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Choose your own adventure

New digital project offers explorers the opportunity to create their own story

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Most expensive novel in the world? Location-based story telling turns readers into real life protagonists
[the invisible city] launched as part of Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts inaugural CounterCurrent Festival. Courtesy photo
Lacy M. Johnson
Author Lacy M. Johnson is a graduate of the University of Houston Creative Writing Program. Courtesy of Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts
Josh Okun
Josh Okun is a multimedia artist, digital guru and executive creation director at The Company of Others. Courtesy of Josh Okun/Facebook
Most expensive novel in the world? Location-based story telling turns readers into real life protagonists
Lacy M. Johnson
Josh Okun

If you choose to go down this tunnel and into the dark alley, will you discover something extraordinary or will you encounter an assassin who's on a paid mission to erase your existence from history?

Roused by feelings of panic and anxiety brought on by the good old days of choose-your-own-adventure books and video games such as the text-based interactive fiction setup of Zork for the Commodore 64, author Lacy M. Johnson imagined what would happen if she could add more experiential layers to the excitement of a scheme that turns a reader into a temporary protagonist.

 "We take users out of a digital place and put them in a real setting as they work their way through a story," Okun says. 

What if your life depended on avoiding being caught by the FBI while covertly chasing a mercenary goddess who's on a quest to decapitate exotic dancers at strip bars? How would you fare as the getaway driver for a brutal crew of thugs?

In Johnson's first formal collaboration with her husband, Josh Okun, who's a multimedia artist, digital guru and executive creation director at The Company of Others, an engaging literary installation was fashioned to augment readers' relationship with the real world.

The outcome is [the invisible city] project, a geolocation-based collection of narratives that launched as part of the University of Houston's Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts inaugural CounterCurrent Festival, held through Sunday.

"We take users out of a digital place and put them in a real setting as they work their way through a story," Okun says. "We are offering an experience that takes advantage of technology and, at the same time, is more analogous to reading books."

The players

Okun — whose professional work in digital media has largely been in advertising that results in a consumer making a purchase, clicking on a page or signing up for a mailing list — coded a mobile optimized website that's compatible with gadgets that are data and geolocation enabled. A participant simply clicks on a desired journey, gathers necessary equipment such as a reusable water bottle and compass and locates the start of the adventure. As readers select their own path, they are asked to complete activities as they travel to other destinations.

 "One of our goals is to disrupt the way people typically consume content on their mobile devices," Okun adds.  

"One of our goals is to disrupt the way people typically consume content on their mobile devices," Okun adds. "On technology, we are either looking for information or we are creating relationships with people, but we don't create relationships with places. The infrastructure of [the invisible city] allows participants to forge a relationship with a place in a way that's outside of the everyday norm."

The collision of real and imagined elements mingling between a virtual and an actual milieu is something that's very personal for the creative duo. The two met on the now defunct social network Friendster. After getting married and starting a family, the couple moved to Kansas City to be closer to relatives. They returned to Houston three years ago.

Johnson, a graduate of the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, was hired  last year as the director of academic initiatives at the Mitchell Center, where she overseas the interdisciplinary art curriculum. She has authored Trespasses: A Memoir, a coming-of-age novel in which the characters have a love-hate relationship with a place that binds them, and The Other Side: A Memoir, which is based on Johnson's true account of surviving an abusive ex-boyfriend who held her captive in a soundproofed basement apartment with the intent of raping and killing her.

Choose your own adventure

For this project, Johnson's story is also titled The Invisible City. In an effort to compel readers to explore Houston's diverse social, economic and material wards, participants travel from Allen's Landing to the 69th Street Wastewater Treatment Plant, Brady's Landing, J. R. Harris Elementary School, Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, Founders Memorial Cemetery and the African American Library at the Gregory School, among others, in search for this elusive hidden ending point.

 In a second story, titled On the Lam, Hold the Lamb by Eric Higgins and Sophie Rosenblum, players learn what it means to be a vegetarian living in Houston. 

"I wanted to write a different kind of story, one that asked people to see the city in a slightly different way to consider how our choices as inhabitants, as consumers, as drivers and as people who walk around affect others around us," Johnson says. "I want people to think about our economic and environmental choices and how our behavior may affect our neighbors and the community at large."

In a second story, titled On the Lam, Hold the Lamb by Eric Higgins and Sophie Rosenblum, players learn what it means to be a vegetarian living in Houston. This adventure begins at DiverseWorks and meanders to nine locations, including Double Trouble, Tacos A Go-Go and Radical Eats. Raj Mankad, editor of Cite magazine, and wife Miah Arnold, author of Sweet Land of Bigamy, are working on a naughtier third story in which the protagonist pursues a deity with a penchant for cutting people's heads off.

"I think of our work also as a piece of theater," Johnson says. "You turn from a third person observing a story to partake in a genre in which you are the  actor — you are the star. The difference is, unlike traditional theater, you have agency in a framework that retains all the nuances of great storytelling. That story can be set in the past, present or future."

The launch of [the invisible city] is just the beginning. Johnson and Okun plan to open up the platform for writers globally.

"My fantasy is having a geolocation-based story that moves people around the Texas, across continents, perhaps around the world," she says.

"Who knows, one of these contributions could be the most expensive novel in the world to read."

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