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Pop-Up Playground's hybrid of arts and gaming invites players inside the narrative

As the popularity of long-form narrative grows across television, streaming and podcasting, serial storytelling has become fashionable again. This time around though, writers and producers have more technologies to play with than their radio play predecessors.

In Melbourne, Pop-Up Playground, an "experience design company", is at the forefront of a growing form of participatory storytelling, a kind of hybrid of arts and gaming.

Known for their immersive street games for the likes of Bell Shakespeare, the MSO and the Melbourne City Council, their latest project, Outside: The Cloud is the kind of long-form sci-fi story we're used to binge-watching on Netflix – except this one will play out in real time, on Melbourne's streets. And anyone can be an integral part of the action.

In a fictionalised Melbourne, participants, who register first online, are given a backstory about a radical environmental activist at a bio-engineering company who has accidentally unleashed an Artificial Intelligence onto the internet. Those exposed to this virus have their perception of reality affected, and while they might look human, they may in fact be dangerous androids. The scientists behind this technology and their prototypes must be hunted down and destroyed; your mission, which is directed by emails, and includes physical tasks using messages and secret codes, is to find these enemies.

Written by the group's artistic director, also a playwright and lecturer in dramaturgy and playwriting at VCA, Rob Reid, the immersive experience they have created is, he says, a form of theatre.

"It's definitely performance. It's participatory and interrogational as well; you can ask it questions and, as a player, you can impact the outcome of it. We've written both sides of the story."

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But in essence, it's still a story, with actors in two "live events" across the game's eight-week duration, and emails, prerecorded video and hidden clues.

While much of the action is scripted, game mechanic, actor and comedian Ben McKenzie says there is also scope to alter things as the game progresses.

"It's not like a video game where you are only given four different options; this isn't heavily automated," he says.

"Because it's going to play out with a large number of people over  a large amount of time, we want to be able to respond to what people do."

Reid says The Cloud has a similar feel to Inception, I, Robot, The Matrix and Terminator.

"All that Artificial Intelligence fiction plays into it. Content-wise, I wanted to explore the relationship between humanity and that growing technology," he says.

By using technology itself, the game works by tapping into our fluency with our electronic devices.

"We're all so familiar now with our devices. In a way, this is like the way the War of the Worlds broadcast worked; people were so familiar and trusting with their radio. I think this explores a similar relationship with technology that gets you up and out of your seat – the story is the thing that motivates you."

The city itself is something of a star in The Cloud; the tasks players are given involve missions in and around the CBD to seek out hidden codes, which in turn unlock further evidence and messages.

"We love doing stuff in the CBD; so many nooks and crannies,"  McKenzie says. "You can lead people to things that are just amazing, and are always there but you might never see them unless someone gave you a reason to go and find them. It changes the way you think about Melbourne. I love that aspect of it."

The game has been largely funded by VicHealth, as part of its arts-based innovation challenge, which nurtures ideas that improve physical and mental wellbeing through the arts and digital technologies.

"The Cloud is about using art and storytelling to get people active, but we felt it's not enough just to get people moving around; that won't build a habit of exercise, and doesn't address one of the key things, which is having the self-esteem and confidence to be able to do these things," says Reid.

"Our game is also designed to build a community, get you trained and in the habit of talking to people, working with people you don't necessarily know, and going to places you're unfamiliar with.

"Which is a great way to see the city, but also tests the barrier of, 'Am I prepared to go down that alley I've never been down, or to that suburb I've never seen?' At the end there are always the rewards – we'll take you  somewhere that is beautiful or striking, each locations cast as part of the city and the fiction of the world."

While it shares similarities with last year's augmented reality game phenomenon Pokemon Go, in which players catch cute animated monsters, Outside: The Cloud sets players mental challenges as well as physical ones. Meaning it shouldn't, believes McKenzie, attract the kind of criticism aimed at the former – that it infantilises adults.

As well as walking around finding clues, there are puzzles that must be solved, and the chance to interact with other players to determine what's the truth and what is misinformation, or compare theories.

"Pokemon Go attracted that criticism because of the aesthetic and the history is very much as a children's game, but this storyline is an adult storyline," he says.

"Our game is aged from 13 because it's about adult concepts… it's a sci-fi story that explores issues of what it means to be human and gets people out and walking around."

He imagines, though, there will be some crossover with Pokemon fans and The Cloud.

"Pokemon Go players will like the direction – in The Cloud, you've gotta go and find real-world things – you're directed by a game, but when you get there, there's actually a thing!"

Reid believes as well as traditional gamers, The Cloud will attract a wide range of people "looking for experiences and adventures".

And those who love engaging in a great story – or a binge-watch.

"This is structured like TV, an 'episode' a week," says McKenzie. "This is the same thing, a story being played out over a long time, but instead of just watching it from your couch, you get involved by going out and being a part of a communal storytelling event."

Outside: The Cloud begins on January 23 and runs until March 26 but can be played any time. To register, go to popupplayground.com.au/outside-the-cloud