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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Making a Deal with the Devil for Kobo eReader Puzzle Contest

May 4, 2013 · By in Game Launch, News · Comment 

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An author sells his soul to Asmodeus, King of the Nine Hells for a shot at fame and fortune. Rebels seek to topple a warlord who set himself up as the mythical Minotaur in the land of Dis, a power station left abandoned after the world is struck low by an airborne virus that transforms its victims into violent berskerkers. Two different short stories, depicting seemingly unrelated worlds. The only commonalities? Both tales are riddled with Apocryphal references, and the secrets concealed within both short stories provide pieces to a puzzle contest that could net you $5,000 Canadian dollars and a Kobo Glo eBook reader signed by Dan Brown.

With Dan Brown’s new novel Inferno coming out soon, the Toronto-based eReader manufacturer Kobo saw it as the perfect opportunity to launch a narrative-driven puzzle contest called The Descent. The contest is designed to reacquaint readers with the themes of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy that will feature heavily in Brown’s newest exploration in symbology. To provide the framework for The Descent, Kobo brought in author J.F. Penn to write three short stories exploring three sins: the Sins of Temptation, the Sins of Violence, and the Sins of Treachery. Each short story is offered free for the Kobo eReader or as an EPUB for reading on your desktop, eReader, or mobile devices.

In addition to the short story, each installment contains a puzzle to solve that extends past the virtual pages, leading to a piece of the meta-puzzle. In Sins of Temptation, for instance, readers are asked to explore Tobias “Tobit” Fanshaw’s website. As the nephew of the recently deceased author featured in Sins of Temptation, Tobit shares his uncle’s fascination with the occult and symbology, reminding us that it’s still possible to build websites on Angelfire.com and serving as a helpful reference point for the many symbols referenced throughout The Descent.

One nice feature about going through the puzzle-solving experience on the Kobo device is its Book Stats section, which allows readers to share their thoughts on the short story, and collaborate on the puzzles or, alternatively, to hide spoilers and proceed on their own. While no one has taken advantage of these features yet due to the competitive nature of this contest, it remains a useful feature as non-competitive narrative puzzle books like Mike Selinker’s Maze of Games and Andrea Phillips’ The Daring Adventures of Captain Lucy Smokeheart become more common.

Once the final short story is released on May 9, players will have enough information to locate and solve the final puzzle by unearthing a secret webpage with a submission form. The first to complete all the puzzles will receive the cash prize and signed Kobo eReader. The next four qualifying players to finish will also receive a signed eReader, along with $100 CAD online credit to their Kobo account. Players are required to have all three free stories in their Kobo library to be eligible to win.

Editor’s Note: ARGNet received a reviewer copy of the Kobo eReader.

Looking Back on a Year with the Bennets

April 3, 2013 · By in Features, Update · Comment 

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Ricky Collins (Maxwell Glick), Charlotte Lu (Julia Cho), Lizzie Bennet (Ashley Clements), and Lydia Bennet (Mary Kate Wiles) at the final celebration, courtesy of Pemberley Digital

It’s been almost a year since Lizzie Bennet introduced herself to the internet through her video blog, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. With twice-weekly video updates serving as a voyeuristic window into Lizzie’s personal affairs, viewers were effectively invited to take up digital residence at the Bennet household. After spending so much time getting to know Lizzie’s family and friends, watching the final installment of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was like saying goodbye to old friends.

Of course, in many ways it was saying goodbye to old friends. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was a modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s much loved novel Pride and Prejudice, which recently celebrated its 200th anniversary. Over the years, I’ve witnessed Elizabeth Bennet fall in love with Fitzwilliam Darcy countless times, complemented by everything from Bollywood dance numbers to zombie attacks. With The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, co-creators Hank Green and Bernie Su sought to re-imagine the classic love story through the modern lens of YouTube.

To modernize the story, the team took more than a few liberties. While Mrs Bennet’s blatant maneuvering to secure husbands for her daughters remains as comically anachronistic as it was in Pride and Prejudice, her notions are not completely out of circulation even two centuries after Austen brought them to light. The family businesses did receive an update, evolving into online production companies like Collins & Collins and Pemberley Digital that serve as bases of operation for some of Pride and Prejudice‘s original suitors that assume roles that are just as important as the Bingley mansion at Netherfield.

Surface-level changes were made to many character names, but it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to connect the dots between Charles Bingley and Bing Lee, or Georgiana Darcy and Gigi Darcy. Even Mary Bennet and Kitty Bennet, who were excised from the core Bennet clan, still find their way into the narrative. The major changes arose through the challenges faced by the lead characters. For Lizzie, Charlotte, and Jane, the prospect of creating a life independent of marriage is an ever-present and essential reality, and the three finally realize that goal in new and interesting ways that challenge their relationships. While Lydia’s narrative arc still thrusts her into scandal, her character’s reaction to that scandal takes a different turn.

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This ARG Brought to You by the US Intelligence Community?

March 17, 2013 · By in Info, Previews · 6 Comments 

internet_archiveIn recent years, the United States Government has launched a number of experiments in alternate reality games and collective intelligence. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of ARPANET in 2009, the Department of Defense hid ten red weather balloons across the country with a $40,000 prize to the first organization to verify the location of all ten balloons. That same year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funded an alternate reality game designed to help set Hawaii’s pandemic priorities. And now, the intelligence community is interested in exploring how alternate reality games could serve as a platform for social, behavioral, and psychological research.

As initially reported on WIRED’s Danger Room blog, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) issued a Request for Information on “Using Alternate Reality Environments to Help Enrich Research Efforts” (UAREHERE). IARPA is particularly interested in collecting information on the practicalities of running research in tandem with alternate reality games, managing privacy and safety concerns amongst alternate reality game players, and designing a game that balances free play and interactions with more controlled data collection.

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Entering Maze of Games’ Victorian-Era Puzzle Adventure

February 25, 2013 · By in Game Launch, News, Previews · Comment 

mazeofgamesHidden within the storied halls of the Upper Wolverhampton Library in Victorian-era England, a musty book lies in wait, ready to entrap the first hapless souls to peer into its pages. While Colleen and Samuel Quaice fall victim to The Maze of Games, it’s up to you, the reader, to lead the two children home by solving a series of puzzles presented by the book’s enigmatic skeletal guardian, the Gatekeeper.

The Maze of Games is a full-length puzzle novel that follows the adventures of the Quaice siblings as they make their way through the Gatekeeper’s labyrinth. While traditional Choose Your Own Adventure novels direct readers through branching narratives through a series of choices, The Maze of Games‘s “solve your own adventure” format directs readers through the experience through the same series of puzzles facing the Quaices. Solving the puzzle unlocks the page number of the next narrative installment. Illustrated by Magic: The Gathering illustrator Pete Venters, the book is designed to look and feel like a book from the Victorian Era.

The puzzle adventure’s author Mike Selinker launched a Kickstarter campaign for The Maze of Games last month seeking $16,000 to fund the project. To date, the project has drawn in over $109,000 in pledges, with an ebook/iDevice edition available to $20 donors and a hardcover edition available for $50. As an added perk, Selinker has arranged for the Gatekeeper to lock a series of famous puzzle designers in cages until they agree to contribute a Victorian-era puzzle to the Conundrucopia, a bonus set of puzzles in The Maze of Games. At set Kickstarter milestones, the puzzle designers are set free from their cages and put to work. The list of confirmed puzzlers is an impressive one that reflects the variety of puzzles contained outside the Conundrucopia. Innovators in the space including ambigram pioneer Scott Kim, 74-time Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings, Perplex City puzzle designer Eric Harshbarger, Puzzazz founder Roy Leban, and Duck Konundrum inventor Dan Katz have all spent their time locked up by the Gatekeeper, with more to follow.

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Psych Unleashes Killer Transmedia Reality Show for The S#cial Sector

February 14, 2013 · By in Game Launch, News · 1 Comment 

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Friday, February 15th is a big night for Psych, USA Network’s pineapple-loving homage to ’80s pop culture. Starting at midnight, fans will don their Psych slippers, heat up a pineapple upside-down cake, and settle in for a marathon of 7 fan-selected episodes. And as a surprise addition to the day’s festivities, USA is launching The S#cial Sector, sequel to the show’s Emmy-nominated transmedia experience Hashtag Killer.

The S#cial Sector will exist as an online interactive Psych episode elapsing over the course of eight weeks, much like its predecessor. Directed by Kirsten Nelson (who plays Chief of Police Karen Vick on the show), the narrative follows Shawn and Gus as they investigate a deadly reality television show known as “The S#cial Sector” that takes the elimination process literally. Unbeknownst to the show’s contestants, getting taken out of the competition means getting taken out. It’s up to the show’s fans, interacting with Shawn and Gus on “The Fan Theory Board” as digital assistants, to figure out why the contestants are being killed off, and how to pull the plug on the deadly reality show before it’s curtains for the show’s cast.

As one of Hashtag Killer‘s 452,000 players, I was deeply impressed at the team’s ability to capture the show’s tone, and transfer it to a smaller, more interactive screen. Struggling to keep up with Shawn and Gus’ witty repartee on the SocialSamba platform that drove players’ interactions with the show’s characters reinforced my excitement at hunting down the show’s seemingly endless pop culture references and easter eggs, and working through the meta-puzzles introduced me to the show’s vibrant fan communities as discussion spilled over from the show’s official social platform to more traditional social networks like Twitter and Tumblr.

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