2011 Year in Review: The Year in Three Quarters, Nickels, and Dimes

In the past three months, players have demonstrated their willingness to pay for alternate reality games.

Taken in isolation, players reaching into their pocketbooks to pay money for alternate reality games is not news. Ever since the genre’s inception, opportunities to pay money for ARGs have emerged. Majestic, Electronic Arts’ venture into the world of alternate reality games, reportedly convinced about 15,000 players to pay $9.95 a month (or $40 for the CD) for access to its content. Studio Cypher adopted a similar model for its month-long multiplayer novels, which offered custom content to “Wakeful Agents” willing to pay $9.99 for a more immersive experience. Games like Perplex City tied gameplay to collectible puzzle cards that collectively unlocked additional content for approximately $5 per pack, while local interactive experiences like those produced by Accomplice, 5-Wits, and Ravenchase Adventures charge admission to their real-world adventures and hunts.

Having said that, the past few months have seen a resurgence of campaigns seeking players willing to pay for their alternate reality games, with more options of game experiences to buy into than ever before. The past quarter has been a busy one for alternate reality games with experiments in new storytelling platforms and additional institutional assistance for developers. This article will offer a taste of some of the campaigns that have caught my attention since my last broad look at the industry in April.

Movies and the Waiting Game
The most intricate cinematic alternate reality game from the past quarter happened over the course of a few frenetic days, as players directly inserted themselves into The Inside Experience, a YouTube thriller by Toshiba and Intel. The plot should be a familiar one to veterans of alternate reality games. A young woman, Christina Perasso, is kidnapped and locked in a room, with only a laptop, an uncertain internet connection, and the help of the players to get her out. From July 22nd to August 3rd, players solved puzzles and scoured videos uploaded by Christina to try and save her. Player discussions were aggregated on the series’ website, providing a day-by-day, stream-of-consciousness summary of the game’s progress. Events came to a head at a live event in Los Angeles’ Union Station, where attendees were interrogated by Federal Agents about the case on film. The full film is available on YouTube, which features posts from many of the game’s participants.

By and large, however, the past few months have been a waiting game for the film industry. While the Real Steel film’s campaign started out strong at PAX East in March, the game devolved into a series of robot fighting mini-games on the WRB.com site. Hints about an underground robot boxing league led to the Underworld Overthrow site, which offered a new teaser clip prior to the film’s October 7th release. The upcoming Hunger Games viral has fans locked in a similar waiting game, with the official viral at TheCapitol.pn allowing players to join one of the twelve districts of Panem in anticipation for the 74th Hunger Games, scheduled for the film’s release on March 23rd, 2012. The Capitol’s announcement stream infers that there is “something massive in store,” but for now the viral is in a holding pattern, limiting interaction to the creation of personalized District identification cards. By contrast, the fan-made Hunger Games alternate reality game is already in full swing over at PanemOctober.com. Gameplay for the fan-created game centers around encouraging friends to scan QR codes that lead to the player’s user profile: the points generated from these visits appear to be usable as a form of in-game currency of sorts. The ARG is gearing up for a recreation of the Hunger Games during its planned six-month run.

While practical examples of alternate reality games in film waned over the past few months, interest in its potential has waxed considerably under the guise of transmedia storytelling. The Tribeca Film Institute’s New Media Fund has selected its inaugural crop of grant recipients interested in developing nonfiction transmedia projects, while the Sundance Institute accepted six transmedia projects to kick off its first New Frontier Story Lab. Even the New York Film Festival got into the act, adding a series of panels on transmedia storytelling. One project in particular captured the hearts of all three organizations: the upcoming film 18 Days in Egypt, a crowd-sourced documentary seeking to gather eyewitness reports and media from the Egyptian Revolution, was selected as a TFI New Media Fund recipient, will be participating in the New Frontier Story lab, and also fielded a panelist during the New York Film Festival’s panel on Documentaries and Transmedia Activism.

The film that influenced my understanding of transmedia storytelling the most over the past few months was a traditional documentary about one of Philadelphia’s most perplexing unsolved mysteries: the Toynbee tiles. Scattered across the city and, indeed, the world, are hundreds of enigmatic tiles embedded in the road. Bearing variations on the perplexing message, “TOYNBEE IDEA / IN MOVIE ‘2001 / RESURRECT DEAD / ON PLANET JUPITER,” the meaning behind the tiles has remained unsolved for decades. The film Resurrect Dead follows a group of amateur sleuths as they work together to unravel the secrets behind the words. While their ultimate conclusion comes as a surprise, it’s the series of coincidences and false leads the documentary directs viewers through that truly captures the imagination.

Television That Writes Back
In August, BBC aired a mini-series dedicated to celebrating the elegance of codes and patterns hidden in nature. Fittingly, the network chose to hide codes and patterns within the program itself, culminating in a password-protected, 84-page long puzzle challenge used to select three puzzlemasters to compete for bragging rights and a complex trophy designed by Bathsheba Grossman that nested five polyhedra made out of bronze and silver. The three finalists traveled down to Bletchley Park for a final round of World War II-themed puzzles. Pete Ryland ultimately emerged victorious, leaving the code-breaking mecca with trophy in hand. Discussion for the game was split between a Facebook fan page established to facilitate collaboration and the player-created wiki at CrackTheBBCCode.

The big winner for the quarter, however, was the narrative storytelling platform SocialSamba and the creative team at 30 Ninjas, which collaborated on two projects that offer an elegant method for scaling replayable ARG interaction. The first experience was the Covert Affairs TweetCast, a seven-week long mission led by Auggie Anderson (played by Christopher Gorham) as he sought to help agents Hala and Lina. The events of the online experience carried for six weeks past the show’s premiere, setting the stage for the show’s July 12th episode. For the Tweetcast, players were asked to offer advice via Twitter, Facebook, or a submission form on the Tweetcast website to help Auggie and the overseas agents, which featured a chronological stream of character tweets along with weekly recap videos.

30 Ninjas and SocialSamba have also been tapped to produce #Hashtag Killer, an interactive adventure leading up to the sixth season of Psych that offers a dubious reward for its most active players. Hashtag Killer puts an interesting twist on rewarding its most active fans: While the game does offer the occasional call-out to players for their contributions and pithy comments, its most active players are co-opted as the Hashtag Killer’s murder victims. The Hashtag Killer game plays out over a customized social interface that lets players chat with their favorite characters in the series between videos, voicemail messages, and mini-games. Based on back-chatter on the site’s active Twitter and Tumblr streams, fans are embracing the chance to experience a virtual ride-along with Shawn and Gus and are actively competing for the dubious pleasure of getting axed by a serial killer. Both projects saw the teams at 30 Ninjas and Social Samba working closely with the television production crew, assuring the resulting productions maintained a surprising level of verisimilitude with the television shows.

Books and Online Platforms
The story of the quarter in the publishing world should have been Pottermore, JK Rowling’s ambitious reimagining of her Harry Potter series for the web that tempted Charles Redmayne to leave his post as EVP and chief digital officer at HarperCollins. But while the website may still revolutionize the publishing industry as some claim, the beta test opened to a million lucky Harry Potter fans has not yet realized its potential. While the series offers a point-and-click retelling of the series that also allows players to mix potions and cast spells in pursuit of the House Cup, the site is currently missing many of the features that are likely to drive players back to the site after their initial perusal. As it stands, the website serves as an admittedly delightful supplement to the reading experience.

For a slightly different take on integrating a book with online content, Erin Morgenstern partnered with Failbetter Games, the creators of Echo Bazaar, to produce The Night Circus, a stylistic Victorian-era game that plays out through a series of digital cards and mementos, to promote Morgenstern’s debut novel. Meanwhile, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, an iPad app by Pixar veteran William Joyce, provides another look at how books transferred into the digital realm can look. Patrick Carman continues to experience with Dark Eden, a thriller about a group of teens sent out into the woods to overcome their fears that released its content as an interactive mobile app prior to its pending print release in November 2011.

Michael Grant’s Go BZRK experience is the most traditional book-centric alternate reality game to hit the virtual shelves this quarter, taking great pains to craft vibrant and engaging characters to populate his storyworld. Like many of the games mentioned this quarter, players have congregated to the Nexus Humanus Facebook group for discussion and collaboration.

A Day at the Theater
Depending on where you live, there are an increasing number of theatrical performances that can provide players with a brief taste of alternate reality gaming entertainment without the long-term commitment normally associated with the genre. A few weeks ago, I took a trip down to the streets of Manhattan to give the Accomplice: New York experience a try, where a series of clues and a bit of alcohol guided me and my group from outrageous character to outrageous character, picking up bits and pieces of a larger story as we went along. The Accomplice: New York experience I enjoyed has been running for years as one of the best-kept secrets of the city. In the intervening years, the Accomplice line of experiences have expanded. Accomplice: The Village moves the locale to Greenwich Village, while Accomplice: Hollywood and Accomplice: London take the live theater concept a bit farther abroad. While the four core shows are ongoing experiences, Accomplice has also added a limited-time engagement at New York’s American Museum of Natural History that provides a more family-friendly mystery.

It is apparently the season for limited engagements: Punchdrunk’s immersive reimagining of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Sleep No More, has taken over the McKittrick Hotel through December 17th, while Red Cloud Rising adds a digital layer to the Accomplice franchise’s romp through New York City, sending clues and messages via phone calls and text messages. Meanwhile, just outside of Boston, 5-Wits has revamped their 20,000 Leagues interactive theater installation for the holidays, giving a decidedly haunted twist to the nautical adventure. Even Colonial Williamsburg got in on the fun with RevQuest: Sign of the Rhinoceros, a history-centric alternate reality game that asked visitors to the historic city to help save the leaders of the American Revolution. While the game’s initial run was scheduled through August, additional dates were added in September.

Crowdfunding and Packs of Gum
A number of veteran developers have turned to crowdfunding sites to gain support for their projects. Andrea Phillips, Adrian Hon, David Varela, and Naomi Alderman reunited many members of the Perplex City crew to raise funds for Balance of Powers, a Cold War-era transmedia story slated to kick off with an eight-week season. Hon and Alderman also turned to Kickstarter with Zombies, Run!, a mobile app that adds the fear of zombie hordes to players’ exercise routines. Meanwhile, Breathe creator Yomi Ayeni turned to IndieGoGo with his steampunk love story, Clockwork Watch, kicking off with the graphic novel, The Arrival. Lance Weiler’s upcoming project Robot Heart Stories, which plans on launching stories from students at two at-risk schools into space as the culmination of the transmedia experience, also has a presence on IndieGoGo. Christy Dena is going the direct route with her audio drama AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS, selling access for $5.99.

5 Gum’s Test Subjects Needed campaign continues to release puzzles and mini-games in its interactive Facilities that can only be unlocked using codes on specially marked packets of gum. As each room gets unlocked, additional pages of an online graphic novel fleshing out the game’s narrative are released. With three Facilities unlocked, players are unraveling the mysteries of the Traelek Institute, a school similar to Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters headed up by Lost veteran Terry O’Quinn. The opening of each new Facility has been punctuated by a real-world race to obtain iceflies hidden in major cities.

Goodbye to Cow Clicking…For Now
Ian Bogost spent the better part of a year lambasting segments of the gaming industry with his Cow Clicker franchise, centered around a Facebook Farmville clone centering around clicking on a cow in order to earn more cows to click. Bogost’s cutting criticism touched on everything from gamification to, you guessed it, alternate reality games. With Bogost’s Cow ClickARG, players could stave off cowpocalypse…by clicking on cows or paying Facebook credits. As Leigh Alexander explains in a stellar send-off on Kotaku, Bogost brought the epic bout of playable criticism to an end, allowing the countdown clock to bring about the end, leaving empty grass pastures behind.

Independent Games New and Old
This past quarter was not without its drama: in the weeks leading up to the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Hugh Davies started mailing out antiquated storage media to active alternate reality gaming players and blogs at an international level, launching The Darkest Puzzle. Based on an errant comment in the Cloudmakers thread during The Beast that wondered if the collective intelligence of gamers could “solve” the hijackings, the game plays out a paranoid what-if scenario that delves into many of the various conspiracy theories surrounding the events a decade past. Former Cloudmakers were quick to deny involvement in The Darkest Puzzle, finding the subject matter and timing to be in poor taste.

After a number of years in development, the Martin Aggett Story launched at ARGFest with a series of live events. Highly character-driven, the game centers around a personality developed by the game’s creator, Steve Diddle, who spent the past few years establishing a web-trail around the character. Interdimensional Games, a browser-intensive game centering around a rift in space-time, returned in August after a hiatus. The game relies on cookies to deliver a highly personalized gameplay experience that evolves based on past involvement with the site. Activity on the ongoing Marble Hornets alternate reality game stepped up over the past few months as well.  The horror-themed game introduced a disturbing new villain named Slenderman to the realm of urban mythology that has spawned dozens of spin-off projects, copycat games, and memes. Veil Nanoscience is a currently running game that appears to have quite a bit of potential, focusing on a company involved in memory manipulation.

Coming Attractions
In the coming months, keep an eye out for the launch of a number of exciting projects. Some of the collaborators on Conspiracy for Good have rejoined to work on The Karada, a transmedia supernatural thriller dealing with a collapsing multiverse. Zeros 2 Heroes looks to be returning with another season of Animism, and the Find Me Event aims to try a slightly different take on The Inside Experience‘s kidnapping victim narrative.

As is often the case, it’s difficult to keep track of all the innovative work going on in the alternate reality gaming and transmedia space. Do you have a favorite moment or game from the last quarter I missed? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

Continue on to Part IV of the Year in Review, covering the final quarter of the year

1 Comment

  1. modelmotion


    Hey someone had to start it, right?

    By yea thanks for yet another great article. Hopefully 2012 will really sizzle both online and off.