Pity Tanya Mitchel: she’s just a nice girl with a LiveJournal, a job at a bank, and a wacky sister. The last of these happens to have disappeared, leaving a cipher-strewn trail and mysterious plea for her sister to save her by finding Dean Winchester (who appears to be the same Dean Winchester from CW’s Supernatural), and poor Tanya is utterly distraught about the whole thing. So, like any self-respecting character in an alternate reality game, she has turned to the wisdom of the internet to help her out.
A tip sent to Unfiction owner SpaceBass last Friday, containing a link to Tanya’s blog (Essentially Invisible), set players on the trail of what is beginning to look like a disjointed indulgence in ARG cliches. Between Tanya claiming that she found her own blog by accident and the appearance of ciphers with no plot-based justification for their placement, this looks likely to be the type of game that makes community veterans roll their eyes.
However, the game’s limited scope provides an easy opportunity for overview. During a discussion about the difficulty of finding regular coverage of the ARG world that is geared to people outside the community with game reviewer par excellence Chris Dahlen (one of the few journalists to tackle reviewing an ARG — Perplex City — in the context of mainstream gaming), Chris expressed a desire for regular sports-page-like coverage of running ARGs. He wanted to see an account of a game’s highs and lows that would be accessible to people who are internet literate but don’t regularly play ARGs.
I’m far too lazy to attempt such an ambitious project for a large-scale game, but Essentially Invisible provides an example of limited enough scope that I’m willing to give it a try. Please mentally read the following in your best sportscaster voice.
Essentially Invisible got off to a bit of a rough start in its first engagement with Unfiction, choosing a launch method — merely sending a link to an Unfiction admin — likely to evoke ambivalence at best from players due to historically heavy overuse by games that later imploded. However, an unoriginal launch does not necessarily indicate the quality of the game to come, so fans remained hopeful.
The game’s strategy seemed simple and familiar, although far from sure-fire: find the missing sister by discovering the story behind her mysterious plea for help and solving the numerous puzzles and ciphers floating around.
A few more early stumbles, including such tired moves as the unexplained use of binary and other simple ciphers, a mysterious plea for help that would be more logically sent to police than to the internet at large, and attempts to lead players by the nose rather than letting them find their own way seemed to confirm that this was a game likely to be forgotten quickly even by fans.
EI handed apathy and annoyance their first loss, however, by bringing in a reference to the popular show Supernatural when missing sister Tricia passed a Leia-like message to Tanya, exclaiming, “Find Dean Winchester! He’s my only hope!”
Following up on the momentum generated by that move, EI tossed in a note in WingDings font (and, in a showy display of self-awareness, dubbed the image OBI-WAN). The play was reasonably well-executed, as the note was hand-written and therefore could not simply be converted to readable text by opening the document in word and switching the font.
By the time the dust had cleared from those plays, EI had lined up its next move: an mp3 left on Tricia’s cell phone that turned out to be a deployment of a strategy less frequently used but still familiar to genre fans: the Name That Tune For Kloos And Glory opening. It proved successful, as sound and video files are a welcome change from blog entries and visual ciphers, and it prompted deeper engagement (emails and blog comments) from a few players.
Not wanting to limit itself to its star hitter, EI next brought a character who appeared to be Tricia onto the field in an email reply to a player’s offer of help. Unfortunately, she failed to perform up to her sister’s standards, falling back on a move rarely proven successful even when attempted by characters with a track record of clever plays: the Inexplicably ROT-13ed Email Reply. A few cynical groans echoed from the stands, and mutters of “Why is it always ROT- 13?” and “Get off my lawn!” along with the sounds of walkers and canes banging the bleachers were heard from the press box.
Meanwhile, showing excellent leadership, Tanya was doing her best to distract from her teammate’s disappointing showing, throwing out the generally foolproof Could-This-Be-An-Anagram? feint, in which the use of an odd word or phrase (in this case, “En On Tutors“) sends players scrambling to toss the letters until they get something that makes more sense.
Tricia made an attempt to recover from her stumble, but repeated many of the same mistakes. It hardly seems worth the effort to encode a two-letter response in binary, and gains from the play, if any, were minimal as players remained confused as to whether they had correctly decoded the Wingding letter. Team members Sam and Dean Winchester unfortunately appeared to be following her lead in sending random codes and ciphers.
Tanya again came to the rescue, broadening the area of the field she was covering as she announced that thanks to players’ identification of the mp3 as a country song entitled “You’ll never leave Harlan alive,” she was heading to Harlan, KY to continue her search for Tricia. Fans who had awoken at the name Harlan, hoping for some trademark Ellison humor and snark, returned to their slumber.
EI’s next strategy involved a cat picture, which is usually a safe choice on the internet, and fans set about trying to wrest meaning from the letters and symbols scattered about the image.
In Kentucky, Tanya realized she’d forgotten to bring along a picture of her sister to show to locals, and was saved at the last minute by the intervention of newly-introduced friend and teammate Jane, who had one handy. Unfortunately, what would otherwise have been a well-executed handoff was marred a bit by the fact that the picture was solarized for no apparent reason. (Either that, or Tricia is a drow. +2 Geek Points to anyone who was able to switch gaming genres immediately after the parentheses.)
Perhaps realizing a change of game plans was in order, EI brought Tricia onto the field again, introducing a LiveJournal of her own, and in a bit of unsportsmanlike behavior, ungraciously disclaiming the need for help from her sister or from the players. Playing to her strengths as a folklore student, Tricia claimed that this had all been an attempt to see if legends could be created and that her sister was the one that was insane. Whether this abrupt reversal of the game’s previous direction will prove successful remains to be seen.
In what may signal another new direction for the team, Tanya is currently searching for clues at a real-life library, and Tricia’s blog contains what may be GPS coordinates. Real-life deaddrops or even meet-ups might pull them out of their slump. The game’s run has been a bit of a disappointment so far, but they still have time to rally, clear up the ambiguities and disjointedness, and provide a satisfying conclusion to their fans. Doom Skull proved that a grassroots ARG does not have to be epic in scope or even particularly innovative to provide a quality experience for its participants, especially for new players or those with limited time to participate. Like Doom Skull, this ARG could provide a modest-but-entertaining “ARG with training wheels,” but even less ambitious games need to maintain coherent storylines and something distinctive — even if it’s only a quirky sense of fun — to keep players interested. Let’s hope this one rises to that challenge.
Players wishing to join up can read the still-manageable Unfiction thread, and should also be aware that most of the interaction takes place on Tanya’s LiveJournal, so a free account at that site might prove useful in participating.