Object 56

Shanghai Six

2036, Shanghai, China

Billionaire Zhang Yu is known for two things: his terrifying intelligence, fuelled by illegal cognitive enhancers, and his utter ruthlessness. Yu has destroyed anyone who would stand in his way to total power, and his latest plan is his most dangerous yet: brainwash the entire Chinese electorate in order to become Premier.

He's already corrupted the police and the army, so who can stop him? Only a rag-tag band of thieves and rogues. Can they put aside their differences and pull off this century's most audacious heist: infiltrating Zhang's Shanghai superscraper and stealing its AI core?

Join the team this summer... in Disney/Starling's SHANGHAI SIX!

I’m holding a bomb. Don’t be alarmed — it’s just a prop from Disney’s archives, festooned with wires, buttons, latches, digital readouts, and everything that you’d imagine would be on a fictional bomb. While it doesn’t actually do anything, it surely qualifies as one of the most-watched bombs in history, being the focus of millions of people’s attention during the 2036 premiere of Shanghai Six. Of course, it was disarmed by a player, but first let me explain exactly how we got here...

By the 30s, most entertainment was consumed as digital games that required little if any marginal labour. However, alternate reality games (ARGs) — games that combined augmented reality and human actors — offered uniquely personal experiences that focused on real-world physical interaction, like running through a real field to avoid a (virtual) strafing plane, or trying to convince a (pretend) banker to reveal confidential information via telepresence. Such games could be completely free-to-play by relying on volunteer labour, or they could cost as much as a trip to the Moon due to the thousands of actors and co-ordinators involved.

Disney's first experiments with ARGs took place at the beginning of the century at Disneyworld's Epcot Center. In the late teens and early 20s, the company began rolling out more ambitious multiplayer augmented-reality attractions at its various theme parks, holiday resorts, and cruise ships — all of which were completely controlled environments with a level of sensor density that wouldn't be matched in the 'outside' world for more than a decade.

Most of their early ARG experiences were relatively short, lasting only a day or so, and didn't attain the level of total immersion that many hoped for. However, they managed to raise interest in their ailing parks — no small feat given the fierce competition from VR gaming — and became a springboard for Disney's new secretive 'Starling' group, based in California and Shanghai. Disney/Starling's motto was "We Create Heroes", and the group had three objectives, described here by Experience Director Michael Chatfield in 2042:

"Number one, we wanted to create experiences that went beyond the bounds of Disney-controlled environments. Let's face it, Sleeping Beauty's Castle might look impressive, but it's no match for a real castle in Bavaria. Number two, we wanted to involve a thousand times more people in these ARGs. Not just a hundred, but hundreds of thousands. Life is always more fun when you have more people around, am I right? And yeah, part of that was financial — every run of Shanghai Six saw the main heroes pay us seven figures each, but that barely covered a fifth of our budget.

"So number three: we got people to pay to work for us! We got half of our budget from tens of thousands of paying guests who bought roles as villains, sidekicks, minor characters, characters in side stories, that sort of thing. Those guys just loved role-playing, and they all got their own little story! Yeah, some of them needed lines, but most of them did very well with the level of support and gadgets that we provided. One of our B-cast got the opportunity to skydive from 10,000 feet above Beijing while trying to defuse an EMP bomb. Unbelieveable! And before you ask, yes, we had three safety drones tracking her all the time.

"Sure, for really important roles we paid for professional actors. But some of our best actors turned out to be pure bystanders; whenever we announced we'd be running a big ARG in a city — boom! — we'd have tens of thousands of people lining up on the street volunteering to take part. If we chose you and you performed really well, you'd get Starling points, and you could use those points to get better roles in future games. It wasn't money, but it sure as hell was fun.

"We never let our heroes see even a hint of points, though — we didn't want them worrying about getting a 'high score' or achievements or badges. Their experience was pure, unfiltered, epic storytelling. I still get shivers when I think about what we put those six people through each time. We'd take over entire cities, right from the subways to the towers. We'd have thousands of people all playing together, all aware of only a tiny part of the story, all orchestrated from Starling Control — and all in the service of a fantastic, memorable experience."

In truth, there wasn't much technically innovative about Disney's ARGs; the technology that allowed Starling to successfully co-ordinate their thousands of guests and actors was derived, in part, from open-source deliverbot and traffic management systems, combined with proprietary mimic scripts and agents.

However, the real innovation from Disney/Starling was a creative one; the weaving together of ten thousand large and small stories into a coherent whole that could be explored, watched, read, and played by millions of people after the fact in edited TV, novel, and VR releases. Today, we view Shanghai Six as an entertainment milestone on the same level as Casablanca or Tianxia; and yet Starling's best days were still ahead of them, with their masterpiece, The City, to come a little over a decade later.