For once I will not be promoting the various ‘creative’ projects that I have come to acquire over the years, shoving them down your throat like so many overcooked pieces of broccoli. Instead, I would like to talk about one of the most fascinating, original pieces of writing and gaming to appear in recent years.
It’s called Black Crown, and it’s a bold storytelling experience from Random House. In its simplest form, it is horror. One way to describe it is as a completely modernised, innovative multi-option choose-your-own-adventure story, taken to its highest, most thrilling, literary ceiling; a multitextual new media narrative with ARG elements, requiring both gameplay interaction and a deep involvement with the story. And it is a story which will send shivers deep down your spine.
I discovered this project by not discovering it at all. I know the author. Rob Sherman, the creator of the world of the Black Crown project. At home playing delicate acoustic guitar at a folk festival, yet who you could see quite at home on top of a mountain, wearing woad and yelling insults at the old gods.
I met him at university, both studying English and then Creative Writing. Even then, when surrounded by people with that glint of imaginative spark, of untapped potential both hindered and cultivated by having so much time to both think and drink copious amounts of alcohol, Sherman was immediately recognizable as being damn special. He not only had an incredible creative drive, determination, but also an original way of thinking that constantly kept him ahead of the curve. If any of us deliciously inventive types were going to create a great work of fiction, art, music, it was going to be him.
We were given an early glimpse of what would become Black Crown at the end of our Masters, tasked with completed a creative dissertation. Most of us played it safe, writing a novella, a long piece of non-fiction, screenplay, a poetry collection. I chose to write a film script, a supernatural mystery that, in spite of very good marks and feedback from both academics and fellow students, is currently gathering dust on my bookshelf, waiting to be re-edited.
Rob Sherman’s project, though, was different. He kept it secret from the rest of us for a long time, only dropping hints when necessary. Non-linear, he would utter. A collection of first hand sources. Mystery was intensified when we were asked to contribute. A select few of us – band members, course-mates, friends – arrived at a retro shop to meet a photographer with a very vintage camera. Rob then threw bizarre clothing items at us, asked us to change. I was given a vest and braces, another band member a gas mask. We were photographed next to backdrops, ancient versions of ourselves, scratched with sepia. And still the end goal was unknown. Sherman had unconsciously perfected, within real life, the key to mystery: for every question that is answered, two more need to be asked.
Eventually, submission came round, tomes carried to campus. Metal-wound scripts for myself, delicately-bound poetry and graphic novels for others. And then came Rob Sherman, carrying a red case. A case covered in arcane signs, tattered notes. It caused a bit of a storm, this unique creation. A story of a lost town, told via a series of half-connected clippings, photos, documents. All of it tied up in a physical, tangible item. A work so brilliant that there was even a workaround made for the English office’s requirement of two copies of each assignment being submitted. After all, how exactly can you hand in two copies of such a unique work, whose sheer presence is part of the storytelling experience?
After that, Sherman slaved, modified, augmented. The project morphed slowly, over thousands of hours of dedicated work into Black Crown, the devastating horror that is available to experience, for free, now, online. It’s what would happen if HP Lovecraft had written House of Leaves as a series of emails late at night. If the SCP Foundation had grown up in to a living, breathing, literary entity. If Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero had built upon the eldritch abominations of the past, not the future. A monster, made complete by its absolute originality. After all, the most important part of all great horrors is the unknown – and Black Crown breaks so many barriers that you half expect it to claw through your screen into real life.