Comic-Con has served as the launch platform for more than a few alternate reality games in the past. At the San Diego convention, Why So Serious held its first live event promoting The Dark Knight at the convention in San Diego, using attendees as the Joker’s patsies by getting them to don the criminal’s signature clown make-up and stage minor crimes. Showtime kicked off its Dexter-themed ARG with a scavenger hunt leading to a grisly kill room, while Disney’s Flynn Lives campaign transformed a nearby warehouse into the End of Line Club from Tron: Legacy. While most of these affairs have been major events centered around entertainment properties, Google appears to have shaken up that trend by slipping their Comic-Con launch of the Niantic Project under the radar, only to have it resurface in force this month.
On July 12th, self-proclaimed “ghost comic book artist” Tycho started working the crowds at San Diego Comic-Con near Artist’s Alley, handing out flyers inspired by his inexplicable visions, dominated by scenes of global landmarks and enigmatic encrypted messages about parasitic “Shapers.” As crazy as Tycho seems, the folks at Niantic seem interested in his ramblings.
These visions drove Tycho to confront Flint Dille about hidden messages regarding extra-dimensional portals implanted for decades in Buck Rogers stories, before security threw him out of the convention. A few weeks later, a university professor teaching his students about visualizing portals with cell phone cameras was escorted away from his inattentive audience, but that was largely the end…until earlier this month, when mystery blogger P.A. Chapeau started updating his virtual conspiracy theory corkboard at NianticProject.com.
Whimsically titled “The Sphere of Weirdness,” Chapeau’s corkboard provides a daily snapshot of the investigation into otherworldy portals. Intrigued by Tycho’s vision-fueled artwork, Chapeau is also drawn to Ben Jackland, a dissatisfied customer who purchased a smartphone prototype that glitches near local landmarks. Jackland’s apartment was recently trashed to recover one of the smartphone’s components branded with the Niantic logo.
The Niantic Project alternate reality game is still in its formative stage, with basic introductory puzzles leading to everything from telephone numbers to foreign-langage messages offering hints to a larger mystery. What lies on the other side of these portals, and how is Niantic involved?
Some of these answers may be tied up in Google’s very real Niantic Labs, a San Francisco branch of the search giant rethinking our relationship with smartphones. Niantic Labs’ first app, Field Trip, taps into services ranging from Atlas Obscura to Zagat to provide location-specific content through a passive content delivery system. Since the Niantic Project website has a field asking players to request an app invite, this is likely the company’s next step along that path. Google hasn’t shied away from lightly branding the experience, with a Google copyright notice on NianticProject.com along with more subtle tells like the appearance of the Niantic Labs’ namesake whaling vessel in Tycho’s rough sketches.
The game’s daily update schedule promises a quick pace, running at least through the end of November. The infrastructure of the Niantic Project site is designed to accommodate additional investigations after “The Sphere of Weirdness,” so pursuing the secrets of the portals promises to be the beginning of a very interesting ride. To join in the fun, check out the game’s fan-created wiki at niantic.schlarp.com, or join in the discussions at Reddit, the Unfiction forums, and the #niantic IRC channel.