A Puzzling Prelude to FestQuest 2013

July 24, 2013 · By in Events · Comment 

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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.

What is the Blackhollow Project?

July 17, 2013 · By in Game Launch · 1 Comment 

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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 BlackhollowProject.com and start putting together the clues.

“The Optimist” ARG Draws Focus to Disney History

July 11, 2013 · By in Game Launch, News · Comment 

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 StoryOrbit.com. 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.

ARGFest 2013 Highlights Another Side of Gaming in Seattle

July 6, 2013 · By in Events, News · Comment 

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ARGFest-o-Con is a yearly conference that provides the opportunity for fans and creators of alternate reality games and transmedia experiences to gather together and reflect on the genre’s evolution. This year, the roving conference will touch down in Seattle between Thursday July 25th and Saturday July 27th for a long weekend of panels, puzzles, and games.

This year’s list of speakers are a diverse crew. IARPA will be discussing their exploration of whether alternate reality games can be used for behavioral research. At the same conference, Groundspeak co-founder Jeremy Irish will discuss the growth and evolution of the geocaching community, puzzlemaker Mike Selinker will discuss the art of puzzlecraft, Haley Moore will talk about injecting tangible objects into stories, and Ken Morris will introduce attendees to the wonders of glitch art. Past ARGFest Keynote speakers Jordan Weisman and JC Hutchins will be returning, along with the team behind TVTropes.org’s alternate reality game The Wall Will Fall, and indie game developers at Silverstring Media and Lazy 8 Studios. This year’s keynote speaker is ARGNet and No Mimes Media founder Steve Peters, who will be reflecting on the ups and downs of a career that spanned some of the biggest companies in the industry.

Three ARGFest traditions will also be returning for 2013. Synth-Bio Productions will be producing the first of those traditions, FestQuest. Every year, ARGFest attendees team up to explore ARGFest’s host city in a real-world puzzle trail. The puzzle trail gives attendees a fun and lighthearted way of putting some practical experience behind the conference’s often theoretical talks. For the second ARGFest tradition, ARGNet’s previous owner and senior editor Jonathan Waite will be stepping into the role of Grand Inquisitor, responsible for facilitating conference discussions with a twist. Finally, ARGFest Seattle will see a return of the ARG Museum, a collection of artifacts from past games.

Regular registration rates for ARGFest are available through July 19th, priced at $90 for a conference pass and $150 for an all-access pass that also includes the kick-off party and keynote address. Head over to the ARGFest-o-Con 2013 website for more information.

Playing Around With Your Health at Games for Health 2013

July 4, 2013 · By in Events, Features · Comment 

thatdragoncancer

Image courtesy thatdragoncancer.com

Over the years, a number of alternate reality games and transmedia experiences have used their storytelling platform as a medium for serious gaming. In Conspiracy for Good, many of the game’s live events were used as a lure to get players actively volunteering for non-profit organizations. In games like Indiana University’s Skeleton Chase and the American Heart Association’s Cryptozoo, the underlying purpose of the game was to get players more physically active.

To get a better sense of the evolving serious gaming industry, I attended the 9th annual Games for Health conference in Boston. Zombies, Run creators Adrian Hon and Naomi Alderman were there to share some insight into the success of their story-driven exercise app and announce their company Six to Start’s partnership with the UK government on a new project, coming next year. A host of game developers, medical professionals, and technologists added their own perspectives to the topic over the three-day conference. While the conference’s multiple tracks made a full picture of events impossible, I’ve attempted to share a few highlights in the world of serious gaming.

Zombies, Run: Escaping from the Zombie Horde

Since its release, Six to Start’s Zombies, Run has sold over half a million copies of its episodic audio adventures placing fans directly into the shoes of Abel Township’s Runner 5. To date, runners have traversed over 12 million miles in the real world, foraging for supplies through a virtual British countryside during the zombie apocalypse. A vibrant fan community has contributed fan fiction and videos to the universe: one of the members of the Zombies, Run writing team got her start writing fanfic for the game.

It all started when Zombies, Run co-creator Naomi Alderman joined a beginner’s running class. The instructor asked everyone taking the course to explain why they wanted to get better at running, and one woman blithely responded, “I want to be able to escape from the zombie horde.” This motivation resonated with Alderman, as it captured the heart of her situation. As a professional novelist, running isn’t something that helps her reach daily word counts or edit manuscripts. Alderman explains that for most people, running is more about being prepared for when things go bad. At its core, the impetus to run is the wish, “I want to be a healthy animal to escape from predators.” For Adrian Hon, an avid runner, that primal motivation was what was missing from existing apps, pedometers, and sensors on the market. No amount of metrics about heart rate, steps taken, or calories burned provides as much motivation during a run as the shuffling groan of zombies approaching you from behind.

Many design choices for Zombies, Run were made based on what felt right to the development team. For instance, the decision to make runners speed up their pace by 20% was based on Adrian’s decision that it “felt right.” However, one priority for the team was ensuring players could step seamlessly into the role of Runner 5. That meant making Runner 5′s decisions always feel reasonable to the player, especially since those decisions almost always involved running during zombie encounters. It also meant that Runner 5 would always be discussed in gender neutral terms: while it would have been possible to record separate audio streams that customized the experience for the player-protagonist, the team opted to strike out gendered language. Alderman noted that the gender neutrality allowed her to reinforce a feminist subtext into the narrative, as Runner 5′s gender has no bearing on how the story’s protagonist is treated, and is treated as largely irrelevant.

During their keynote address, Hon and Alderman announced that Zombies, Run was undergoing randomized trials to test its efficacy. Additionally, the Six to Start team announced their partnership with London’s National Health Services and the Department of Health in the UK to create a new narrative health app to tackle the obesity epidemic, set for release in 2014. Alderman describes this new app, tentatively titled The Walk, as a spy thriller that mixes elements of North by Northwest with The 39 Steps. You play the role of someone who needs to get a package from Inverness to Edinburgh while evading both terrorists and the police. The goal is to encourage users to go on to add just a bit more walking into their daily lives.

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DIY Days 2013: Black Markets, Phenomenal Work, and Foster Care

May 10, 2013 · By in Events, Features · Comment 

My Sky is Falling

My Sky is Falling image courtesy of Reboot Stories, from the Envision 2013 playthrough

The elevator doors open. As I step out, a woman in a hazmat suit and surgical mask steps forward as our guide, offering surgical masks to our group. Masks firmly in place, we’re guided to a classroom liberally strewn with backpacks and jackets. There are already a handful of people milling about in the room without the dubious protection of our masks, grabbing sandwiches and chips from the front of the room. A dissonant hum serves as disconcerting accompaniment to the otherwise silent room. Finally, we’re welcomed by our guide and offered a choice: leave the mask on and remain a silent observer, or take it off and step into the strange world in which we found ourselves.

Over the next hour, my fellow participants and I progressed through a dystopic science fiction world designed to leave us disoriented, confused, and isolated as part of the interactive theater experience My Sky is Falling. The performance, a fictionalized retelling of filmmaker Lydia Joyner’s own experiences in the foster care system, was brought to light by creative director Atley Loughridge through the startup Reboot Stories. The project was also a collaboration with Reboot Stories co-founder Lance Weiler’s New Media Producing class at Columbia University and the Orange Duffel Bag Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to helping teens transition out of the foster care system. Representatives from the United Nations went through the experience at Envision 2013, while I experienced the performance as part of DIY Days NYC, a free conference that took place at The New School at the end of April.

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