Achieving Authenticity: The Maester’s Path
February 27th, 2011
This week, an assortment of critics and bloggers received what is considered the first part of an ongoing “experience” called the Maester’s Path, a transmedia initiative to support the April 17th debut of HBO’s Game of Thrones. The fairly intricate wooden box features a collection of maps and other scrolls meant to be artifacts of Westeros, as well as a collection of scents that when merged together capture the olfactory essence of different locations.
I was lucky enough to receive one of these boxes from HBO, and I spent yesterday morning mixing scents, taking pictures and poring over the scrolls. This was, after all, what I was instructed to do by the scrolls within the box, and so I journeyed to King’s Landing (which smells of summer fruit and parchment) and the Dothraki Sea (which smells of campfire and “Khal’s herd,” which smells as you would imagine).
However, while this level of personal experience is encouraged by the hands-on nature of the activity, there is another step to this process. That step is telling all of you about my experience, sharing my pictures and detailing my impressions: it’s the step which is encouraged by the letter from HBO which sat on top of the box, rather than the scrolls from Westeros which were found inside, and it has manifested as a large collection of extensive “unboxings” which allow fans who did not receive a box themselves to still experience this “first link in the chain.”
The question now becomes at which point these fans will be able to walk the path themselves, rather than living vicariously through a chosen few.
The Maester’s Path is all about authenticity. Campfire, a marketing firm which specializes in this kind of transmedia experience, went to great lengths to give these boxes an aged look. The scent bottles have screw-on tops so that they can be resealed, but those tops are covered with wax stamped with an emblem and each top has a unique wax shape. The bottles have been speckled so as to suggest they have been collecting dirt and dust, while the small funnels have various imperfections to indicate they have been hand-crafted. Even the cloth, twine and “leather” used to cover items or hold them in place has been carefully selected, with no element of the box betraying its modernity outside of perhaps the reliability of its hinges.
A lot of HBO’s promotion surrounding the series has been focused on authenticity, which may seem strange for those who wonder what role authenticity has when dealing with a fantasy series. While the series may not be held to historical standards, the depth of the world that George R.R. Martin created and the precedent set by the Lord of the Rings films has created expectations for HBO which almost surpass those which may have come with a period series like Boardwalk Empire. While the latter series may be under more pressure to be “accurate,” the presence of an auteur figure known for his world-building and the memory of the detailed behind-the-scenes footage which emerged from the Lord of the Rings set in New Zealand pressure HBO to capture an “essence,” which is in some ways more difficult.
As I’ve written in the past, they have done a lot to live up to this pressure, communicating with the fans most concerned about authenticity and using the “Making Game of Thrones” website in order to feature behind-the-scenes material focused on numerous elements of the production process. However, the site has run into some of these problems of authenticity even as it works to embrace the fan-oriented nature of such a pursuit. On the one hand they’ve successfully featured fan art, which is an example of fans creating their own authenticity. One of the challenges with a literary adaptation of this nature is that things might not look as readers imagined, but another problem is when things look radically different from the officially commissioned or fan-created art work which has been prolific over the course of the series’ lifetime. It’s why Peter Jackson brought Alan Lee and John Howe to New Zealand to work on The Lord of the Rings, allowing artists who had been crafting readers’ image of the series to play a role in crafting the image of the film. The posting of fan art is not quite on the same level, but it shows an acknowledgment of different interpretations of the material and acknowledges the fan contributions.
However, in another moment of outreach with fans, authenticity morphed into authority. HBO released what they were calling the “Official Pronunciation Guide for Game of Thrones,” acknowledging the presence of debatable pronunciations but then insisting that “for the right answers, look no further than the official pronunciation guide assembled by the production team.” The list is well-intentioned, as knowing how they will be pronounced within the show itself helps us prepare for the show’s premiere (so we won’t be surprised if the names sound “wrong”). The problem comes in the language: considering that everyone pronounces them differently, to pitch these as the “right answers” when they are coming from the production team and not from Martin himself – who, as far as I am aware, has never produced such a definitive guide so as not to discourage the multiplicity of pronunciations – is dangerous.
On a forum devoted to language in the series, user Lajaki detailed their frustration with the choices, struggling to merge their extensive knowledge of the ongoing debate with HBO’s final decisions. Language is an area where no definitive standard for authenticity exists for the series, which allows the producers the freedom to create the Dothraki language; however, language is also part of the book which every reader would have their own opinion on, and for a televisual adaptation to claim authority (in the form of “right answers”) was breaking unwritten rules of the adaptation process.
This was not some sort of turning point wherein HBO lost control of the fan community: while there was some initial confusion, which I would argue stems from the language used, most fans realized that there was a logic behind these decisions, and rationalized it with previous decisions which took similar liberties but within an overall atmosphere of authenticity. For example, some fans might not have viewed King’s Landing as Mediterranean as it appears on the series, but the aesthetic has been so well-crafted that fans have considered it part of the necessary distinction between the novels and the television series. This fanbase seems particularly in tune with the idea that the two will become different entities, and despite these brief moments of concern there is a general acceptance of HBO’s commitment to authenticity based on the quality of the footage screened, the details discussed, and now the transmedia storytelling experiences which have been created.
However, the vast majority of fans won’t get to experience the Maester’s Path for themselves. Certain key elements in HBO’s promotional campaign for the series have been restricted to critics and bloggers, or more generally “opinion leaders” within both fandom and online television coverage. The term “opinion leaders” originates with Elihu Katz and Paul Lazersfeld, whose work (specifically Personal Influence) focused on how mass communication was received by society and the ways in which its meaning was defined by the influence of individuals within society. One of their theories suggested that figures of authority offer their perspective which is then adopted by those with less authority, which in many ways reflects the most simplistic readings of the relationship between critic and reader. Critics offer their opinions on/readings of a particular film or television series, and then those opinions/readings are adopted by those who follow and trust that critic.
While the relationship between critics and their readers has shifted tremendously in the internet age, wherein the dialogue between the two has become formalized and more influential than the reviews themselves, this is the basic principle behind much of HBO’s marketing. The fifteen-minute reel shown at the Television Critics’ Association press tour (and screened to critics, including this critic, online) was the largest collection of footage we had seen to that point, key to reassuring viewers that the series was getting more than just a few brief scenes “right,” but most fans were unable to see the footage. Instead they read what bloggers and critics thought about the footage, gleaming authenticity from their responses and even engaging the bloggers and critics for more information.
Returning to the Maester’s Path, the same principle applies. Just look at the wide range of individuals who received the box: you have a transmedia specialist who could write about the box in context of this kind of marketing initiative, bloggers within the fandom who can directly interact with the fan community, writers from outside of television journalism who have written about the show for a different type of audience, critics who have come out in support of the show, even actors who have outed themselves as fans of the series (Elio and Linda have a list of the known recipients at Westeros). HBO and Campfire have defined “opinion leaders” widely, reaching out to some obvious locations while also looking to establish the series’ authenticity in circles which might not be familiar with the project but which have an opinion leader who is a fan of the series (for more on the selection process, a comment on J.C. Hutchins’ piece on the Maester’s Path details some of Campfire’s strategy behind the project). At the same time, the product is so well put together that it also works within fan communities, its attention to detail furthering HBO’s commitment to authenticity. While this analysis might suggest a critical detachment from the Maester’s Path, while digging into the maps and mixing the various scents the reality of the series’ imminent arrival became perhaps the most real it has been. I didn’t exactly journey to Westeros, but the tangible nature of the scent experience was a definite “next step” in the march towards the series premiere.
However, it does raise a question: at what point, precisely, does this transmedia experience shift to those of us who have not been deemed “opinion leaders?” Sure, fans can extract certain information and a sense of HBO’s commitment to the project from these boxes, but the fact remains that the vast majority of fans will not get a chance to enjoy this transmedia journey as critics are. HBO has indicated that this is only “the first link in the chain,” and Elio at Westeros points to a registered domain which indicates an online component to the project which might bring this journey to the viewers-at-large, so it’s clear that this is not the whole story.
[Edit: And, indeed, the Maester's Path became an online interactive experience this morning - I have a busy day, so I have not yet explored the site, but you can experience it for yourself here.]
For now, meanwhile, writers have embraced their role as storytellers, walking readers through the process of receiving, opening, and experiencing the first step in the Maester’s Path as if they were there alongside them. One of the strategies they’re using is “Unboxing,” wherein the experience of opening something for the first time is documented for others to experience (I realize that most of you already know this, but just in case some were not familiar with the practice). Unboxing videos are generally most common when dealing with new electronics products like Nintendo’s 3DS, which was just released in Japan:
However, in the case of the Maester’s Path, the unboxing is a window into storytelling. While watching Elio and Linda open their box for the first time is technically documenting their experience, the “point of view” camera work does create the illusion that it is actually our experience:
Of course, the sensory element will have to be left to your imagination, but the “experience” of opening the box and being transported to Westeros can be had through these types of efforts. In fact, the “Unboxing” element has been picked up by the official Game of Thrones Twitter feed, which has been tagging various retweets with an “#unboxing” hashtag as if to appeal to those who want to experience the process as close to “firsthand” as possible (although, on occasion, only through pictures).
While I applaud HBO and Campfire for an impressive product which has built considerable hype in online circles, we are growing ever closer to the moment where this will no longer be enough. While the detail of the Maester’s Path would suggest that a product of this nature would not be made widely available (the comment referenced above suggests about 80 boxes were manufactured), the authenticity it represents will eventually need to more directly engage with those most concerned with it: the fans. HBO has been incredibly open, encouraging and facilitating this engagement in any way possible, but the days of relying on opinion leaders will soon come to a close.
Winter is coming, and the Maester’s path will hopefully widen as we get closer to its arrival.
[Below are some more photos from my Flickr set, which is less an Unboxing and more evidence of a photographer finding an attractive subject]