Ten years ago, the website for Margaret’s House of Bees started acting strangely. Many of the site’s images were glitched beyond recognition, and nonsensical text covered up articles about the Napa Valley-based apiary.
While many of the people who gathered to troubleshoot a bee enthusiast’s website refer to themselves as “Beekeepers”, a passion for the cultivation of honey wasn’t the only reason over half a million people flocked to ilovebees.com over the next four months. I Love Bees was an alternate reality game that introduced Halo fans to the first-person shooter’s rich backstory through over a five-hour long audio drama released into the world through pay phone calls, blog posts, emails, and websites in bite-sized chunks.
Between Thursday July 31st and Saturday August 2nd, many of I Love Bees‘ creators and some of its most dedicated players will gather together to celebrate the anniversary in Portland for ARGFest, an annual conference, festival, and meetup that brings together the creators and fans of alternate reality games, transmedia storytelling projects, and serious games.
On Thursday July 31st, ARGFest is adding the IDEA Symposium, with a series of speakers focusing on the business of creating interactive entertainment and transmedia. Serial game designer Mike Selinker, whose recent projects include the narrative puzzle book Maze of Games and the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game will be headlining the day’s events. Joining him for the IDEA Symposium are indie game developers, platform creators, event producers, and experience designers behind everything from Cards Against Humanity’s game design reality show Tabletop Deathmatch to Disney’s The Optimist, a historical fiction retrospective of Disney Parks’ history.
The I Love Bees Anniversary festivities start on Friday August 1st with an interview between ARGNet founder Steve Peters and Jordan Weisman, the chief creative for the alternate reality game, and more recently creator of Shadowrun Returns and Golem Arcana. Friday’s Speakers will also provide a closer look at the state of transmedia in Europe, the climate change serious game Future Coast, and the transmedia thriller Phrenic, guided by Glitchhikers creator Lucas Johnson as Grand Inquisitor, charged with kicking off the Q&A sessions by asking panelists challenging questions. The evening’s keynote will be followed with a performance by The Doubleclicks, who recently raised over $80,000 on Kickstarter to release an album of songs about dinosaurs, tabletop games, and binge-watching Netflix.
The main Beekeeper reunion will take place on Saturday August 2nd, with panels reflecting on the game from players, as well as I Love Bees creators Elan Lee, Sean Stewart, and Kristen Rutherford. The festivities will conclude with FestQuest, a puzzle hunt designed to show attendees the city of Portland in a different light before leading them to the final mystery location to close out the evening. This year’s hunt was created by Puzzled Pint.
Tickets for the full three days of ARGFest are available for $200 through July 2, although attendees are able to purchase tickets for select events at a discounted rate. Check out the ARGFest 2014 website for the full list of speakers, conference schedule, or to register.
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.
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.
For day two of ARGFest-o-Con in Toronto last month, attendees were treated to a “sneak peek” of The Institute, a film by Spencer McCall about Nonchalance’s popular San Francisco ARG, The Jejune Institute.
The film focused on the player experience of Jejune and the effect that it had on those who followed its path through the streets of San Francisco and Oakland. Nonchalance presented a case study at ARGFest in 2009, but little of the content from that early phase of the game made it into the film. Most of those elements, which were posted in public places, had been taken down by the time McCall began shooting, first as a video producer hired by Nonchalance and then for the film itself.
“It’d be generous to say that we did an ‘uneven’ job of documenting the things that we created,” said Sara Thacher, who was lead producer on Jejune for most of it’s run. “Video was especially thin on the ground. Because Spencer’s project got rolling after the main parts of the experience closed, he had to rely on our archives and the archives of the participants.”
Later events are more fully documented in the film, including the controversial day-long seminar that concluded the game. The film also documents a rally to protest the game’s apparent villain, Octavio S. Coleman, Esq., a trip through the game’s installation at The Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, and one game mission that culminated with a player dancing in front of a payphone with bigfoot. The presentation also includes footage that was part of the game, with no markers to denote when the film moves between fact and fiction.
In a post-screening interview at the conference, McCall said he took inspiration from Banksy’s film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, a documentary widely known for blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Making a film of this kind without falling into the category of “mockumentary” is no small challenge, and with a room full of transmedia creators and some Jejune Institute players, ARGFest was a more demanding audience than most.
ARGFest-o-Con, the annual conference dedicated to bringing together players and creators of alternate reality games and transmedia storytelling experiments, is heading north to Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada between July 26th and July 28th. Over the past 11 years, ARGFest has played host to city-wide puzzle trails, panels, and live events that allow attendees to roll up their sleeves and practice what they preach, playing through interactive experiences in between discussing past campaigns and best practices. Last year’s conference won Bloomington Indiana’s “Host of the Year” award. In addition to the mainstays of previous years, ARGFest 2012 is adding a little something extra: an advanced screening of The Institute, a documentary about San Francisco’s long-standing alternate reality game, The Jejune Institute.
For those unfamiliar with the project, The Jejune Institute was a highly immersive alternate reality game that took place in San Francisco over the course of three years. The narrative centered around a secretive new age cult, leading players on an exploration of the city that asked them to discover hidden secrets by following puzzle trails throughout San Francisco that showcased overlooked landmarks both real and fictional. The 90-minute documentary features interviews with the game’s developers at Nonchalance and some of the game’s players/inductees. The Nonchalance team were panelists at a previous ARGFest, providing an introduction to the experience.
Early-bird registration for ARGFest is open until May 31st, so you still have two days before the cost of admission goes up. Keep an eye on argfestocon.com in the coming weeks for updates on speakers and events.
Last month, I presented you with a deceptively complex puzzle Stitch Media used to challenge ARGFest attendees. To date, only six puzzlers have managed to walk away with the solution. If you still want to attempt to join their ranks, stop reading here, because I’m finally going to reveal the solution below.