This Horror Film Was Livestreamed: One More Round With Generation Loss

Ranboo looking at the set design for The Spirit of the Cabin

“Change someone’s perception of reality, and they will act how you want.”

Ranboo, in a post-game debrief

Over sixty years ago the filmmaker William Castle released Mr. Sardonicus in theaters, telling the tale of a horrid wretch of a man whose face was frozen in a rictus grin. Over the course of the movie, audiences learn about the macabre sins that led to his initial disfiguration, and the heartless experiments he inflicted on others in an attempt to cure himself.

As the film concludes, William Castle himself shows up on screen and cheerfully informs the audience that they have the opportunity to decide if Mr. Sardonicus has suffered enough, or if he deserves worse. Audience members are instructed to hold up glow-in-the-dark cards to vote, and Castle makes a show of tallying the votes, before the chosen ending plays. No audience ever voted to save Mr. Sardonicus. And while Castle insisted that two endings were filmed, the general assumption is that he didn’t bother since no audience would make that choice, after seeing the film. Because of this unique feature, Mr. Sardonicus was advertised as “the only picture with [a] ‘Punishment Poll'”.

Alternate reality games are in large part defined by the agency they grant to players, promising participants a collective role in the events to follow. Your decisions will shape what’s to come. However, that agency doesn’t always have to be real – the illusion of agency is often enough to leave audiences empowered enough to feel responsible for the game’s progress, and culpable for their missteps.

Last year, the Twitch streamer Ranboo filmed a three part interactive horror series called Generation Loss: The Social Experiments that delivered a particularly compelling exploration of the nature of agency. In the process, it might just have unseated Mr. Sardonicus‘ claim as “the only picture with [a] ‘Punishment Poll'”. And while asking you to watch over four hours of livestreamed footage might be a bit much, Ranboo just released The Social Experiments: The Founders Cut as a slightly more condensed, cinematic retelling of events.

If you’d prefer to watch Generation Loss relatively unspoiled, now would be a good time to watch The Founders Cut, which provides the best streamlined entry point to the series currently available. However, a bit of context will likely help make the viewing process a bit easier, as the series takes some fairly dramatic tonal shifts that makes the first half hour in particular a misleading indicator of the full experience.

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Taylor Swift Loves Puzzles More Than You

The author, visiting a secret puzzle piece for The Tortured Poets Department release in Brooklyn

Back in the late 1960s, rumors started to circulate among Beatles fans that Paul McCartney died in 1966, and was replaced by a lookalike. While official sources refuted the rumors, fans poring through the Beatles’ discography started picking up on clues that seemed to support those theories, ranging from backmasked audio hidden in songs to secret messages inserted into the album covers for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road.

Fans even managed to find a secret phone number written in the stars, if you held the Magical Mystery Tour album up in front of a mirror. According to some rumors, calling that number would trigger the cryptic message, “you’re getting closer…” The theory came to be known as Paul is Dead.

The Magical Mystery tour in its original form, and mirrored (with an emphasis on the “phone number”

Of course, Paul McCartney was (and still is, at the time of this article) very much alive. And there is minimal evidence to even support the Paul is Dead 2.0 theory, arguing that even though Paul was alive, the band intentionally sprinkled clues alluding to his death. The connections were likely a series of apophenic coincidence – with fans creating meaning out of nothing.

Paul is Dead may not have been a “solvable” game, but it still plays a formative role in the creation of alternate reality games. According to an interview with The Beast‘s lead writer Sean Stewart, The Beast‘s creative director Jordan Weisman was heavily influenced by Paul is Dead as he constructed what came to be credited as the first alternate reality game:

Jordan from the time he was very young had been obsessed with, among other things, the Beatles mystery…if you looked at the cover of Sgt Peppers there were clues on it that indicated that Paul McCartney was actually dead….Almost certainly none of that was true, but it was a very powerful urban myth and with the advent of the internet he was thinking, “I think we could do this now…but for real.”

No Proscenium Podcast, ep. 156

Alternate reality games would return to musical themes a number of times over the years, most notably with the release of Nine Inch Nails’ concept album Year Zero, which started with “leaked” USB drives left in the bathrooms of concerts and culminating in a secret concert raided by a (fictional) SWAT team. But one of the more impressive answers to the question “what if Paul is Dead was real” comes from outside the alternate reality gaming arena. Instead, it comes from the musical career of Taylor Alison Swift.

Taylor Swift Learns to Play the Puzzling Long Game
Taylor Swift’s lyrical puzzles started out relatively simple: for her first five albums, the song lyrics featured in her liner notes were all presented in lower case. The only exception to that rule? A handful of capitalized letters that spelled out secret messages. For instance, the message spelled out in the lyrics of Long Live spells out the phrase “for you”, drawing attention to the song’s role as a love letter to her fellow band-mates, and to her emerging fandom.

Speak Now liner notes, with capitalized letters (highlighted in red) for Long Live spelling out “FOR YOU”

Taylor Swift may have started with hidden messages in liner notes, but things quickly spiraled into deeper “easter eggs” hidden throughout her works. In an interview with Jimmy Fallon, Swift explains:

That’s when it started [with the liner notes]…but when it got out of control was when I started to realize that it wasn’t just me that had fun with it, that they had fun with it too, and I should never have learned that. Because then I couldn’t stop, and all I started thinking of was how do I hint at things? How far is too far in advance? Can I hint at something three years in advance? Can I even plan things that far…

…and look. I think that it is perfectly reasonable for people to be normal music fans and to have a normal relationship to music. But…if you want to go down a rabbit hole with us, come along.

The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon

Under that guidance, the puzzles started getting more considerably more varied and expansive. The music video for Me! wasn’t just filled with easter eggs when it dropped in April 2019…it also snuck in the title of her next studio album, which wouldn’t be formally announced until two months later.

Swift even started dabbling in more traditional puzzles through a series of “Vault Puzzles” in support of her album rereleases. Solve a puzzle, and unlock information about the coming release. For Fearless (Taylor’s Version), the vault puzzle was a relatively straightforward anagram. Red (Taylor’s Version) continued the tradition of anagrammed puzzles, but this time rewarded players to complete it with an image overlay to celebrate their accomplishment.

One of 90 Vault Puzzles leading up to the release of 1989 (Taylor’s Version)

The Vault Puzzles for 1989 (Taylor’s Version) ramped up the complexity to a whole new level. Swift’s team partnered with Google to hide a series of 89 different anagrammed puzzles in various Google search results. Fans needed to collectively solve those puzzles 33 million times to unlock news about the new album.

But even the Vault Puzzles pale in comparison to the long road to the release of Reputation (Taylor’s Version), and the surprise announcement of The Tortured Poet’s Department. But to explain that, it’s first necessary to provide a brief primer to the Lover House.

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Project KURI: Interdimensional Doors in Your Neighborhood?

Interdimensional Doors found in Salt Lake City UT, Phoenix AZ, and Charlotte NC.

Starting on March 27th, a series of “Interdimensional Doors” were erected in cities across North America. No two doors looked exactly the same: a door installed near Salt Lake City Utah’s Gallivan Center featured the kind of traditional wooden door with frosted glass that wouldn’t be out of place as the entry to a professor’s office, while a door along the Piestewa Peak Summit Trail in Phoenix Arizona featured a more minimalist frame painted to look like glimpsing into a nebula of swirling purples and pinks.

While each door was unique in appearance, there were still a few details inextricably linking them together. Along the top of each door, the text “Interdimensional Door” was paired with a seemingly nonsensical hashtag. And underneath that text, a QR code was present that, when scanned, sent curious onlookers to the website ProjectKuri.org.

Interdimensional Doors found in Toronto ON, Vancouver BC, San Francisco CA, and Tierra Del Mar, OR

The Key Unconsciousness Research Institute (KURI) Project
The Project KURI website explains that it is an organization interested in studying how dreams can serve as doorways to alternate dimensions. In order to pursue that research, Project KURI is actively soliciting members of the public to share their dreams. As the organization explains in an Instagram post:

At KURI, we’re turning imagination into exploration. Our dedicated team of scientists, psychologists, and visionaries are pioneering research into the subconscious mind, decoding the messages hidden in our dreams. But this journey is not ours alone – we invite you, dreamers, thinkers, and seekers from all over the world to join us. Share your dreams. Become part of a global community by pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.

Website visitors are encouraged to share their dreams through a form on the ProjectKuri.org website or to message audio submissions to the project’s Instagram account, with promises that “The Kuri Tapes” will be coming in the near future. Curiously, the site also features a block of ciphered text, with no other explanation for its presence.

Project KURI’s cryptographic message

Untangling this message in particular helps provide a few hints of things to come. And while it’s possible to solve this phrase as if it were an unclued CryptoQuote from the daily paper, there’s a more elegant solution hidden within the doors themselves.

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Hunting of the Shark: Bookish Highlights From Lone Shark Games

Lone Shark Games’ name has come up more than a few times over the years here at ARGNet. Some of those projects, like 2008’s Citizens of Virtue, which created a fictional megachurch to create an interactive morality play, were explicitly designed as alternate reality games. More often than not, though, the company’s projects trend towards puzzle hunts that revel in spectacle in a way that crosses over into territory familiar to alternate reality gaming fans.

Cards Against Humanity’s Holiday Bullshit puzzle experience in 2014, for example, hid puzzles in a series of seasonal mailings that led players to a safe on an uninhabited island containing a quarter of a million custom “Sloth” cards. And then there was VANISH: The Hunt for Evan Ratliff, which sent WIRED journalist Evan Ratliff across the United States as the target of a month-long manhunt, with Lone Shark Games orchestrating a series of clues to help readers hone in on his location. The company has done its fair share of pen-and-paper puzzle hunts, more often than not those puzzles go beyond the page, and ask “what would it look like if we turned Jonathan Coulton’s annual cruise into a boat-wide escape room”. In short: the company excels at live experiences that are hard to reduce onto a single page.

So to celebrate their 20th anniversary as a company, Lone Shark Games is crowdfunding the production of The Hunting of the Shark: 20 Years of Lone Shark Puzzlehunts, which pulls together a highlight reel of nationwide manhunts, ARGs, convention activations, and other puzzle hunts, condensing that into a book of puzzles.

Sample puzzles featured in Hunting of the Shark

The Puzzles Come First (and Last, and Everywhere In Between)
I had the chance to take a look at an early draft of The Hunting of the Shark, and it’s worth stressing that this is first and foremost a puzzle book. The book does provide something of a history of the company by presenting individual puzzles and sometimes even full puzzle hunts from events presented in chronological order, the book largely lets those puzzles speak for themselves, with brief introductions providing context surrounding how those puzzles were initially delivered.

This book is not an oral history of the company: rather, it’s a showcase of some of puzzles worth featuring, designed for events ranging from Magic: the Gathering Grand Prix tournaments to Renton River Days duckstravaganzas. Because of that, the featured puzzles are designed with a wide range of audiences in mind. Some puzzles may be fairly easy for the puzzle-inclined, while others might find one checking the solutions in the back of the book without a group of fellow solvers.

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Sifting Through Field Studies Institute Records is Surprisingly Fun

Last night, I received a package in the mail from the Field Studies Institute, containing a cassette tape that shouldn’t exist. Helpfully, the institute also provided a cassette player to help me listen to the tape that shouldn’t exist, along with instructions on how to use a cassette player to help me feel even older than I already do. But before we discuss the contents of the package, let’s talk a little about the Field Studies Institute, itself.

The Field Studies Institute: Finding a Narrative through Bureaucracy
The Field Studies Institute was founded in 1970, slightly after an incident occurred involving an object retrieved during the Apollo 12 mission. Eight Department of Defense researchers were charged with investigating the object, but something happened in the early hours of January 1st, 1970 that led to three of the researchers disappearing. The remaining members went on to found the Field Studies Institute, dedicated to investigating “transient objects” resulting from “Spacetime Deviations”.

According to a corporate training video, these transient objects provide glimpses into alternate timelines, both past and present. And that brings us to the heart of The Field Studies Institute‘s storytelling: much of what can be gleaned about the alternate reality game is told through pseudo-governmental paperwork, spanning decades.

The Field Studies Institute website featuring internal emails, training manuals, and paperwork

And while poring over training manuals and research reports might sound a little dull, the documents are filled with personality. Take, for instance, the story of Filed Studies Institute staffer Casey Pennington (FC-081-A). Players are invited to peruse notes from his excursions tracking down anomalies, which takes careful notes of where he ate and how much he paid for the meal, for expensing purposes. After scrolling through his scrawled notes, an addendum to his file notes Mr. Pennington’s ultimate fate at the company:

After multiple complaints from the Archives Department, a thirty-day “Performance Improvement Plan” was created to help improve the legibility of Mr. Pennington’s hand-written notes in April of 1983. At the conclusion of the “Performance Improvement Plan”, no improvement was shown and Mr. Pennington was relieved of his duties.

Players didn’t just learn that the Field Studies Institute turned to Performance Improvement Plans to force employees out of the company for poor handwriting – they got to experience exactly what sort of bad handwriting would drive the Archives Department to force the institute’s hand.

While The Field Studies Institute is still relatively new, the records are littered with similar glimpses into the bureaucratic mess that powers the institute’s research. The employee handbook references the company’s generous policy of providing “five deviation-induced discomfort days” in addition to standard time off policies. Which sounds great, until a chat between two Archives Department employees notes that the head of their department up and vanished for a few months, only for him to return to work like he’d never been missing in the first place.

Documentation of the Surveyor 3’s discovery of the anomalous object, in 1969

The artifacts and records are meticulously designed, but it’s the personality that’s injected into them that makes poring through the files a genuine delight. While both organizations share a passion for paperwork, The Field Studies Institute is no SCP Foundation – they seem to at least care about maintaining the illusion of caring for their employees. They just need to make sure everything is documented with the proper forms, first.

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Clue Chasing with Magic’s Ravnica-Themed Puzzle Hunt

Murders at Karlov Manor (Wizards of the Coast)

Next February, Wizards of the Coast’s trading card game Magic: the Gathering is releasing a murder mystery expansion named Murders at Karlov Manor, themed after the classic board game Clue. But the clues don’t stop there: in a recent preview of the set, Blake Rasmussen noted that there will be a series of puzzles beginning at the game’s prerelease on February 2nd and culminating in a meta-puzzle that will, once solved, “unlock information about the future of Magic.”

A Brief Primer on Magic: the Gathering’s Story
Before getting into what sounds suspiciously like Magic’s foray into the world of puzzle hunts, a little backstory on how lore functions in Magic: the Gathering might provide some helpful context. Because while Magic is first and foremost a competitive trading card game, the franchise has hidden an overarching story through its expansions. While Magic fans are likely most familiar with experiencing the story through “flavor text” added in the marginalia of the game’s cards, those stories are supplemented and expanded through a series of short stories, comic books, and novels. So what starts as the slow process of piecing together the story of two estranged artificer brothers engaged in a protracted war through narrative snippets and artifacts are expanded upon in novels and short stories that help fill in the gaps.

For the past three years, that story has focused on the war between Planeswalkers and Phyrexians. Within Magic’s lore, Planeswalkers are entities who possess a “spark” that allows them to cross between planes, hopping between the deeply thematic universes and worlds that make up Magic’s Multiverse with relative ease. A race of biomechanical creatures known as Phyrexians don’t naturally possess the ability to cross planes, but stumbled across a number of artificial methods to cross universes in pursuit of their goal of assimilating or destroying all inferior life across the Multiverse.

At first, it started simple. A single Phyrexian infiltrating a plane and spreading chaos and dissent, setting the stage for future invasion. But then, Phyrexians started assimilating Planeswalkers to their side, through a process known as Compleation.

The three year story arc culminated in a massive confrontation that saw Phyrexians and their involuntarily conscripted Planeswalker allies invading practically every known plane. And while the Phyrexians were defeated, in the process something happened that stripped many Planeswalkers of their powers. Currently, Magic’s Multiverse is rebuilding from an inter-planar war, while simultaneously adjusting to life with considerably fewer Planeswalkers capable of crossing those planes. And the most recent expansions have focused on that fallout.

Particularly flavorful cards that provide a taste of what’s to come as the story unfolds

A Magical Murder Mystery
Which brings us to Ravnica: a world with an industrial city the size of its home planet, dominated by competing guilds. Kaya Cassir is a Planeswalker who previously served as leader of the Orzhov Syndicate, although she was replaced by Teysa Karlov when she went to fight against the Phyrexians, returning as one of the few to retain her ability to shift between planes.

Author Seanan McGuire released the first chapter of Murders at Karlov Manor‘s story, setting the stage for murder as Teysa Karlov throws a grand fĂȘte for her rival power-brokers in the planet-city. Told from Kaya’s perspective, readers are introduced to a colorful cast of characters before getting left hanging on a cliffhanger, as Kaya chases down a scream from across the manor. Has someone been murdered?

A handful of cards (and their flavor text) have already been spoiled, and it appears that in addition to an actual murder, an attempt has been made on Boros legion guildmaster Aurelia’s life, and the story’s detectives are on a deadline to solve the mystery. Rasmussen noted that this set is particularly heavy on “Story Spotlight” cards that feature key moments of the expansion’s narrative, so fans looking to piece together the narrative on their own will have a lot to work off.

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