June 29, 2005 marked the Relaunch Event for Tatum Think as well as the finale for the Audi sponsored Alternate Reality Game The Art of the H3ist. Players gathered at The Viceroy in Santa Monica as well as on the web to watch the live event play out.
The beginning of the end started 36 hours in advance with one of the lead characters, Ian Yarbrough, breaking into his rival Virgil Tatum’s house. While Ian found the incriminating evidence he was looking for, he also managed to get himself caught red-handed by Virgil and his two goons and was promptly captured.
Ian’s capture led to one of the more surprising twists in the game. A member of the Coachella 5, HitsHerMark was enlisted by our heroine, Nisha Roberts, to track Ian down. Although HHM was able to send in a video of Ian being tied up and carried away, she herself was kidnapped and was found tragically murdered the next morning.
While HitsHerMark was keeping her date with destiny, Nisha was tracking down a lead to discover the real identify of Arclight, the mastermind of the Uffizi heist. Arclight wasn’t in his warehouse in San Diego, but his goons were. With a little convincing, Roger informs Nisha that Arclight is none other than Virgil Tatum. She also gets the bad news that Virgil has Ian locked up somewhere so that he can turn Ian over to the police during his grand party.
Unfortunately, this identification was put into question with a discovery in the files that Ian managed to send out before his abduction. Hidden in a passworded file was the late Gunter’s insurance policy – a picture of Arclight hidden in the reflection of a security camera dome. A picture of one Emile Smithson.
With all this information in hand, Nisha returns to Los Angeles to find the truth. As Virgil was working the crowd at The Viceroy, Nisha made her way to the Tatum Think offices. There she found Emile who was chatting online with the retrievers under another one of his identities, CyberGosse, whom the Retrievers knew as Ian’s hacker friend from France. The Retrievers saw CyberGosse’s connection drop as Nisha confronted Emile and, thanks to video provided by disgruntled ex-employee scapegoat0521, they later saw Emile confessing to being Arclight. As it turns out Emile was tired of Virgil taking all the credit for the work that Emile himself did. So he created this elaborate plot to bring Virgil down by implicating him in the Uffizi heist. He set the groundwork months in advance by befriending Ian as CyberGosse so he could keep closer tabs on all of the players in revenge scheme. The video ends as Nisha, hearing enough about Emile’s twisted plans, pays him back for the death of HitsHerMark.
Although Virgil was cleared of the Uffizi heist plot, he kidnapped Ian all on his own. With Emile/CyberGosse/Arclight given a taste of his own medicine, Nisha heads off to Virgil’s Relaunch event to rescue poor Ian. As Virgil took the stage to talk about his magnificent return to the game world, Nisha starts playing the security cam footage of her and Emile over the monitors. Virgil became furious that Nisha would dare ruin his comeback moment. Pushed to the limit, he gloats that he captured the real thief, Ian, still unknowing, or maybe just unwilling to believe, that it was all just a setup for him. He then reveals the stolen A3 hidden behind the stage curtain with his prisoner tied up in the front seat. Nisha and two members of the audience free Ian, who promptly confronts Virgil. However, seeing Virgil beaten and humiliated, Ian elects to leave the scene hand-in-hand with Nisha. Virgil, dejected, friendless and loveless, stalks off the stage, still bellowing in his attempt to feel important.
And with that, the game was concluded. The webcast cut off and the 300+ guests at The Viceroy were informed they had just witnessed the final act in The Art of the H3ist. The dead came back to life and were able to mingle with the rest of the guests, reports trickled back in from other Retrievers lucky enough to get tickets to the event and those souls burdened with misfortunate geographical kismet stumbled bleary-eyed to bed knowing that they had done their part to make this one of the most talked about ARGs this year.
Overall, The Art of the H3ist has to be considered one of the giants of the ARG genre. The richness of the story, the depth of background, the amazing live interactions and the masterful puzzles all played a role in making this a must-play game.
Of course, no game is perfect. The small active player base became frustrated over several puzzles, one of which quickly rose to the hatred level reserved for the most infamous of puzzles (such as where.gif from Lockjaw). There was also a mid-game lull in the action that left a bitter taste in some players’ mouths. They were taunted for not solving puzzles, yet were not given any real motivation to persevere in solving them. Lack of communication also marred some of the live events where players were left to fend for themselves, giving them a feeling that some of the main characters were emotionally inaccessible to the players.
Communication issues aside, The Art of the H3ist pushed the envelope when it came to interaction in ARGs. From undercover ops stealing SD cards from various Audis across the country to nighttime boat rides with Zombie Mimes, the live events kept the Retrievers on their toes (and handsomely rewarded as well). Even those stuck far away from the action were able to experience the missions through live webfeeds and archives of audio communication between team members.
The game also stretched the ideas of meta with their film quality Easter Eggs. The seven videos, with their clever binary titles, gave the players new insights into several “off screen” moments and were extremely entertaining to everyone who watched. The transition of HitsHerMark from player to character was also handled expertly and helped to blur the line between fiction and reality even further.
Despite some minor disappointment that everyone playing didn’t receive a brand new A3, the players were gratified at the end with the big reveal. While they had speculated the Emile/CyberGosse/Arclight connection throughout the game, it was impossible to know until the very end if that was indeed the case and kept them guessing up until the last few moments. With the rescue of Ian, the story became complete and the players started thanking all of the Puppet Masters, Actors, and Behind-the-Scenes people for a job well done.
There will be a open discussion on The Art of the Gam3 featuring The Art of the H3ist Puppet Masters at ARGFest IV July 23, 2005 from 11am to 1pm at the Hotel Penn in New York City.
Photo courtesy of HitsHerMark