How to Lose Yourself in Unknown 9’s Transmedia Sprawl

Last month, the Institute for Higher Knowledge posted a seemingly innocuous online personality test asking people to discover their true potential. That simple test serves as an entryway into the strange world of Unknown 9, an ambitious transmedia franchise from Reflector Entertainment that plans on revealing its occult mystery across television, film, video games, podcasts, novels, comic books, live events…and an alternate reality game. The prologue to Unknown 9 wrapped up with a live event hosted by the McKittrick Hotel during New York Comic Con, but the first phase was largely designed to establish the occult, conspiracy-laden setting for the storyworld. The second phase launched earlier this week, making this a perfect chance to step into the story. How you do that, though, is based on what type of experience you’re looking for.

Unknown 9: A Rolodex of Immersive Contributors
Before getting into Unknown 9 itself, it might help to take a step back and appreciate how Reflector Entertainment is telling it. The first component of the Unknown 9 universe is The IHK Enrollment Initiative, the alternate reality game that developed as the unseen figures behind the test guided players through a series of eight gated “doors” that introduced players to glimpses of the Institute’s footprint, through everything from recordings from a call-in radio show, creepypasta posts to the r/nosleep subreddit, and even a fully-playable visual novel.

As players neared the final challenges from the Institute, Terry Miles released the first episode of The Leap Year Society podcast, expanding players’ investigations into the IHK to the seemingly related “Leap Year Society”, a secret society that exists within secret societies that gathers once every four years, on the leap day. Miles previously made a name for himself on previous podcast fiction projects playing the character of investigative reporter and producer Nic Silver in TANISThe Black TapesThe Last Movie, and RABBITS. The loosely connected shows blend real-world urban legends, unsolved crimes, and conspiracy theories with supernatural events with a format that pays homage to the Serial podcast’s investigative style. Like its predecessors, The Leap Year Society podcast pairs its episode releases with additional links and files for listeners to explore, to see if they can figure things out before the show’s hosts. While The IHK Enrollment Initiative is a player-driven journey of discovery, The Leap Year Society podcast is a guided tour.

Once players completed the opened the final “door” to the IHK Enrollment Initiative, the Institute’s director Aja Robinson invited them to the LYS Induction Ceremony, an hour-long immersive theater production hosted by the McKittrick Hotel (home of Sleep No More) and directed by The Company P’s Christopher Sandberg. Sandberg is no stranger to integrating alternate reality games with immersive theater through his work at The Company P, where he was responsible for projects like the Emmy Award-winning The Truth About Marika, in addition to working on Conspiracy for Good and an ARG for Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. The initiation gave prospective inductees a taste of the society’s esoteric rituals, before a climactic attempt at otherworldly communication went pear-shaped, a prospective inductee got possessed, and the newly minted IHK members were rushed out to learn that the IHK and LYS are literally two sides to the same coin. After the fact, the IHK tried to distance themselves from the incident by removing Aja Robinson from the organization, replacing her with Chelsea Rose Lancaster as director. In her new role, Chelsea claims the supernatural events were just theatrics, and the possessed attendee merely someone who suffered an unfortunate seizure at the event.

New York Comic Con attendees also might have grabbed a preview of Unknown 9 Archives at the Dark Horse booth. The full comic, set to release in Spring 2019, follows the story of the 17th century merchant Kieran as he is introduced to the network of knowledge seekers that likely evolves into the secret societies players are tracking across platforms in the present. In addition to the comic book, Reflector revealed to Variety that a film is in development by 10 Cloverfield Lane screenwriters Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken, a television series is in the works from Heroes executive producer Tim Kring, and a novel trilogy by Layton Green. The video game component is being developed by Reflector Interactive, drawing on Reflector CEO Alexandre Amancio’s experience as a creative director on the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Combined with co-founder Guy Laliberté’s experience as one of the founders of Cirque du Soleil, Unknown 9 is bringing decades of experience to the table.

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#NOFILTER Imagines an Even More Dismal Social Media Hellscape for Us

Social media can be an absolute trashfire. But don’t worry, starting on October 2nd, it’s about to get a whole lot worse – that’s when pseudonym productions is launching out #NOFILTER, a “horrifyingly satirical, totally narcissistic thriller starring YOU.” For as little as $14, players can sign up to participate in a six-week long experience that invites players to enter an alternate world where the United States government created Connections™ as a mandatory social media platform designed to solve all our problems.

Sarah Elgar, pseudonym productions’ president and creative director, explains that the game is designed “to satirize the sad state of social networks…in the most absurdly over the top ways possible”, and the skewering of social media starts before the game even begins, with the registration process. For $14, players can sign up for the “Follower” level, which provides access to the main game experience that takes place on the Connections™ platform, with the ability to score coveted invitations to the games’ weekly live  “physical happenings”, centered around at least four major cities in California, Florida, and New York. Paying a premium for “Verified” or “influencer” status opens up more personalized character interactions, as well as in-game recognition for their elevated status as a reminder that some people are just better than others.

Once players are registered, they become drafted onto the Connections™ platform, where they are encouraged to perform compulsory life-affirming tasks like completing daily wellness routines and selfie duties. In parallel, players are encouraged to explore the stories of prominent users like the platform’s creator Nolan Stauf, yoga instructor Taylor Hill, and internet provocateur Vokorev with a story that might just verge into the supernatural.

While the game hasn’t launched yet, the #NOFILTER website provides a number of hints at the experience to come, sharing a sample chat log with Nikki as she goes about her daily selfie and NeoGa (Neo Yoga) quota in for the day that devolves into something else entirely. The FAQ is also peppered with more than a few bon mots, and the responses alone provide the best sales pitch for the experience available. Reminding prospective players that status is everything, the FAQ notes that “those who want to be all-in for 6 weeks and absolutely be part of everything they can and have us basically worship them should select the Influencer level, naturally. because Influencers are the most important people in the world. obviously.” The how to play section comes with its own ominous warning, noting that “#NOFILTER‘s story is a satire of social media, so it will help to be familiar with various social networks like facebook, instagram, and twitter – and the horrible trolling, doxxing, bullying, and narcissistic behavior that goes on there. but if that’s not your jam, you’ll still enjoy this experience. in fact, more power to you.” But as much as the game will explore peoples’ horrible behaviors online, it has a clearly stated zero-tolerance policy towards players directing that behavior towards each other – players caught harrassing, bullying, or violating the privacy of other players will receive instant bans, with no refund.

Validate my self worth by sharing this article. Then go back and like, share, retweet, hashtag, pin, upvote, toot, snap, and Insta-fave it whenever you see it online to fill the void in my life. Or better yet, sign up for #NOFILTER to find out how much worse things can get.  But remember, the game starts in earnest on October 2nd, so act quick or you’ll risk a serious case of #FOMO.

A Return for a New and Improved Emma Approved

Five years ago, Pemberley Digital released their first episode of Emma Approved, the Emmy-Award winning transmedia series that reimagined the character Jane Austen described as “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like” as a modern-day advice coach turned vlogger. Over the course of the show’s initial 72-episode run, Pemberley Digital painted a sympathetic and nuanced portrait of Emma Woodhouse that allows the viewers’ appreciation of Emma’s strength to grow in parallel with Emma’s own personal growth as the series progresses. And to commemorate the five-year anniversary of the show, Emma Approved is returning for a sequel, starting in October.

A Quick History Lesson: Pemberley Digital and the Birth of a Genre
When Hank Green and Bernie Su created The Lizzie Bennet Diaries as a modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 2012, it was far from the first modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s works, nor was it even the first attempt at telling those stories on YouTube as a web series. What set The Lizzie Bennet Diaries apart was its expert use of the vlogging format to make Austen’s characters come alive, reinforced by the social platforms they inhabited as part of the show’s transmedia strategy. This format inspired the birth of a genre, leading to the creation of over a hundred literary web series and the formation of Pemberley Digital that fittingly existed simultaneously as a fictional company within the world of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, and as a company focused on producing new literary web series.

When Pemberley Digital released a DVD box set of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, they reinvested a portion of those funds into the creation of Welcome to Sanditon, their second foray into Jane Austen adaptations. In order to flesh out a narrative around Austen’s unfinished novel, the production team turned to the audience to create the town of Sanditon together, with viewers virtually settling to live in the town as an exercise in co-creation, powered by social media and the video platform Theatrics. Welcome to Sanditon was still focused on character-driven storytelling – it just expanded to draw some of its B-plots from the characters its viewers were role-playing. Sanditon veteran Kyle Walters borrowed much of that co-creation framework for The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy, while Pemberley Digital opted for a more passive experience with their next project, Emma Approved.

Crafting a More Sympathetic Emma: This Review is Emma Approved
Like its predecessors, Emma Approved was set up as a character-driven show, allowing audiences to gradually come to know the show’s characters both through the video uploads and their online presences. But unlike Lizzie Bennet and fan-favorite Gigi Darcy, Emma Woodhouse doesn’t start off as endearing. “Emma Woodhouse…beautiful, clever, and brilliant. There are many intriguing female entrepreneurs in the love and lifestyle industry, but no one is more dynamic or has more potential than young Ms. Woodhouse.” Hearing Emma introduce herself by reciting that dose of hyperbolic prose to the camera doesn’t leave the best first impression. After seeing her systematically bully and lie to friends and coworkers to get her way in the next few videos, her second and third impressions could use some work as well.

And yet, in a series based in large part around Emma’s personal growth, Emma Approved is just as careful in highlighting how Emma’s greatest strengths are present throughout the series. When Annie Taylor is having doubts about her marriage to Ryan Weston, Emma is empathetic enough to identify what the underlying problem is, without being explicitly told. She just crosses the line by trying to fix everything behind everyone’s back, through subterfuge and deceit. After being confronted with her behavior, Emma internalizes the lesson so that when confronted by a similar situation with her sister, she takes a more reasoned tact. The lesson isn’t “don’t meddle in other peoples’ affairs” – that’s a core component of Emma’s personality and her business model. Instead, the lesson is to do so more directly.

Throughout the series, Emma learns a series of painful lessons after letting down most of the people in her life. And while she learns and adapts, she does not do so at the expense of who she is – the Emma Woodhouse who closes out the series is just as assertive, empathetic, and confident as the Emma who started it. She just finds better mechanisms for channeling that passion. And speaking of passion, it’s almost impossible not to ship the budding romances that form during the show. Bobby Martin and Harriet Smith’s awkwardly adorable overt flirting serves as the perfect foil for Emma Woodhouse and Alex Knightley’s more tentative banter, and the characters’ romantic arcs are equal parts fulfilling and nail-biting every step of the way.

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A Tale of Two Trailheads: Charity Kong and the Golden Age Conspiracy

In Seattle, a jodhpur-clad man wanders into a Seattle corner shop, using strips of gold foil as currency in order to send messages using the shop’s antiquated Telex machine. In Indianapolis, Golden Age comic fans converge at a flea market just outside Indianapolis, chasing a rumor to find a shred of evidence that their beloved comics publisher Stupefying Yarns exists outside their memories. And aspiring comic artist Brian Enright has gone missing, leaving a desperate brother behind. Three different stories all seem to converge with a series of trailheads that have been sent out over the past few days.

The Case of Charity Kong and the Tourist From Another Place
Earlier this week, a number of reports circulated of people receiving black envelopes from “A Friend” with the Seattle Mariners’ stadium listed as the return address. Inside the envelope? A screencap of a girl in a YouTube video, paired with an ominous message:

This is Charity Kong.
She does not know she needs your help.
She does not know our world is in danger.
Find her before they do.

A second, smaller envelope was also included, instructing its recipient to only open it after finding her.

Image courtesy of No Proscenium

On Twitter, @destiniesfic dove into the mystery and located Charity Kong’s YouTube channel. Through her videos, Charity documents her experiences tracking down and helping “The Tourist”, a strange man who uses strips of gold foil as currency and hints at a mysterious past that doesn’t quite add up.

Upon opening the sealed envelope, recipients found a printed Telex, which decoded to the message: “URGENT. BOWLERS IN SEATTLE. WORST CASE: THREE WORLDS WAR”. But back to that later.

Stupefying Yarns and the Comics Erased From Time
Soon after people started receiving warnings about dire tidings for Charity, other reports of envelopes bearing addresses for Major League Baseball stadiums started circulating. Only this time, the letters came in red envelopes from “The Yarnies”, with a return address of Yankee Stadium.

The envelope contained a flyer promoting the Stupefying Yarns fan blog, along with torn up scraps of a comic book cover, paired with the following revelation:

Earlier this summer, a vintage SY cover – not advertised as such – was sold at an estate auction for $34,000.00 to a man in a pinstripe suit.

An intrepid Yarnie found the contents of this envelope in a neighbor’s garbage can the next day.

Image courtesy of ARG Insider

When assembled, the torn up scraps showed a seeming impossibility: the cover of Johnny Delta in Bandit of the Sky, a Stupefying Yarns comic. According to the Yarnies’ forums, their shared memories of Stupefying Yarns comics are challenged by the fact that no one can seem to find any physical evidence the publisher ever existed. Even the most fleeting traces are regarded as objects worthy of the “Holy Grail” designation. Last month, a group of Yarnies traveled out to an Indiana flea market at the mere rumor of a sighing of the Wasserstein Grail, a paper mâché art project rumored to have used Stupefying Yarns pages in its construction. Locating an intact cover seems beyond most members of the group’s wildest dreams.

And then, there’s the page on the flip side of the comic book cover. Scrawled in the margins of an advertisement for the Grumbaum Academy of Art is an ominous message: “Next: Brian Diffracted”.

Brian Enright and Introduction to Color Theory 
The website BrianDiffracted.net was set up by Brian Enright’s brother to help locate his sibling, who went missing two years ago. The site describes the brothers’ passion for imaginary words, namely the science fiction world of “Laminar” and the fantasy realm of “Old Gnarly”. Brian’s passion for these worlds continued, and one of the few remnants his brother has of Brian are two sketches of Old Gnarly and Laminar, left on the refrigerator door before Brian disappeared.

Curiously, the heroes featured in Brian’s sketches bear a striking resemblance to fan recollections of Golden Age heroes from Stupefying Yarns, including the musclebound Thor-Ax, his companion Esme, and the jodhpur-clad Johnny Delta.

One curious addition to the Brian Diffracted website is a short screed on color theory: the page recounts Newton’s addition of indigo to the rainbow. As the reflection on color notes:

The fact is, Science can’t tell where Blue stops and Indigo begins. Indigo is supposed to be a different country, but you can’t distinguish it from here. When I pointed this out to Brian, he pulled out a colored pencil marked Indigo and said, “Maybe you can’t find it, but I can.”

Has Brian found a way into these other worlds described in the telex card? And is that what the telex is trying to say about a “three worlds” war?

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Lessons on ARGs and Teamwork Through the Lens of Daedalus

Daedalus is an artificial intelligence built to solve humanity’s greatest problems. And over the next few days, it will be recruiting teams of 5-7 players to participate in a week-long series of puzzles that play out across Daedalus’ neural network, to “complete Daedalus’ programming”. While many of these tasks will take place on the game’s digital interface, some puzzles will cross over into the real world, requiring teams to have at least two players in the Boston area.

This week-long experience is a collaboration between Extra Ludic and Northeastern University that is looking to leverage alternate reality games to study team performance and adaptability, with a particular focus on “individual differences and their effects on adaptability and performance within teams.” Using survey and questionnaire data collected at the midpoint and end of the game, the team hopes to leverage ARG and digital escape room environments to study how teams work together. To provide an incentive for teams to participate, all teams who complete the game and the corresponding surveys will receive a gift certificate, with an additional prize for the team who completes the game in the fastest time.

This is not the first time alternate reality games have been used for research purposes. Indiana University’s Skeleton Chase game presented members of the school’s Foundations of Fitness and Wellness program with a sprawling game that led students across campus, confirming that players presented with a compelling experience could be encouraged to increase the amount they walk every day. Researchers noted that students reporting the highest weekly step counts were the teams that bonded well, forming a cohesive unit that worked together towards a common goal, serving as an early indicator for the success of games like Ingress and Pokemon Go.

The project is sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is no stranger to using competitions to test out models for group dynamics. In 2009, they ran the DARPA Network Challenge as a competition to locate ten red balloons located across the country. Player data for Daedalus will remain anonymous, with survey and other data collected through the project anonymized and associated with a unique identifier for use in the research.

It will be interesting to see what emerges from Daedalus from the research standpoint. It will also be a novel experience for participants to get paid to play an alternate reality game – and it’s not too late to make a play for the grand reward. The team is still in the process of recruiting their third cohort for the experience. Registration is limited to participants who are US Citizens or Permanent Residents who are 18 years or older, fluent in English, and have access to a cellphone. However, you don’t have to live in Boston or assemble the full team yourself to participate: the game’s sign-up form implies that researchers may help form teams for prospective players who haven’t assembled a full team.

As appealing as the research element of Deadalus sounds, the most alluring element in the teaser trailer is what almost sounds like a warning from the game’s artificial intelligence: “it sounds simple, but in this puzzle not everything is what it appears to be. So you must be clever, and work together.” To find out what that means, head over to the game’s sign-up page to get started – but don’t take too long, as Daedalus will be wrapping up at the end of September.

Thanks to Room Escape Artist for directing this game to our attention.

Bunker Buddies at the Wildrence, with Broken Ghost Immersives

Note: ARGNet received a comped ticket for this show.

Fifteen people huddled together in the Bunker, arranged in a rough circle of couches and chairs. The room itself was a pastiche of Cold War era kitsch, just big enough to fit our group, but small enough to feel a little cramped. The Nostalgia Electrics refrigerator was fully stocked with beverages of the alcoholic and non-alcoholic variety, and the kitchenette was stocked with all the essential cooking implements, hanging from the wall. Near the couch, a chess set was prominently displayed near period magazines to help us while away the time in a makeshift living room space. On the other side of the room, a small crafting table was positioned to give the group space for tinkering with the odd bits and bobs we found. The only signs of real modernity in the room: a handful of tablets strewn around the room, and a laptop propped up in the corner, broadcasting security cam-style footage of the room to our Artificial Intelligence-based overseer, De-Bunk. The apocalypse arrived, and this would be our home for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, that foreseeable future was severely limited by dwindling food supplies and a malfunctioning life support system.

This is the scenario that Broken Ghost Immersive’s The Bunker thrusts its players into at Wildrence, a basement events space in lower Manhattan. A loose collective of individuals, met with the challenge of surviving in a post-apocalyptic hellscape with only their wits, a few rolls of duct tape, and a supply of Twinkies. The roughly 2 hour long show is a bit of a hybrid experience: while it combines elements of a number of immersive styles of play, at its core the experience feels like an intimate parlor LARP, where players’ decisions help them learn about the world they find themselves in as they struggle to survive. Routes to survival might involve using tablet devices to negotiate with residents of other nearby bunkers, donning hazmat suits to explore the wastelands to search for supplies and interact more directly with neighbors, and use those supplies to craft items useful for the bunker’s residents. While there is a set narrative underpinning the entire post-apocalyptic scenario, player choice dictates what elements of that story any given show (or player within that show) might encounter.

The Bunker: A Game of Resource Management
Bunker resources are represented through a series of cards that can either be found through exploratory missions into the wasteland, or created by playing a mini-game to combine items at the crafting station. And over The Bunker‘s seven “day” narrative, carefully managing those resources is essential to survival. Every day, players must “consume” one food card, or run the risk of dying right there, on the spot. Satisfying that need is a constant weight hanging over the bunker, with the very real threat of death looming at every turn. Additional cards can be spent at the crafting table to obtain items necessary for short-term and long-term survival, both for the expeditionary forces and the bunker at large. And along with limited resources comes challenges with distribution. Some resources might be pooled for group consumption, while others get held back to ensure individual survival.

The biggest resource for players to manage, however, is time. As with many megagames, how players choose to spend their time is a much more valuable resource than the cards themselves. This isn’t a game where players can get by focusing exclusively on one element of gameplay, as each element informs the others.  Players chatting with other bunkers might unlock new abilities for players tackling the crafting table, while players going out on expeditions might come across information that changes what players negotiating with other bunkers discuss. To encourage players towards a more well-rounded play experience, the game has “nudges” built in that require switching around tasks on a fairly frequent basis. Expedition members might become afflicted with wounds, ailments, and mutations as a result of their journeys, forcing them to be temporarily bunker-bound, while some bunkers may become so hostile that further communications become pointless. Other “nudges” were more direct, as an Achievement Book would dole out cards as rewards to players who helped the team reach set milestones of exploration, crafting, and experimentation.

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