Last week, I posted a brief blurb about a package I received in the mail from “J,” a man with an unwholesome fixation with barn swallows. In that relatively innocuous package, J sent over a Sony IC Reader pre-loaded with 18 seconds of birds chirping. While I did not know it at the time, the package was the entryway into a secretive, five-part application process for Her Majesty’s Secret Service, MI6. The campaign, developed on behalf of Sony by Wieden+Kennedy, revels in secrecy through every step of the design process. As such, unlike many alternate reality games, much of the thrill in this experience can be derived from tackling the challenges on your own.
If you’re up for the challenge, start out with this YouTube video: it should have all the information you need to get to the next step. Otherwise, read on to learn more.
Haxan Films kicked off promotions for the limited release of its film Lovely Molly last week by mailing ARGNet a care package containing a cryptic disc leading to a series of puzzles and videos on the Lovely Molly website. Over the past few days, all but one of the puzzles have been solved, with a handful of runic characters standing between players and the full message. An additional installment to the Path to Madness documentary about the history of the movie’s namesake character has also found its way onto the website. The newest installment documents the death of Molly Reynolds’ father Ben Palmer through an apparent suicide by screwdriver.
Concurrent with shooting Lovely Molly, Haxan Films shot the raw footage for an alternate reality game that prominently featured this bloody screwdriver. Due to the film’s limited budget, plans for a full-fledged game fell through. The decision to abandon the film’s more immersive plans was a difficult one, so Lovely Molly‘s director Ed Sanchez edited together a video detailing the alternate reality game that could have been. Continue on for a rare peek at a campaign as its team initially envisioned it.
A few weeks ago, I was given the opportunity to try a new iOS app by Six to Start called Zombies, Run!, a “running game and audio adventure” that transplants its participants into a zombie apocalypse. The story begins: you are Runner #5, a refugee of a supply helicopter crash, with no identification to prove you’re not from one of the other rival camps, trying to earn your keep in Abel Township by running on supply or rescue missions. Along the way, you collect items that will help the camp, and sometimes obtain information that might help explain who you are, how the world got in this state, and maybe even how to save it.
At its heart Zombies, Run! is designed as a narrative complement to players’ running music playlist. After starting the mission by loading up the app and swiping the “slide to run” control, the first segment of the story will start, interweaving music from the phone’s iTunes library with additional story segments until the mission is over. While running, a computerized voice informs you of items you pick up along the way: USB Keys, bottles of water, batteries, clothes . . . and often CDC records, information about other factions, or even other apps. In one document, a newspaper article describing a suspicious fire at a university contained a live Twitter account.
Zombies, Run! received its initial funding through a Kickstarter initiative, and one of the benefits offered to early backers was the ability to be inserted into the story, either as an individual or a brand. One of the companies to jump at this opportunity was the app development company ChipotleLabs. Various items recovered over the course of the story including the “Kensaido sword” and “Kensaido Manifesto” hint at a secret ninja society that predated the zombie apocalypse, and whose members work to combat the growing incursion. In addition to providing more information about the world beyond Abel Township, the items promote ChipotleLabs’ upcoming app, Kensaido.
Images courtesy of the MIT Education Arcade
Scientists from the future reached out to present day scientists as part of Project Phoenix to investigate a natural disaster that wiped out the historical record as part of Vanished, an alternate reality game designed exclusively for children. The game was a collaboration between the MIT Education Arcade and the Smithsonian Institution, and sought to engage kids and teens in the role of scientific detectives and inspire scientific learning through an epic story. Prior to the game’s launch, ARGNet provided a sneak peek at the upcoming campaign. Now that the game has come to a conclusion, I followed up with Caitlin Feeley and Dana Tenneson of MIT’s Education Arcade to take a post-mortem look at the game.
The true heroes of Vanished were the players, who uncovered the mystery by making scientific progress week by week. The game was also populated by a full cast of characters; the most prominent was Lovelace, an artificial intelligence who traveled back in time to assist in the investigation. Moderators had in-game personas, like Storm and Megawatt, who played the roles of guardians and guides. The journey also involved interacting with real-world scientists from a variety of fields, and players even encountered a few villainous trolls and hackers among their own ranks before reaching the end.
Image courtesy of the BBC
On September 10, 2011, Pete Ryland cracked The Code and took home the coveted prize, a unique bronze and silver mathematical sculpture by Bathsheba Grossman. The lead-up to the tense finale was a collaborative transmedia treasure hunt centred around the three-part BBC2 show The Code, presented by Marcus du Sautoy. The game was designed by Six to Start, working with the BBC from the beginning to integrate clues and puzzles seamlessly within the broadcasts.
Before the first airing of The Code on July 27, about 700 postcards were sent out with an image and a code. Collaborating on Facebook, participants in this first stage soon discovered that each postcard image was a thin horizontal slice of a three-dimensional Platonic solid. Several of these “perfect” shapes then had to be combined and arranged into three concentric spherical shells – revealing the complicated nested sculpture that would be the grand prize.
Now the hunt could begin in earnest. The main stage of the game was intricately connected with the three episodes of the show: Numbers, Shapes, and Prediction. For each episode, participants discovered three clues: one by watching the program, one clue by playing related Flash games on the website, and one clue by solving a puzzle described on the blog. They also had to complete the Prime Number Challenge as a group, which involved uploading photos of all 305 prime numbers from 2 to 2011 to collectively receive the sixth clue for each episode. The six clues were then entered into a codebreaker to reveal three passwords, which granted access to the next stage of the game: The Ultimate Challenge.
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.