Image courtesy of EA Games
In 2008, Maxis released the video game Spore for the PC and Mac, describing the game as giving players “their own personal universe in a box.” Since then, Electronic Arts and Maxis have taken the franchise to the Nintendo DS, Wii, mobile phone, and Facebook. Coming in February 2011, Maxis is taking the tools they developed for the Spore franchise in another direction by moving into the action-RPG space with the release of Darkspore. Perhaps because of this shift in focus, Maxis is introducing their new game’s universe through an alternate reality game playing out at HelpEDNA.com.
Despite the name of the alternate reality game’s website, Help EDNA does not center around collecting merit badges for assisting an old lady across the street. Rather, it refers to Exponential DNA, a substance used by a race of creatures known as the Crogenitors to create a galactic scourge, the Darkspore. The alternate reality game centers around Earth’s first contact with aliens who are presumably seeking help against the Darkspore. So far, all communication has been mediated through a text-based interface administered by an artificial intelligence at the Help EDNA website. Reminiscent of old text-based adventures, players must guess at commands based on information contained on the frequently changing website.
Keeping with the spirit of first contact, the puzzles so far have relied heavily on scientific constants to convey information. For instance, players were presented with a substitution cipher indicating the time and location for Maxis’ Comic-Con panel: to crack the cipher, they needed to recognize that “s f m a tt tf ta ti sf si ft fa qt qf qa mf mi nt na at af ai zf zi ia tut” represents the sequence of the first twenty-six prime numbers. Another puzzle hinged on identifying the chemical compositions of adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, the bases of DNA. Players also needed to recognize that a series of coordinates represented past solar flares. The most daunting puzzle to date centered on analyzing a string of over 12,000 digits of pi for missing digits to reveal a message that implies these puzzles have been a test of our intelligence.
Having solved these preliminary puzzles, players may now ask the artificial intelligence behind the Help EDNA website questions. In order to pose a query, players must register for the page by typing “LOGIN” at the command prompt, and then type “NEW” to create an account. Once logged in, typing “QUERY” opens a prompt to ask the artificial intelligence questions. The Help EDNA website periodically updates with answers to these questions, accessible through the “RESPONSE” prompt. Players have also discovered that inputing a number of commands into the text interface triggers seemingly random images.
So far, the Help EDNA alternate reality game has only revealed tantalizing clues hinting at the upcoming video game’s plot. However, with the game’s release months away, Help EDNA appears to be gearing up for a well-planned, extended experience. The admittedly challenging puzzles have arisen organically from the plot, requiring only a minimal suspension of disbelief, and the alternate reality game’s credit page indicates that Maxis is taking a direct hand in the game’s creation. Now that an in-game channel for communication has opened up, this might just be the best time to join in the fun.