Keith Arem Discusses His Interactive Graphic Novel "Infex"
Digital comics combine with alternate reality gaming in this transmedia work of fiction.
In 2008, PCB Productions hummed with activity. A production house headed by Keith Arem known primarily for his work as a voice director for big budget video games—including the Call of Duty and Tony Hawk Pro Skater series—this production compound nestled in the San Fernando Valley supported some of the biggest videogame franchises in the industry. Gearing up for their year, Arem and his wife Valerie decided to take much needed vacation before embarking on the next Call of Duty installation. 5,000 miles away, with no way to quickly return to the U.S., Arem got a call. The voice on the other end began:
“The dog’s okay.”
“Whenever you get a message, ‘The dog’s okay,’” says Arem, “you know it’s not good.” The entire compound burned to the ground. A fire started in the audio vault storing his entire library of hard drives and tapes. A musician and composer, Arem spent most of the 90s touring with his band and working for Virgin Inetractive. He’d built up a library of one of a kind music from around the world, and in one day, 17 years of music, multi tracks and samplers melted into the Encino soil.
When Arem’s wife asked him what they were going to do, he had a solid response. “We’re going to re-build it. And build it better.” That began five years of construction that finally concluded this year. “It’s like burning off the top soil and letting the undergrowth grow out.” notes Arem.
Screenshot from the app
What’s sprouting from the scorched earth is a focus on filmmaking, television production, and graphic novels, like the iPad graphic novel Infex, which recently launched 2.0 at Comic Con in San Diego. The original content division of PCB Entertainment (focused on developing content for film, television, digital, gaming) was co-launched by Keith Arem and Vice President Ash Sarohia in January of 2012. Arem's amassed a new library of over 40 creative properties he hopes will position PCB as a formidable Hollywood player. In Arem’s mind, the key is transmedia storytelling, or sharing narratives over multiple media platforms.
The transmedia approach fits into what Arem had been contemplating for years, but on which he hadn’t fully acted. What he really wanted to do was direct films. Close colleagues in the industry even asked him why he wasn’t pursuing creative endeavors outside of the video game industry.
“People like Sam Worthington, who was a close friend when I was working with him on Black Ops,” says Arem, “He was coming to me afterwards and saying, ‘The way you directed me changed the way I act now. And I was like, ‘That’s Sam Worthington telling me that! That’s amazing!’ I think people are starting to recognize there are amazing performances coming out of the gaming industry, and I’m trying to take that experience into the movies.”
Screenshot from the app
Which brings us to 2013. Infex is Arem’s third graphic novel. The original was printed two years ago on metal and encased in metal—Arem’s experience with manga influenced the look and feel of it, but in the metal cover people mistook it for an iPad, and the cost of the novel was so high it didn’t make sense to produce. Since PCB creates everything digitally, the next logical step was to cease printing and go straight to tablet.
ComiXology was a company doing straight scans of comics to iPad, but they weren’t integrating sound and interactivity like Infex. He wondered why no one was taking the next step. If it was going to be done digitally, it had to have special production values. He set out to make a book world in which the reader is completely immersed. It’s as if you’re reading a book, but listening to the movie. At Comic Con, Paul Young, Arem’s new manager, and Arem’s wife Valerie called it a “Cinematic Novel”—he likes that description, but believes it’s so much more than that. Part of that has to do with the massive alternate reality game (ARG) embedded in Infex.
Screenshot from the app
The book began in 2009, and that is when Arem began experimenting with new forms of storytelling through blogs and Twitter feeds. He was amazed by the fact that characters could interact and entertain an audience in a way a book, movie, or television show can’t. A few million people are following the ARG online, and the app incorporates several components from the viral campaign.
“I feel a lot of times people have a great story,” says Arem, “but when they tell it in the wrong medium it doesn’t translate to the audience.”
The book begins with a Russian scientist looking for a cure to cancer. When he discovers the cure, he realizes it can also be weaponized, so he decides to destroy the cure. But then his daughter gets cancer. He hides the cure inside his daughter, and his daughter becomes the focus of the character. The ARG forums picked it up, and it ultimately gained millions of views.
Today, much of the ARG content remains scattered throughout the web. Some of the ARG is still live and some of it is dead, like a phone number on the InGenBio website that rings but goes nowhere. The Infex website is challenging to navigate. Several of the links do not direct anywhere because they are part of the ARG, which is unclear, and a person discovering Infex.tv from promotional materials might become lost or frustrated by the dead links. Also the main, horizontal scrolling panel moves so quickly, it is like playing a version of whack a mole when you try to click on fast moving links that fly by on the screen.
The graphic novel itself is beautiful and connects well with the pre-existing story set up in the ARG and it certainly feels like the future of graphic novels, with its focus on blurring the lines between reality and fiction. But Arem isn’t looking to fool people with the story, instead he wants his fictions to be so close to reality that it makes the audience question the world around them.
“There are concepts out there that people want to talk about,” says Arem, “and address issues that need to be talked about, and if you can do that through entertainment, I think that’s the best way to do it.”