RedLynx Studios’ Trials games are pure, unadulterated evil.
The basic premise of their motorcycle racing game has remained largely unchanged over the past decade: navigate through a series of unforgiving and often lethal obstacles to complete the track. More often than not, the “reward” for completing a track is to witness your rider explore new and creative ways to die. Given the game’s unforgiving learning curve, cycling through hundreds of riders on a single track is par for the course. And for most players, that’s where the story ends. Riders enter the track, riders finish the track, and riders die. But for players willing to dig a little deeper, Trials hides a deeper mystery.
It all started in 2009 with Trials HD, RedLynx’s console debut. Many of Trials HD‘s levels contained a series of codes, ciphers, and objects referencing key moments in history tied to the advancement of science and the arts. One level’s course was built around Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, with the song’s notes appearing in the background as the rider’s path followed the rise and fall of the famous song. A projection at the end of another level replicated Charles Darwin’s famous Tree of Life sketch, exploring his theory of evolution. Prototypes of Da Vinci’s inventions provided the backdrop for another level. Even JJ Abrams’ Mystery Box typifying his approach to the integration of mystery in storytelling makes an appearance. Intrigued, players identified the connections between the disparate scientific advances highlighted in the game to reveal metaphysical musings from the game’s creative director, Antti “ANBA” Ilvessuo, on the meaning of life. In Ilvessuo’s vision, much of this thought culminates with the Voyager probe and its Golden Record, as an attempt to reach out to life outside our solar system.
When Trials Evolution was released in 2012, Ilvessuo and the team at RedLynx hid instructions to an even more unforgiving puzzle, despite its more straightforward solution. Various stages in the game contained signposts featuring a message encoded with a Vignere cipher, using text from the Bohr-Einstein debates as the key. Following the instructions unlocked an audio track leading to the website FixedPatternEncodes.com, which soon featured a string of icons representing key moments in science in a manner highly reminiscent of the Trials HD puzzle trail. Matching the names of famous scientists with their discoveries provided an alphabetic cipher for one final riddle before GPS coordinates for four locations in Helsinki, Sydney, Bath, and San Francisco were revealed. Players who went to each location treasure chests containing keys, along with instructions to take the key to Paris, France on August 1, 2113. On that date, one of five keys will open a box underneath the Eiffel Tower.
That’s right: a video game about motorcycle racing is planning on unveiling a mystery box at the foot of the Eiffel Tower in a hundred years, and the mystery box can only be opened by one of five keys entrusted to future generations.
The Springfield Art Museum has been plagued with some serious security problems this summer. Last week, George Caleb Bingham’s Portrait of Fanny Smith Crenshaw went missing, transforming the painting’s location into a crime scene. This week, it’s Roger Shimomura’s Kansas Samurai. If cracking the case meant tracking down art thieves unloading their inventory on the black market, the authorities would be well equipped to handle the case. However, the museum suspects these disappearances are an inside job: paintings are coming to life and escaping their frames, breaking out from the inside. So they called in the experts: the Art Hunters.
Shane Beckworth and Brock Hansen are a pair of hard-as-nails art retrieval specialists and co-founders of The Art Hunters, an organization that specializes in art that comes to life. Every week, the duo tackle a new case featured on their online reality show, and enlist the aid of the show’s Art Hunter Reservist fans to track down the missing artwork and return it to the museum. During the show’s premiere episode, Reservists followed a series of clues scattered throughout the Springfield Art Museum that led them to the Maple Park Cemetery. At the cemetery, they discovered the real Fanny Smith Crenshaw’s tombstone, providing Beckworth and Hansen all the information they needed to convince Bingham’s portrait to return to her frame.
Art Hunters Online is an alternate reality game created by the Springfield Art Museum in Springfield, Missouri and red40 Entertainment. The project is set to run through July 17th, with six weeks of escaped art to keep the local community occupied over the summer. Weekly videos introduce the weekly case, informing Reservists where to go to find the missing artwork’s crime scene and its corresponding puzzle trail. By focusing on artwork that has deep significance to the city, the hunt can extend beyond the museum to locations across the city. Solving the puzzles along the way provides a special code that can be entered into the Art Hunters Online website to unlock the second half of the weekly video, depicting how Beckworth and Hansen recapture the escaped art.
Ten years ago, the website for Margaret’s House of Bees started acting strangely. Many of the site’s images were glitched beyond recognition, and nonsensical text covered up articles about the Napa Valley-based apiary.
While many of the people who gathered to troubleshoot a bee enthusiast’s website refer to themselves as “Beekeepers”, a passion for the cultivation of honey wasn’t the only reason over half a million people flocked to ilovebees.com over the next four months. I Love Bees was an alternate reality game that introduced Halo fans to the first-person shooter’s rich backstory through over a five-hour long audio drama released into the world through pay phone calls, blog posts, emails, and websites in bite-sized chunks.
Between Thursday July 31st and Saturday August 2nd, many of I Love Bees‘ creators and some of its most dedicated players will gather together to celebrate the anniversary in Portland for ARGFest, an annual conference, festival, and meetup that brings together the creators and fans of alternate reality games, transmedia storytelling projects, and serious games.
On Thursday July 31st, ARGFest is adding the IDEA Symposium, with a series of speakers focusing on the business of creating interactive entertainment and transmedia. Serial game designer Mike Selinker, whose recent projects include the narrative puzzle book Maze of Games and the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game will be headlining the day’s events. Joining him for the IDEA Symposium are indie game developers, platform creators, event producers, and experience designers behind everything from Cards Against Humanity’s game design reality show Tabletop Deathmatch to Disney’s The Optimist, a historical fiction retrospective of Disney Parks’ history.
The I Love Bees Anniversary festivities start on Friday August 1st with an interview between ARGNet founder Steve Peters and Jordan Weisman, the chief creative for the alternate reality game, and more recently creator of Shadowrun Returns and Golem Arcana. Friday’s Speakers will also provide a closer look at the state of transmedia in Europe, the climate change serious game Future Coast, and the transmedia thriller Phrenic, guided by Glitchhikers creator Lucas Johnson as Grand Inquisitor, charged with kicking off the Q&A sessions by asking panelists challenging questions. The evening’s keynote will be followed with a performance by The Doubleclicks, who recently raised over $80,000 on Kickstarter to release an album of songs about dinosaurs, tabletop games, and binge-watching Netflix.
The main Beekeeper reunion will take place on Saturday August 2nd, with panels reflecting on the game from players, as well as I Love Bees creators Elan Lee, Sean Stewart, and Kristen Rutherford. The festivities will conclude with FestQuest, a puzzle hunt designed to show attendees the city of Portland in a different light before leading them to the final mystery location to close out the evening. This year’s hunt was created by Puzzled Pint.
Tickets for the full three days of ARGFest are available for $200 through July 2, although attendees are able to purchase tickets for select events at a discounted rate. Check out the ARGFest 2014 website for the full list of speakers, conference schedule, or to register.
Disclosure: Google paid for my flight and lodging for the Recursion event.
The morning of March 29th, two rival factions gathered at Los Angeles’ Grand Park in anticipation for a pitched battle. As noon approached, it became obvious to any passerby that something was going on. Hundreds of people prominently wearing blue and green streamed in through the park steps, conspicuously segregating themselves into colored clumps: blues to the right, and greens to the left. To any random passerby, it must have looked like the staging area for a flash mob. But look a little closer, and you’d see the telltale signs of the virtual battle about to take place. Headphones tapped into private communications channels to coordinate movement. A row of cyclists primed and ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. Pennants proudly bearing faction insignia. And more smartphone chargers and batteries than people.
This gathering was an Anomaly event, one of the live events organized by Google’s Niantic Labs team for players of their geo-locative mobile game Ingress. Since early February, 25 Anomaly events took place in countries including the United States, Mexico, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Croatia, Egypt, Israel, and India for a series of events collectively referred to as the Recursion Anomalies. Los Angeles was the final Anomaly event in the series, and Google invited me out to Los Angeles to experience Google’s approach to designing a live event for a massively multiplayer game. Previously, ARGNet explained how Ingress is played at a more casual level. This article explores how gameplay changes for its most ardent fans.
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.
Ingress at a ZipCar location in Philadelphia. Sorry Ingress players, this is not a new passcode.
It’s been over a year since Google introduced the world of Ingress. At its core, the project is a locative mobile game spawned out of NianticLabs@Google, an internal skunkworks team based out of the search giant’s San Francisco office. In Ingress, players compete to capture and connect virtual portals situated at real world locations to control the globe for their team. Ingress isn’t the first game to explore this geolocative game mechanic: games like Plundr and Shadow Cities paved the way for Ingress by conditioning “field agents” to take mobile gaming out to the streets. What makes Ingress distinct is Niantic’s narrative ambitions: in the past year, daily updates from the production team through an alternate reality game have introduced players to a sprawling narrative told across websites, videos, novels, live events, and even hidden within the game itself.
Ingress recently opened up to all Android users, and plans to expand out to iOS devices in 2014. With over a year of story to catch up on, entering the world of Ingress may seem daunting. Familiarity with the story isn’t essential to gameplay, but it does add staying power to a game that runs the risk of turning tedious over time. For those looking to take the plunge, here’s a few helpful pointers.