Interview:iStory

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On March 26, 2009, Ryan Gibson Stewart conducted an email interview with Tom Inkel, the writer of the iStory. Follow up questions were answered in a subsequent interview.


Questions about Tom and the Writing Process

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Ryan Stewart: Can you tell us about where you were born and grew up, and how you got interested in writing?

Tom Inkel: I was born in Santa Barbara, California, and grew up in rural New Hampshire. I have five sisters, so I spent a lot of time doing my own thing as a kid. I read about 3,000 pages a week. I was also a gamemaster for a couple of pen-and-paper roleplaying games, which got me into interactive storytelling. I went to law school planning to become a literary agent, but after I graduated, I had a chance to work with a television show that had this strange new thing called an "ARG", and I was hooked. It's a wild time for television and interactive entertainment. Scripted shows are still experimenting with how to extend their stories onto the Internet--"how do you preserve the story thread?" "How do you turn a linear story into a dynamic social experience?"--but the potential is amazing.


Are there any other "choose your own adventure" type stories you have written that we might be able to read? What are some of your other works? Do you also work on designing the iStory and Heroes Evolutions websites? Have you done any other work for Heroes?

Writing for new media is like being a sidewalk artist: the next rainstorm wipes you out of existence. But you might have seen me more than you know. Heroes-wise, I created copy for the Linderman Election Hack story in Season One, such as the Brian Dante websites and puzzles. (I think my baby pictures are still up on his Flickr account.) I rejoined the Heroes team after the writers' strike last year to help write Evs Dropper communications and puzzles, Assignment Tracker profiles, etc.

Outside of Heroes, some of the copy and webisodes that I did for Smallville may still be around on the Season Five and Six DVD sets. I wrote a webisode series for Smallville called The Lex Files, which were a lot like video Assignment Tracker profiles. I've written short stories and articles for DC Comics and Smallville Magazine. I do have a few personal sites with interactive story-games like the Heroes iStory, but they're ancient now; we'll keep those our little secret.


Can you describe your writing process for making the iStory? Do you draft it by yourself? Is it difficult to think up so many "what-ifs" for ending the story? To what extent did Harrison Wilcox and other writers help with writing the "Friend or Foe" volume? Is there a separate production company/producer for the iStory like there is for the graphic novels?

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John O'Hara and I developed the "Friend or Foe" story concept, with Jesse Alexander providing show input. For "The Private" story concept, I worked with Timm Keppler and Jim Martin, the writers of The Recruit webisodes. For "The Agent," I meet weekly with Harrison, Joe Pokaski and/or Aron Coleite for show notes. The very hardworking Joe Tolerico and the NBC.com team do all the production. As for the actual copy, J.T. Krul and I co-wrote three or four of the "Friend or Foe" chapters, and I did the rest, mostly from my lucky chair at the Trancas Starbucks in Malibu. (Wow, I wish I did have a lucky chair.)

I start by pitching the arc for the new "book" (as we call them informally; e.g., "The Agent" is Book 3) to the show. The show responds with creative suggestions (such as Jesse's idea to make Anna a person rather than a device) and with ideas for tie-ins (e.g., Joe and Aron gave us background for an upcoming crossover character named "Rebel"). These suggestions keep the iStories in the same "mind space" as the on-air story.

Two weeks before an iStory chapter airs, I make an outline of the story "beats." Writing an iStory is a lot like that scene from Apollo 13 where they throw all the spacecraft odds-and-ends on the table and say, "This is what we've got to work with, build us a happy ending out of it." I start by rereading the latest episode/comic script drafts and talking to Harrison/Joe/Aron for possible tie-ins and crossovers. I also look for scenes cut due to time constraints; we can sometimes rescue those for the iStory. And I look for future plots/events that the iStory can tease or explain. For example, Eric Doyle had a number of lines and scenes that didn't show up in the latter half of Volume Four; we've worked with Harrison/Joe/Aron and Timm/Jim to flesh that storyline out in an iStory in anticipation of an important upcoming story about Doyle. Finally, I talk to friends and read forums to get reader reactions to the direction of the stories.

From the story "beats", I draft the art requirements and send them to Joe Tolerico and Alexis Brandow, our Senior Web Designer.

A week before airing, I flowchart the upcoming chapter to find weak paths and logic errors. My typical rule of thumb is three plot developments (of two to three scenes each), each with two or three options, plus introduction scenes.

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click to enlarge

Then I write the copy, which has ranged from six to forty pages per week. (At the time that I write this--the eighteenth week of iStory--the master copy doc is 321 single-spaced, 10-point-font pages: about 86,000 words.)

I do a final continuity check against the latest cut of the upcoming episode, obtain copy approval from the show, and then turn the copy over to Joe for his final approval. After that, Matt codes the iStory. Joe, Matt, Alexis, and the rest of the Heroes team do an incredible job turning the copy into the iStory in the time span that they have each week.


How much interaction do you have with the show's producers and the graphic novel writers? To what extent do the three Heroes media mesh together and collaborate, and to what extent do they exist separately?

One of our missions with the iStory was to enhance the on-air story as directly as possible, so I meet with Harrison, Joe, and/or Aron at least once a week. For graphic novels, we meet with Oliver Grigsby, Lead Show Team Comic Book Writer and Writers Assistant, to coordinate cross-over graphic novels and collaborate on new storylines. I spend a lot of time on the phone and email when a comic book writer is doing an iStory cross-over.

The ARG and the graphic novels have often functioned as independent "branches" off the main "trunk" of the Heroes on-air show. But one thing about the iStory that I'm proud of is how it has "layered" the Heroes experience.
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For example, look at the Rachel Mills character from the point of view of interactive and non-interactive fans. If you watch:
  • TV only: Rachel Mills is one of Danko's agents.
  • TV + webisodes: Rachel Mills is one of Danko's agents ... but she secretly has powers!
  • TV + webisodes + graphic novels: Rachel Mills is one of Danko's agents, but she secretly has powers ... and she is using them to help Rebel!
  • TV + webisodes + graphic novels + iStory: Rachel Mills is one of Danko's agents, but she secretly has powers ... and Rebel is using her secret to blackmail her!

So no fan is left out of a complete story, but those who delve into more outlets are rewarded with a deeper story about a troubled, heroic young woman. I think it demonstrates what television and the Internet are capable of doing together, and Heroes and NBC should get kudos for experiments like this.


Who does the art for the iStory? Especially the character portraits…

Alexis Brandow, the Senior Web Designer.

The iStory concept was originally part of another, broader proposal, and the transition into a stand-alone project happened very quickly. Alexis and Joe and the rest of the Heroes team have done a great job keeping the art and production flowing.


Questions about the iStory

Will any of the iStory plots ever be referenced in the television series?

That would be a question for the show writers. I'll say that we got very close this season.

We don't want to confuse television viewers who might have missed a plot-critical event in the online experience. But our goal in creating that "layered" experience for Rachel Mills was to have a character and plot that could transition easily back into the on-air story if desired. You'll notice that Rachel's iStories are about her emotional journey (learning to accept her ability), but her physical plot (being an agent for Building 26) hasn't changed much (yet).

As a result, Joe and Aron could make suggestions, like to flesh out "Male Agent" from the show scripts into Jason Pierce, a partner whom Rachel could murder, leaving the door open for a possible on-air tie-in around 325 where the murder led to Rachel's defection from Building 26. (That particular scene didn't make it on-air, but keep an eye on the graphic novels...)


What was your inspiration for the dream sequence chapter?

The movie Jacob's Ladder. The opening dream sequence of the video game Max Payne. Angela Petrelli's other dream sequences.

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Also, the main "hook" of the iStories, I feel, is the room that it gives us to foreshadow future events in the Heroes universe. iStory 3.5 (the dream sequence) was an obvious example of that, but we've also teased Rebel's on-air clash with Building 26 in 320; Rachel's rescue of Doyle from the puppet theater (you can find a story/dialogue overlap between iStory 3.3 and GN128, which aired two weeks later); Rachel's on-air clashes with Claire and Doyle; the on-air chase of Alex in Costa Verde; etc. The show has been great about encouraging this. One time, for iStory 3.2 (when Rachel was hunting for fugitives online), Joe and Aron wanted us to have Rachel stumble on a [Building] 26 surveillance recording of Danko telling HRG how dangerous specials are. That "surveillance recording" was an actual excerpt of a scene that was to appear on-air the next week (317). Unfortunately, we weren't able to get approval in time, but a lot of similar teasers make their way into the iStory on a weekly basis.


In The Agent, Chapter 5, Rachel's story matches the events of Exposed very closely. Toward the end of both "Operation" iStories, there are 14 different endings, yet most do not make sense for the segue into Red Eye, Part 1. Do you and the other writers have a specific pathway and ending to the stories? (By the way, it was a nice nod in The Agent, Chapter 5, when Rachel says, "That's what could have happened, but what actually happened was...")

We don't mark a "correct" path through the stories because a) I often spread helpful/fun info in all the paths to reward repeated readings, and b) I do retool the "official" storyline occasionally based on which outcomes were most popular.

Instead, we've used several strategies. In "Friend or Foe," the reader basically found the right path or dead-ended. The "official" path at the end of "Friend or Foe" did not segue into the Red Eye graphic novels as clearly as we wanted, but we were still fine-tuning the graphic novel/iStory communication process at that point. (Keep in mind that the iStory itself was still brand-new--never mind Red Eye and Anna--when those graphic novels were written, so the comic writers couldn't just read 1.6 and write from that.) In "The Private," the fans voted for the official path through the polls. And in the first half of "The Agent," we started using the "Previously on iStory" page to provide a segue from the correct path.

I've personally been happiest with the method you described from Exposed--i.e., "alternate" paths ending with a return to the "canon" path. We're also working on some new technology to allow fans to have more direct input on the story direction. In that case you might see fewer in-story "options", and instead have features like the ability to request new options on iStory pages, shaping the direction in which the iStory grows. That would make the iStory less of a "choose your own adventure" model and more of an organically growing "world".


Are we likely to see more iStory characters in the episodes, such as Anna, or Janey? So far they have only existed offscreen, and many fans would love to see them portrayed on television.

Again, that'd be for the show writers to answer. See my answer for "plotlines" above.

Sometimes an Evolutions character grows too deep of a backstory to move easily into the on-air story. To give Rachel Mills maximum crossover potential, we did a few things.

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First, we started with a character who had a lot of name recognition with fans and the show. Rachel Mills began life as just a throwaway character for The Recruit, with a few promotional teasers in "Friend or Foe." But Taylor Cole blew everyone away at The Recruit shoot. I have some "B side" video from the shoot that I've been hunting for ways to use: close-ups of Taylor crying, extended shots of Cristine as she lays down the law to Rachel, etc. Taylor and Christine Rose had enough chemistry to start their own industrial lab. I mean, they spent hours doing that interrogation scene, and there wasn't a take that they did that you could look away from. Anyway, as a result, Taylor got several on-air scenes in Volume Four, and the iStory got a character whom the fans and the show recognized.

Next, we've been careful to keep Rachel associated with key show characters and events. She is seen on-air as one of Danko's agents, so we've kept her a Building 26 agent. Also--at Joe/Aron's suggestion, in fact--Rachel strongly identifies with Claire (to her dismay and frustration), which gives everyone another point of reference for who Rachel is ("the agent who got all over Claire"). There have also been a bunch of graphic novels about Rachel now, and we've attempted to have those plots connect her to on-air or webisode events as much as possible. ("Remember when Doyle said in 319 that Danko burned his puppet theater down around him? Well, it was Rachel who saved Doyle!")

As a result, we'd like to think of Rachel as a true "hybrid" character, rather than just being an Evolutions character who had a couple on-air cameos. I think it's much easier for a character like that to do crossovers.


Ricardo Silva was somewhat of a fan favorite. Will we ever see him again? (By the way what is his nationality?)

Ricardo Silva, aka Red Eye, is Portuguese. You may see him again soon, although you would not recognize a few key traits. He's been growing quite a bit since the events of Red Eye, Part 2.

Red Eye and Anna will never be too far from each other, at least psychologically. For planning purposes, I wrote a backstory for Red Eye and Anna that starts when he kidnaps her from Pinehearst. At first, he keeps her drugged, but they grow to have an understanding (although not--and maybe never--a friendship). Anna learns to accept that her ability is part of her, no matter how terrible; in return, she re-teaches Ricardo some humanity that he lost after the Kill Squad murdered his family. It actually feels a bit like the movie The Professional.


Speaking of Ricardo Silva, who portrayed him for the video of him in the Level 5 cell that accompanied the Friend or Foe story?

He's portrayed by Ulisses Guimaraes, who is actually a Senior Web Designer at NBC.com when not playing an evil villain on the Internet. Ulisses is Brazilian, by the way.


Tell us about Anna's power. Is it the same as the Haitian's, or something different?

Anna actually started life in our docs as "The Bomb." "She" wasn't a person at all, but a piece of Cold War technology stolen by Red Eye to reduce people's ability to resist his power. During the 1960s, the Soviets experimented with non-ionizing radiation as a way of overloading brain circuits (like an EMP bomb does to electronics);
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the bomb could be used to disable armies or even fry a city so that the nation would be crippled financially by the cost of caring for hundreds of thousands of brain-damaged citizens. It was Jesse Alexander's idea to instead make The Bomb be a person, and from there we created Anna Korolenko, our little Russian teenager with the scarred soul.

Comparing Anna's power to the Haitian's. That can't be answered yet, "canonically." The Haitian's power hasn't been defined specifically; in fact, as the show writers have mentioned in other interviews, you've seen his ability fluctuate a bit as they have explored it. Another complicating factor: Anna is still young, and her first experiences with her power have been so deeply scarring (zapping her family, for example) that her power's development may have been badly stunted.

The two big arguments for their powers being different would be 1) the Haitian can somehow get into people's heads and identify specific memories, whereas Anna's ability lacks that two-way nature; and 2) the Haitian's ability appears to be limited to short ranges so far, but Anna has proven capable of affecting entire city blocks at once.


Rachel has the ability to teleport, which is very similar to Hiro's ability. Could she ever do other things that Hiro could do, like time travel or stop time? Or does Rachel have a different ability altogether?

Rachel does not have the ability to time travel or stop time.

However, her ability may still have some room to grow. You've seen her range increase a little as her acceptance and confidence have grown. She also has a confrontation coming up in a week or two that gives a (hypothetical) idea about a direction in which she could grow, but I won't spoil it for those of you who find it.

I can't answer much more from an on-air/canon standpoint. I'd point out that Hiro's ability has taken quite a turn since the original version was stripped from him, so all bets are currently off as to what even he can do.


Who is the hacker Volts? How does Rachel know him?

Since Rachel went straight from high school to the Marines, and she spent her time in the Marines slogging around in the mud with decidedly non-techie types, one might assume that she knows Volts from high school.

There's a Heroes Wiki user who uses "Volts" as an Internet handle, but please don't hit the poor guy (or gal) up for Rachel's phone number, we didn't warn him in advance. But I will say that Joe Tolerico and the Heroes team have been discussing an idea that could someday lead to a number of fans being able to choose to play themselves in the Evolutions storyline in a tangible way...


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In "The Private", the story started having polling for participants to decide how the story moves forward. Would Rachel's story in "The Agent" be different if the audience had voted a different way in "The Private"? If yes, how so?

Yes. All of the polls in "The Private"--but especially the last week's--helped influence Rachel's future personality.

If fans had decided to blow up the facility, Rachel had a much grimmer arc planned. She would have been quicker to kill fugitives, and her iStory arc would have been about learning about their humanity. She would have met a certain person (whom you haven't met in the iStory, as of Chapter 8) around Chapter Four and their relationship would have defined her conflict.

On the other hand, if fans had tried to set the damaged test subjects free, Rachel would have started much more in tune with the fugitives' humanity. She would have accepted her ability sooner, and she would have worked with Rebel willingly. Her anger toward Building 26 would have been a dangerous test to her sanity. She would have spent more time in direct conflict with Danko.

Fans chose to check out the moaning in the lab, which I thought was a very human choice. Rachel's conflict became more about things like subconsciously identifying herself with the Blue Girl's horrible defects and thus denying her own power; that meant Rebel had to blackmail her, leading to some great drama.

Ultimately, we've been able to work in the core elements from all three storylines, but at the time that I'm writing this (Chapter 8), you haven't been able to see most of the other two storylines yet. We have a graphic novel coming up that will show Rachel going all-out with her abilities, and we have a character showing up very soon who will complicate her life considerably. And all three storylines would have ended on basically the same note. Which--spoiler!--is not going to involve a funeral for a certain young ex-Marine. I thought I'd mention that for those of you used to bloodbaths at the end of most Evolutions storylines.


Also, regarding "The Private", would you say that the blue girl in the Biological Warfare facility in Iran had a form of Daphne's super speed? Did the man slowly bending the cage bars have a defective version of enhanced strength like Mohinder did?

Neither the Blue Girl or the man in the cage had powers, at least in the same way that Heroes's main characters do. Just a nasty cocktail of drugs, adrenaline, and fear!

The people running the facility may have suspected that powers exist--they did target Rachel and others (the files in the main office) for a reason, maybe some kind of DNA information that they had obtained--but their efforts to induce abilities were just blind, crude experimentation. We've seen sophisticated corporations like Primatech and Pinehearst try to monitor and control powers, so this was a peek at what might happen if a different kind of group tried to do the same. The goal of the encounter was to add another mental stumbling block to Rachel's effort to accept her power: fear of "mutations."


This interview will be read by thousands of nerdy fanboys (and girls) who love minute details and trivia. Are there any interesting pieces of trivia that you’d like to add?

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After it became a stand-alone project, the iStory was first pitched with a bunch of game-style features. For example, fans were to have a profile with "attributes" such as Strength, Intelligence, etc. (The personality test at the beginning of "The Agent" was originally part of this.) Then, in the iStory, players could be given options like "Throw a punch at the agent's face (Strength)" OR "Outrun the agent (Speed)"; when they selected a choice, the iStory would make a check to see if you "succeeded." Things like successful roles and discovering clues would add to your "score".

The scenes names in the Red Eye car chase sequence in Primatech 1.3 are all films. "Traffic," "Sudden Impact," "Duel," etc.

I cannot overemphasize how happy our team is that March is over. It was the third month of the year, the third season of Heroes, the third iStory "book", and we usually refer to the graphic novels by the episode airing in the same week. So we'd have these conversations like "Okay, 3.4 airs on 3/3 after 318, but the preemption was moved to 3/16, so where does the 319 GN go? Wasn't the 319 GN tied to 3.5?" The interns would put on their headphones so they couldn't hear us.

In The Recruit webisode script, Angela mentions that she has been watching Rachel for some time. Rachel didn't know it, but she had actually met one of Angela's spies: Jim, the man captured with her in "The Private". (Jim was also the Primatech contractor in "Friend or Foe." The first chapter of "Friend or Foe" opens with the Primatech contractor saying that he had scars from his last assignment with Primatech. He was referring to the injury that he received in The Recruit.) I didn't explain Jim too much during "The Private" because he was my original pitch to be Rachel's partner, but after talking to Joe/Aron, we decided to create Jason Pierce instead.

Taylor Cole was going to do a short viral video for the last chapter of "The Private" iStory. The interviewer was going to pull out a camera and walk her through a government oath of service; that was going to be the point where Rachel (and fans) learn for the first time that she is going to be in Nathan's unit. Even though that video didn't come together in time, we are planning to work in more viral-style videos of familiar characters. You will actually see some early fruits of that soon...

In the original version, "Friend or Foe" had four storylines, two each for Primatech and Pinehearst. Readers could choose to go after the Kill Squad, Red Eye, the missing bomb, or undercover as Kill Squad members. Each of the stories stood alone with only occasional crossovers until the last chapters. Here are the very first diagrams of the story:

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There's a pitch floating around out there for a graphic-novelized version of the iStory, with interactive images and pages.


Thank you, Tom. I really appreciate you taking the time to answer some questions, enlighten the fans, and clarify some story points.

It's great to take a peek out from behind the curtain! It's been a privilege to work again with the Heroes team and our great group of fans. I encourage everyone to give feedback on the various forums and say what you liked. We can't respond to specific suggestions but we do like to hear what people think.


For follow up questions and responses to this interview, see Interview:iStory follow up.



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