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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 infinitiusa.com/deja-view. 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.