Author: Dee Cook

SXSW 2011: Fan to Fanatic: True Blood’s Marketing Hook

Full disclosure: Dee Cook, a former associate editor at ARGNet, was employed by Campfire to work on Seasons One and Two of the True Blood marketing campaign. She also attended a SXSW panel dedicated to the campaign, and graciously agreed to post a summary of the conversation here.

Some readers may recall a buzz back in 2008 when various bloggers began receiving mysterious dead language mailers and posting about them. These mailings served as the beginning of a marketing push for HBO’s True Blood, which premiered on the small screen later that summer. Representatives from some of the agencies involved in the campaign’s creation joined an HBO executive, a True Blood fan site co-owner to describe how it all happened during the SXSW panel, Fan to Fanatic: True Blood’s Marketing Hook on March 11, 2011.

Zach Enterlin, Senior Vice President of Programming for HBO, explained that the True Blood experience wouldn’t have been possible without the vision of Alan Ball, the show’s creator. Ball brought the show to HBO after the end of the hit Six Feet Under, and asked them how they could educate viewers about Bon Temps, Louisiana, as well as a world where vampires exist and live among us. Enterlin, a long time follower of Campfire’s work, brought this dilemma to them. Campfire jumped in with enthusiasm: Enterlin recalled that Brian Cain read all six books published at the time in the space of one weekend. Campfire wasn’t working alone. In fact, season one had ten agencies working on the campaign, and the HBO marketing machine was strongly backing the project. Enterlin credits the gusto all the vendors had for the work for how coherently so many different moving parts were able to move together. It just worked, he said, because everyone was on the same page together.

Season two of True Blood saw some unusual partnerships between the show and brands like Geico, Harley Davidson, and Monster.com. Todd Brandes from Digital Kitchen explained that the team decided that if vampires were living out in the world, then they could be marketed to: so they ended up cold calling some 30 different brands, resulting in seven brands that were eventually used in True Blood-themed banner ads.  Alan Ball nixed one of the brands, a gum maker, because he argued vampires did not chew gum.

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Evidence of What?

evidence.jpgI purchased The Adventure Company’s recent release, Evidence: The Last Ritual with high hopes that it would provide immersive gameplay that would appeal to the ARGer in me. Touted as an adventure/puzzle game, Evidence is a step towards a pre-packaged ARG: there are websites to discover with voluminous content as well as in-game emails that follow your progress through the game.

Boy, are there in-game emails. There are scads of in-game emails. In fact, within 10 hours after registering the game (a necessary step in order to proceed to gameplay), I had received a whopping 28 emails – 25 of those in the first two hours. I eventually got a mail saying, “No news from you for several hours now? Are you ditching us like a pair of old socks, or what? Please, we need your help…” Nothing like a little guilt trip to make me want to pop that game right back in! Most mail was to provide clues, and several times the timing was off so that I would get clues for puzzles I had already solved.

The story behind the game is that there is a serial killer on the prowl, and he has produced this teasing, taunting set of CDs with information and clues about his victims. The CDs contain a lot of well-acted video clips which the player is rewarded with after solving puzzles. The gameplay itself is almost reminiscent of the movies Se7en or Saw, with a gritty, surreal atmosphere. The puzzles range from piece-o-cake easy to insanely difficult, and there are little to no clues about solves in some cases. What I found most difficult at times was actually being able to “catch” the right icon in order to proceed to the next puzzle — the tiny icons bob up and down on the screen, and for those of us with bad reflexes it can be pretty frustrating.

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Lonelygirl15: The End (Or the Beginning?)

Although the post itself on the Lonelygirl15.com forum is currently unreachable, a new message tonight has a lot of confused fans wondering if the puppetmasters have stepped out from behind the curtain.

To Our Incredible Fans,

Thank you so much for enjoying our show so far. We are amazed by the overwhelmingly positive response to our videos; it has exceeded our wildest expectations. With your help we believe we are witnessing the birth of a new art form. Our intention from the outset has been to tell a story– A story that could only be told using the medium of video blogs and the distribution power of the internet. A story that is interactive and constantly evolving with the audience.

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LonelyGirl15 – Is She or Isn’t She?

lonelygirl151The white-hot spark of a YouTube user named LonelyGirl15 has set the dry timber of the summer Internet community ablaze. Ostensibly the video blog of a teenaged American girl named Bree, the 23 videos posted so far have chronicled a budding romance with a boy named Daniel, but there’s a twist: Bree’s family is very religious, she is home-schooled, and she has pledged a “purity bond” with her father. Even stranger is the fact that Bree’s religion is never named, and in fact on various comments on YouTube she has said that it is not mainstream – “We’re not Christian or Buddhist or Hindu or anything like that.” There’s also a mysterious picture of famous occultist Aleister Crowley on Bree’s bedroom wall, above a candelabra which she’s vehement that Daniel not light. And wait – that Crowley picture is new – it used to be something else (could that possibly bear a resemblance to Baphomet?) A dark twist, indeed.

Buzz has it that the videos are too pat, too scripted, and too professional looking to be anything but some sort of viral campaign. Indeed, the clues are there. Bree initially gained an audience by making engaging and humorous videos featuring popular YouTube users. She’s very cagey about revealing any personally revealing information about herself, often completely dodging uncomfortable questions. Perhaps more telling is the fact that a vanity website under her name was registered on May 12 – almost two weeks before she showed up on YouTube. Those following the saga wonder how she knew she would become an Internet sensation before posting a video (her excuse: Daniel did it to tease her).

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Studio Cypher Launches New Case

studiocyphers2.jpgStudio Cypher has announced the launch of their second “Multiplayer Novel,” entitled Perfect Friends Forever, set to begin this week. According to Studio Cypher, “[Perfect Friends Forever] is much improved on our first episode: it contains many more puzzles and major story updates will happen on Tuesdays and Fridays.” The plot will involve Madame Z, a psychic who uses spirits to run a matchmaking service, who is trying to find out which of her spirit helpers has turned against her. For a free preview, enter the pass code “argonaut” at the Perfect Friends Forever trailhead site.

Perplex City News

pc2.jpgGood news comes to Perplex City fans this week as Perplex City announces that their card packs are now available via several major online retailers. The card packs, as well as a starter pack which includes additional items such as a music CD and a binder, may now be purchased at Overstock.com, Buy.com, Walmart.com, and Toys “R” Us.

Mind Candy received recognition recently at the Origins International Game Expo, where they won the Vanguard Innovative Game Award. According to the Origins Expo website, Origins awards “Celebrate the best in board, role-playing, miniatures, play-by-mail, and trading card games; professional and amateur magazine publications, game-related fiction, and accessories and supplements.”

Last but not least, Perplex City is planning a live event in San Francisco on August 12, from 10:30 am until 5:00 pm. According to Mind Candy, this is their first major US event, and they hope to have several hundred people there. This event will “activate the link” between Perplex City and San Francisco. For more information or to register, visit the live event website at PerplexCity.com.

The Lost Experience

lost_thumb.jpg
Back in February, glimmers of an upcoming interactive media experience were hinted at by Javier Grillo-Marxauch, a writer for the worldwide hit television show Lost, who said, "I assure you, there will be a lot of official Lost-sanctioned internet action coming up." Ears perked up from all around the ARG community, where speculation about some of the official and unofficial sites springing up around the internet ran rampant.

Then in early April, the Official Lost Podcast echoed the earlier statement, with writers David Lindelof and Carlton Cuse stating, "We're involved in a project which is going to involve the internet that's going to start in May."

Today, ABC has officially announced that The Lost Experience will take place this summer. According to the AP article, "What is known about the challenge is that it includes the introduction of new characters and the mysterious Hanso Foundation. The first clue requires finding a toll-free number that will be released during the show or commercial breaks." There will be different clues depending on the viewers' geographical locations, including the UK, the USA, and Australia.

The Lost Experience is scheduled to kick off in early May during an episode of Lost.  Stay alert!

SXSW Interactive: Brian Clark of GMD Studios

ARGN at SXSW

brian_clark.jpgEditor’s note: For those of you who played Art of the Heist last year, or who are currently enjoying Who Is Benjamin Stove?, you might already know about GMD Studios, the driving force behind some of the biggest Alternate Reality Games to date. Brian Clark, who co-founded the company in 1995, has become a valuable and active member of the ARG community. His energy and creativity have helped in taking the genre to new heights, and Dee Cook was lucky enough to sit down with Brian during the SXSW Interactive festival for a few words.

What is your favorite movie?
My favorite movie? Probably my favorite movie of all time would be Bladerunner. [Ed. Note: Possible spoilers for Bladerunner.]

The director’s cut or the original version?
Oh, definitely the director’s cut. No narration, no Mickey Spillane voice-over with the extra wrinkle that the Bladerunner’s a replicant (Oh, no, spoiler alert! Spoiler alert! I spoiled the movie!)

Did you see the narrated version first?
Yes.

Do you think that made you appreciate the second one better?
No. I think once they took the voice-over out, it left more to speculation. Peoples’ motivations and machines’ motivations became less clear. We didn’t need to have Harrison Ford tell us about Rutger Hauer dying. We could just watch that scene and not have to say, “Maybe in the end he valued any life, even his own.” I think that the film company underestimated the intelligence of the film-going public.

I read somewhere that Harrison Ford said he did the narration badly deliberately so they’d have to cut it.
Really? That’s a great detail – a little sabotage.

True, but I don’t know whether it’s an urban myth or not.
Yeah, but it’s interesting.

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SXSW Interactive: Cluetrain: Seven Years Later

ARGN at SXSW

sxsw.jpgSpeaking today at South by Southwest Interactive was a panel on the Cluetrain Manifesto. Published in 1999, Cluetrain.com is a list of 95 points regarding companies, consumers, and the relationship between the two, asking companies to wake up and deal with their customers on a human level rather than treat them as potential sources of profit. The panel, moderated by Henry Copeland (founder of BlogAds, was a discussion of Cluetopia and whether society is getting there.

One of the original writers of Cluetrain, Doc Searls, spoke on the origin of the manifesto. In the midst of the Dotcom madness in 1998, the Cluetrain founders, as they would become known, were discussing the disconnect between what the internet actually was versus what was receiving funding and how the net was playing out in the press, as if it could be an extension of the shopping malls in the real world. The founders would use their theories on marketing in order to filter out clients whose philosophies didn’t mesh with their own; if the clients did not agree with the concept of marketing as a conversation, the founders would decline to work with them. The discussion turned into the 95 theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto, which was kicked off by Chris Locke’s statement from the everyday citizen’s point of view, “We are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. We are human beings – and our reach exceeds your grasp. Deal with it.”

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SXSW Interactive: Serious Games for Learning

ARGN at SXSW

sxsw.jpgThis afternoon’s South by Southwest Interactive panel entitled Serious Games for Learning provided a fascinating look at how immersive gaming is bringing new opportunities into learning environments.

Moderator Jim Brazell from the IC^2 Institute opened the program with a reference to how quickly technology has developed in the last several years. In 1995 there was a Teraflop Challenge, asking supercomputer manufacturers to develop a computer which was capable of teraflop operations (one trillion operations per second). At that time, the cost to upgrade a computer to that capability cost $100 million. Today, the XBox 360 is teraflop-capable and has a MSRP of $299.99. He projects that by 2011, a teraflop computer will cost one dollar.

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SXSW Interactive: Designing for Global and Local Social Play

ARGN at SXSW

secret_identity_game.jpgDanah Boyd moderated a panel consisting of Irina Shklovski, Amanda Williams, and Liz Lawley (stepping in for Jane McGonigal, who was home sick with pneumonia) entitled Designing for Global and Local Social Play this afternoon at South by Southwest Interactive. The panel focused on why play is important and how new technology enables us to collapse the boundaries between local and global play.

Danah brought up the idea that the internet allows people from all over the world to talk to each other. However, those people are connecting to each other by using shared ties, be they geographical groups or on a more social level, such as sharing interests. She likes to modify her environment in a way that allows her to have more fun with it. The environment in which one plays can change the way one interacts with others.

The word “play” has multiple meanings – first is the obvious, recreation and fun-time. It can also mean slop or wiggle room. The two meanings are linked, according to Amanda Williams. You can’t have the first without the second. Recreational play requires the flexibility to push boundaries.

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SXSW Interactive: The Wisdom of Crowds

ARGN @ SXSW

Editor’s note: ARGN is proud to bring coverage of the SXSW Interactive festival taking place this weekend. Staff reporter Dee Cook will be attending the event and sending us reports as she gets them. Check this site often for updates on SXSW and the connections to Alternate Reality Gaming as they happen.

sxsw.jpgJames Surowiecki is a business columnist for The New Yorker and has also written a book entitled The Wisdom of Crowds. In his solo panel today at South by Southwest Interactive, he discussed why large groups of people are smart and why we should trust them.

According to Surowiecki, large groups of people are remarkably intelligent under the right conditions, and their potential has been greatly enhanced in the last decade from the rise of technology – most notably the widespread use of the internet. He gave several examples as proof: in a jellybean contest the crowd as a whole will do better than individuals; at a racetrack the odds very closely resemble a horse’s actual performance; when you search Google, relevant pages are usually closer to the top of the results listed. All of these things are brought about by collective intelligence. It is a mistake, he argues, to rely solely upon experts, who don’t have a good grasp of where their weaknesses and blind spots lie (with the exception of bridge players and weather men).

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Akalesh Ascendant Update

akalesh.jpgThe former project lead of Akalesh Ascendant (previously reported on here in August 2005) has informed us that half of the creative design team for the newly formed and registered LLP corporation “Dark Element Gaming” has departed the project, due to be the company’s debut in Alternate Reality Gaming. Several key members, including the head writer, head logistical designer, and vice president, resigned their positions at the Alternate Reality Game yesterday. This split was not contentious and the team members left as friends.

David Andrews, founder of Dark Element Gaming, has confirmed the split. “The Akalesh Ascendant game has been delayed indefinitely due to personnel issues. Players’ contact info is still held in complete confidentiality. The game will happen, just not in the timeframe specified by the original meta site.”

ARGs Worldwide

earth.jpg The recent successes of Perplex City (UK based) and Regenesis (Canada based) have been a strong indicator that Alternate Reality Gaming is spreading around the globe. Two new developments, an El Salavador-based game and a German-based ARG news site, have helped to move the ARG scene even further into global play.

Agente X is a spy ARG based out of El Salvador. An early launch in December has netted the site far more signups than originally expected. The game promises to shake up the lives of those who are bored with the monotony of everyday routines. This is an ambitious project and would be worth looking into if you are a Spanish speaker.

Patmo.de is a new German language news site with articles on current events in the ARG world, including recent writeups on Who is Benjamin Stove, Perplex City, Araya Benedict, and Orbicon. The site has been added to our Blogroll.

We at ARGN would like to welcome Patmo and Agente X, and hope to see more and more worldwide interest in ARGs in the future.

It’s all about the Benjamins

wibs.jpg
A post on Unfiction mentioned a new trailhead for Who Is Benjamin Stove. Investigation of the site indicates that Tucker Darby, a 29 year old collections agent living in Tampa, needs your help. Over the holidays he found a mysterious painting of a crop circle, dated 1913, which has exhibited an almost supernatural hold over him. He’s been trying to identify the artist and the story behind it ever since. A note inside the painting indicated that the event depicted was real. He’s asking for help finding the man who originally owned the painting, Benjamin Stove, and figuring out what the painting means.

What makes this especially interesting is the fact that blog ads were bought for several high-dollar sites to advertise Who is Benjamin Stove. Meta information indicates that this site may be the rabbithole into the next big professional game.

Interview with Jane McGonigal

I caught up with Jane McGonigal of 42 Entertainment after her talk at the Austin Game Conference on Thursday. She was kind enough to give me an interview.

Me: Do you have a favorite ever, of any game?

Jane: Yeah, well like I said [during the talk] I think the explosion of creative interpretation with the GPS coordinates [in I Love Bees], because I’m a big believer of player suggestions. Like in The Go Game, we have people constantly sort of misinterpreting what they’ve been told to do, and doing things that are more exciting or more interesting or braver than we have suggested, and then we’ll be like, “Oh that’s great, let’s actually make that a mission.”

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Austin Game Conference Part 2

Thursday was the official kick-off of the Austin Game Conference, a trade show primarily directed at companies who produce Massively Multiplayer Online games, or MMOs. This morning, Jane McGonigal from 42 Entertainment gave a talk in which she outlined what ARGs are, how they are a type of MMO, and why they are so interesting.

And the best part, other than the Massively Multiplayer Thumb Wrestling? The unofficial nickname for the talk: “Too Weird for GDC”.

Jane began the session with some explanations of what ARGs are. They are interactive narrative, or immersive drama. They are played out online and in the real world, taking place over several weeks or months. Tens, hundreds, sometimes tens of thousands of people play, forming collaborative social networks and working together to solve a mystery or problem which is impossible to solve alone. Platforms utilized include e-mail, websites, SMS, phone calls, radio, IRC, instant messages, newspapers, real world artifacts and events, and Elan’s dream: toasters that print messages on your bread. Since this is the second time in two days that a 42 staffer has mentioned toaster messages, extra vigilance is recommended when cooking your breakfast. Be prepared.

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Austin Game Conference

Today saw the opening of the Game Writers Conference, a subset of the Austin Game Conference which opens tomorrow. Of particular interest to ARGers was the discussion by Maureen McHugh from 42 Entertainment about the work that went into The Beast and I Love Bees.

Maureen was contacted in 2004 to write for I Love Bees. She has a background in teaching English and writing science fiction. She made some interesting points about the emergence of varying types of entertainment being dependent upon what technology is available. As the printing press made novels possible, so has the internet made Alternate Reality Gaming possible. Additionally, she spoke about the emergence of the novel in comparison with the different ARGs we’ve seen so far. In the beginning were fake memoirs – Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders – which were originally published as actual diaries rather than a made-up story. From there, novels moved to an epistolary form (such as Clarissa) where the reader eavesdropped on conversations between strangers. She compared this with The Beast, where the players dropped in on writings which were originally intended for other in-game characters. Next in history, the novel moved into an art form with an omniscient narrator, such as Tom Jones. Could this be where ARGs are headed?

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A Giant ARG?

jonharker.jpgUnfiction member MaxSteele writes in with the following:

On October 13, community member Addlepated discovered
href=”http://giantology.typepad.com” target=_blank”>Giantology

from a video showing a colossal discovery on the coast of Southern
India posted on
href=”http://www.snopes.com/photos/tsunami/colossus.asp”
target=”_blank”>Snopes
. Over the next several days, different
entries appeared on this site ranging from an underwater
statue/fossil of a fish in the Philippines
to giant
footprints found in Northeastern Iran
.

On October 21, an entry titled “Giant Creature Discovered in Siberia”
appeared on the site. The entry linked to
href=”http://arkadysimkin.pl” target=”_blank”>Arkady Simkin’s personal
website
. On here, there was a
href=”http://arkadysimkin.pl/Siberian_Ice_Giant.wmv”
target=”_blank”>video
and a
href=”http://arkadysimkin.pl/radio_interview.mp3″ target=”_blank”>
radio interview
detailing the discovery of a “mammoth type
creature” found in the Arctic by irregular radar readings.

After sending an email asking if Mr. Simkin wanted assistance, I
received a very lengthy email reply from a friend of his who told me
the site had been compromised, and Mr. Simkin’s email link changed to
a different one. His apartment has also been ransacked, and he is
currently ‘out of sight from those who would like to find him’.

Is this real? Is it the start of a big production ARG? Either way,
there is definitely activity surrounding this discovery. I believe
our community should begin to take a look. If nothing else, our
abilities to find out information and problem solving could help with
this new find in the Arctic.

Discussion and information can be found here. Thanks, Max!

Lost and Found

oceanic.jpgABC’s hit TV series Lost has captured the imagination of its viewing audience since its phenomenal pilot episode. There are at least 8 different official and fan-created websites (one of which we reported on before the summer) to explore for more clues and fan-fiction about the Lost universe.

Warning: this article may contain spoilers for seasons 1 and 2 of ABC’s Lost.

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THAT’s coming from Mark Z. Danielewski

hol.jpgA favorite book of many ARGers is Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Originally published several years ago on in bits and pieces on the internet, it was released in 2000 as a bound edition. The book sports a story-within-a-story framework and some experimental techniques, such as word coloring, text placement, and the like. There are also hidden messages scattered throughout, guiding readers to participate in the story as much as read it.

Years of speculation on his next work seem to be coming to a head now, as a message from the House of Leaves forum administrator directs members to visit the “THAT” forum. It appears Mark Z. Danielewski has finally broken his several-year silence on the board and has posted a message asking for input from readers, promising “something new”.

Resources:
House of Leaves discussion board.
Message from Mark Z. Danielewski.
Unfiction discussion on House of Leaves.
In-game book review of House of Leaves from Lockjaw.

Blitz: The League Launches Possible ARG

blitzleague.png
Another company jumps into the ARG marketing fray: Gamespot reports that Midway Games has launched an Alternate Reality Game to promote its upcoming game, Blitz: The League. In addition to the main site, there are also BlitzNewz and Red Dog Down. While some hardcore ARGers have expressed disappointment with the simplicity of the puzzles, it’s possible that things could heat up down the road.

Discussion at Unfiction.

Spontaneous Theater

thegameposter.jpgVia Metafilter comes an interesting link about spontaneous theater, a concept being developed by UCF professor Jeff Wirth, among others.

In interactive theater, the audience is just as much a part of the action as the actors, and could actually be considered an extension of the cast itself. Honolulu’s Pure Theatre group (formerly Cruel Theatre) provided different scenarios to the 5 audience members, giving them an identifiable costume and a part to play.

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Gorgonbox.com

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At E3 a couple of weeks ago, some attendees were given promo cards bearing the URL www.gorgonbox.com. At first glance, it appears to be an online encoder/decoder to send secret messages to your friends, but delving deeper it appears there is a puzzle trail of sorts, waiting to be explored.

More than likely Gorgon Box is a marketing website for an upcoming videogame, but if you enjoy puzzle trails you should have some fun with it.

EDIT: Players have already started to unravel the mystery, and this looks to be fairly interesting so far.

Discussion at UnForums

2005 Google U.S. Puzzle Championship

puzzle.jpgFor those of you who can’t seem to get enough of challenging puzzles, check out the Google Puzzle Championship. Questions run the gamut from math problems (like the Japanese Sudoku puzzle which has taken much of the world by storm) to word problems to testing your eye for detail. A practice test is available here, or you may view the 2004 test here. Full rules may be found here.

If you are lucky (or skilled) enough to be one of the top two United States contestants, you will be invited to represent the U.S. Team this October at the World Puzzle Championship in Hungary. Good luck! Last year devjoe from the ARG community placed third in the Google challenge and went to the championship in Croatia, where the U.S. team took first prize.

Rookery Tower

Rookery TowerA recent post on the Unfiction forums indicates the start of a new ARG called Rookery Tower.

In 1851, conjoined twins, Eric and Richard, were born to a couple who lived on Rookery Hill. Tragedy after tragedy followed, leading to an apparent climax sometime in the late 1800s, details of which are yet to be discovered. Now in 2005, Layla Hardesty has moved into Rookery Tower and is encountering paranormal experiences ranging from a wandering dishpan to eerie knocks to strange messages appearing in her blog. The paranormal investigation firm called to work on the case is also encountering corruption on their web page. Players are attempting to help Layla and Morgan Paranormal find out the story behind Rookery Tower and the apparent haunting by the twins.

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