ARGNet: Alternate Reality Gaming Network Your first choice for ARG news. Tue, 18 Feb 2014 14:42:28 +0000 en-US hourly 1 MyMusic: NewsRadio for the YouTube Generation Tue, 18 Feb 2014 14:42:28 +0000

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.

mymusic-posterDuring the first season of MyMusic, the plot centered around its over-the-top ensemble chafing under their self-imposed, one-dimensional roles. Metal fights to be seen as the loving father and savvy businessman that lies underneath his gruff exterior. Scene, whose character is an homae to Catherine Wayne’s internet persona “Boxy”, becomes emotionally unhinged after facing the wrath of 4chan. As for Hip Hop? He faces an identity crisis that leads to him adopting an entirely new persona. The writing and acting rarely strays from its purposefully Vaudevillian excesses, but the characters begin to find themselves, and move beyond their names. In MyMusic‘s second season, these more nuanced characters are forced to reconcile their work life with their hopes and dreams, leading many characters to seriously consider leaving MyMusic to pursue an education, a new career, or the chance for fame and fortune.

MyMusic was consciously designed with younger audiences in mind, loading every episode with a healthy dose of sight gags, catchphrases, and risqué punchlines. In a scene that typifies the humor throughout the project, the writers of one of the final episodes of season 2 cooked up an elaborate scenario involving Metal’s wife baking at home as an excuse to drop the punchline “but I thought you liked it when I try bundt stuff” before returning to their slowly simmering marital strife. Self-referential humor is also a popular standby, with another episode in season 2 making an extended joke about the show’s scripted nature culminating in the line “I am also reading a line of dialogue.”

Scattered throughout the MyMusic crew’s madcap adventures, YouTube celebrities make frequent guest appearances, seemingly competing for most ridiculous character. Felicia Day as Gorgol, a Norweigan black-metal rocker. Shane Dawson as a milquetoast delivery man named Chip. Freddie Wong as deformed EDM performer DJ Elephant. Toby Turner as the devil and Harley Morenstein as Jesus. The ensemble cast of MyMusic has a few celebrities on its own, featuring Men At Work‘s Adam Busch as Indie, SourceFed’s Lee Newton as Country, it’sGrace’s Grace Helbig as Idol, and jacksfilms’ Jack Douglass as Intern 2. However, until the end of the first season, none of the videos promoted the featured actors and actresses, preferring to let fans piece together that information on their own rather than betray the show’s central conceit. In a behind-the-scenes interview Benny Fine explains, “we went to…such great lengths to make this feel like it’s a show that’s happening in real time, in real life: including never dropping the curtain or breaking the fourth wall.” While the curtain dropped during the show’s hiatus, it returned in full force for season 2, reaffirming the Fine Brothers’ commitment to maintaining a show that treats itself as real across all platforms.

As a show, MyMusic fulfills that promise to an almost unprecedented extent. For all intents and purposes, MyMusic is a fully functioning production company, providing timely news and reporting on the music industry helping fans discover emerging artists. MyMusic’s most consistent segment is The Mosh, a weekly Q&A show that lets the company’s fans talk about music and more with the MyMusic crew. During season 1, The Mosh was complemented by MyMusic News‘s brief news updates and MyMusic Presents‘s artist spotlights, as well as Scene’s Tumblr Tuesday segment featuring cute stuff on Tumblr. During season 2, the MyMusic website launched, taking the company back to its fictional blogging roots with articles written in the voice of the characters. MyMusic News and MyMusic Presents were replaced with the hour-long MyMusic Podcasts videos, and Tumblr Tuesday gave way to Gaming with Metal. If you wanted ignore the narrative and consume MyMusic as a Buzzfeed-friendly supplement to Pitchfork, you could.

And then, there’s the characters’ social media presence.

The fact that each of the characters dutifully maintained a host of social media platforms to promote MyMusic is not surprising: MyMusic started a week after The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, but creators have been salting the internet with traces of their characters for years. However, the depth of the social media landscape created around the show is more extensive than I’ve seen. Part of Metal’s backstory, for example, is his involvement in the band Jars of Vomit. Accordingly, you can find official music videos for their songs Throat Punch and Apple Juice Factory online. There’s also a music video for one of the fictional bands that stopped off at the show. But you can also find Shane Dawson’s character Chip on Twitter. He only appeared in two episodes of season 1, but he’s been tweeting updates at least once a week ever since, with some tweets reacting in parallel to the narrative when necessary. All told, there are over 50 bit characters outside the show’s core cast that continue to live on after their cameos, in an extended network of status updates. Most of these background characters limited their interactions to weekly tweets after their initial appearance, but their ongoing presence served as a reminder of the show’s expanding universe. Even the main ensemble limit their interactions to chatting among themselves, leaving interactions with the show’s “MyMusician” fans to more overt requests for interaction, like meme submission requests or calls for Reddit AMA questions. But even that design choice echoes the relationship you might expect to have with popular creators, YouTube or otherwise.

One of MyMusic’s most impressive extensions that tapped into fans’ passion for the show was its charity drive for Little Kids Rock, a non-profit created to provide public school music programs with much-needed resources. The in-narrative endeavor was started by Country as an attempt to reverse her bad karma, launching an Indiegogo campaign centered around a livestreamed concert featuring performances by Hey You, Cossby Sweater, Diamond White, Tyler Ward, and Cimorelli. In just a week, the benefit raised just shy of $13,000.

In the face of such an intimidating amount of content, seasons 1 and 2 have been repackaged as a longer-form sitcom format, combining story arcs that were previously broken up across multiple weeks into a single episode. And while a third season has yet to be confirmed, the team has committed to maintaining the MyMusic website and the various social media accounts through its indefinite hiatus.

More than anything else, MyMusic is a platform for its larger-than-life cast of characters to shine, regardless of media platform. Because the show is rooted in featuring caricatures of hardcore music fans, each member of the ensemble cast has a distinct identity and tone. For instance Dubstep, true to his name, acts like a human beatbox, communicating exclusively in “wubs”, “dubs”, and “zooms”, relying on Techno’s unique understanding of his speech to translate, liberally dosed with terms like “PLUR” that I’m too old to understand. Cover up the byline on any blog post written in Techno & Dubstep’s voice, obscure the name behind any tweet either one sends, and it’s still a relatively simple matter to identify the speaker. These distinctive voices allow the MyMusic team to instantly bring the characters to life. That, more than anything else, is why I’ve always been curious what it would be like to turn on the radio and tune in to WNYX hearing Phil Hartman as the often insensitive Bill McNeal.

And finally, thanks to MyMusic, I know what that might feel like.

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The Future is Fiction: Playful Future-Thinking About Climate Change with FutureCoast Tue, 04 Feb 2014 18:24:23 +0000

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

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

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

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

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

Sara Thacher, producer on FutureCoast and one of the creators of San Francisco’s interactive experience The Jejune Institute, explains the narrative focus on voicemail messages,

What excited me was…doing this kind of collaborative storytelling but narrowing how you contribute, lowering the bar as much as possible so that you could contribute in a really specific way. That’s an easy step to take. You know what a voicemail sounds like, you know how to use a phone, and the act of calling on the phone sets you up in the mode to record a voicemail, so it’s an automatic getting into character.

chronofact2-smTo anchor the FutureCoast narrative in the real world, Eklund and Thacher came up with the idea of chronofacts, physical representations of the future voicemails leaking into our present. They teamed up artist Debbie Palmer with designer and artificer Haley Moore to create the chronofacts. The result of their work is a beautiful object of elegant curves, delicate etchings and crystalline transparency that encapsulates visually the idea of the ethereal cloud of possible futures into which FutureCoast taps.

“I think the chronofacts do a great job of saying, ‘Hey, it’s the future calling.’ Visually, they are very intriguing,” says Eklund.

Recently, chronofacts have been recovered by FutureCoast characters (Coasters) such as Sam Robertson, played by Ed Zed Omega veteran Tara Borman. Sam, a college student doing an independent study project, has made several videos about tracking and recovering chronofacts during the chronofalls. When the February chronofall arrives, the FutureCoast audience will have an opportunity to recover chronofacts as well. Players will be able to locate chronofacts through geocaching.

“We do have an ambitious plan regarding the geocaching of the chronofacts and the recovery thereof,” Eklund says.

Other characters have been making appearances as the February 5th launch day nears. Several characters such as Billy Dan, a Coaster from Texas, and Alex, who runs the FutureCoast Tumblr, have posted videos to the FutureCoast YouTube channel. Coaster Shelly keeps up the FutureCoast blog. Coaster Finch has a podcast about the project that is available on iTunes, Stitcher, and through the RSS feed.

With the grant coming from the National Science Foundation, science education has a prominent place in FutureCoast. Involving high school and college students is a goal, and the team has developed a lesson plan for high school teachers to use, even making the geocaching element of FutureCoast part of a classroom activity.

FutureCoast Sam Robertson holding a chronofactOnce a chronofact has been recovered from its geocache, it can be decoded through the serial number etched onto it. Coasters who find a chronofact can upload a picture of it, and the FutureCoast team will decode it and publish the voicemails attached to it. But not all the voicemails will come from chronofacts. Players are encouraged to create their own voicemails and post them by calling the FutureCoast hotline: 1-321-7FCOAST (1-321-732-6278).

Players can leave these voicemails as their future selves, or they can create a character who exists in their idea of the future. This narrative mechanism is interesting in that through their voicemails, players create two characters in one action: the person who speaks in the voicemail, and the listener on the other end of the line for whom they are leaving the voicemail. Combining the imaginative power of audio and the creativity of a future-thinking audience could potentially result in moments of potent short-form storytelling. Many compelling voicemails from different futures have already been posted to the website. The voicemails will also be available for listening at Soundcloud.

The voicemails received from players are moderated only to ensure that they are appropriate for a general audience and to add visual cues and titles and make them browsable by theme or time period. Players can also assist in adding tags to their voicemails. The hotline is active, and people can leave voicemails right now. Once the latest version of the website becomes active on February 5th, players will be able to choose to receive a text message that will alert them when their voicemail has been moderated and posted to the website.

In addition to creating voicemails, players will be able to create Timestreams – playlists of voicemails that they believe fit together in the same theme, or the same future, or whatever criteria makes sense to the individual.

How are these mysterious chronofalls detected, and how do we know where the chronofacts will appear? Once the early Coasters figured out what the chronofacts represented, they tapped into the voicemail system of North America so that they could detect when the chronofalls happened by looking at the pattern of broken cell phone calls that result during a chronofall. They can also zero in on the coordinates of the chronofacts using this detection method. Although most of the chronofacts have been discovered in the U.S. and Canada, recently a chronofact was recovered in Beirut, decoding to a voicemail from the year 2045, which reveals an ominous conversation about war in Sudan and water investments that could result in “tens of millions” for the caller and his friend. It’s possible that chronofact recoveries may also happen in the UK at some point.

Underpinning the playful design of FutureCoast is Eklund’s concept of authentic fiction. Authentic fiction, he says, has to do with the relationship between the gamemaster and the player, what powers of narration granted to the player, and the question of what the gamemaster and the player are trying to create together.

“You’re trying to create this world together that is, indeed, authentic – that has this ring of authenticity to it, even though it might be wildly fictional,” Eklund says. “The fiction part is kind of a term for a playful world that you’re creating together, and a playful process.”

A crystalline chronofact awaits recovery by a peaceful lake.A chronofact awaits recovery by a peaceful lake.FutureCoast’s whimsical fiction of virtual time wormholes and recovered chronofacts finds its voice of authenticity in the personal stories of all the future voicemails.IMG_2264

“Especially with the medium of voicemails,” Thacher says, “making a voicemail that sounds authentic – you’re not reporting at the thousand-mile view. You’re in a very personal space, speaking from what’s nearby. The personal nature of what the possibilities of climate change mean – this is an opportunity for those to really come out.”

The beauty of FutureCoast is that no possible future is excluded. Whether a player is skeptical about the current scientific findings of climate change or whether they adhere stringently to theories of global warming, their personal story of the future will find its place in FutureCoast. It is a safe space for discussions and ideas where players can engage in collaborative worldbuilding. This collaborative space, Eklund maintains, is where a compelling authenticity can be created.

“We saw in World Without Oil, there’s this additive process where people would go, ‘You know, you’re right, that would happen in an oil crisis,’” Eklund said, speaking of the way that the sharing of ideas about the future could result in a meaningful discussion of future possibilities. He described it as an “organic exploration” of ideas. “We’re looking for black swans. We’re looking for people who have an insight about the future. We want to have a place where they can, without fear of being laughed at or scorned, playfully present that idea.”

FutureCoast is really saying, in a world where there are many different views on climate change from both a political and a science basis, it’s a hard topic to have a meaningful conversation about, especially with someone who has a different view on the subject,” Thacher adds. “By saying, ‘These [voicemails] are from the cloud of possible futures,’ everybody gets a voice, the future is not certain. It’s saying both ‘science is important’ but also ‘we don’t know’. Science gives us a way to peer into the future, but there are still many possibilities.”

Further, Thacher maintains, science doesn’t really address what will happen to people on a personal level through the future changes that it projects. FutureCoast brings climate change into each player’s personal narrative, asking, as World Without Oil asked, “How will this future affect you, personally?” Unlike World Without Oil, where the initial narrative described one future for players to respond to, FutureCoast provides a structure where the uncertain future – that cloud of all possible futures – can become a vessel for a player’s personal expression, their story, their ideas of what the future will be like.

In August of 2013, Eklund participated in a ScienceOnline discussion about Climate Communication, where he concluded, “A personal story is much more compelling than any amount of data [...] – someone who is actually acting upon the data.”

“I think FutureCoast is going to take climate change out of the silo where we think about it as being the sort of weather that we live in, and its going to integrate it into the things our lives are made out of,” Eklund speculates. “Voicemails aren’t about weather. They’re about the weather and cars, houses, eco-systems. There’s an influence that climate has on these things: food, water, migrations of people.”

“I think that there are a lot of people who want to have an invitation to say something about climate change,” Eklund says. “And I think this is the opportunity. It is this sort of creative challenge – you say it, but you say it in your future voice.”

A lot of the polarization about climate change, Eklund believes, comes from an idea that there is only one future, and that the argument is over who is right and who is wrong about what that future is going to look like. “Philosophically speaking, there is not one future,” he says. “There is a cloud of possible futures, and the decisions that we make will influence the future we actually live in.”

Storytelling, narrative, and gameplay can help us develop better future-thinking abilities. “Life is not getting any easier in terms of seeing where the future is going to take us,” Eklund says. “There’s this idea that we’re running into these problems that we could have foreseen if only we had better sorts of future-thinking. The aspect of “future-thinking” in FutureCoast is really an experiment: is there a playful and fun way that we can develop better future-thinking muscles in our brain?”

He goes on to say, “The future is fiction. Scientists can see trends happening, but they do not know. Nobody knows. And there’s a role that narrative can play in our ability to think successfully about the future. There’s a role games can play in being a place where people can come together and not be polarized.”

Where the conversation about climate change can quickly fall into a holding pattern, Eklund proposes that it is important to change the dialog. “One of the changes we’re making is that we’re trying to get the dialog away from being a discussion that other people are having to a discussion that you are a part of. This is a way for you to raise your voice and to say something based upon the way you see tings. What is the future that you see?”

Quick Facts and Links:
What: FutureCoast, a game about climate change, rising seas, and the cloud of possible futures.
When: February 5th, 2014
How: Call the FutureCoast hotline, 1-321-7FCOAST (1-321-732-6278), to leave a voicemail from your future, or visit the FutureCoast website to listen to voicemails from the future(s) and create your own playlist of voicemails to share with others.

Other Links:
The FutureCoast YouTube channel
The FutureCoast Twitter
FutureCoast blog
FutureCoat Tumblr
FutureCoast on Soundcloud
FutureCoast Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or RSS

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The Year (of Ingress) in Review Mon, 30 Dec 2013 16:29:46 +0000 ingress-outside

Ingress at a ZipCar location in Philadelphia. Sorry Ingress players, this is not a new passcode.

It’s been over a year since Google introduced the world of Ingress. At its core, the project is a locative mobile game spawned out of NianticLabs@Google, an internal skunkworks team based out of the search giant’s San Francisco office. In Ingress, players compete to capture and connect virtual portals situated at real world locations to control the globe for their team. Ingress isn’t the first game to explore this geolocative game mechanic: games like Plundr and Shadow Cities paved the way for Ingress by conditioning “field agents” to take mobile gaming out to the streets. What makes Ingress distinct is Niantic’s narrative ambitions: in the past year, daily updates from the production team through an alternate reality game have introduced players to a sprawling narrative told across websites, videos, novels, live events, and even hidden within the game itself.

Ingress recently opened up to all Android users, and plans to expand out to iOS devices in 2014. With over a year of story to catch up on, entering the world of Ingress may seem daunting. Familiarity with the story isn’t essential to gameplay, but it does add staying power to a game that runs the risk of turning tedious over time. For those looking to take the plunge, here’s a few helpful pointers.

Why Are We Playing Ingress? The Story Behind the Game

At Comic-Con 2012, a comic book artist named Tycho interrupted the Buck Rogers Panel with a half-coherent rant about extra-dimensional portals. A professor at UC Berkeley was hauled off in the middle of a lecture on using smartphones to detect “XM anomalies”. A dissatisfied customer’s smartphone was stolen after he complained about the phone glitching near local landmarks due to a Niantic-branded component. These three loosely related events were how players were introduced to Ingress last year, but the events leading up to the game started even earlier.

After years of experiments into a new type of matter with the capability of influencing sensitive people, the National Intelligence Agency sent a team of researchers to work on the newly created Niantic Project at CERN. With the help of the team’s artificial intelligence, ADA (“A Detection Algorithm”), the team discovered encoded communications buried within the matter. The Niantic team developed a scanner app capable of harvesting XM and storing it at locations of cultural significance, taking two separate forms: using the team’s original protocol, XM takes on a blue hue in the scanner app. Using an alternate protocol, it takes on a green hue. The team suspects that the green XM was put in place by the “Shapers”, the entities responsible for creating XM in the first place.

On November 30th, now known as “Epiphany Night”, everything changed. The Niantic lab at CERN was exposed to a massive dose of XM radiation, sending the researchers into frenzied bouts of creativity, like Enoch Dalby’s musical compositions. Whatever the researchers saw that night irreparably splintered the team: some researchers went on to work for Hulong Transglobal, IQTech, and Visur Technology, while others (like Roland Jarvis) ended up dead. The schism of the team was due in large part to philosophical differences about the true purpose of XM, exacerbated by their exposure to massive quantities of XM through Epiphany Night. To the team members who went on to became the core of the Enlightened faction, the Shaper’s influence on sensitive individuals through XM was viewed as the next step in human evolution. For the team members who chose the path of greatest Resistance, the Shaper’s influence was in XM was deemed a “Shaper Mind Virus” that must be countered.

News of these events started to filter through PA Chapeau on his conspiracy website, which provided classified documents, audio snippets, and videos filling in the blanks of the story. Joined by a motley crew of people curious about the research Niantic and its splinter companies continue to pursue, the Niantic Project website was the primary delivery mechanism for research into XM anomalies. Through the site’s daily updates, players were able to learn more about the history of XM and is influence on history through a series of Shaper glyphs, Roland Jarvis’ death and rebirth as an entity of pure XM, and subsequent attempts to both destroy and resurrect Jarvis. Chapeau’s updates come peppered with ciphers and puzzles. Some of these clues lead to passcodes that unlock additional items in the Ingress game, while others lead to deeper mysteries still.

Piecing together this narrative in its daily, bite-sized doses can be challenging, especially since PA Chapeau’s recent retirement from running the Niantic Project website shifted many of the daily updates to a section of Ingress’ Google+ page. However, a number of resources allow players interested in diving deeper into the narrative’s mythos easier. Felicia Hajira-Lee’s book The Niantic Project: Ingress provides a closer look at the events surrounding Epiphany Night, while weekly videos from Chapeau’s compatriot Susanna Moyer provides a more detailed overview of the story as it evolves.

Ingress: Playing the Game Within a Game

Soon after Epiphany Night, the Niantic team’s scanner app was leaked to the public in the form of the Ingress mobile app, allowing members of the public to express their allegiance as field agents for either the Enlightened or the Resistance, and to shape the global flow of XM. While the alternate reality game provides a deep backstory to events, the Ingress app is the primary vector for gameplay, and for influencing the narrative.

The Ingress app is available for free on the Google Play store, and provides a brief tutorial on the game’s relatively simple gameplay. The app taps into your phone’s GPS data to pull up a map of your area, with local sculptures, murals, and cultural landmarks identified by portals, that appear as bright splashes of green, blue, or white light. White portals can be claimed for your faction by deploying resonators, which need to be periodically recharged with XM to maintain full strength once claimed. Rival faction members can attack claimed portals using special items to destroy all of a portal’s resonators and claim it for their own. Special items can be deployed on resonators to boost the portal’s defenses. Alternatively, field agents can choose to hack portals to gain additional resonators, items, or items that reveal additional information about the story. By connecting portals together, field agents can gain control of territory measured in “mind units” for their faction. At a macro scale, the game acts like a game of Go, using the real world as its goban by asking field agents to carefully position portals to ensure maximum coverage with limited resources. Leveling up allows players to deploy stronger resonators and use more powerful items in the global bid for supremacy.

Since field agents have been fighting over territory in Ingress for over a year, gameplay is highly influenced by your choice of factions. If the majority of field agents in your area are members of a rival faction, gameplay is akin to guerilla warfare, identifying key portal locations and attacking them while their rivals are distracted. For players whose faction dominates a given region, the focus shifts towards cultivating the faction’s network of portals like a garden, warding against incursions and bolstering defenses during surprise attacks.

Ingress relies on constantly tapping into your phone’s GPS and data plan, so it’s not unusual to burn through your cellphone’s batteries during a session of intense gameplay. Rather than discourage field agents, this has led many to secure specialized gear like external batteries and chargers to fuel extended gameplay sessions. Similar to geocaching, going out for a session of dedicated Ingress hacking becomes something to plan for. Some field agents take that to the extreme, setting up personal “epic wins”. One field agent recently chartered a bush plane to a remote town in Alaska for an epic run, while others set up trans-national collaborations to secure large swaths of territory for their factions.

The game focuses on highlighting locations of cultural significance, the app provides a stealthy way of familiarizing its player base with the murals, sculptures, and landmarks that so often get ignored in the ordinary course of business. And since users can submit their own portals for consideration, Ingress is slowly yet surely augmenting its global database of noteworthy locations through gameplay, particularly in more remote locations.

For the most part, global control of mind units doesn’t have a significant influence on the unfolding narrative. However, field agents are given agency to influence events and characters through a series of special events referred to as “XM Anomalies”. These events offer field agents time-sensitive challenges to secure specific locations for their factions in order to secure secret documents, or even sway the allegiance of characters in the story. The most recent event, codenamed 13MAGNUS, pitted the two factions against each other in a bid to either resurrect Roland Jarvis from the dead, or ensure his destruction. The Enlightened succeeded in bringing Jarvis back from the XM-enhanced dead as one final hurrah before the end of Ingress‘ open beta.

Finding Community in Competition

In the past year, the Ingress community has blossomed, with blogs and a subreddit providing regular updates on the game’s progress, Wikis documenting the minutae of the game’s story, and a weekly in-game web series produced by NianticLabs drawing attention to some of the game’s highlights, focusing in equal parts on the narrative and gameplay. And there are quite a few highlights, like when one passionate player got a tattoo of the game’s logo.

Each of these serve as practical windows into the world of Ingress for the outsider, but the most vibrant community can be found on Google+. While Google’s efforts to integrate its social network across everything from YouTube to Gmail has been met its own resistance from the company’s existing user base, Ingress may serve as Google’s strongest case study for providing a compelling reason for people to actually use the service for its intended purpose. Ingress‘ gameplay is inherently competitive, pitting faction against faction. However, inter-faction collaboration is also essential for regional planning, so players have turned to Google+ Circles to manage tactical planning while still participating in cross-factional conversations.

The friendly localized rivalries have even led to some unexpected and unprompted instances of geo-locative artwork. Given a palatte of geo-locative points on a map, Enlightened and Resistance field agents teamed up to engage in not-so-random acts of field art, carving out virtual bat signals, woodpeckers, and sailboats to decorate the game’s interface.

Searching for Sustainability

Ingress is free to play, without relying on freemium micro-transactions that could risk unbalancing the game. To test out potential revenue models for the game and its platform, the Niantic Labs team has experimented with a number of business models to support the game. For Ingress, the primary method used is product placement. Companies like ZipCar, Jamba Juice, Duane Reade, and Verizon partnered with Google to add store locations to the list of portals, as well as special codes to unlock additional items inside the locations. Specially marked bottles of HINT water also contain passcodes. As Niantic CEO John Hanke explained to The Verge, the hope is to eventually open up Ingress‘ platform to developers interested in taking the platform in different narrative directions.

Getting Started

If you’re interested in giving Ingress a try, download the app from the Google Play store, take a look at the portals in your area at the official Ingress map, check out the global Ingress community on Google+, and reach out to your local Ingress group to get some insight into the local scene, and watch the Ingress Report’s video tutorials for suggestions on how to reach level 8 in no time. But be careful: you’re only allowed to change your faction once, by requesting a manual reset for your account. So take your time deciding whether you want to oppose the Shaper infestation with the Resistance, or embrace the change with the Enlightened.

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Take a Walk on the Wild Side with Six to Start’s “The Walk” Wed, 11 Dec 2013 18:10:12 +0000 thewalk_header
When Six to Start created Zombies, Run!, players were given the chance to plug in a pair of headphones and lose themselves in a rich narrative, where you’re asked to run to survive. And while Zombies, Run! doesn’t require its players to run, the story and many of its game mechanics are built around promoting running. After receiving feedback from fans of the game who aren’t avid runners, Six to Start and Naomi Alderman partnered with the UK Department of Health and National Health Service to release The Walk for iOS and Android devices earlier today.

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


The game at release will contain 23 Episodes and 7 Challenges, with additional Episodes and Challenges to be released as a free update in early 2014. Episodes contain the major story elements, audio clips which are unlocked as you progress through the map.


The maps often contain branches which have special items or additional audio clips which enhance the story. There are also hidden landscape features which display as small white squares which, when tapped, might unlock more audio clips and help you win achievements.


In a Challenge, the objective is to collect as many items as possible in a 24 hour period. The challenge starts by drawing a path which takes you through all the items, and must be at least 30 minutes long. The longer the path, the longer it will take to walk, and achievements are earned depending on how much of the path you complete and items you collect.

The beauty of The Walk‘s gameplay is that all walking activity throughout the day is recorded, allowing the app to serve as a daily activity tracker. Players can start up the app, place it in their pocket or purse, and go about their daily routine to progress. Because of this focus on longer term tracking, audio clips are no longer played automatically when they are unlocked: instead, they must be actively selected from the Episode Map or Episode Select screen.

Activity Tracker:

While activity can be tracked as progress towards an Episode or Challenge, The Walk can also serve as a more traditional activity tracker. Activity recorded for the day is displayed at the top of the Activity Tracker, and displays both the number of steps taken, and the total time walking. Beneath that is a green line graph that displays your progress towards the daily target (initially set to 100 minutes). If you’re currently playing an Episode or Challenge, progress towards completion is displayed next.


In the “Last 7 Days” section, your activity over the past 7 days is tracked in a bar chart, along with the average time spent walking each day. The “Today’s Journeys” section breaks down the day’s activities: time spent walking, in transit (such as in a car or train), and periods of inactivity. Next to each item is a globe icon which, when pressed, displays a map which shows the path taken during that activity.

Last 7 Days

Lastly, the Statistics section displays total time active, most activity in a day, average daily activity, longest walk, and longest run.

Battery Life and Accuracy:

It should be noted that, while all Apple products running iOS 7 (and Android devices running 4.0 and above) can play The Walk, the app has been optimized for Apple products using the M7 motion chip which allows a higher accuracy level to be achieved with less battery power than with the accelerometer and GPS alone. This means the level of accuracy will be much higher on the iPhone 5s or 2nd Gen (Retina display) iPad Mini. For my tests, I ran the app on an iPhone 4 using just GPS and the Accelerometer. Battery life was not bad, on average of 40% used during a day of use. During the testing period, the only thing the iPhone was used for was The Walk and email over WiFi (the phone does not have a data plan). Due to the lack of an M7 chip, accuracy could not be as high as, say, my Fitbit: but to do so would be detrimental to battery life. So when running the game on older devices, be aware treks from your desk to the break room may not be accurately recorded, but longer more brisk walks will be much more accurate. If you have the latest and greatest in Apple technology, all daily walking activity will be logged more accurately.

Game play scenarios:

While testing, I played the game in a variety of situations such as the gym, specific walking workouts outside, and shopping. While in the gym, the equipment used was the elliptical and the treadmill, and while the app logged steps on both machines, the activity on the treadmill was logged more accurately. During specific outside walks, one was at a brisk pace and the other was at a more leisurely pace; both tracked steps but the brisker walk was more accurate. The best performance I noticed was when the iPhone was left in my purse with the app running while shopping.

It’s worth noting that, at least on Apple devices, the game notifications that are sent to notify players of unlocked audio clips or collectibles do not display when you are listening to music on a separate app, since that app takes priority.

The Verdict:

The Walk was not designed to be as immersive as Zombies, Run!, to accommodate the shift in focus from tracking workouts to tracking daily fitness routines. The Walk is still a fun game with its new focus, and offers a compelling story that can be played pretty much any time, anywhere. The Walk is available on iTunes and Google Play for $4.99, with a special 20% discount to celebrate its launch taking the price down to $3.99.


If you’ve been looking for something to motivate you to walk more… and the Fitbit or Jawbone Up are out of your price range, The Walk may be just the thing to get you moving!

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Caught in an Infiniti Loop with Deja View Wed, 06 Nov 2013 18:34:08 +0000 deja-view

A sharply dressed man and woman are lost on an empty stretch of road, with no memories of who they are or where they’re going. The only clues to their identity are the personalized features programmed into their car, and your phone number in their phone’s call history. The nameless man calls your number. For the next 15-20 minutes, you’re tasked with guiding the pair as they retrace forgotten steps, piecing together their past lives and their current predicament.

Welcome to Deja View, a visually stunning interactive film produced by Campfire to promote the Infiniti Q50, that delights in throwing you into the center of a mystery with characters as confused as you are. The experience (limited to United States residents) begins at After watching a brief explanatory video and calling a number to sync up your browser and your phone, voice inputs on the phone can direct what video content plays out in real time, creating the illusion of natural conversations with your fictional on-screen collaborators.

As Deja View progresses through the story’s three main narrative checkpoints, you’re led on a seemingly simple, linear journey. Once or twice per session, you receive a phone call from one of the characters and are asked to respond to a few simple questions: say you’ve spoken with the man before, or deny it. Go to the gas station, or to the diner. Your answer changes how the video progresses, while still driving you inexorably towards a happy ending where the pair free themselves from the loop that has them trapped. The only challenge? One of the central themes of Deja View that enables you to reach a successful conclusion to the story is the idea of eschewing the well-worn path, and breaking free from constraints. You can’t complete Deja View without convincing the on-screen characters to go against their own instincts, but the story rewards you for taking the easy path with a happy ending. The message is conveyed, but you aren’t forced to live it as a co-conspirator.

To address this potential for cognitive dissonance, Deja View has secret narratives that are only exposed to people who resist the easy answers. Ask the right unprompted question, and you might ferret out some additional information about why the pair are stuck in a loop. Make a conscious effort to thwart their journey, and you might make one or both of the characters lose trust in you and each other, irrevocably altering their path. It’s not easy, and most of the changes you make only have a small impact on the overarching narrative. But push the edges enough, and you’ll take things in a completely different direction.

If this method of telling stories sounds familiar, you may be remembering some of the experimental stories that played out across Fourth Wall Studios’ RIDES platform, which sought to integrate telephone and video content to create serial dramas like the Emmy Award-winning Dirty Work. But while RIDES focused mainly on narrative voyeurism by asking viewers to spy on synched telephone calls and text messages intended for others, Deja View grants viewers the ability to influence the video through telephone conversations that bring the narrative flexibility of text adventure games into the realm of cinema.

Deja View was developed as an interactive companion piece to Factory of Lifethe brand’s television spot for the Q50. In Factory of Life, a man escapes an assembly line that churns out nearly identical business-people. Deja View follows that same man out on the open road as he attempts to make good on that escape. Both halves of the campaign can be viewed in isolation, but I found it best to experience Deja View first, before watching Factory of Life as a prequel. Elements of the television commercial offer hints at mysteries uncovered through flashbacks in the interactive short that lend to a better understanding of the project as a whole, but the overall experience is strongest when audience and fictional character uncover the narrative’s underlying mystery in Deja View together. Campfire’s Creative Director Steve Coulson explains that one of the inspirations for the project was the question, “what if Hitchcock did transmedia”? Part of the thrill of watching a Hitchcock film is experiencing the twists fresh during that crucial first viewing: and while Factory of Life doesn’t offer any information about the main twist, it might conceal a MacGuffin or two.

One of the core abilities transmedia storytelling and alternate reality games share is their ability to convey a feeling of agency. When I watch a horror movie and one of the characters is about to walk into the serial killer’s trap, my gut reaction is to yell at the screen and tell them what to do. In a crowded movie theater, I end up looking like an obnoxious jerk and risk getting kicked out of the screening. With Deja View, I can finally yell at the screen and actually have the characters listen and react, expletives and all.

While savvy players will be able to unearth quite a few hints about the two protagonists of Deja View, the story never gives a definitive answer to the questions of who the two protagonists are or how they got stuck in a loop. One possible explanation that I’ve entertained is that Deja View is providing a window into the genesis of professional drivers, and the closed course curse they’ve been forced to endure all these years. If you’ve watched a car commercial in the past decade, you’ve probably seen the disclaimer ”Professional driver. Closed course. Do not attempt.” in the fine print of countless car commercials. But when was the last time you thought about what it means to be a professional driver? What does it take to become one, and why do we rarely see them? And exactly how closed are those “closed courses”? Is it significant that the warning shows up in Infiniti’s Factory of Life commercial just as the unnamed man escapes in the car?

Maybe that disclaimer isn’t just a disclaimer. Maybe it’s also a warning.

“Professional driver. Closed course. Do not attempt.”

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Bringing Cronenberg’s Films to Life with Body Mind Change Thu, 03 Oct 2013 19:37:02 +0000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Domino, Start Recording: A Virtual Boomtown in Sanditon, CA Thu, 19 Sep 2013 18:41:59 +0000 welcometosanditon

Pemberley Digital’s The Lizzie Bennet Diaries recently took home a Creative Arts Emmy for Original Interactive Program for its web adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The web series reframed Austen’s classic in a modern setting, allowing the characters to live out their fictional lives outside the show’s main YouTube channel, interacting freely across dozens of social media platforms. On October 7th, the team at Pemberley Digital will be returning to play in Jane Austen’s universe with the release of their next major production, Emma Approved. But between The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved, Pemberley Digital turned to one of Jane Austen’s lesser-known works for an experiment in transmedia storytelling with Welcome to Sanditon.

As one of California’s many Gold Rush boomtowns, the town of Sanditon California was no stranger to rapid change. In The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, William Darcy’s company Pemberley Digital developed an experimental video recording platform, Domino. Sanditon’s mayor Tom Parker met up with Gigi Darcy at SXSW, and signed up his town as a partner community, giving interested townsfolk the chance to share their lives on the platform through blogs, pictures, and videos. Mayor Parker’s aspiration for Sanditon was to transform the city into a vibrant, health-conscious vacation spot, and much of the plot revolved around complications that arose for townsfolk and business owners when the mayor’s idealized version of the city conflicted with its reality.

This comes to the fore through the story’s main plotline, following the interactions between Sanditon Scoops owner Clara Breton, whose ice cream parlour is targeted for a mayoral-encourage rebranding to juice bar, and Parker’s reluctant assistant Edward Denham, who shows a delightful passion for obscure British television. Glitches in the early release of the Domino platform also resulted in bringing a budding romance between the two to the town’s attention, resulting in equal parts consternation and glee. While Gigi Darcy has largely stepped into the town to serve as an embedded narrator, Welcome to Sanditon allows her to complete her own narrative arc. Executive producer Jay Bushman viewed Gigi’s character as the strongest test cases for transmedia storytelling in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, making her reprisal through Welcome to Sanditon the end of an 18-month long journey.

Astute Jane Austen fans might have already guessed that the town of Sanditon, California is a modernized version of the town’s English counterpart, featured in Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon. While the 12 chapters published by her estate do an admirable job of introducing readers to the town of Sanditon and its residents, the novel ends before Austen can explore her intended narrative arc in depth. As such, adaptions of Sanditon are typically dominated by continuators looking to bring closure to the novel by injecting their own story. The Pemberley Digital team bucked that trend, choosing to weave a loose adaptation that toyed with the themes of the novel without speculating about the end result. Tom Parker’s obsession with changing Sanditon Scoops into a juice bar and attracting health-conscious businesses like the Griffiths siblings’ rival spin gyms echo the almost pathological obsession with health in Austen’s novel. Both towns also grapple with the contrast between the Sanditon that lives in its residents’ correspondences and the Sanditon that exists in fact: for Welcome to Sanditon, that contrast is all the more stark when you remember it only exists as a virtual boomtown.

With The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, the primary purpose of the show’s transmedia storytelling elements was to create a biome for Austen’s characters to inhabit. For Welcome to Sanditon, that focus shifted to finding ways of extending that biome out to include the audience. The day that Gigi Darcy released a video announcing she was on her way to Sanditon, fans of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries flooded social media sites to set up virtual shingles as residents and small business owners in the town. Drawing on a literary fanbase, it’s little surprise that Sanditon, California can boast 37 different bookstores, putting the town in contention for having more bookstores per capita than any other community in America. While bookstores were the most popular establishment, Sanditon businesses ranged from ad agencies, schools, and even exorcists (helpful, when the town is actually haunted). Fan-made news outlets like The Sanditon Sun were essential in keeping up with all of the fan-generated stories. In an online discussion about the storytelling experiment soon after its launch, Welcome to Sanditon‘s transmedia producer Alexandra Edwards explained,

I think it’s important to keep in mind that Sanditon is going to operate a lot like a real town, where you definitely don’t know everything that’s happening with everyone who lives in your town. I mean, 150,000 people live in my town, I have no idea what’s going on with most of them…find the thread you want to follow, find the things that interest you, and hang out with them.

While fans created content across a broad range of platforms, the Domino Beta Portal was the dominant way for fan-created stories to filter their way into the main narrative. Built on the Theatrics platform used for similar collective storytelling experiments like Beckinfield, participants were offered periodic prompts about issues facing the town likely to be featured in future videos. For example, after the “glitch” that highlighted a possible love interest between Clara Breton and Edward Denham, fans were asked to talk about their own experiences with Domino’s creative editing. These contributions were then fused together into a compilation video, where the virtual townsfolk concluded that Domino was an algorithmic fangirl.

The romance between Annabell Jones and Horace Smith serves as the strongest example of the more organic storytelling that took place within the virtual city of Sanditon. The drawn-out courtship of the two fan-run accounts played out in part through text, audio, and video uploaded to the Domino platform, with plot points from the main storyline like the glitch in the system interweaved throughout the couple’s more private romance. Pemberley Digital compilation videos even drew attention to the developing romance on more than one occasion. For the handful of Sanditon townsfolk role-playing or even following this additional love story, the eventual engagement of the happy couple served as just as meaningful a conclusion to the series as the final video.

Welcome to Sanditon concluded in August much as the books did, with the arrival of Sidney Parker. And while most of the plotlines introduced by Pemberley Digital were wrapped up, the series still holds an unfinished quality that echoes its source material. As writer and executive producer Margaret Dunlap explains, “This is a summer thing. It’ll be different, it’ll be an experiment, it lets us flex different muscles than Lizzie Bennet. This isn’t exactly us completing the novel.”

If you’re interested in going back and experiencing Welcome to Sanditon, there are a number of options. You can watch the main narrative play out on YouTube at the Pemberley Digital YouTube channel, or you can read through one of the curated feeds like the official Welcome to Sanditon site to experience a taste of some of the interactions that drove the show beyond the web series. You can also dive straight into Domino to get a feel for how a town of virtual strangers grew to form a community over the summer. And if you like what you see, keep an eye out for Emma Approved, which already has a few tendrils of background seeded across the web.

For those of you who aren’t afraid of spoilers, looking to skip straight to the good stuff? Be sure to at least check out the all-important “first kiss” episodes of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Welcome to Sanditon.

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A Puzzling Prelude to FestQuest 2013 Wed, 24 Jul 2013 06:19:30 +0000 boomthemoon-shareholder

Last year, William Sawtooth III embarked on a great experiment: he sold off 100 shares in his personhood in exchange for a billion dollars. Being a savvy investor, I managed to secure a 6% interest in Sawtooth prior to his untimely demise at the hands of a masked henchman from the Secret Games Society. Yesterday, I received word from Sawtooth’s legal counsel informing me that Sawtooth’s death was confirmed after a thorough investigation, and my shares were reverting back to the Mega Hard Wood Group Board of Directors. As a courtesy, the Board sent me a framed certificate commemorating my brief status as a Majority Stockholder. They also unknowingly sent out an invitation to this year’s FestQuest, an annual puzzle hunt held during ARGFest.

Sawtooth’s misadventures in personal corporate governance were the focus of the alternate reality game Boom the Moon, an extension of Steve Peters’ crowdsourced alternate reality gaming thought experiment World Without Helium by Synth-Bio Productions. For two weeks, players tricked Sawtooth’s silent investors into handing over their shares to prevent a plan to use Sawtooth’s newfound wealth to solve the impending helium shortage by detonating a nuclear bomb on the moon’s surface. Players secured a majority stake in William Sawtooth III, and staved off plans to blow up the moon. While celebrating the win, Sawtooth was shot and presumed dead. The correspondence from the Mega Hard Wood Group only served to confirm that presumption, pronouncing his death a suicide.

After closer inspection, I discovered an invitation to FestQuest 2013 slipped in between the certificate and the frame’s backing. The secret message cordially invited me to join the Sawtooth Circus in Seattle on July 27th. Sawtooth also offered his handwritten assurance that “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” It also included an introductory puzzle to whet players’ appetites for the main course this weekend. The return of William Sawtooth III should be an exciting one for ARGFest attendees, as Sawtooth is one of the most colorful characters in alternate reality gaming to break the fourth wall I’ve seen.

Synth-Bio Productions is resurrecting Sawtooth through their role as host of this year’s FestQuest. Pre-registration for FestQuest is mandatory this year, with groups of 10 asked to provide their email address along with a “Circus Name”. The experience is only available to ARGFest attendees, and is expected to take approximately 2 hours to complete.

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What is the Blackhollow Project? Wed, 17 Jul 2013 13:30:06 +0000 blackhollowproject

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

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

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

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

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

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“The Optimist” ARG Draws Focus to Disney History Thu, 11 Jul 2013 14:52:01 +0000 theoptimist

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

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

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

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

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

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