ARGNet: Alternate Reality Gaming Network Your first choice for ARG news. Mon, 05 Jan 2015 16:31:04 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Fragmented Stories in the Cloud Chamber Thu, 01 Jan 2015 14:24:22 +0000 cloudchamber-header

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.

One of the main challenges Cloud Chamber players must face is getting a sense of the story’s timeline, since practically all context is merely implied. Sometimes, these cues are easy to pick up on: the date on an email, the location of the video, the odd contextual cue dropped in conversation. Other times, the ordering becomes more nuanced. Do the characters seem guarded, or do they seem to trust each other? Does the date on that flyer contradict the conversation featured a few nodes back? After getting a basic idea of what happened, it’s much easier to start investigating the numerous and often contradictory theories surrounding the signal. Cloud Chamber never resolves this question, and in the end there are at least half a dozen cohesive explanations about the nature of Kathleen, Max, and Thomas’ investigation.

To facilitate discussion, each node has its own conversation thread, where players can point out clues, explain the frequent references to scientific research, and debate why the information was included in the first place. Taking part in conversations unlocks additional nodes that, while not necessary to the story, add additional insight into the often-contradictory latticework of possibilities. As older comments are phased into the background, new discussions constantly surface in the threads, as players going through the game together form informal cohorts, discovering the secrets together. These conversations often switch from the fictional narrative to the core concepts that shape Cloud Chamber, ranging from particle physics and space exploration to religion and parallel worlds.


Cloud Chamber bears a striking resemblance to alternate reality games, with players encouraged to collectively piece together a disjointed narrative. But by packaging the game as a video game, Cloud Chamber unlocks a number of possibilities rarely explored by the genre. By having its players unlock discussion threads as they progress through the story, the barrier of entry for players coming later into the experience is greatly reduced, providing a rich experience for players beginning today, and a year from today. Cloud Chamber will allow people to peel back its mysteries as long as there are people willing to play it and servers available to host the conversations.

Creating Cloud Chamber as a video game also granted Investigate North much greater control over controlling players’ experiences investigating the story. While it would have been possible to distribute the game’s assets through a series of websites like many alternate reality games, placing all the assets in a central location and providing a visually rich method of navigating those files helps control players’ mindsets going into the game. The peaks and valleys of the virtual landscapes that lend structure to each of the game’s ten chapters provides few clues into the actual narrative, but goes a long way towards shaping the experience by giving players a visual representation of the game’s disjointed narrative. This is augmented by the game’s soundtrack: the deep, pulsing bass notes of the music that guides players from story fragment to story fragment gives the game an ethereal, otherworldly tone that shapes the experience as much as the videos themselves.

Both alternate reality games and video games typically focus on empowering players by creating the illusion that they have control over the story. Investigate North chose to shatter that illusion, putting its players in a more passive role seen with interactive novels like Cathy’s Book and Skeleton Creek, or television shows steeped in mystery like Twin Peaks and Lost. And while Cloud Chamber‘s focus was on an open-ended mystery, the format has the potential to complement a wide variety of stories, from whodunnit to romance and everything in between. Cloud Chamber leaves a host of unanswered questions at the end. One of the biggest is where Investigate North will take its innovative format next.

Cloud Chamber is available on Steam for $19.99.

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The Solution to Cards Against Humanity’s Puzzling Obsession with Bullshit Mon, 29 Dec 2014 15:10:17 +0000 cah-hawaii2

Images of the Reddit expedition to Hawaii 2 courtesy of Pewwer42

Shortly after Christmas, a group of Redditors met up, planning on making the trek to an uninhabited island near Lake Saint George Park in Maine. Previous expeditions to the island confirmed the presence of a wooden shed containing a massive safe at the southern tip of the island: but without the six digit passcode to unlock it, the safe’s contents remained a mystery. Finally, after almost a month of poring over websites, YouTube videos, and physical mailings, community members felt fairly confident they had the passcode that would unveil the safe’s contents.

All this, because of a bit of Holiday Bullshit.

A Little Bullshit Backstory

For this year’s Black Friday promotion, Cards Against Humanity made headlines by removing their popular card game from the market, and replacing it with Black Friday Bullshit – for $6, the company would mail its customers literal bullshit in a box. No more, and no less. At the same time, the company was promoting a separate dose of bullshit for the holidays. While the Black Friday Bullshit promotion was perfectly clear in what it was offering, Cards Against Humanity’s Ten Days or Whatever of Kwanzaa promotion at provided almost no guidance about what it would deliver: only that, for $15, the company would send ten mailings containing…just about anything.

Fans of the company had some idea of what they might expect by using the previous year’s Holiday Bullshit mailings as guidance: a handful of exclusive and personalized Cards Against Humanity cards, a miniaturized prototype of a game, a few comics, maybe a charitable donation to a worthy cause. But for the most part, $15 purchased the ability to find a surprise waiting in the mailbox for a few days…alongside access to an expansive puzzle hunt that promised to be bigger than the last.

A Bunch of Bullshit Gifts

This year’s mailings were tied together by a loose theme: artwork adorning each envelope (and dutifully reproduced on the Holiday Bullshit website) told the tale of Santa Clause’s untimely demise and the subsequent Great Lizard Uprising of 2352 that laid waste to civilization. This was not presented as some dangerous threat to be overcome, or a mystery to be solved. Santa died, lizards will be ruling over the planet we now call home, and those are just realities we must come to accept.

Santa’s death, like the Kwanzaa-themed branding in this year’s Holiday Bullshit promotion, had almost no impact on the presents received, or the puzzles delivered, serving as flavor text for the experience. Many of the presents echoed gifts from the previous year: the 250,000 people signed up for this year’s Holiday Bullshit received holiday-themed Cards Against Humanity cards, expletive-laced stickers, Sunday funnies penned by popular web comic artists, and a booklet mocking the frequently comedic customer service complaints the company receives.


The mailings also featured a miniaturized version of the card game Slap 45, a slap-based card game that raised over $75k on Kickstarter in the Fall, a booklet with miracle berry tablets, and an accounting of every major contribution made for a US Senator in the recipient’s state. Cards Against Humanity donated $250k on behalf of Holiday Bullshit recipients to the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to transparency in politics that provided the source data for the mailing.

As each day’s mailing came through, the Holiday Bullshit website was updated with original musical performances. Kirby Krackle penned the self-explanatory I’m Stuck in a Human Centipede for Christmas, Seth Boyer and Marian Call performed a bitter-sweet duet, Paul and Storm sang the word “Christmas” a lot, the Doubleclicks cheerily wished away sexist bullshit, and Molly Lewis cautioned against overusing the term “miracle”.

The most impressive present sent as part of Holiday Bullshit was sent on the tenth day of Holiday Bullshit. Cards Against Humanity ceded land rights to a square foot of Hawaii 2, an island just off the coast of Maine, to each of the 250k people to sign up for the mailings. Cards Against Humanity included a map of the island to accompany the license, abusing their newly minted naming rights to pinpoint the Michael Bay, Forest Whitaker, Ricki Lake, US Cellular Mountain, and the Screaming Gorge of Eternal Madness. Hidden between bad puns and crashed starships, the map depicts a half-buried safe, simply labeled “The Safe”…which brings us to the puzzle.

Now That’s a Bullshit Puzzle

Last year, the nature of the Holiday Bullshit puzzle was vague, leading community members unraveling the tangled web to view practically anything and everything as a potential clue. Moving into 2014, Cards Against Humanity enlisted the help of Lone Shark Games. On the dedicated Holiday Bullshit puzzle page, a video introduced the team behind the project, as well as the structure of the puzzles to follow.

Fifteen times during the video, encrypted text spelled out enigmatic descriptions of the “base puzzles” hidden throughout the experience:

Apply Butt to Booklet
Endorse Us on Kickstarter
Fetch Me a Podcast
Find a Scaly Creature
Game, Set, Match
Gay Schlafen
Hear Us Roar
It’s a Kwanzaa Miracule
Miscegenate By Color
Open Your Envelopes
Recreate Your Holiday
Slip Out the Window
State Your Admissions
Track Down a Tasty Beverage

Solving each of these initial puzzles was a fairly involved process. “Open Your Envelopes” was the first puzzle to be discovered, when recipients of the first mailing noticed a string of multi-colored numbers printed along the inside seam of their envelopes. To solve the puzzle, community members at Reddit noticed the numbers on each envelope added up to 10, and could be used to create a 10×10 paint-by-numbers image of “BLINKY”, the red ghost from Pac-Man.

For the “Endorse Us On Kickstarter” puzzle, recipients of the miniaturized version of Slap .45 noticed the product code “GS040908060310″ could be used as an index against the six endorsements for the game’s Kickstarter page, giving the puzzle solution “NEWCAR”.

Some puzzles were uncovered in the song selection choices of the Cryptex podcast launched to complement the puzzle hunt, while others involved solving a Yiddush version of the Daily Jumble, “that fercockt word game”. Over the course of the hunt, the Reddit community leading the charge would be treated to everything from a Lord of the Rings-themed parody web comic to a secret message cleverly disguised within a catchy Christmas ballad, and even into the Tabletop archives for a celebration of Wil Wheaton’s losing streak at board games. Virtually every element of the Holiday Bullshit experience was re-purposed to serve as a vehicle for puzzles, and more than a few elements were created to extend beyond the traditional gifts – although it’s worth noting it was never necessary to physically sit on a booklet to reveal a puzzle.

Digging Deeper into the Bullshit

The true evil genius of the Holiday Bullshit puzzle was its method for submitting solutions to these fifteen “base” puzzles. The primary tool on the Holiday Bullshit puzzle site is an image generator. Input a word, and the image generator spits back one of 500 different images. Put in an incorrect answer? Doesn’t matter, an image is still generated. Large puzzle hunts often use a similar structure, with a initial batch of puzzles whose answers can be combined to solve a larger puzzle: but usually, there’s a direct method to confirm they solved each initial puzzle correctly. By running all solutions through an image generator hash, puzzle solutions could instantly be used to solve later puzzles, but players had to proceed at risk, unable to confirm whether their proposed solution was correct or not. A separate submission form page was just as unforgiving: players had to input a series of text fields, where [A]+[B]+[C]=[D]. Putting in an incorrect answer into this second form spits out the warning, “STOP GUESSING.”

The same video puzzle that provided hints on where to find the fifteen base puzzles served up guidance on what to do with the solutions. The different shift cipher values used to encrypt the original text spelled out “AN ORAL THREESOME”, telling players to treat the images generated by related puzzle solutions as a rebus to spell out a new phrase.

For instance, after noticing the puzzle solutions “LEELA”, “OLIVE”, and “BLINKY” all described Matt Groening characters, the images generated by those words (van, doll, and lies) could be combined to spell out “VANDAL EYES”, Anne Wheaton and Bonnie Burton’s personal quest to make the world a better place one set of googly eyes at a time. Plugging the “VAN + DOLL + LIES = VANDAL EYES” equation into the tool generated a new puzzle based on stamps covered in Googly eyes. Matching the stamps to their country of origin spells out the phrase, “STAMP OF APPROVAL”.

Nearing an End of the Bullshit

By combining the solutions to the five meta-puzzles, the Reddit community was directed to the eleventh and final mailing from the Holiday Bullshit team, a list of email exchanges with irate Cards Against Humanity customers. Since one of the emails jokingly referred to how “every card [the company has] ever written is created from an algorithm that takes and recombines every 13th word of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick”, the thirteenth word of every email reply was checked against every thirteenth word of Moby Dick, leading to a perfect match…except for three types of sloths. Plugging the names of the sloths into the image generator led to one final rebus, “WII + LAW + 4CHAN = WHEEL OF FORTUNE”.

Each player to input this final rebus received a separate clue to a crossword puzzle. However, some clues were missing words from prior puzzles: without knowing to plug in “WHEEL OF FORTUNE” into the clue “Z guy”, for instance, it was impossible to know the puzzle was asking for the guy from Wheel of Fortune. Once completed, the crossword puzzle provided instructions on how to obtain the six-digit code to the safe, as well as a hint at what it contained: “ACEDIA IS WHAT’S IN”.

Unlocking the Bullshit

And so, we find ourselves back at the beginning: a little less than a month after the monstrous puzzle was unleashed upon the world, members of the Reddit community set sail for Hawaii 2, the uninhabited island Cards Against Humanity purchased as a gift to their most ardent fans. At this point, it was unclear whether the passcode to the safe unlocked another step in the hunt, or marked the final leg of the journey. The trek was made without even being sure the passcode would work.


Inside the safe? A letter confirming this was the end of the line, a bottle of Loki Scotch (a distillery right around the corner from where Cards Against Humanity’s creators went to high school), a set of 12 Cards Against Humanity cards saying “Being the crazy person to open the safe”…and 250k Cards Against Humanity cards  prominently featuring the face of a sloth for anyone with the combination interested in checking out their own personal square foot of land, paying off the multiple “sloth” references along the way.

So, Was It All Just a Load of Bullshit?

The Reddit community worked together to solve both 2013 and 2014 hunts. Theoretically, it would have been possible for an individual to have cracked the 2013 hunt alone with the right amount of insight and a healthy dose of luck. This year, the hunt was designed to actively encourage tackling the problem with a community of people working together. To encourage collaboration throughout the process, key points in the puzzle-solving journey required information sharing. For the “State Your Admissions” puzzle, players received a string of two letters on the bottom of their Sunlight Foundation report. However, each state received unique letters. Without comparing answers with others, the puzzle couldn’t be solved.

To further encourage collaboration, the final “Wheel of Fortune” crossword puzzle only generated one clue per IP address. Even the most well-intentioned puzzle solving community will often fracture into smaller groups as a puzzle’s endgame approaches, particularly when there’s the temptation of a prize at stake. By subtly encouraging collaboration at the final stage, the Holiday Bullshit puzzle cemented its purpose, as a thank you letter to the community willing to pay $15 for a mystery because they’ve come to trust the company over the years. And by making the final prize large enough so that everyone could have a share? All the better.

Cards Against Humanity bought an island for their fans, and I’m already beginning to see groups planning trips out to visit “their” uninhabited island right next to Lake Saint George Park, in Maine. One of the reasons that can work is because they forged a community that will respect the responsibility of that newfound ownership. Spending a month actively collaborating on an insanely difficult puzzle can go a long way towards forging those bonds. Cards Against Humanity may be a game for horrible people, but they still try and bring the best out of them, at the same time.

For a full accounting of the Holiday Bullshit puzzles and their solutions, check out joshshadowfax and jdllama’s comprehensive puzzle summary, or visit the /r/holidaybullshit subreddit and wiki. A full summary of the gifts can be found at, and additional discussion about the hunt can be found at The Cryptex podcast.

Note: this article originally stated Hawaii 2 was located off the coast of Maine. Its actual location is on Saint George Lake in Maine.

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Cards Against Humanity Releases Another Bullshit Puzzle Tue, 11 Nov 2014 05:24:49 +0000 cards-against-humanity-solutionCards Against Humanity doesn’t approach its marketing efforts like most companies. Nominally, they sell a highly irreverent card game where players compete to find the most outrageous response to a prompt from their hand of cards. In practice, the Chicago-based company has used its past successes to finance a series of elaborate pranks to entertain its ardent fanbase and transform purchasing a casual party game into an experience…which is a good thing, since they give the game away for free on their website (some printing required). Two years ago they celebrated the holidays with a pay-what-you-want expansion pack, and then released an infographic breaking down how much people paid and donating the proceeds to charity. To encourage players to buy the expansion sets, the company sold an extra-long box for holding the game, The Bigger Blacker Box, to store the cards. Without telling anyone, they hid a secret card in the inner lining of the box. For their Black Friday sale last year, they increased prices. When they took out advertisements at last year’s PAX East, they used the platform to promote their made-up company, PWNMEAL: Extreme Gaming Oatmeal.

All of these efforts pale in comparison to the company’s Holiday Bullshit campaign. Last year, Cards Against Humanity asked 100,000 people to give them $12 in exchange for 12 mystery gifts from the company as part of its 12 Days of Holiday Bullshit. As thanks, the company donated $100K to, sent out an early edition of a sex party-themed card game, mailed limited edition customized Cards Against Humanity cards, and even sent fans a lump of coal. And hidden within each mailing? A fiendish puzzle that took fans working together on Reddit’s holidaybullshit subreddit months to solve. Holiday Bullshit is back once more, promises to deliver an even harder puzzle than before.

The inaugural Holiday Bullshit puzzle was not easy. Fake time codes on each of the envelopes hid semaphore messages telling puzzlers to look for secret braille messages hidden in the borders of their cards. This in turn led players (through a highly convoluted process) to two Cards Against Humanity cards, and a website with the solution. As a reward for being first to solve the puzzle hunt, the team sent Reddit user Lets_Go_Flyers copious amounts of alcohol and an autographed set of everything Cards Against Humanity made (prior to the holiday season).

For its triumphant return, Cards Against Humanity’s Holiday Bullshit is abandoning Christmas to celebrate Ten Days or Whatever of Kwanzaa. For $15, the team is preparing ten mystery gifts throughout the month of December for the first 250,000 registrants. And like its previous incarnation, the Ten Days or Whatever of Kwanzaa mailings will include an online puzzle that Cards Against Humanity co-creator Max Temkin described to the Chicago Tribune as “the hardest puzzle ever made.” This year the puzzle experience was designed by Mike Selinker, who has worked on a number of non-traditional puzzles including hiding a secret message in the spine of every issue of WIRED Magazine in 2012, organizing a cross-country manhunt for journalist Evan Ratliff, and a publishing a narrative puzzle adventure book.

This promotion is limited to residents of the US or Canada (although Canadians will need to pay an additional $10 to cover increased shipping fees), and is limited to one subscription per household. Almost 100,000 slots have already been claimed in its first day on sale, so act soon if you want to participate. Go to to subscribe to the Ten Days or Whatever of Kwanzaa, and follow along with the puzzle solving efforts at the holidaybullshit subreddit.

Update: click here for a description of the 2014 Holiday Bullshit puzzle and its solution.

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Road Trip into Terror: Dark Detour Revs Up for a Week of Chills and Thrills Sat, 25 Oct 2014 19:26:17 +0000 darkdetour

In the tarot card deck of Talbot Griffin’s life, the first card on the table would most likely be The Fool, that familiar vagabond traveler blithely setting out into the unknown. Scrolling through his social media accounts, Griffin’s audience can piece together a whimsical portrait of a happy-go-not-so-lucky young musician whose life has hit a few bumps in the road. After making a pilgrimage to Jim Morrison’s grave in the Paris cemetery Père Lachaise, Griffin returned to New York City to find his life taking a sharp curve. His girlfriend leaves him. His boss fires him. And he’s got to find a new place to live. What’s a rising superstar musician to do? “Borrow” his grandfather’s ’67 Mustang and take a cross-country road trip to Los Angeles, where fame and fortune await him, of course!

As Griffin travels, elusive song lyrics distract and disturb him, a cut on his arm festers and refuses to heal, and the same creepy hitchhiker mysteriously appears in several stops along the way. Where is Talbot Griffin really going, and what waits for him at the end of the road?

Described by its creators as “a ghost story for the digital age,” Dark Detour, the tale of musician Talbot Griffin and his travels, is a comedy-horror tale that makes use of several social media platforms, allowing the audience to follow Talbot Griffin’s harrowing adventures in real time. The interactive ghost story will wrap up on Halloween, and comes with its very own safe word – MIMEKILLER – that audience members can use to opt out of the experience at any time if it becomes too intense.

This independent project is produced by a creative team led by Alison Norrington of StoryCentral and Steve Peters of No Mimes Media, along with creative consultants Brian Clark, Jan Libby, Blair Erickson, and Mike Monello. Peters and Norrington raised funds to produce the project through an Indiegogo campaign, with Clark, Libby, Erickson, and Monello added to the team through the campaign’s stretch goals. Perks for campaign backers included postcards, dashboard hula girls, project consultations, and “a personalized phone call to scare the crap out of you on or around Halloween night.”

Dark Detour launched on October 24 with plenty of material to keep an audience busy for a day. Griffin’s soon-to-be-ill-fated journey began four days prior to the launch, so the opening finds him in Arizona, on his way to visit a friend in Phoenix. The character of Talbot Griffin is responsive and accessible, directly responding to people on his Facebook page. Other characters drift through the story architecture, including Talbot’s ex-girlfriend Jenny Clancy (though they have yet to update their relationship status on Facebook) and bubbly/bizarre uberfan Amber who runs the Talbot Griffin Fan Club and fan forums. A phone number on Griffin’s Facebook – (347) 508-3027 – leads to a voicemail box where audience members can leave their numbers for Griffin to call them back, and text messages can be sent to the number as well.

Griffin’s fans can follow him on numerous social media platforms, including Swarm (username: talbotgriffin), Instagram, Twitter, Soundcloud, and Facebook.

As of yet, nothing particularly scary has happened in the narrative, but the devil may be making his presence known in the details, hinting at the direction the story might travel. Griffin’s obsession with his new lyrics, his wounded arm, and the recurrent ominous hitchhiker all indicate creepy plot twists yet to come. An Instagram photo of the compass in Riverside Park is labeled “Crossroads,” and the first page of lyrics to his new song also contain a reference to crossroads – “crossroads on my mind.” A crossroads, as every Supernatural fan knows, is a place where deals are made with demons. Did Talbot Griffin make an unearthly deal for the fame and fortune that he believes awaits him in Los Angeles?

Dark Detour will continue through Halloween. To join in, visit for a summary of the story so far, and discuss the spooky events on the unfiction forums or in the G+ group Griffin Observatory.

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Endgame Variations: Multiple Play Styles for the End of the World Mon, 20 Oct 2014 14:16:05 +0000 endgame-map

Tens of thousands of years ago, mankind’s earliest civilizations were visited by extraterrestrial beings. Due to their superior knowledge and technology, these early visitors were treated as gods. Native Americans knew them as the Sky People. To the Sumerians, they were the Annunaki. Whatever they were called, these visitors came to earth and instructed mankind, leaving behind countless monuments behind. At least, that’s what some people claim. The theory commonly referred to as the “ancient astronaut hypothesis” serves as the foundation for a cross-platform collaboration between James Frey’s Full Fathom Five, HarperCollins, Google’s Niantic Labs, and Fox Searchlight.

According to Endgame‘s legend, Earth’s ancient alien visitors warned mankind that they would return one day for a reckoning known as Endgame. Some believe it to be a punishment for squandering the aliens’ enlightenment, and straining earth’s resources, while others view it as a method of selecting a favored sub-section of humanity for preservation. Whatever the cause, the nature of Endgame is clear: twelve of the most ancient civilizations must select a teenager to represent their society in a deadly treasure hunt where failure means death — the only survivors of Endgame are the members of the winning civilization. For thousands of years, the twelve societies have been training potential representatives from birth to save their people, in case Endgame should fall to their generation. Finally, after over thirty thousand years, twelve meteorites touched down, signaling the beginning of Endgame, and twelve teenagers started their journey to locate three keys hidden across the globe.

This narrative serves as the core of the Endgame experience across every platform. However, people interested in exploring the world of Endgame are presented with a number of dramatically different ways to interact with the story. For players looking for a solitary experience, puzzles infused into the novel leads to the secret to unlocking approximately $500,000 in gold coins kept on display at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. For those looking for a more social gaming experience, an alternate reality game delves deeper into Endgame‘s backstory, while an upcoming mobile app allowing players to take the conflict to the streets in a competitive, PVP style of gameplay.
Prelude to Endgame

Image via @endgameiscoming

Image via endgameiscoming

While Endgame officially launched earlier this month, the teams involved in the project have been quietly seeding clues about the project since early this year, with many of the characters in the novel starting to establish online presences on Twitter, Google+, and other social media platforms. At the Endgame is Coming website, players could link their Facebook account to watch a personalized video suggesting which of the twelve factions they were most likely to be aligned with, along with their chances of surviving the coming cataclysm. Magnetically sealed puzzle boxes were sent out to a handful of interested parties, with personalized videos directing players to Once a critical mass of people joined in, players learned that something would be happening at Union Square Park, the day before the book’s official launch date.

That event marked the official beginning of Endgame with a bang, as a section of Union Square Park was cordoned off to protect a meteor impact site that left behind the wreckage of a bicycle and hot dog stand. The crash site attracted men in hazmat suits conducting an investigation, faux news coverage and protesters warning of an event that would destroy everything.

A Solitary Endgame: The Hunt for the Earth Key

James Frey mentioned that one of his inspirations for creating Endgame was Masquerade, a children’s book from the 1980s that contained clues to the location of a jeweled hare hidden by the book’s author, Kit Williams. The buried treasure was eventually found by Ken Thomas three years after the book’s publication, although accusations of Thomas receiving help from Williams’ former girlfriend cloaked the treasure hunt in scandal.

Like Masquerade, the primary vector for storytelling with Endgame is a novel, with Fox Searchlight developing a movie adaptation. Since the plot of Endgame revolves around twelve teenagers following along a global scavenger hunt, the book is littered with a series of puzzles and riddles, personalized to their particular strengths and life experiences. Sometimes, the narrative explains the solutions to those riddles. But just as often, readers are left to try and tackle the puzzles on their own. Other puzzles injected into the book are intended for the reader alone, and lead to a key that can be used to unlock a case containing $500,000 in gold coins. Frey learned a lesson from Kit Williams’ scandal, and ensured that neither he nor Nils Johnson-Shelton knows the solution to the puzzles hidden within the book’s text. For the book’s puzzle design, he turned to Mat Laibowitz at Futuruption, best known for their Midnight Madness puzzle hunts held in New York City.

This co-mingling of narrative puzzles and meta-puzzles can get confusing as the book progresses. Some puzzles like the text hidden in the book’s cover and the illustrations separating chapters have a clear division from the narrative. Others are integrated more directly within the text. Sometimes, this is done with a deft hand and goes by practically unnoticed: a series of messages injected into the idiosyncrasies of one character’s speech patterns is a particularly skillful example. Others are more awkwardly constructed and tend to break the narrative flow: descriptions of time, distance, and direction are particularly affected by this construction. During a particularly dramatic moment, a character’s index finger is described as being “extended to 166°30’32”. During another sequence, characters are described as being “in Turkey for 2.45 days”.

There are multiple entry points to the puzzle hunt: for the trail I have been following, a puzzle within the book lead me to a validation page, asking me to solve a similarly themed puzzle before taking me to an interactive website containing yet another challenge. Progress along this journey is tracked through Google authentication, ensuring that all players have agreed to the game’s terms before proceeding. According to those terms, the puzzles are divided in four discrete phases. The first Stage went live with the book’s launch, with the remaining phases released on three separate, as-yet-unannounced dates in the future. The first person to solve all the puzzles will receive the Earth Key, an item that features prominently in the first book. Solving a similar puzzle trail in the second Endgame book will lead to a million dollar prize, while the final book holds the secret to 1.5 million dollars.

Structuring the contest around secrecy is abnormal for complex puzzle hunts of this nature: collaboration is often required to tackle challenges that call upon disparate skill sets, and the communities that form around tackling the puzzles help educate less experienced solvers interested in getting a taste of the experience. The decision to actively discourage collaboration is all the more surprising since the full puzzle experience will be gradually released over time, so there is no danger of a particularly savvy puzzle solver finding all the answers earlier than planned.

A Communal Endgame: Preparing for the End of the World

endgame-ancientsocietiesFor players more interested in a collaborative approach to the end of the world, Endgame: Ancient Truth turns the clock back two years prior to the start of the novel, following the enigmatic Stella as she explores the history of the twelve lines. So far Stella has provided players with basic information on the twelve factions featured in the book, along with daily puzzle challenges that unlock glimpses into Stella’s slightly atypical family life. Stella also interacts with players by responding to emails in video responses.

The alternate reality game is separated from the puzzle hunt by more than just time: participation will not provide any hints or clues to the $500,000 prize, but also doesn’t come with the hunt’s restrictions on sharing information. Indeed, the alternate reality game’s meta-page explicitly states that “collaboration and sharing of information is not only allowed, but encouraged.”

A Combative Endgame: Adding PVP to the Ingress Model

endgame-fightEarlier this year, Niantic Labs announced plans to follow up the successful release of its geo-locative mobile game Ingress with a new project, set in the Endgame universe. Details on the upcoming mobile app are sparse, but during the franchise’s New York City launch event, John Hanke gave a few teasers of what’s to come. For the mobile game, players are asked to align with one of Endgame’s twelve factions and enter a global, location-specific PVP arena. As Hanke explains,

As you walk around the world, you’ll have a map on your phone, and you’ll see all the other players around you. If you are close enough to them, [your avatar] can fight them…and every time you fight, [your avatar fights] to the death. Everywhere you go in the world with this game, you’ll have to be ready to play and you’ll have to be ready to defend yourself or attack somebody.

This combative model of Endgame may seem to mesh closest with the book’s narrative, where twelve teenagers are thrust into a battle to the death. However, the many ways of interacting with Endgame as a reader, filmgoer, puzzle solver, or player are mirrored in the ways the characters in Endgame approach their roles. In the book, some approach it as a solitary puzzle to be unraveled. For others, it is a contest between players, to be won by dominating the competition. Still others forge uneasy alliances with their fellow Players, despite the belief instilled across generations that death is a certainty for all but one. Endgame as a franchise is designed to cater to the type of experience people are most comfortable seeking out. And while that may lead to a disjointed experience for the most dedicated players who immerse themselves in all aspects of the campaign, the net effect remains a thoroughly engrossing story paired with well-crafted puzzles that may be the most ambitious project of its kind.

To get started with the Endgame alternate reality game, check out Endgame: Ancient Truth for information on getting started and a list of communities following the ARG, or dive straight into the experience at For the $500,000 puzzle hunt, start off by reading Endgame: The Calling before registering to participate at Kepler Futuristics.

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Google Rolls Out Ingress to iOS Devices Mon, 14 Jul 2014 07:06:22 +0000 ingress-van-rollout-pun

In November 2012, Google introduced its Ingress scanner app to the Google Play store. And for almost two years, the central point of interaction for Google’s deeply immersive alternate reality game has been an Android exclusive. That changes today: with the release of Ingress‘s scanner app to the iTunes Store, the world of Ingress has officially rolled out on iOS devices.

The Ingress scanner app asks players to join the green Enlightened or blue Resistance faction in a battle for control over portals tied to real world landmarks. The game has a sizeable player base within the Android community. Over 12,000 players have gathered for the game’s frequent live events in cities across the globe so far in 2014, and the game boasts over 4 million downloads. With the expansion into iOS devices, an influx of new players is likely.

To help ease new players into the game, Ingress is introducing new elements to ease the transition into a deep narrative running beneath the game’s surface, and a community that continues to blossom as they take on increasingly extravagant challenges. The primary conduit for introducing new players to the world of Ingress is a new web series featuring two sisters who signed up to play the game for opposite factions, Ingress Obsessed, complementing the existing Ingress Report videos.

The Ingress Report with Suzanna Moyer has provided weekly updates on news relating to Ingress since early 2013 highlighting key plot advances, live event results, and player-driven initiatives. To help players keep up with the videos, Ingress uploads shares the videos on its YouTube channel, but also pushes them into the game as collectible “Media” items. And while Moyer has been pulled into the game’s narrative from time to time, the channel has attempted to remain an impartial source of news reports on the game.

Ingress Obsessed takes a more humanizing view of the game, following sisters Rebecca and Christina as they learn the nuances of how to play the game and how the game’s factions operate from a beginner’s perspective. The format also allows them to broadcast longer features highlighting local players, like the video highlighting Rebecca’s recent participation in Operation Megaladon, an attempt to link portals in Florida, France, and Brazil. The sisters are also getting pulled into the game’s larger narrative, receiving specialized augmented reality lenses that allow them see the game’s portals without the aid of a scanner app. Like the Ingress Report videos, installments of Ingress Obsessed are making their way to the Ingress YouTube channel and in-app item drops as well.

Ingress‘ long-awaited transition to the iOS platform isn’t the only major update the Niantic Project team have been teasing. Earlier this year, HarperCollins announced a partnership with Google’s Niantic Labs to produce a similar mobile game for Android and iOS devices tied to James Frey’s forthcoming young adult series, Endgame. The first book in the series will be released October 7th: and while Niantic Project’s mobile app is set to launch that same day, many of Endgame‘s characters have started becoming active on social media following a series of meteorite impacts on June 11th, kicking off the narrative. Ingress‘ recent release on iOS devices will likely help inform the development of its Endgame counterpart.

To download Ingress for iOS devices, download the free game from the iTunes Store. Check out prior ARGNet coverage for a closer look at the game’s narrative and live event “Anomalies”. Helios, the newest Anomaly series, will be starting in earnest later this month. The Niantic Project’s Linda Besh will be speaking at ARGFest in Portland on August 1st on making the transition from Ingress player to Niantic Labs team member, followed by a meetup for local players.

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Five Years of Story Revealed Through Trials and Error Tue, 08 Jul 2014 15:46:14 +0000 trials-evolution

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, 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.

But only four keys have been discovered so far…which brings us to the riddle currently underway as part of RedLynx’s Trials Fusion, released earlier this year. Players toying around Trials Fusion discovered a virtual fifth key, buried underneath a mountain in the game’s track creation tool. A number of unresolved puzzles imply there’s more to be discovered. Players have already identified a secret audio transmission in the game’s end credits hiding a visual representation of cosmic microwave background radiation, and an unexplained entry in the game’s menu entitled “Pyrosequencing” has been cycling through DNA codons paired with number strings. The puzzles are back, but at least one thing has changed with Trials Fusion.

Over the past decade, games in the Trials franchise has never really bothered explaining why their motorcyclists keep throwing themselves at increasingly hard tracks, with death as the only reward at the end. Trials Fusion breaks from that tradition by liberally scattering hints through the game. Two artificial intelligence systems named Cindy and George converse with the player as the game progresses, casually referencing a global catastrophe that led to their creation and alluding to previous riders. While your rider still manages to find elaborate ways to die at the end of every track, detailed cut-scenes infer there might be a larger purpose behind each death. Further pieces of the narrative are doled out in Trials Frontier, a mobile companion game that takes place in an Old Western town in an even more distant future than Trials Fusion. In Trials Frontier, a cartoonish rider faces off against ghosts of people who remember the world before the catastrophe.

The narrative is disjointed across two games, but a few things are clear. Within the Trials universe, the comet Moros hurtled towards earth from the rings of Moros in 2020, making landfall on Antarctica and changing the local climate, broadcasting a massive beacon into the sky. Researchers (possibly associated with the often mentioned Samsara Industries) established a base around the Greater Crater area to study the beacon. Some of the lines in the game imply that humans found a way to take what they found at the crater site and turn it into an artificial intelligence, which then turned the machines against humans, who appear to be largely absent from the world of Trials Fusion.

The presence of the rider and a small cast of characters in Trials Frontier‘s Old West setting indicates there are survivors of whatever cataclysm took place, although there’s convincing evidence that neither rider nor frontier townsfolk are wholly human. One theory posits that the rider in Trials Fusion is being constantly respawned in new bodies, leaving a trail of hundreds of corpses in his wake after every death. As for the more human townsfolk in Trials Frontier? They have an unfortunate habit of glitching like their amnesiac robot neighbor ANBA.

For most people who play games in the Trials franchise, the games are just an opportunity to play an unforgiving racing game where successfully navigating each level is a puzzle designed to test their dexterity. But for those interested in a different kind of puzzle, the Trials games hide something much deeper. With Trials HD, RedLynx experimented with a celebration of mankind’s progress, and attempts to reach for the stars. With Trials Evolution, the team expanded their love letter to progress into the real world, offering an unknown mystery for future generations to discover. It’s too soon to say what the puzzles buried within Trials Fusion and Trials Frontier will bring, but the games’ twin narratives are already weaving elements of past riddles into a greater whole.

Video games are increasingly integrating secret narratives into the gameplay to provide players with less scripted stories to explore if their curiosity is piqued. Valve littered its Portal games with abandoned “Ratman dens” hinting at the life of Aperture scientist Doug Rattman, while Halo 3: ODST scattered the tale of Sadie Endesha through 30 audio files scattered across the game’s map. And in Grand Theft Auto V, an alien conspiracy provides an as-yet-unsolved meta-narrative for players who completed the game to explore. While secret narratives are becoming a common element of video game design, these complex narrative add-ons are typically reserved to provide additional narrative branches for players to explore. With Trials Fusion, the meta-game is the primary method for accessing the puzzle game’s underlying story, hinted at for years. Trials has actively resisted including a story for so long, this comes as almost as much a surprise as discovering a story behind Pac-Man or Minesweeper.

RedLynx’s decision to wait before revealing the game’s final treasure hunt prize is a welcome twist on a common trope. With 99 years to go before the hunt’s finale Ilvessuo is effectively giving each of the five keyholders their own personal Mystery Box as hinted in the Trials HD riddle, never to be opened within their lifetimes. Unlike Abrams’ vision of the Mystery Box, there’s the expectation that the box will have the potential to be opened by someone they entrusted with the key. The sentiment is similar (albeit on a smaller scale) to Jason Rohrer’s A Game for Someone, a board game designed to be discovered 2,000 years in the future. What would an experience designed explicitly for future generations look like?

The Trials riddles are showing themselves to be increasingly interconnected. In Trials HD, the Voyager probe’s Golden Record was celebrated for its communications with future generations, while Abrams’ Mystery Box was lauded for its ability to capture tangible mystery. Both promises were realized through the Trials Evolution riddles. What new secrets await, buried within the newest generation of Trials games?

Trials Fusion is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and Steam: Trials Frontier is available on iOS and Android devices. More discussion on the riddles can be found on Ubisoft’s forums dedicated to the game as well as the University of Trials YouTube channel, run by Brad “FatShady” Hill, who compiled much of the information on previous riddles.

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The Art Hunters Turns Springfield Art Museum Into Crime Scene Sat, 14 Jun 2014 14:02:33 +0000 missing-fanny

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.

It’s possible to follow along with Art Hunters Online without ever visiting the museum. The Art Hunters reality show delivers a hilarious parody of the format while sneaking in nuggets of educational information on how art is presented to the world. Art Hunters Online also offers weekly art challenges similar to PBS Digital Studios’ Art Assignment giving online Reservists the chance to help unlock short vignettes from the Art Hunters’ past. And the Art Hunters Online website includes a relatively simple social network that lets you interact with Beckworth and Hansen, or provide remote assistance to other players. But the heart of this project is its real-world component, and its ability to challenge the museum’s visitors to engage with art on a different level.

Every week, the Springfield Museum of Art is highlighting a piece of art that visitors are explicitly restricted from seeing. Visitors are allowed to see the space where the art used to hang. They’re encouraged to peruse evidence that provides them with an intimate relationship with the history and inspiration for the piece. They’re encouraged to leave the museum and visit a location of special relevance to the piece. Visitors are even offered the chance to go home and create their own art, inspired by a piece they have yet to experience personally. Art Hunters Online gives museum visitors the opportunity to experience artwork’s context before the content. And when they return the following week to finally experience the painting in person, the cycle begins anew.

Art Hunters Online is an ambitious re-imagining of the museum experience, celebrating high culture through the lens of its reality show, a format that is almost universally denigrated as one of our lowest forms of culture. Try and make it out to the Springfield Art Museum to experience the installation yourself before it ends on July 17th, and sign up to be an Art Hunter Reservist to follow along online.

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ARGFest Hosts 10-Year Reunion for Bee Enthusiasts in Portland Sun, 08 Jun 2014 20:33:47 +0000 argfest-portland

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 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.

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Ingress Anomalies Mix Live Events with In-App Gameplay Thu, 24 Apr 2014 21:01:00 +0000 Ingress Recursion

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.

Ingress: The Game Behind the Event
Ingress is a mobile game for Android devices that taps into the Google Maps API to transform the globe into a battlefield between two factions, the Resistance (blue) and the Enlightened (green). Key cultural landmarks and locations are marked with virtual portals. “Hacking” these portals provides helpful items like resonators (used to claim and reinforce portals for your faction), XMP bursters (used to attack your rival faction’s portals), and portal keys (used to connect two portals together). Each portal has eight slots for resonators, and a single Agent can fill every slot. However, there are limits to the number of high-level resonators a single Agent can place on a portal, so factions need to coordinate to build higher level portals that yield higher level items when hacked. Once a portal is filled with resonators, players can link it to other portals to form a triangle of influence that claims the underlying region for their faction, securing the area’s “mind units” for their team’s overall score.

Players level up by collecting Action Points, gaining the ability to use more powerful items. The leveling curve in Ingress is severe, with players needing to double their Action Points for every new level. The current maximum level is 8 which requires 1.2 million Action Points: with most activities earning anywhere from 10 to 1,250 points, most players take a few months to make the climb up to level 8, although local factions have helped players finish the grind in a single day of non-stop gameplay. As with many massively multiplayer online games, the gameplay dynamics in Ingress change when you reach the top level. And while Ingress recently announced plans to increase the maximum level to 16, level 8 is still the key inflection point for many players.

When the push to increase individual statistics tapers off, the focus on the community becomes greater. Since the game depends on a network of active players upgrading and reinforcing portals to keep the supply of high level items flowing, many of the local networks work to actively recruit new players to the game and to help them by giving advice, providing them with items, and helping weaken rival portals to speed up the leveling process. Players also start to get involved in larger strategic initiatives, chasing “epic wins” setting up multi-state or multi-national control fields, securing portals in particularly hard to reach locations, and collaborating with rival factions to create field art. For other players, the focus shifts more towards coordinating the strategic placement of links and control fields to increase regional and global mind unit scores for their faction, block rival factions from forming links, and take down key structures. Others dedicate more of their efforts to decoding the game’s deep narrative backstory. Anomaly events, particularly the Los Angeles Recursion event, are designed to cater to all of these player types.

The Elite V and #NL1331
To celebrate the achievements of Ingress‘s players, Niantic Labs held a contest to reward five of the game’s most active global players with a trip out to California to have a conversation with the Niantic Labs team in San Francisco before going on a road trip to Los Angeles for the final Recursion event. Five players were chosen: Enlightened Agents Vicinext from Russia, Morka from France, and fourfootseven from Australia, and Resistance Agents Portalyst from the United States, and Agent TheBaMs from Germany. These were not necessarily the five players with the highest Action Point scores: these were players that had made themselves essential to their communities in a variety of ways.

I arrived in San Francisco just after 1AM on March 28th so I could join up with the Elite V for their road trip to Los Angeles later that morning. Out of curiosity, I opened up my Ingress app to check the COMM feed, an ongoing feed of local player activity and noticed that Agents fourfootseven (Rai Molki) and Morka (Damien Mórka) were still awake, carving out a swath of local portals for the Enlightened faction. Both players are active members of the Enlightened community: Mórka put together a French-language tutorial for Ingress, and Molki helps coordinate global initiatives like the international transportation of Jarvis Shards during the 13Magnus Anomaly event, where factions were tasked with moving special items from portal to portal by strategically placing links. But that night, the two were out taking down portals to bolster their Action Point scores and capture more unique portals to increase their overall statistics, which help earn virtual badges that recognize accomplishments above and beyond the initial 8 levels. This was such a regular occurrence along the trip that Resistance factions along the van’s route passed on word that the Enlightened members of the Elite V were devastating everything in their paths.

ingress-caravanThe next day, I met the Elite V as well as Agent Toxyd (Anton Khudozhnik) and his wife. When Agent Vicinext (Vitaly Kabernik) found out he was selected as one of the Elite V, he organized a crowdfunding campaign to bring along his friend and faction rival along for the ride. For one of Khudozhnik’s expeditions, he had to request permission from the Russian Secret Service to reach Anadyr, a remote city in eastern Russia. This was not the only crowdfunding campaign to bring an agent out to an event during Recursion: players flew Agent Palko from California to Tennessee to help with an Anomaly event a few weeks earlier. Kabernik’s own focus leveraged his work in cyber security to create local and global portal strategies.

For the caravan down to Los Angeles, the Niantic Labs team used its #NL1331 XM Collection vehicle, a van that doubled as a mobile portal in the game, manifesting a new location every time the van stopped. Ingress‘ Marketing Lead Bill Kilday was behind the wheel, with the team’s product marketing lead Archit Bhargava close behind. Along the way,  Flint Dille called in to speak with the Elite V, in character.

In Ingress‘ narrative, Niantic Labs serves two divergent roles. In the real world, Niantic Labs is a branch of Google that built the mobile app, developed the alternate reality game, and created additional transmedia pieces to the narrative in the form of novels, comic books, and reams of documents. In the story’s fictional universe, Niantic Labs and many of its employees still exist, but with a slightly different context. In Flint Dille’s case, as a Niantic Labs employee he is the Creative Lead on Ingress, drawing on his experience working on everything from video games like The Chronicles of Riddick to television shows including the GI Joe and Transformers cartoons. In the fictional narrative, Flint Dille was pulled into the experience when a crazed comic book artist interrupted his panel at Comic-Con. Since then, Dille has independently investigated the Niantic Project as a member of the Enlightened faction. It was the fictional Dille who called, giving players a chance to bounce theories off of him.

Explaining the distinction between the factions, Dille described the current divide as being between the Enlightened’s focus on alien influence, and the Resistance’s press towards artificial intelligence. “It’s kind of a Batman, Superman question. You like Superman, you want to have superpowers, be born on Krypton…you like Batman, you have a bunch of devices and the Batmobile, and feel like you have control over your destiny.”

As a member of Operation Essex, the collective of players dedicated to piecing together Ingress‘ narrative, Agent Portalyst (Linda Besh) was particularly eager to prod the in-character Dille for clues to some of the loose threads of a narrative unfolding across piles of often contradictory information. The day of our call, Ingress released a new comic book combining three previously published comics into a single issue. Players scouring through the new release noticed a number of modifications to information conveyed in some of the panels, and even some new artwork, that might indicate a turning point for the story’s narrative. Besh also helped create Ingress-themed charm bracelets so that players could have a tangible record of their involvement in Ingress‘ Anomaly events. Agent TheBaMs was less interested in the narrative elements of the game, and more focused on the gameplay: at every stop, the #NL1331 van’s portal would change hands a few times, with TheBaMs and Morka in particular keeping up a friendly rivalry.

Along the way, the van stopped off at a number of locations to give local players the chance to meet the Elite V, pick up a portal key for the #NL1331 van, and chat with some of the creators of their beloved game. At the Madonna Inn, members of the local Resistance faction came out to chat, and I had the chance to speak with Agent triplett about gameplay in a more rural setting. With many of the portals in the area located on top of the local hills and mountains, the trek out to capture a single portal could be a formidable task. But that was nothing in comparison to his trip out to the Point Conception Lighthouse, a key strategic point for control of the California coastline. In order to reach the Point Conception Lighthouse, players have to wait until low tide creates a land bridge to the lighthouse, keeping a lookout for the wild hogs that roam the area.

The trip down to Los Angeles was framed as a victory tour for the Elite V, allowing local Agents in California the chance to meet prominent members of the community who dominated Google+ discussions, internal faction chats, and planning sessions for events created by Google and those crafted within the communities. Many players mentioned the distinction between “soft 8’s” — players who reached level 8 and rested on their laurels, and “hard 8’s” — players who continued to engage and give back to the community, redoubling their commitment after reaching the top level. The caravan to Los Angeles was a celebration of those “hard 8’s”.

Anomalies and Prologue to Recursion Los Angeles
Ingress featured a strong underlying narrative even before the mobile app launched, but live events emerged organically through local Ingress communities who wanted to put together time-sensitive challenges between factions. This tradition of informal events continues: the Enlightened faction held Ingress Enlightened Games to coincide with the Winter Olympics, and players in countries like Russia and Mexico have created their own narrative spin-offs of the main plot to give context to some of their unofficial events. So when the Niantic Labs team started running their own official Anomaly events, it wasn’t seeking to supplant what had already emerged: it merely provided an additional opportunity for players to meet with the game’s creators and characters, enjoy specialized gameplay mechanics, and potentially even influence the game’s narrative. Niantic Labs’ head John Hanke mentioned that one of the key takeaways from the player summit with the Elite V was providing local groups with the tools to run informal local and global events more efficiently.

ingress-volatile-portal-kluEvery Anomaly event follows the same basic structure: after a brief introductory speech, players are given a map of the field of play, divided out into different clustered regions. At pre-scheduled times, each cluster is scored for points, and “volatile portals” worth additional points are revealed. The faction with the most points wins, and the factions go out to celebrate or commiserate. Often, plot points expand events into a broader challenge.

For the Recursion Anomaly, that broader challenge involved the transportation of special artifacts that served different purposes for each faction. The artifacts provided Enlightened Agents with an opportunity to break their ally Hank Johnson out of a violent cycle of death and rebirth. The same artifacts could be used by the Resistance to help their ally Klu finish merging with the artificial intelligence that serves as an interface with the Ingress mobile app. Winning live events helped factions secure virtual artifacts that had to be transported to locations across the globe through a daisy-chain of portal links. During the events leading up to the final Recursion event in Los Angeles, the Resistance swept the live events.

Rio5 (Ruth Shepherd), one of the Floridian players to make it out to the Recursion event in Los Angeles, explained that the process of moving artifacts hundreds of miles could be a challenging one. After ensuring there are no links or control fields blocking the way to its intended destination, Agents at the source portal use a special link amplifier to extend their portal’s reach to its target destination. A group of Agents waiting at the destination portal then quickly repeat the process to the next chain down the line, preventing the rival faction from taking control of the artifact and moving it away from its intended destination. By the time the Los Angeles Recursion occurred, 5 of the 17 artifacts had been delivered to their target destinations by the Resistance.

The Los Angeles Recursion Event
As a member of the Resistance faction, I joined up with Team Lazuli, a combination of the Elite V Resistance members and a group of Agents from Portland who previously teamed up for the San Francisco 13Magnus Anomaly. While the team’s leader Ethan Lepouttre stayed in communication with remote Operators directing events from around the world using a remote communications service called Zello, our team was tasked with defending a small group of 4-5 portals. Knowing the stakes, it’s still a fun way to spend a few hours: the real fun happens behind the scenes. 

But for the players directing the action remotely, commonly referred to as “Operators”, the live event is like playing a game of Starcraft, knowing that each unit is a living, breathing person. After the Recursion event concluded I spoke with Agent d0gboy, who served as an Operator for the Enlightened’s efforts in India that helped his faction win the event: “Part of the game is plotting out a link from Point A to Point B. And it’s easy if it’s a portal that’s here and across the street. But if it’s a portal that’s [in Los Angeles] and a portal in Seattle you need someone to help you, on a computer with multiple screens who can tell you there are enemy agents near you, or you’ve got this blocker near you.”

Once the Los Angeles Anomaly completed with an Enlightened victory, a two-hour long endgame commenced where the Enlightened had the opportunity to transport two artifacts from Texas and Hawaii to a portal in Los Angeles. Players of both factions used this as an opportunity to hang out and chat, unplugged from their Operators and free of the competitive edge. I met the Pyles, a family of seven with three generations playing the game. As a sign of solidarity, their in-game usernames all ended in “lite”. When I had the chance to talk with John Hanke about the game, he was very excited about the game’s ability to bring a wide variety of players together:

There’s this older woman up in Seattle, Agent Nana: they all know her. Her favorite portal is an American Indian [cultural center], and she takes people to the set of portals and she walks them around and gives them the tour, telling them all about it…she’s walking 2 miles a day, and it’s helping her control her [health condition] without her medication…and what I’m thinking when she’s telling me about the benefits of the game is there are all these 20-something and 30-something people are coming up to her and giving her hugs and high-fives.

The Enlightened won the Los Angeles Recursion event and the Resistance won the larger Recursion series of events, but the official Anomaly event was about the same thing as the unofficial community events: people coming together to play a game outside together. The rival factions leads to competition and secrecy between groups, but the trash-talk I overheard at the Recursion event was the most congenial I’ve ever heard. In describing the social aspects of the game, Hanke added, “part of that is the design. It’s not a head-on-head combat kind of game. You are competing directly over the portals, but never attacking you as an individual. Even playing card games where you can take a card from another person…in Ingress, it doesn’t build that animosity.”

The Future for Ingress
Over the coming months, Ingress will be rolling out additional levels, badges, and missions to flesh out the current game, as well as an iOS release. Later this year, James Frey is launching a new franchiseEndgame, that will play out across a HarperCollins book series, a film through 20th Century Fox, and as an app built on Ingress‘ platform. Agents interested in experiencing an Anomaly for themselves can check the locations for the Interitus Anomaly, with events running through June 21st.

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