article is the writing... Written in orange pen below says: Um, priorities?
There were two separate voices written in the margins.

Curious became odd, and so I politely texted her about it.

wtf yo

Dec 21, 2016 3:02 PM
Black and white head shot photo of J.A. Hernandez
Zarina Rosiello with a friendly, smiling face

hahaha good luck

Dec 21, 2016 3:07 PM

I picked through the papers again and discovered she'd created a puzzle for me to solve that involved grammar. Zarina is an expert on the subject, and I had recently barraged her with questions about comma splices. I feel like a lot of the finer grammar points were simply glossed over in school, and comma splices were a thing I hadn't ever really thought about. I had also recently binged a ton of episodes (and books) from Grammar Girl, and I kept hitting up Zarina to help me understand various aspects.

A comma splice is a particular kind of comma mistake that happens when you use a comma to join two independent clauses. When you have two independent clauses, a comma is not strong enough to glue them together.

Example: People say the comma splice is bad, I don't know why.

"The sentence above is grammatically incorrect, and I will cleanse the Earth of your bloodline for it. 🙂"
Zarina Rosiello with her serious work face. A small swoop of green is on the left side of her photo.
Zarina Rosiello

I love puzzles—it's kind of my thing. This one was a cryptographic one—definitely my thing. I had to find grammar mistakes, pull out information from the tweets around them, and then put it back together in a cryptographic puzzle. It culminated with discovering the secret name of someone, so I could banish him—a modern-day, Tweeted, Rumpelstiltskin. The journey from the piece of mail from Zarina to solving the final mystery was fun and totally unexpected. I needed a few hints along the way but eventually figured it out. Very clever, very entertaining. 

Handmade and hand-chosen gifts are the best kind, too. Some of my favorite gifts from people have cost little or no money. Real examples from around my house: handmade plushies, hand-drawn & painted kawaii artwork, an office nameplate that proudly declares my working title to be Epic Necromancer, a beautiful art print of a cat with a tail shaped like The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a hand-felted sleepy sun with a constellation cloak, and the list goes on. I also have a hand-crocheted voodoo doll Zarina made me—though I won't name who it's fashioned after.

As for the puzzle she created, I was inspired by it and wanted to gift her something back, something handmade, something...unique. Initially, I thought I might make a similar puzzle, but that wouldn't be unique, would it? After solving hers, my mind kept working on the idea, as it does, percolating on what I might create. The idea bubbled in the back of my brain, somewhere between conscious and unconscious thought.

The very end of 2016 rolled around, and the idea kept on percolating. I knew Zarina's birthday was coming up in February, so I didn't have long to settle on and do something. Then, one snowy afternoon, an idea came to me while rolling around on the floor with our old lady cat.

I snapped my fingers, catching my spouse, Tae's attention. "You know what would be...awesome?"

(If you've read Brandon Sanderson's The Stormlight Archive on audiobook, you better read that last sentence with Lift's voice via the fantastic narrator Kate Reading. I digress. Back to it.)

"You know what would be...awesome?!" I asked Tae. "Being inside a story!"

Tae raised an eyebrow. "Huh. That sounds cool. But—what? How would that even work?"

I thought about it a moment. "I have no idea, but Zarina's birthday is in like"—quick mental math—"two months. Uh, under two months. I want to write a horror story, make Zarina the main character, and play it out in real life. Immersive. Like she's in a book or an adventure game!"

Now, at this point, Tae and I both knew there was no turning back. I had an idea, and I had that look in my eye. I would take that idea and run with it, and come hell or high water—I'd make it happen, even if it was only through sheer force of will. It didn't matter that I didn't know what precisely the idea meant or how I'd accomplish it. One thing was for sure, though: it would be big.

You see, I have this little...quirk. I always go big—it's in my nature. I can't help it. When I decide on a path I want to take, I put everything into it. Work, hobbies, whatever. I knew this. Tae knew this.

"You're mad, bonkers, completely off your head. But I'll tell you a secret. All the best people are."― Lewis Carroll

I cleared the general idea with Zarina. After all, you can't do something big and insane that involves another person without first getting their consent. Lucky for me, Zarina is adventurous and trusts me.

Hey, I want to make something for your birthday, something immersive. It'll mean you participating in something I haven't created yet—or decided on...what...it...is...but I'll probably have to stealthily stalk you online and in-person to make it happen. Some kind of...something. I don't know. What do you think?

Dec 29, 2016 7:21 PM
Black and white head shot photo of J.A. Hernandez
Zarina Rosiello with a friendly, smiling face

Sold. I look forward to fully participating in your vague idea!

Dec 29, 2016 7:23 PM

And with that—I had just locked myself into an incredibly tight timeline with absolutely no idea what the hell I was going to do. My spouse, Tae, is my life partner; therefore, I knew she'd be up for helping. We work great together on everything, like coop dungeon crawlers; we even took on 5-player dungeons in our level range on World of Warcraft—with only the two of us. Of course, neither one of us knew just how hectic the time leading up to Zarina's birthday would be. The whole thing took a monumental effort to pull off.

The three of us, Zarina, Tae, and I, decided to share this story with the Internet several years ago. But, it was up to me to figure out how. Honestly, it took me a while. How do you retell an immersive story? It was hard enough to create and quite complex to pull it off. But, after reading a few books written in an unconventional format—and after finishing the first draft of my novel—I decided to give it a shot. Why not? I still haven't seen anything like it, and I'm working on the second draft of my book (editor mode), and I needed something to activate my writer mode.

So I think I'm finally going to put Absolution up on the Internet. Would you be interested in doing a Q&A?

Oct 20, 2021, 4:08 PM
Black and white head shot photo of J.A. Hernandez
Zarina Rosiello with a friendly, smiling face

I still can't believe you created all that. One of the coolest, most imaginative birthday gifts I've ever received. Seriously. I am super interested to see what you write up about it, and I'd be happy to do a Q&A.

Oct 20, 2021, 5:09 PM

* A note on anonymity
You'll find text messages, emails, photos, etc.—all with real-life Zarina in them—moments captured as her story unfolded. What you won't find is her real name or her real face. Not everyone is comfortable being plastered all over the Internet. But, everything you read here really happened—I have simply anonymized her by changing a few personal details and using the wonders of Adobe Stock images (fully licensed and carefully sticking to the licensing terms!) There are a few things I couldn't sanitize, so I've simply left them out—they were small, personal details just for Zarina, and they don't change the retelling of the story.