2011 Year in Review: Puzzling Through Half a Year

It’s been three months since ARGNet’s first look back at this year in alternate reality gaming, putting over half of 2011 behind us. Alternate reality games have continued to insinuate themselves into pop culture, spanning movies, television, music, video games, and books. The genre has stretched out beyond the entertainment industry to support social causes, provide more enriching museum-going experiences, and even sell packs of chewing gum. During the past three months a number of major campaigns have come to a conclusion, to be replaced by a number of tantalizing prospects. Read on for a few highlights from the quarter.

End of an Era: The Jejune Incident Concludes
On April 10th, over 250 participants gathered at a conference room in San Francisco’s Hyatt Regency hotel for a “Socio-Reengineering Session” that would mark the end of The Jejune Institute, a highly immersive alternate reality game punctuated by a series of live events that hid clues and mysteries in office buildings and street corners across the city of San Francisco in a campaign spanning over three years. Only the most dedicated players were permitted to attend the Institute’s five-hour-plus event, with players infiltrating the reorientation meeting expecting to confront Octavio Coleman, the organization’s head.

In his article summarizing the event for The Awl, Jejune attendee Rick Paulas describes the game’s controversial conclusion. Early in the event, each attendee was instructed by the Elsewhere Public Works Agency to steal a BIOTIC-4CE GLOBE from the Institute. After hours of indoctrination, the game came to an abrupt and unexpected conclusion as players were instructed to drop the globes, which turned out to be flowering tea balls, into glasses of hot water. No grand confrontations, no subtle revelations, just a cup of tea to mark the passing of an era.

Since April, two games launched in California that seem to be seeking to fill the void left by the passing of The Jejune Institute. Posters in San Francisco directed players to Message from Z, a game that appears to have drawn inspiration from The Jejune Institute‘s first act by sending players on a scavenger hunt through the streets of San Francisco. While it does not approach the scale and polish of The Jejune Institute, it does present a prime opportunity for players to dip their toes back into the mysteries of San Francisco. Los Angeles-based production company Superfreako recently launched its own incarnation, time/trip. Describing itself as “part-Scavenger Hunt / part-‘Choose Your Own Adventure,'” the video experience starts players at Meltdown Comics on a QR code-fueled trip throughout the city, with branching storylines paving the way.

Blockbuster Films and AAA Console Games
Another institution has exited the world of alternate reality gaming now that Super 8, JJ Abrams’ collaboration with Stephen Spielberg, has hit theaters. The Super 8 franchise introduced players to the film’s universe through two avenues: Josh Minker’s exploration of his father’s past and the seemingly innocuous Rocket Poppeteers brand of popsicles. The former plotline was intertwined with the film’s plot, while the latter provided added atmosphere to the universe that fueled the campaign’s live event at last year’s Comic-Con.

What is most remarkable about Super 8‘s viral campaign was its ability to insert itself into other ongoing campaigns and televised properties. As with the Slusho brand from Cloverfield, Abrams cross-pollinated the Rocket Poppeteers brand into the Fringe universe, inserting the logo into the show’s season finale. Taking this one step further, the Super 8 trailer was inserted into Portal 2‘s alternate reality game.

Back in 2010, Portal 2 teased players about a sequel through an alternate reality game that rewrote the game’s ending. On April Fool’s Day, Valve pulled a fast one over the industry by releasing another alternate reality game through its “Potato Sack” bundle of games over the Steam network. In a behind-the-scenes look at the campaign on Gamasutra, Rob Jagnow breaks down the anatomy of the alternate reality game, which integrated GLaDOS into the indie games included in the “Potato Sack.” Active fans were awarded with Valve’s complete collection of games, sent packages in the mail, and even flown to the Portal 2 launch party. Portal 2 in turn featured an interactive trailer for Super 8, a fascinating cross-promotional bid.

This summer’s Green Lantern film had its own alternate reality game, in partnership with the Bleeding Cool forums, which created an in-game home for the campaign, living at the Newton Astronomers website. The events of the alternate reality game led up to the film, with one puzzle in particular calling on players to leverage their collective intelligence to classify thousands of images collected from the Spitzer Space Telescope. The results of this analysis was then stitched together to provide a frankly stunning visual. Real Steel continued its own viral campaign, mailing out posters of one of the film’s iconic robots to participants who completed the first stage.

Getting Involved in Television
Televised brand extensions took a variety of forms over the past three months, with the most elaborate effort coming from HBO by way of introduction to their epic fantasy Game of Thrones. The five-part campaign introduced George R.R. Martin’s expansive storyworld through a series of sensory experiences, each with its own unique puzzle associated with it. While the campaign deliberately eschewed including a narrative, it succeeded admirably at creating brief tastes of the world to whet the audience’s palates. The campaign’s final installment took that literally, enlisting the aid of Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio to design a Game of Thrones-inspired tasting menu that was given away for free in New York and Los Angeles prior to the show’s premiere.

Covert Affairs opted to focus on narrative elements with its ongoing tweetcast, offering a parallel plotline that will soon intersect with the television show itself. Current TV’s experiment with audience participation, Bar Karma, turned to the development process itself as the focus of its interactive elements. Meanwhile, the BBC turned to the immersive theater company Punchdrunk to create a special, interactive experience in the Doctor Who universe. The only catch? The experience is only open to children between 6 and 12.

Fan Productions and Indie Games
The final Harry Potter film may not have an official alternate reality game, but that didn’t stop fans from creating their own, at the Magic is Might website. The collaborative blog gives fans the opportunity to expand upon the events of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that fell between the pages as readers followed Harry, Hermoine, and Ron on their quest to destroy the horcruxes.

A similar fan production made in anticipation for the upcoming Hunger Games film called Panem October was met with greater opposition from Lionsgate, which shut down the project after informing MovieViral.com that the campaign was potentially a scam to collect user data. Unlike Magic is Might, Panem October went out of its way to maintain the illusion of reality. Its fan-made replacement, Panem Press, is opting to include a disclaimer.

Digital Publishing
The digital publishing world is in an uproar over J.K. Rowling’s announcement that the Harry Potter series would be reimagined through Pottermore. The Pottermore experience was announced through an online treasure hunt powered by the Secret Street View microsite. Despite wild speculation across all fronts, details on the project are scarce: the site will offer a free online experience coming this October along with exclusive eBook and audiobook offerings. Meanwhile, to considerably less fanfare and controversy, Patrick Carman released the first season of his 3:15 Stories horror series, wrapping serial app-based short stories with audio and video.

In digital music publishing, Thomas Dolby has released his new album Oceanea through an interactive online game, Map of a Floating City. In this steampunk-themed trading game that feels like an MMO version of Settlers of Catan, players collect sets of jetsam while slowly heading north alongside a rich cast of characters that are slowly revealing their stories. Collecting sets of flotsam unlocks songs from the album, with the introductory mission offering players Dolby’s hit, “She Blinded Me with Science.” Scattered puzzles in the flotsam add additional flavor to the world.

A Plethora of Puzzle Hunts
Dolby’s Floating City game is the most elaborate attempt at fleshing out a narrative for his album until the rumored Year Zero mini-series comes to fruition, but a number of artists are turning to puzzles to generate buzz for their albums. Lady Gaga partnered with Starbucks for the multimedia hunt aptly named SRCH, which offered seven rounds of increasingly difficult puzzles that culminated in a chance to meet Lady Gaga in person. Death Cab for Cutie had its own challenge at Four Codes and Keys that gave players a chance to meet the band.

Musicians weren’t the only ones to get in the puzzle hunt game: in the UK, Dr. Pepper fans were faced with a series of challenges to join The Pepperhood, a college club founded by the fictional “Crazy” Joe Macfaddon; British puzzle aficionados up for a more serious challenge can participate in the BBC’s upcoming Code Challenge, a treasure hunt seamlessly integrated into their upcoming mini-series on the codes that surround us. Americans were treated to the Super Civic Quest, helping a luchador search across media for his missing Civic. New Yorkers can still attempt to locate the unclaimed pirate booty from We Lost Our Gold after over a year of searching.

On Socks and Gum
It’s hard to categorize the next two campaigns that were introduced to this quarter, but Socks, Inc., and Test Subjects Needed have both made an impact with their launches. The former is a platform for creative sockpuppetry by Awkward Hug, the company that brought you a robot love story, that follows the tale of a young sock starting his dream job at Socks, Inc.

The latter is an alternate reality game by 42 Entertainment for Wrigley’s 5Gum product line that sent parachuters dropping hundreds of paper helicopters bearing LED lights at Bonnaroo. QR codes on the helicopters led to MissionIcefly.com, a countdown site that prefaced a real-world hunt for fifteen crates containing iceflies. In a novel twist, scanning in QR codes from specially marked packs of 5Gum unlocks keys that may come in handy during the next phase of the campaign on July 15th.

Serious Games
A continuing stream of institutional sponsors are turning to alternate reality games for good. MIT partnered with the Smithsonian to engage children with the scientific method through Vanished, while Breakthrough created partnerships with a series of local museums and historical sites to arrange for live events to supplement its social-minded Facebook game, America 2049. The National Civil War Museum provided players of its alternate reality game Jewel of the Valleys with online access to actual historical documents to fuel its recent game. And in honor of the New York Public Library’s Centennial celebration 500 people, myself included, were locked in the library overnight to locate 100 artifacts and write a book.

Coming Attractions
Conference season is fast approaching, and while studios are rumored to be cutting back on their presence at Comic-Con, there’s bound to be a few things of note launching at the annual darling for alternate reality game launches. A handful of conferences are also approaching on the horizon for those interested in learning more about alternate reality games and transmedia storytelling in particular: ARGFest in August, PICNIC in September, Power to the Pixel in October, and StoryWorld in November guarantees a full slate of opportunities to explore the genre in depth.

In recent years, many alternate reality game and transmedia storytelling practitioners have shied away from relying on puzzles as a narrative mechanism, concerned that reliance on puzzles, ciphers, and codes challenging enough to engage collective audiences might chase potential audiences away. However, in recent months there has been a resurgence in complex challenges and hurdles for participants to overcome, collectively or individually. Projects are becoming less tentative about working in revenue models into projects, whether through cross-promotion like with Super 8 and Portal 2 or outright calls to action for fans to purchase the product, as we’re seeing with 5Gum in Test Subjects Needed. Fan relationships with properties are continually being tested, with shows like Bar Karma or projects like Pottermore trying to bridge the gap in an ecosystem that practically insists on fan-driven initiatives like Magic is Might and Panem Press.

What will the second half of 2011 bring, and what moments inspired you from the first half?

Continue on to Part III of the Year in Review, covering the third quarter of the year


  1. playing time/trip can also get you some cool prizes btw. news to be coming on the site by next week (7/11) on the site timetriplaDOTcom. =D

  2. I’ve written a three-part series of posts called “Why Transmedia is Catching On” for Tribeca Future of Film Site. Part 2″ just went live via @TribecaFilm: http://bit.ly/qa5dwn This one focuses on some key figures (Lance Weiler, Brian Clark, Susan Bonds, Jeff Gomez, etc.) and includes lots of links to ARGnet.

  3. You completely missed Elsewhere Philatelic Society. The spin off-from-Jejune ARG which has been going on for over a year in San Francisco.

Comments are closed.