Image courtesy of Investigate North
Kathleen Petersen, Deputy Director of Research at the Petersen institute, has gone missing. Hoping to learn what became of Kathleen, her co-workers Max and Thomas shared the footage of their investigations into the mysterious signal they were tasked with investigating at the Institute…the same signal that heralded Kathleen’s gradual emotional deterioration and disappearance.
Investigate North’s Cloud Chamber is a video game that attempts to cleanse itself of nearly every design element typically associated with video games. In it, players assume the role of investigator, poring through video footage and scanned evidence to piece together the exact nature of the Petersen Institute’s research into the enigmatic signal, and to figure out what happened to Kathleen. Stripped of traditional methods of interaction, players unlock a branching spiderweb of evidence by selecting a piece of evidence represented by a node, exploring it, and discussing the new information’s implications with fellow players.
The evidence in Cloud Chamber is presented with minimal context, organizing the evidence thematically rather than chronologically. For example, in Part I, where the focus is on Kathleen’s disappearance, players are thrust into the experience through a computer-generated island and presented with a single question, “What is the Signal?” Selecting that question pulls up a video that begins the faux documentary in media res, as the game’s three protagonists break into the Petersen Institute’s roof. While there, the three tap into a massive antenna to listen to a signal without ever properly introducing who they are, why they are interested in the signal, or even what it sounds like. Watching that video unlocks a winding path along the island to “Her Decision”, a series of short, unordered snippets showing a frazzled Kathleen’s emotional deterioration before finally unlocking the video “You are Entering”, where Max and Thomas explain that they plan on releasing everything they’ve learned and appeal for the player’s help in finding out what happened to Kathleen.
The game’s story nodes focus on delivering a high level of authenticity, while the game engine itself delivers a surreal context that takes players from the initial island into increasingly surreal dreamscapes that resemble everything from outer space to neural networks. The juxtaposition of story and game environment should be jarring. But somehow, switching back and forth from the story’s “found footage” storytelling format to an abstract web of connections makes it easier to fall into an almost trance-like state while progressing.
It’s a familiar trope: a struggling production company staffed with a cast of eccentric and borderline incompetent employees takes on someone new to shake things up. Some of the best comedies on television start with that premise: WKRP in Cincinnati, NewsRadio, Just Shoot Me, even 30 Rock. But while the shows are about poking fun at the inner workings of media companies, viewers rarely get to see the fictional show’s finished product. Growing up I always wondered what it would be like to turn on the radio and get the morning updates from WKRP’s Les Nessman, to pick up a copy of Blush off the magazine rack, or to flip the channel to NBC to catch an episode of The Girlie Show. I got a taste of what it might be like when Will Ferrell co-anchored CBS North Dakota affiliate KX News for a night as Ron Burgundy to promote Anchorman 2. MyMusic has spent the past two years delivering on that same promise with a four-course meal.
MyMusic is a transmedia production company seeking to reinvent itself after the social media platform it used as a blogging platform went bankrupt. Looking to find a new home, the company partnered with an up and coming video hosting site called YouTube, signing on as one of its Original Channels. To help with the transition, MyMusic brings on a new head of production, Metal to lend his expertise. Before coming to MyMusic, Metal was known as Emmet Allan Klaga. But the company founder’s “Indie” issued an executive decree that all staff members should be known only by the musical genres they represent, because “broad stereotypes are way easier to remember than names.” So Klaga became Metal, joining other genred cliches like Idol, Country, Dubstep, Techno, Hip Hop, and Scene. Conformity to these stereotypes is strictly enforced, and being caught “posing” is punished with a fate worse than unemployment.
Starting with Metal’s entry to the company in April 2012, MyMusic became the subject of a weekly behind-the-scenes documentary series released on the show’s YouTube channel. This self-referential mockumentary forms the heart of the Fine Brothers’ YouTube sitcom, MyMusic. Like its fictional counterpart, the MyMusic show was born out of YouTube’s Original Channels Initiative, Google’s attempt to support premium original content on the site. The Fine Brothers, best known for their Emmy Award-winning React video series featuring focus group-style videos of children, teenagers, YouTubers, and elders reacting to pop culture talking points ranging from Boxxy and twerking to gay marriage. As their next project, the brothers pitched the concept of a weekly scripted series. YouTube accepted MyMusic into the Original Channels Initiative, along with programs like Phillip DeFranco’s SourceFed, Hank and John Green’s Crash Course, and Frederator Studios’ Cartoon Hangover. In addition to providing financing for MyMusic, Google provided the brothers with the use of YouTube Space LA to build MyMusic‘s set.
Editor’s Note: At this year’s StoryWorld conference in Los Angeles, Fourth Wall Studios’ Chief Creative Officer Elan Lee stated that alternate reality games are dead as part of the conference’s final panel on “The Way Forward” for the transmedia industry. As one of the driving forces at Microsoft behind The Beast, Lee’s statement questioning the role of alternate reality games warrants closer examination. Adrian Hon, one of The Beast‘s player-moderators, former Director of Play at Mind Candy, and CEO at Six to Start, penned the following opinion piece exploring the statement.
“ARGs are dead”. We’ve heard it said many times over the years, and now most recently by Elan Lee, Founder of Fourth Wall Studios, at the Storyworld conference in LA this past October. While I wasn’t at the conference I gather the statement was made sincerely, and to hear it from one of alternate reality gaming’s ‘founding fathers’ caused no small surprise.
Taken literally, it isn’t true. ARGs are still being created for properties as big as The Avengers, Team Fortress 2, and Google, and grassroots ARGs are still being made, such as the TVTropes Echo Chamber game. It’s possible that fewer advertising and marketing dollars are being spent on ARGs these days, and it’s certain that ARGs no longer command the same number of column inches that they used to – but I’m not sure that 2012 represents such a precipitous change from 2011 or 2010 in those respects.
From a commercial standpoint, things haven’t changed much either. We can’t say that “ARGs are dead” because they don’t make money, as they never really did in the first place. Almost all ARGs have either been promotional or non-profit, with the few exceptions such as Perplex City, eDoc Laundry, and Majestic not being successful enough to sustain themselves over the long term.
You could argue that promotional ARGs generate a return on investment (ROI) by, say, increasing movie ticket sales or selling more cars, but to be perfectly frank, I doubt they ever did in a truly meaningful way – and I doubt that things are any worse today, either. Certainly there isn’t much solid, independently verifiable evidence of ROI out there – instead we’ve had to rely on self-reported figures that are easily biased or falsified. One day I hope ARG designers will engage in a ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ process where we all reveal our true player engagement stats and our near-total lack of knowledge about whether that engagement represented a genuine, bottom-line financial return for the commissioners, but I suspect that will have to wait for at least another few years.
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.
Disclaimer: While I was interviewed for my thoughts about transmedia storytelling for A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, I received no compensation save for a review copy of the book.
Andrea Phillips stumbled across alternate reality games 11 years ago when a friend pointed her towards a website for the Anti-Robot Militia. The website, part of the proto-alternate reality game for Spielberg’s film Artificial Intelligence, opened Phillips to the possibility of taking a single unified story, splintering it across multiple media, and crafting a rich tapestry combing narrative, experience, and game. Transitioning from player to creator, Phillips went on to work on many critically acclaimed forays in the emerging field including Perplex City, Routes, The Maester’s Path, and Floating City.
While Phillips was working on these projects, quite a few trees were killed discussing the potential of these experiences. Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken and Frank Rose’s The Art of Immersion each provided an overview of successful projects of the past and the elements that made them work, while novels like Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother and Walter Jon Williams’ This Is Not a Game gave glimpses of a future where these immersive experiences find their way into mainstream forms of entertainment. These books serve as powerful sources of inspiration for compelling new ways of storytelling, but were not designed to guide creators from idea to execution. This is the niche that Phillips’ new book, A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, hopes to fill, opening up a practical discussion of best practices for the industry. A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling is guaranteed to stand out on your bookshelf; and not just because the book’s extra-wide pages will dwarf your standard paperback and hardcover books.
Image of the MIT Mystery Hunt Closing Ceremonies with permission from photographer Chris Ball
“A dim witted love god.”
I was gazing at the dense, tall pine trees around us, a refreshing change from the dry brown and yellow landscape we had already driven past. My wife and I, both Boston natives, were driving south from San Francisco for a wedding, and entertaining ourselves with one of our regular puzzle games. The first person provides a simple description, and the other must answer in the form of a rhyming adjective and noun pairing.
“Stupid Cupid,” I stated rather than asking, confident in my answer. It’s not a tough game, especially when you’ve played it together before as much as we have. That was in September of last year, and that drive inspired us to evolve our casual game into a much more challenging form: a puzzle for the 2012 MIT Mystery Hunt.
Last year our team Codex won the 2011 Hunt, which is held in January over Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend. It’s a team-based puzzle solving competition that draws over a thousand diverse fans every year. The victors’ prizes are well-earned respect, and the responsibility of writing and organizing the following year’s Hunt. Each Hunt has a theme, ostensibly to provide a reason for solving all the puzzles. 2011’s Hunt led by the team Metaphysical Plant, had a theme centered around video games. For 2012, Codex chose to focus on musical theater, specifically The Producers.
For the past eight years I competed in the Hunt and even wrote a handful of puzzles for friends, but none had the level of complexity and polish usually found during the Hunt. Every long-time Hunter has a list of puzzle ideas they would like to write someday if they given the opportunity. Translating those ideas into over a hundred working, solvable puzzles takes many thousands of man hours. As our team quickly recognized, years of solving puzzles doesn’t immediately translate to creating puzzles and organizing a live event for hundreds of people. Thankfully, Codex’s team of leaders and editors provided a framework for both novice and experienced writers to participate in the process.