Letter to the Editor – “The Art of ARGs”
On April 11, 2001, Cloudmakers was founded as a discussion group for the interative web game centered around the film A.I. We officially solved the game on July 24, 2001. I first joined the game in late May and found the experience to be an entirely new one to me. When the game ended I looked around for more. First through Lockjaw and then Majestic and on and on since then. Personally, I have never been able to fully recapture the sense of community and comradery that Cloudmakers had achieved but I keep looking. Had I the financial backing, time and a suitable set of co-conspirators I would rectify the situation by creating my own game but in the meantime I have made a few general observations about what the ‘perfect ARG’ would be for me.
1. The beginning of the game should be hidden in plain sight.
Basically the first part of the game must be the discovery. This would probably be the most uncertain and aggravating part of the game for the puppetmasters. However, from a players point of view this aspect starts the game off with a feeling of mystery and achievement. A good example of this is The Beast concealing a phone number via the inclusion of dots in actual posters and trailers for the movie A.I.
2. The game must draw the players into its reality.
Let mimesis be your watchword. The imitation or representation of aspects of the sensible world, especially human actions, in literature and art. The players should feel as though they, themselves, are part of the story. This is one of the hardest things to accomplish because it must be taken into account during every part of the design process. This is difficult under the best of conditions but for the perfect game you want to include the players as themselves and not as just another character.
3. The designers should be many steps ahead of the players.
This is very important. The game must be prepared for whatever the players can throw at it. If the players complete a puzzle ahead of schedule you must be prepared to move the game along, not at your own pace but at the players’ pace. The same goes for a puzzle the players have been stuck on for much longer then expected. Whether this means throwing another puzzle at the players or subtly crafting a communiqué with hints as to a puzzles solution, the flow of the game should not be compromised. The players should always feel that something is going on as both being stuck on a puzzle and having no puzzle at all give the them a feeling of frustration.
4. The game should be able to interact with the players on various levels.
The perfect game should have a somewhat flexible design that would allow different types of interaction with the players at various points of the game. This could be as simple as adding a few lines to a communiqué complimenting the players on the innovative and unexpected way they solved the last puzzle or berating them for taking so long to figure out a password or as complex as an actual meeting in a chat room, a phone call, snail mail, video, audio, etc. (Personally I am against the chat room as too much unscripted material can compromise mimesis quite easily.) The ultimate interactivity would be an in-person meeting (very strictly scripted of course).
5. The game should be suited to a community, not an individual.
Games like this are more fun when they have a community built around them, with ideas and commentary bouncing around a list-serv or forum. This not only gives the players a better chance at completing puzzles in a timely manner but it also gives the designers instant feedback, allowing them to tailor the various parts of the game to fix flaws or create an even more believable environment. When a community appears around such a game you must keep in mind that the puzzles need to be more difficult than puzzles made to be solved by an individual otherwise the game will not pose enough of a challenge for the players.
6. The story line should be both compelling and fluid.
Some sort of mystery, though no necessarily a murder mystery. Disappearance of a person or an item, the sudden appearance of a bit of video footage or a manuscript or unknown origin, something to draw the players interest and always keep him/her guessing. Discovery is what drives the players so always reward them with something that will draw them further into the story.
7. The reward structure of the game should be fair and balanced.
This one is so simple but so often overlooked! If you throw a very difficult puzzle at the players you should give them a very big reward for solving it. Smaller puzzles should be assigned less spectacular rewards. This is not such a hard concept to grasp.
8. The puzzles should be kept in context!
Ok, I mentioned mimesis before and this is another area where it is very important – the puzzles. You can’t have a journalist sending a message to a friend using old WWII Enigma code without some sort of reason or back story! Make the puzzles fit the story. This may not always be the easiest thing to accomplish but it certainly helps keep the game believable.
9. The designers should remain untraceable until the bitter end.
The players should not be able to trace the game back to the designers. In fact, it is best if they are not ‘aware’ of the designers at all. Of course, they will know that someone has designed it but suspension of disbelief should keep that fact to the side. Doing a whois on a domain and getting the home phone number and email address of one of the games designers ruins the illusion. Cover your tracks! This also has the added ‘benefit’ of people trying to figure out who the designers are, adding a secondary mystery to any well designed game.
10. The game should have a well planned and rewarding ending.
Playing a game for months on end and then finding it come to an anticlimactic or ultimately clichéd conclusion is one of the biggest letdowns. Make sure you are prepared for the end of the game and try to meet the expectations of your audience.