I’m dying. I was falling asleep last night, and I knew. All I had to do was just let go, you know? …And that would be it. I’d wake up a f*cking corpse, and you’d be in trouble. So why don’t you just let me go? Why don’t you just let me get out of here before everyone gets in trouble?
The plea is made with weary resignation by Subject 137, a man who appears to be in his twenties and who, the video’s poster tells us, has been the subject of mysterious medical testing.
It’s an eerie and surprisingly affecting response to the assertion, delivered from offscreen in an electronically disguised voice, that Subject 137 is special, but that he’d get lost “out there” in the real world. Is this the idealism of a fanatic scientist? Propaganda from an organization with sinister plans? Or is Subject 137 actually special? It’s impossible to tell from this first video, but Subject 137’s bleak response is delivered in a way that makes him seem grounded and easy to identify with.
The viewer allegiances established by the introductory video (Subject 137 sympathetic! Voice-disguised man scary!) are destabilized, however, by the notes attached to it by Maria Ail:
I beg viewers to be careful when watching this clip since it’s view out of context of everything that comes before it. Think of this clip as a test.
Many ARGs have a character that functions as a guide, giving players an introduction to the world of the game and usually some sort of call to action as well. Maria seems to be a character of this type. Her site elegantly provides a walkthrough of the game thus far, a library of the videos, a forum for discussion and her blog about the events. In essence, the entire game is contained on a single site.
Maria was working on a book about the lives of medical test subjects when she received a package of tapes containing videos documenting the experiences of Tom, a.k.a. Subject 137. Intrigued and (hopefully) a little disturbed by their content, Maria decided to upload the videos to sites like Veoh and YouTube, hoping to share Tom’s story and get some answers. Want to help? Call her at 646.429.0267 or email her at [email protected]. Right now you’ll only get her voicemail, but leave her your number just in case she starts returning calls.
I won’t spoil what happens in subsequent videos, because I feel that this might be a good game for newcomers to ARGs (with the caveat that the videos contain somewhat disturbing subject matter and profanity) and the trail is currently short enough that it’s easy to follow it for yourself. I was able to go through all the material on the site in under two hours. Part of this was due to the fact that both the Unfiction thread and the onsite message boards are sparsely populated at the moment, but even if they begin buzzing, so long as Maria continues to provide concise summaries of both developments in the plot and outstanding player theories, comments and questions, it should remain easy to join in the game without having to read through everything the community is saying.
The relative simplicity of catching up, however, doesn’t indicate a simple story. There’s a suggestion of enough depth to the characters to drive continuing player interest even though there’s not much for players to do at the moment beyond speculating about the nature of the tests Tom is undergoing. The caliber of the videos, while occasionally a little uneven, hits the right note: it’s plausible enough that these are tapes for internal use by researchers. Whether the unstudied quality is due to a low budget or an attempt at realism, I bought it, and I appreciated the occasional flashes of cleverness the writing displayed (“Your bee just grabbed a jackhammer while you weren’t looking, Doc!” Tommy exclaims when the intensity of the shocks he receives in a test — which the doctor has assured him will be no more than a “bee sting” — suddenly increase in intensity (an allusion to the Just a pinch, honey. You’ll barely feel it. Just a little sting… motif that set off the story in I Love Bees, perhaps?), and the confident, understated tenderness between Tom and his girlfriend is sketched with a light touch that nevertheless allows it to shine through while the video quality cuts out and in as if embarrassed to be intruding on the couple’s intimacy).
The game uses primarily free sites (YouTube, Proboards) aside from Maria’s main site, but it manages to convey a sort of controlled, unobtrusive professionalism without ever seeming slick by turning the very things that might indicate a shoestring budget into markers of authenticity.
Is Maria, our guide-cum-narrator, being upfront with her audience? Hard to say; I can’t tell whether the little blips in her story and conduct that are appearing on my Suspicion Radar are intentional or not.
The one area where Subject 137 seems a bit amateurish is in her interactions with players (okay, and in Maria’s misspellings and egregious overuse of exclamation points on her forum — have some self-respect, woman! — but I’m trying to overcome my Fascist English Major tendencies).
Part of the allure of smaller games is that they usually feature personalized interaction for anyone who attempts to communicate with a character, unlike massive corporate games in which only a small percentage of players are actually able to enjoy that experience. However, it can create difficulties in protecting the game’s fiction against direct criticism or attempts to tear it down. Accusations that the entire thing is a hoax happen in any game that refuses to acknowledge that it is fiction. (For a theory on the cause of the phenomenon, see the end of this section of the ARGFest ’07 keynote.)
Large-scale ARGs whose vast player bases make direct responses to every player comment impossible — as well as games that present a universe seemingly less reactive to players than one mediated almost entirely through the eyes of a single responsive character — have the luxury of simply appearing to ignore hoax accusations (Who is Benjamin Stove? wryly shoved all such comments into a “Complaints Department” thread on its in-game forums, and it’s hard to imagine most of the fictional organizations in the less overtly-reactive world of the Beast caring whether players thought they were fake, let alone responding). But once puppetmasters open the door to responding to any player that contacts them, they’re faced with the choice of either trying to find an in-game way to address meta-oriented criticisms or concerns, or making their characters suspiciously blind to only that category of comments.
It’s not uncommon to see smaller-scale games attempt to preemptively head off this sort of thing, explaining why they can’t go to the police with their problems (as Subject 137 does in its FAQ), and having the characters themselves bring up the possibility that this is a hoax and that they themselves are victims (also found on the FAQ).
Subject 137 goes a bit too far in trying to answer potential criticism. Maria puts a player attack on the acting quality front and center in one of her blog entries, although she does try to deflect it into a discussion of why certain things in the videos are bleeped out. That sort of defensiveness changes the tone of the game and makes the puppetmaster(s) seem less confident, which weakens suspension of disbelief and interrupts the flow of the story. While it might not be in keeping with Maria’s accessibility to player interaction for the game to behave with the same chilly elegance that a universe like the Beast’s is able to flaunt in the face of such doubts, the puppetmasters would do better to remain focused on telling their story and reduce the amount of effort directed at proclaiming its legitimacy. No game makes it through a run without criticism, and player feedback is valuable, but that doesn’t mean it should always be addressed overtly.
Similarly, Maria’s summaries of the videos attempt to micromanage player interpretation of what they’ve seen a little too closely. I wish that instead of telling us that Tom’s relationship with his girlfriend seems “easy-going” and putting questions still to be answered in bold font, the puppetmasters would allow the viewer to take a little more initiative in deciding what to focus on and how to interpret things.
If it weren’t for the seeming lack of confidence displayed in Maria’s attempts to deal with criticism, I might assume that she is not being completely upfront with her audience (her assertions that she couldn’t possibly know the person who’s giving her these videos seem like a case of protesting too much, which fired my curiosity about her) and directing their attention only toward what serves her purposes. If that is what’s going on, I like the idea but am not sure whether it’s appropriate in what essentially amounts to a walkthrough of the game thus far: it’s done an excellent job of keeping the barrier to entry low, and it would be a shame to compromise that.
Whoever is doing the videos has an impressive but never intrusive command over what’s revealed in the narrative, and if the interactive portions of the game can achieve an equivalent level of stage presence, this could turn out to be a memorable and engaging experience.