« JC, my brother, I haven’t forgotten you. Goodbye – Fred ».

This message, hidden in an encrypted note found in a Parisian hotel room, finally gave some closure for JC, the protagonist in Supernatural Oddities.  JC embarked on a journey to investigate the supernatural after his brother JC disappeared 20 years ago, driven by the motto : “Supernatural is Normal!”  On April 29th, JC discovered that Fred became a matchmaking angel, and that they would probably never see each other again.  Nicolas, one of the players of the Finding Fred alternate reality game joined JC, his mother-in-law Simone, and his wife Muriel in the hotel room for the discovery.  A few days later, the community watched the epilogue to the ten-day long investigation on JC’s mockumentary webisode Life Really Is a Funny Thing, guest-starring Nicolas as a full-fledged character in the fiction.

Jane Doh introduced ARGNet readers to the Finding Fred ARG, part of the Supernatural Oddities transmedia project produced by Happy Fannie in partnership with Orange.  In recent years, Orange, a French public telecommunications company, has moved its core business model from selling telecommunications pipes to global production in the mobile, web, and content sectors.

Sandrine Girbal, co-founder of Happy Fannie and executive producer of the project, explains that “Supernatural Oddities is the first transmedia fiction project for TV, Internet and social media in France. We partnered with Orange who wanted to take part in this experiment. They also wanted to try and find original content for their cable TV Channels, Orange Cinéma Series / Choc.”  She explains that the main challenge was to change viewers’ habits :

Fiction is a very formal genre in France, very few attempts have been made these last years to change that. Supernatural Oddities is our attempt to cater to an audience hungry for more interaction with the fiction and the characters! Supernatural Oddities’ challenge consisted of a 4-month real time story developed for several media platforms. More than a simple TV program available on different platforms, our wish was to go further in terms of storytelling.

The Finding Fred ARG was the most engaging and interactive part of this transmedia fiction, told through a short-format tv series and a webseries. Players were asked to help JC Dénarié, an amateur paranormal investigator, to find his long-lost brother Fred, missing for more than 20 years and mysteriously reappearing on a video sent by a woman who had seen a “hairy monster” in a Parisian square. Yes, a hairy monster. Supernatural Oddities was deliberately funny, quirky and upbeat. Even JC’s voice in the videos seems parodic, emulating crime investigation programs. The user-generated content required to gain points and badges in the ARG shares this whimsical aspect. Some 70 stories were shared on the FDP.tv website, most of them posted by super-players Gwenael and Nicolas.

From April 19th to April 29th, another story advancing the fiction took place on fdp.tv among the Finding Fred ARG players. On May 29th, after the story’s denouement, top-players Gwenael and Nicolas were battling it out for the competition’s grand prize, a VIP weekend at the Deauville Film Festival. In order to win, they had to post as many user-generated testimonies to fill JC’s supernatural census / encyclopedia, and answer a trivia quiz that made sure players were doing their homework by reading JC’s encyclopedia to find clues, keeping up to date with the latest plot developments, and a host of other activities. The ARG relied heavily on Facebook: you couldn’t be ranked as part of the competition unless you connected to your Facebook account. There were no forums on JC’s participatory website, so all discussions related to the ARG were on the Supernatural Oddities Facebook page. As Sandrine explained to me after I asked about this “social gaming” aspect of the ARG :

Granted it might be a bit restrictive but Facebook is a very efficient tool and most of the ARG elements relied on Facebook.  I don’t know if it cut us off from a certain type of audience, it’s too early to tell, but the Facebook discussion threads worked really well, the real time newsfeed was pretty handy too for the real-time investigation. Besides, the scoring system was mainly based on content sharing actions. It was also a viral element so that people could introduce the game and the SO universe to their friends . . . . Social media are mainstream and one of our requirements for this project was to make it accessible to people who were not familiar with ARGs.

On Facebook, Simone, JC’s mother-in-law was the main link between the fiction universe and the players. By the end of the replayable phase of the ARG (from April 29th to May 21st), Simone had 580 friends and the Fanpage attracted 298 “Likes.” According to Happy Fannie, the production company behind the project, the ARG gathered 300 players and 20 leader players. Thus, as a casual game playing out on social media, it attracted respectable numbers.  However, some people found Finding Fred to be relatively inaccessable. For Gaduman, a prominent online marketing blogger and gamer in France,  the use of Facebook was virally interesting, but the profusion of content and the lack of clarity concerning the gameplay and basic information (how to play, the game’s start and end date, and the sketchiness of the sharing features) was confusing. One could also argue that a quiz / trivia game about the show was not a very compelling gameplay feature either. One of the main problems of the gameplay was clearly the prominence of user-generated content in the ranking system: top-players with a lot of time on their hands or highly motivated could post up to 10 testimonies a day, leading to a tight core of leading players, leaving other players trying to keep up but unable to close the gap.  Technical difficulties with the Facebook feed made it even more challenging for newcomers to compete.

In the end, ARG player Gwenael won with 141,234 points and twenty testimonies shared on fdp.tv. Nicolas got second with 113,841 points and ten testimonies, in addition to his role in the mockumentary finale. I got third with a mere 8,318 points and two tedious testimonies involving a harpsichord and giant Nutella jars.

Many of the classic ARG tools were used in Finding Fred, ranging from phonecalls to webcam videos and emails, as well as the final live event. Where the gameplay features may have fallen short (the only puzzle of the game was the final encrypted farewell note from Fred that was quickly spoiled by two players), the content and writing was really good and engaging. Personally, it made me think of the quirky Ghostfacers from the television show Supernatural. As Sandrine Girbal pointed out, “[s]cripted content is our core activity. Before contacting Orange, we had worked for two years with JC Establet [the author] to create a story from scratch and that would take into account several media platforms.”

And as for the criticism, Sandrine Girbal admits there were some shortcomings, but in the end what matters is the overall positive response of the audience.

We enjoyed the fact that in the end people had really immersed themselves in the fiction[al] universe and its rules. I also want to emphasize the fact that humour was a key ingredient of Supernatural Oddities and usually ARGs are too often fueled by angst and fear. Our players understood the humour and had a good time: they ended up making memes of Fred matching all these odd and unlikely couples! Mainstream or not, it doesn’t really matter after all, as long as these type of initiatives exist in France and that we keep on making them happen.

Supernatural Oddities has paved the way for other transmedia and ARG-like experiences. Two main French TV channels, Canal + and LCI, discussed the project as a step towards new narratives. When asked about upcoming projects and a potential second season for Supernatural Oddities, Sandrine concludes : “It is still too early to announce whether or not there will be a second season. However we already have a spin-off ready to air next season, another piece of the SO global fiction: ANGELS. It deals with an angel apprentice in Paris. It tells the story from the supernatural creature’s point of view.”

Personally, I can’t wait for more marital bickering and Chatroulette spells.

Click Here to watch Supernatural Oddities episodes on Dailymotion.

Editor’s Note:  the preceding guest post was written by Nadia Elmrabet, a recent graduate from La Sorbonne University in Paris currently interning at Six to Start.