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.
Image courtesy of Kevin Makice
For almost a decade, ARGFest has gathered game developers, academics, and players in one spot to take stock of the industry, sharing insights into the development process, best practices for design, and personal anecdotes from past campaigns. As I have previously argued, however, one of the best ways to hone the craft is to set aside the PowerPoint slides, step away from the podium, and play games. And since the first ARGFest in 2003, games have peppered the proceedings from start to finish.
FestQuest: An ARGFest Tradition
The longest-running tradition at ARGFest is FestQuest, an annual scavenger hunt through the host city. Exploring a new city through a series of puzzles provides an intimate way to experience the neighborhood, ensuring exposure to the city goes beyond the hotel conference center itself. This year, Studio Cypher designed a puzzle trail that took conference attendees on a tour of Indiana University’s campus with stops at the Monroe County Public Library, the Kirkwood Observatory, the tunnels running underneath Indiana University’s Chemistry building, and the Sweetheart Tree. The sometimes exhausting process of pounding through puzzles was captured on film by a documentary crew from beActive Media, who documented much of the proceedings.
Wisconsin Hustle: Pants-Optional Dancing
Awkward Hug is fast becoming an ARGFest institution: two years ago, they brought the characters from the romantic comedy alternate reality game Must Love Robots to Portland for a round of robot speed-dating, while last year Awkward Hug invited attendees to craft sock puppets as part of the New Employee Orientation to their new game, Socks, Inc. ARGFest 2011 saw a live-action game demo of the company’s first mobile app, Wisconsin Hustle. The game is like a dance-fueled game of Simon, with players competing to execute an ever-lengthening list of winning dance moves in sequential order. Awkward Hug kept the list of moves as memorable as they were simple to execute, including the pop culture-inspired “Egyptian,” “Travolta,” and crowd favorite “Carlton.” The first night’s festivities ended with a championship showdown, with panelists as judges. Co-creator Jim Babb had been an intern for Jane McGonigal’s Top Secret Dance-Off, a game designed to make people feel more comfortable dancing in public, and Wisconsin Hustle retains TSDO‘s whimsical innocence as it asks players to act ridiculously for a game.
The Wars of Authenticity
ARGFest is unrivaled in its ability to gather alternate reality gaming fans in one place, so it’s no surprise the conference is often used as a platform to launch games. One of the most infamous launches occurred in 2008 when the Smithsonian hired Craig Torres, a professional weight lifter and former Mr. New England, to walk into the conference covered in henna tattoos wearing nothing more than a banana hammock to kick off their game, Ghosts of a Chance. John Maccabee, one of the developers behind the Ghosts of a Chance launch, provided a repeat performance, calling in model Lindsay Forster to serve as the physical representation for Terra Firma in 1807. In a short, 10-minute puzzle-solving exercise, conference attendees were asked to answer a series of questions and assemble a device to guide a balloon to Terra Firma. This task introduced attendees to The Wars of Authenticity, an offshoot of the Smithsonian’s alternate reality game Pheon.
Who Is Martin Aggett?
Martin Aggett is not a real person. Rather, he is the lead character in an alternate reality game about…well, Martin Aggett, that’s been in the works for years. That didn’t stop him from attending ARGFest, and this year, Aggett has finally launched his game, which serves as tribute to his fictional narcissism. It started with slips of paper placed in the ARGFest welcome bags: properly assembling the pieces of paper revealed a QR code that contained a secret code that unlocked the first part of Aggett’s story. Aggett “lost” his locked briefcase at the conference, hidden amongst a display of artifacts from past ARGs. Aggett’s birthday unlocked the case, which contained his press pass and photographs from his past. One of the players to find the case set up a lunch meeting with Aggett to return the case. The chase concluded with a dead drop in Bloomington that completed the first chapter of Martin Aggett’s story.
Another Hint for the Stitch Media Puzzle
As for Stitch Media’s puzzle hidden in the ARGFest program print-out? You’ll have to stick around for the solution, but if you’re still puzzling through it, you might be interested to know that the extra print-outs of the program were put to good use as attendees went to great lengths making sure they were connecting the dots correctly.