Anahita Dalmia is a two-time published author and co-founder of Alterea, a company that creates large scale experiences at the intersection of immersive theatre and interactive gaming that allows participants to enter a different world in which they can experience an unfolding story.
You describe yourself as being fascinated by how stories can inspire people and shape their perspective. Did you grow up immersing yourself in books, movies, and other types of stories?
I’ve absolutely been immersed stories since I was very young. I was the kind of child who would read a book a day. I was always glued to the television or some kind of gaming device and, later, I took theatre for 4 years in high school. My favourite pastime was imagining how things would play out if I was in those incredible situations myself; I remember sitting and spending hours in the bus to and from school staring out of the window and envisioning the first Pokemon I would pick and which friends I would take with me on my adventures.
I started by using writing as a way to explore the different worlds of my imagination and then went into theatre, which encouraged me to bring my imagination to life in a live, visceral way. I became interested in ‘Theatre of The Oppressed’ which is one of the earlier examples of immersive theatre that allowed people to make decisions as characters to educate and change them.
I remember when I was 12, a teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. And I told her I wanted to be a story worth telling. That still stands today and has become a backbone of the kind of experiences I create.
What stories most inspired or resonated with you?
That’s a tough question: I love many stories for different reasons. One story that I hold particularly close to heart is a true story my mother shared with me about a cab driver in India who wanted his son to have the life he never had the opportunity to. One day, while driving a gentleman to the airport he said, “Sir, I know I don’t know you but I want my son to have a future. All of his classmates have wealthy parents to get their children internships, I don’t have anything. I don’t know what – if anything – you can do to help but if you would help my son get an internship I would be very grateful.” The gentleman gave the cab driver his card and told him to follow up. And then, the gentleman—who was one of the most well respected doctors of the country—gave the cab driver’s son an internship in the hospital and the young boy discovered a talent for medicine. He interned there every year, applied and got into Stanford on a full scholarship.Today, the son of the cab driver is one of the leading medical experts in India. This story reminds me of the power of asking – if you never ask, you’ll never receive and you may find you’ll get more than you could expect by asking.
I also loved The Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton because it awakened in me an intense desire to explore, discover and imagine the different ways the world could be. I admired the 39 Clues when I was a little older for similar reasons, especially as it highlight how extraordinary reality it by delving into stories of figures such as Rasputin and places such as the Catacombs in Paris.
You are currently working on a startup called Alterea that combines immersive theatre and interactive gaming to create transformative experiences in which each person has the opportunity to be a hero. Could you begin by telling us the genesis story behind Alterea?
Since my first encounter with Augusto Boal and Theatre of The Oppressed in high school, I became obsessed with the question of how to create experiences in which each person can be a hero. Theatre gives people the opportunity to see stories become tangible physical reality; however I soon discovered that game design was the only form of story in which consumers could truly make meaningful decisions that impact the outcome of an experience. My first attempt to combine these mediums was a Halloween themed maze in high school—which turned into a city-wide carnival with over 200 students involved, 50 stalls, music shows, competitions and art auctions.
In college, I followed my maze with a Harry Potter themed Alternative Reality Game (ARG), even though I had no idea what an ARG was. For that too, I established over 17 partnerships across my university, raised $28,000, recruited over 100 students and welcomed over 400 participants who got to join a revolution or protect the American Wizarding school against it. Next year, I applied the lessons from my previous attempt and created a mythology themed experience with an even larger budget, team and storyworld. Using these experiences, I was finally able to found Alterea to produce such experiences professionally. It capitalizes on all my relationships in USC, the Rotary, the Forbes community, the Themed Entertainment Association and remaining representatives of the immersive world to make immersive experiences more mainstream.
Can you describe what a player should expect to experience?
Here’s my elevator pitch: Imagine being a participant in Westworld or a player in a real life video game.You’re in a physical space interacting with both real players and non player characters and taking decisions and actions that will drive the story forward.
Here’s a player walkthrough of Ascend, a mythology themed experience we previously worked on, if that is of interest:
Before I walk through the door, I have a role: demigod child of Chang’e, Chinese goddess of the moon. I enter Mount Olympus through a portal, and using a map, I see camps for four pantheons of gods: Maya, Egyptian, Chinese, and Greek. There are games of archery, battle, and magic, a Maya ball court, a shadowy Underworld, and a Temple of Knowledge.
Zeus kicks off the event by introducing the gods, and encouraging us to play their games and earn points towards winning a friendly competition. Eager to meet my godly mother, I play an archery game with her. Talking to her after, though, Chang’e seems preoccupied. “The Jade Emperor declared my mortal husband Houyi and I can never be together. Will you send him my love? You can reach him using the Maya Vision Serpent.”
I embark on a quest where I talk and play games with gods from every pantheon, earning their trust. When I return to Chang’e with her husband’s loving message, she lets me in on a secret: “Though it may seem Zeus gathered us for an innocent reunion, he’s actually here to recruit demigods.” She explains that Mordial, the original creator of the gods, is rising and wishes to retake their power. “If I support the Order of gods fighting Mordial’s rise, do you think they will allow me to visit my husband? Or do you think helping Mordial’s allies to create a revolution would allow Houyi and I to be together?” When she further explains Mordial’s plan to eliminate humanity’s free will, I consider the consequences. Ultimately, I am won over by the Revolution’s idea that humanity’s ability to make bad decisions has led to worldwide destruction. Chang’e leads me to Artemis , who initiates me into the Revolution with one of five symbolic spells. Four more symbols in her room hint at undiscovered stories. The rest of the night goes by in a blur of activity as I embark on new quests, help secret romances blossom, and poison gods.
At the end of the evening, Zeus begins announcing which pantheon won the competition, when an epic battle breaks out between the gods. When it seems the gods on my side will lose, our leader summons Mordial, weakening the gods. Now we demigods must fight to protect our gods and finish awakening Mordial. While others play a game to battle the opposing gods, I solve a puzzle that reveals Zeus’s true name, allowing me to defeat him.
Because of my efforts, the Revolution wins and fully awakens Mordial. As the pantheons separate, I follow Chang’e, who fought alongside me to create this Revolution. She wears a bittersweet smile as she takes away the free will of her pantheon’s leader. Now nothing can keep her and her love apart.
As “ASCEND” comes to a close, I look around Mount Olympus, reflecting on my experience. I wonder what other paths I could have taken and where they would have led both me and the story. I’d never felt so free to choose my path at an event, so curious about the other stories unfolding around me and inspired by the tangible impact I had created.
Why is being a hero of your narrative versus being a passive observer so important?
I truly believe we’re transitioning from a time of storytelling to storyliving. Whenever people see passive entertainment such as books or movies, their first reaction is “What if I was there? Would I be friends with Ron or Hermione? Would I run toward or away from the dragon?” Conventional forms of media pose questions only as hypotheticals since you’re not personally going through the experience. Unlike traditional theatre, movies, and books which aim to represent the best of reality, then, we produce a fantastic reality. We create worlds where we are able to hold up a mirror and tell our participants “this is what you did. These were the consequences. Now you can think about why.” This enables people to consider their own values and potential instead of just considering ‘what they would have done in a situation.’
In stories you witness, there is always adventure and everything that entails: using personal skills to overcome challenges and the resulting sense of gratification; forging and strengthening relationships; exploring, discovering and growing. Even though we learn through the experiences of other characters and people, those lessons are incomparable to our ability to learn through our own experiences. One of my past participants said that, “I didn't become a character through the course of the event. Instead, I became myself—and what happened during Ascend has now become raw material to see what potentialities lie dormant in my own personality when it's allowed to run without (or at least with less of, or a different kind of) a filter.” Due to his incomparable puzzle solving skills, he felt important in this experience and empowered to be more social—he said he “cracked wisecracks and made sarcastic jokes,” which he usually felt uncomfortable doing due to his introverted nature. These kinds of changes can’t happen by reading about doing something.
Could you describe what the process is and what you look for in companies that approach Alterea for collaborative world building?
Alterea is an extremely collaborative company and therefore it's important for us to choose our partners carefully. We look for collaborators that are both ambitious in the vision and realistic in their expectations. We like working with people who are team players and supportive as we go through the extremely grueling production process together. We also really appreciate companies who are clear in what they want, what they can offer and what they expect of us. Major bonus points if they care about the things we do: in-depth world building, giving players agency, and making a collective impact.
We typically start conversations with potential collaborators by working together to come up with experience goals and takeaways that we can use as our north stars throughout the crazy creative process. After that, we define the creative, financial and logistical factors we are dealing with including resources and restrictions. Then, we build team norms with all our collaborators which outline the behavioral expectations ranging from values, communication policy, work hours, feedback systems and more.
We begin the creation process through brainstorming where we try to have a diverse group and all relevant stakeholders to begin seeing what's possible. As ideas we like emerge, we reduce the size of our team and have Narrative begin in-depth world building which then evolves into many departments including Game Design and Production to bring the world to life.
Could you tell us about some of the previous interactive experiences Alterea has worked on?
Here are some of the previous experiences we’ve worked on:
Alohomora: Unlock the Wizarding World – An immersive theatre-based event with an overarching narrative based on JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The event was set in Ilvermorny, the American Wizarding School, where participants compete in a global Triwizard Tournament to secure everlasting glory. However, the threat of blood supremacy looms over the post-Voldemort Wizarding World—and the headmaster uses the tournament to build an international magical army that will counter the clandestine but powerful Death Eater Coalition. We realized this narrative through live-action roleplay, immersive theatre, themed games, and an escape room.
Ascend: When Myths Fall, Heroes Rise – An immersive and interactive event with an escape room, unique side-plots, character arcs, and games to create a space where the audience can ‘choose their own adventure’ and participate actively in a storyline. For the event, the gods of four mythological pantheons call on their demigod children to celebrate their cross-mythology family reunion to promote a message of tolerance and inclusivity. At the celebration, the gods entreat their children to address a larger threat: gods from each pantheon are disappearing, and gods and demigods must unite to fight the forces conspiring against them. At the same time, other gods are rallying demigods against their parents. The audience must choose which side they will join in the epic finale at the end of the evening.
Agents of Influence – An online pizza-themed spy experience aimed to equip players with the necessary tools to identify and combat misinformation. Each day, players went on episodic spy missions through which they were exposed to information-distortion tools—including fact-checkers, media bias charts, and photoshop detectors. They were also taught skills to avoid misdirection by recognizing logical fallacies and data manipulation. We collected player data to identify learning patterns and misinformation knowledge gaps with the goal of adapting the experience for educational programs in the future.
Is there anything else that you would like to share about Alterea?
What continues to stand out to me about Alterea is our company culture. As a company, we’ve effectively built a collaborative environment where everybody can truly take ownership of the product. Consequently, we have an incredible team. People join for the vision but they stay because of the team; several teammates have articulated that this is the best team they’ve worked with. Furthermore, we’re all creatives with a very strong process and an emphasis on having a measurable impact. Things in the entertainment industry get urgent and unpredictable at times, but the way our team deals with everything in an organized and well-planned manner is ‘atypical’ for a creative company—and we do this without standardizing or compromising the product!
Thank you for the great interview, I really enjoyed learning about your views on life and gaming, readers who wish to learn more should visit Alterea.