The Future is Fiction: Playful Future-Thinking About Climate Change with FutureCoast

February 4, 2014 · By in Game Launch, News · 1 Comment 

Sometime in the near future(s), something will go awry with the voicemail system sending messages spiraling back through time, a phenomenon that is being referred to as “chronofall.” These messages take the form of small, elegant crystalline structures referred to as “chronofacts” that can be decoded to reveal a taste of life in the future. But these chronofacts aren’t just coming from “the” future: chronofacts carry voicemails from the cloud of all possible futures: happy futures, bleak futures, unimaginable futures. A new project called FutureCoast and its “Coaster” enthusiasts seek to collect as many chronofacts as possible, with the goal of cataloging and organizing them into coherent glimpses of the possible futures awaiting us. And when the next big chronofall happens in February, they’re going to need your help.

FutureCoast, set to launch on February 5th, 2014, is the latest project by veteran game designer Ken Eklund. Like its predecessors World Without Oil and Ed Zed Omega, FutureCoast aims to open the doors wide to a new kind of conversation about the world we live in. This time, the subject is one of the most polarizing topics, the kind of thing you don’t usually want to bring up in mixed political company: climate change and one of its key indicators, rising sea levels.

Climate change, its effect on polar ice, and rising sea levels are topics that spawn impassioned opinions and difficult discussions from many different scientific and political angles. The heart of the FutureCoast design seeks to create a playful, inclusive common ground where information and idea sharing happens, where everyone’s thoughts about the future have a place, and where a meaningful dialog and a common ground can be created to replace the animosity that these topics can evoke.

The project is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation to Columbia University’s Polar Partnership. Eklund dates the idea of FutureCoast back to a conversation with Dr. Stephanie Pfirman, Professor of Environmental Science at Columbia, in 2009. Dr. Pfirman, interested in the idea of World Without Oil, wondered what a climate change game look like, and Eklund began working on prospective ideas for a WWO-like game that would encourage conversation about climate change and rising sea levels. FutureCoast was accepted into the NSF grant, and work on the project began in earnest in 2011.

FutureCoast‘s structure is almost “retro” in its conception, elegant in its simplicity yet with the potential for powerful collaborative storytelling to take place. The premise of the overarching story hinges on voicemails that filter to our present from the near or distant future(s) that can be decoded, collected, and shared. FutureCoast invites its audience to pluck their personal vision from among all the possible futures and share it in a voicemail. The audience will also be able to create playlists – mix tapes, Eklund playfully calls them, and officially named “Timestreams” – by choosing amongst the voicemails and piecing them together into a kind of narrative of the future. Through FutureCoast, players have the ability to both create the future and to curate it in meaningful ways.

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Take a Walk on the Wild Side with Six to Start’s “The Walk”

December 11, 2013 · By in Features, Game Launch · 3 Comments 

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When Six to Start created Zombies, Run!, players were given the chance to plug in a pair of headphones and lose themselves in a rich narrative, where you’re asked to run to survive. And while Zombies, Run! doesn’t require its players to run, the story and many of its game mechanics are built around promoting running. After receiving feedback from fans of the game who aren’t avid runners, Six to Start and Naomi Alderman partnered with the UK Department of Health and National Health Service to release The Walk for iOS and Android devices earlier today.

Like Zombies, Run!, the primary feature of The Walk is its narrative, designed to provide audio accompaniment to your walking routine. Mere minutes before an apparent terrorist attack on a train station in Inverness, the player is given a package and told that it is of vital importance the package make it to Edinburgh. The attack is initiated by a group called The Burn and contains an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) which takes out all electronics, including all transportation and communication. After escaping from the train station, the package is opened and revealed to be a communication device capable of functioning after the pulse. The person on the other end becomes your guide through the chaos as you make your way on foot to deliver the package to Edinburgh.

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Bringing Cronenberg’s Films to Life with Body Mind Change

October 3, 2013 · By in Game Launch, News, Rumors · 1 Comment 

Game enthusiasts are all about the games they play being “realistic,” with higher resolution graphics and smarter AIs. One of the more alluring features of alternate reality games is their ability to blur the lines between reality and game to the point where you question where one ended and the other began, exemplified through the “TINAG” (This Is Not A Game) philosophy. Of course, we all knew it was just a game, but hid that knowledge away back in the “suspension of disbelief” part of our brains, and let ourselves believe it was all real. But what if we could experience a game that was so real, you honestly didn’t know what was game and what was real? David Cronenberg would like to offer you an opportunity to do just that, via a personal on-demand biotech recommendation engine (“POD”) designed to enhance your everyday experience.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it draws on the plot of past Cronenberg films like eXistenZ, where players of a game would use gamepods, flesh-like instruments that allowed them to “jack into” and interact with the game on a real-time. Now, Cronenberg has joined forces with Body/Mind/Change Labs to create PODs similar to the ones in the movie, and you are encouraged to sign up for your own.

In Lance Weiler’s Culture Hacker column in Filmmaker Magazine, he states Cronenberg has “quietly licensed the fictional technology and science found within his films Shivers, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome and eXistenZ for a mind-bending eight-figure sum.” Reporting from the BMC Labs building in Venice, CA, he describes the lab as looking like “something out of a sci-fi film” and describes the company’s previous biotech achievements and their goal “to enhance humankind by harnessing biotechnology to make us smarter, faster and more efficient.” Cronenberg himself released a trailer describing the POD and his collaboration with Body/Mind/Change Labs.

Dig a little deeper and the truth becomes evident – Weiler’s article is the opening salvo for a digital extention of the Toronto International Film Festival’s (TIFF) David Cronenberg: Evolution exhibit set to debut in November 2013 and run through January 2014, and includes “artifacts, props, documentation and audio-visual interviews, as well as reconstructed set-pieces from Cronenberg’s films”. The Body/Mind/Change experience is co-produced by CFC Media Lab and directed by Lance Weiler (Head Trauma, Pandemic, Reboot Stories), and “features plot lines and game mechanics involving biotechnology start-ups, body enhancements, and emotional learning systems.”

According to the project’s press release, the experience is scheduled to launch on October 25th, but there is plenty to do and see while you’re waiting. Visitors to the BMC Labs website are encouraged to sign up for their own POD. After signing up, registrants are presented with a confirmation page hard-coded with a message congratulating them for being “8,743 of 137,234 in line for a POD implant.” The website’s POD Challene page, which is currently “OFFLINE” displaying a field of static, hints at things to come later this month.

Check out the discussion of Body Mind Change on the Unfiction forums to see how the project evolves, and schedule your trip out to Toronto to see the installation for yourself to get the full experience.

What is the Blackhollow Project?

July 17, 2013 · By in Game Launch · 1 Comment 

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In 1943, the Office of Strategic Services deployed an agent to the European theatre of World War II on an assignment codenamed the “Archimedes Mission.” His task: infiltrate the Soviet Union, and extract a man targeted by the Germans to a safe location. It’s been 70 years since our unnamed American operative’s mission. After the war, he returned to England and settled in as the lighthouse keeper at Blackhollow Point, faithfully looking after the local landmark long after lighthouse operations were modernized, rendering his services moot. What drove this unnamed American spy to move to England and take up residence in a lighthouse for most of his life? And what does it mean now that he’s gone missing?

Yesterday, I received a battered metal box bearing an OSS spearhead insignia in the mail that may shed some light into the curious tale of this World War II veteran. According to a weathered correspondence from the OSS, the goal of the Archimedes Mission was to smuggle a Soviet codenamed “The Mathematician” to safety, taking the RMS Galatia from Southampton to New York. A USB drive taped to the lid of the box contained an audio recording instructing the operative to use a portable audio recorder to provide updates on the mission’s progress. The first stage of the mission was apparently a success, as the metal box was adorned with a luggage tag on the box from the Hart & Cornwell Steamship Company: however, the fields for personal information on the inside were left blank. No further details are provided about the mission, although a scrap of paper slipped in between the framed picture of a ship and the frame’s backing raises the question, “What is the Blackhollow Project?”

The exact nature of the Blackhollow Project is unclear, but it’s likely associated with the Blackhollow Point lighthouse. A postcard taped to the lid of the box featured the historic site. On the back of the postcard, an impassioned letter, “The Spy” declared his intention to keep his promise and wait for his love. If a news clipping about the Blackhollow Point lighthouse keeper is to be believed he kept that promise, waiting at Blackhollow Point for decades.

While the story of a lovesick soldier pining for a lost love is a compelling one, the truth might not be quite so simple. According to the Blackhollow Project website, the lighthouse keeper has gone missing. And while the former OSS operative was unquestionably pining after a lost love, he was also standing watch over a device constructed in parallel with the atomic bomb to ensure victory for the Allied Forces. With quantum fluctuations striking 16 different locations across North America and Europe, piecing together the details of Project Archimedes has become essential. The first quantum anomaly is expected on July 27th, just in time for ARGFest.

Interested in learning more? Head over to BlackhollowProject.com and start putting together the clues.

“The Optimist” ARG Draws Focus to Disney History

July 11, 2013 · By in Game Launch, News · Comment 

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In 1923, Walt Disney and his brother Roy founded a company that would eventually become The Walt Disney Company. Out of respect for that seminal moment in the company’s history, Disney’s official fan club adopted D23 as its name. With the company’s 90th anniversary fast approaching, Walt Disney Imagineering Research & Development has partnered with Walt Disney Studios to produce The Optimist, a six-week long alternate reality game culminating in an event at the D23 Expo.

The Optimist focuses on a young college student named Amelia as she strives to learn more about her recently deceased grandfather, Carlos Moreau, for a documentary film she’s planning on shooting. To Amelia, her grandfather Carlos was an inveterate storyteller whose life remains a mystery. Her efforts to learn more about Carlos’ life and legacy through his personal effects are documented on her blog StoryOrbit.com. A series of documents are beginning to paint a picture of Carlos Moreau’s life: after selling a short story called Orbit’s Story to Disney, Carlos fostered a close relationship with the company that saw him collaborating with Disney’s Special Projects team on the 1964 World’s Fair. While the focus of the game so far lies squarely in uncovering Carlos’ past, Amelia provides a personable front for the investigation as she balances research into the annals of Disney with her college studies.

According to Disney Parks, over the next six weeks players will piece together “an imagined story of Walt Disney, the Imagineers and other visionary thinkers and their potential involvement in a secret project that sought to build a better future.” Through this fictional lens, players are given the chance to share their familiarity with Disney’s often unbelievable history. For instance, when The Optimist introduced players to the Lott Family Construction company as a fictional collaborator on Disney’s exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair, players were quick to point out that M.T. Lott Real Estate Investments was the name of a shell company set up to purchase land for Walt Disney World. Similarly, a phone number written on the back of a napkin led to players discussing one of Walt Disney’s favorite restaurants.

Because this blending of real world people and places might make it difficult to identify the line between fiction and reality in the narrative, all confirmed in-game sites and social media profiles include a disclaimer letting players know when they are interacting with fictional pages in the game’s universe. This way, real establishments can coexist with fictional constructs without creating unnecessary confusion. Trowbridge mentions that the game will extend beyond the web, with interactions ranging from “social media and mobile devices to visiting unique physical sites from the story in and around Los Angeles,” making the distinction all the more important. Upon registering, players are given the option to provide their physical or email addresses for potential mailings, opening up additional avenues for gameplay.

The Optimist has maintained a steady update schedule with new content every day: however, the game is still in its early stages, so there’s more than enough time to dive in before the game’s finale in August. To get caught up, read StoryOrbit’s in-game recaps and Inside the Magic’s collaborative Google Doc summarizing theories and events so far.

Making a Deal with the Devil for Kobo eReader Puzzle Contest

May 4, 2013 · By in Game Launch, News · Comment 

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An author sells his soul to Asmodeus, King of the Nine Hells for a shot at fame and fortune. Rebels seek to topple a warlord who set himself up as the mythical Minotaur in the land of Dis, a power station left abandoned after the world is struck low by an airborne virus that transforms its victims into violent berskerkers. Two different short stories, depicting seemingly unrelated worlds. The only commonalities? Both tales are riddled with Apocryphal references, and the secrets concealed within both short stories provide pieces to a puzzle contest that could net you $5,000 Canadian dollars and a Kobo Glo eBook reader signed by Dan Brown.

With Dan Brown’s new novel Inferno coming out soon, the Toronto-based eReader manufacturer Kobo saw it as the perfect opportunity to launch a narrative-driven puzzle contest called The Descent. The contest is designed to reacquaint readers with the themes of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy that will feature heavily in Brown’s newest exploration in symbology. To provide the framework for The Descent, Kobo brought in author J.F. Penn to write three short stories exploring three sins: the Sins of Temptation, the Sins of Violence, and the Sins of Treachery. Each short story is offered free for the Kobo eReader or as an EPUB for reading on your desktop, eReader, or mobile devices.

In addition to the short story, each installment contains a puzzle to solve that extends past the virtual pages, leading to a piece of the meta-puzzle. In Sins of Temptation, for instance, readers are asked to explore Tobias “Tobit” Fanshaw’s website. As the nephew of the recently deceased author featured in Sins of Temptation, Tobit shares his uncle’s fascination with the occult and symbology, reminding us that it’s still possible to build websites on Angelfire.com and serving as a helpful reference point for the many symbols referenced throughout The Descent.

One nice feature about going through the puzzle-solving experience on the Kobo device is its Book Stats section, which allows readers to share their thoughts on the short story, and collaborate on the puzzles or, alternatively, to hide spoilers and proceed on their own. While no one has taken advantage of these features yet due to the competitive nature of this contest, it remains a useful feature as non-competitive narrative puzzle books like Mike Selinker’s Maze of Games and Andrea Phillips’ The Daring Adventures of Captain Lucy Smokeheart become more common.

Once the final short story is released on May 9, players will have enough information to locate and solve the final puzzle by unearthing a secret webpage with a submission form. The first to complete all the puzzles will receive the cash prize and signed Kobo eReader. The next four qualifying players to finish will also receive a signed eReader, along with $100 CAD online credit to their Kobo account. Players are required to have all three free stories in their Kobo library to be eligible to win.

Editor’s Note: ARGNet received a reviewer copy of the Kobo eReader.

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