Over the years, more than a few alternate reality games, transmedia storytelling projects, and advertising campaigns have warned that December 2012 would mark the end of the world. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: you can’t get much higher stakes than saving the world, and fighting against an ancient prophecy with its own pre-existing mythos (however misinformed) can add mystique to a narrative.
In 2009, the alternate reality game The Institute for Human Continuity reportedly sparked hundreds of letters to NASA’s Astrobiology Institute from people earnestly worried about the coming Apocalypse. Closer to the date in question, Funcom’s The Secret World offered a series of six missions intended to forestall the End of Days both inside and outside the game. Even Old Spice got in on the harbinger of doom act, using points from six increasingly ridiculous flash games to power a laser cutter that slowly etched additional time onto the Mayan calendar for their absurdist campaign, Old Spice Saves the World.
Proclamations of impending disaster weren’t limited to global catastrophe this year, with Fourth Wall Studios’ Elan Lee adding his voice to the chorus claiming that ARGs are dead at the StoryWorld Conference in Los Angeles. And yet, 2012 was in many ways a renaissance for alternate reality games and transmedia storytelling, as new sources of funding arise for a thriving community of developers. What follows is a closer look at some of the major events in alternate reality gaming for the year.
A Quick Look at the Industry
The most heartening development of the year is the growing influence of local groups of transmedia developers. Transmedia LA turned to Kickstarter to raise almost $10,000 to develop the alternate reality game Miracle Mile Paradox to give its members hands-on experience creating a game from start to finish, calling back to the “training ARG” Orbital Colony. In New York City, StoryCode’s focus was on a more condensed Story Hackathon. Inspired by Storycode’s hackathon, Transmedia SF ran its own Transmedia Jam. The hackathon model will be moving to Los Angeles in 2013, opening even more opportunities.
Established institutions in transmedia funding and support like Power to the Pixel and Sundance’s New Frontier are ramping up their efforts to provide direction and funding for the field, while new entrants like the Tribeca Film Institute, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Canadian Film Centre have been quick to follow with a variety of programs for prospective developments. On the legal front, Stitch Media managed to prevail in a Nova Scotia Supreme Court case revolving around the definition of interactivity for new media projects.
The list of transmedia storytelling platforms available for public consumption grew longer this year, as teams are increasingly viewing the technological infrastructures developed for projects as potential revenue generators. The Shadow Gang introduced Galahad, the platform developed in conjunction with Michael Grant’s alternate reality game for his Bzrk book series, while Failbetter Games released its StoryNexus platform into the wild, after using it to produce games like Echo Bazaar (now known as Fallen London) and The Night Circus. The year saw the official launch of Fourth Wall Studios’ RIDES platform. The company recently laid off the majority of its staff to shift the company’s focus away from production, redoubling efforts on developing the platform for licensing to partners. These new platforms join existing alternatives like Social Samba and Conducttr as potential tools for content management.
Return of the Video Game
Alternate reality games like I Love Bees and Last Call Poker serving as promotional vehicles for traditional video games in the past. But few have tried to replicate Electronic Arts’ ambitious attempt at fusing video game and transmedia experiences, Majestic. Sony returned to that concept in 2009 with PlayStation Xi, a console-based alternate reality game that created a game within the PlayStation Home virtual world.
This month, PlayStation returned to their familiar stomping grounds with a sequel, Xi Continuum. Unlike its free-to-play precursor, players are asked to pay a nominal fee ($8.99) for the full Xi Continuum experience. The return of Xi is one of many video game experiences that seek to directly interweave transmedia elements into the gameplay experience. For Funcom’s The Secret World, PC-based gameplay is riddled with puzzle missions that require players to search for outside information to piece together clues scattered throughout the MMORPG’s world. These puzzle missions are punctuated by a series of alternate reality games that have stretched back for years before the video game’s launch and continue today.
Alt-Minds looks to bring mission-based gameplay to a multi-lingual audience, offering versions of the game in French, English, German, and Spanish. The game frames the investigation around a web series. European players can turn to the game’s smartphone and tablet app to use augmented reality to hunt down additional clues at real world locations. Google is also making inroads into the augmented reality gaming market with its Niantic Project alternate reality game. As a conspiracy-riddled narrative unfolds on the Niantic Project website, players across the globe battle to capture and maintain portals through the ARG’s augmented reality app, Ingress. Hacking portals in the augmented reality app periodically drops media files that advance the narrative, while codes and clues hidden within the narrative updates on the game’s website provide players with additional items and experience for the augmented reality game.
A Surge in Television and Movies
Syfy is looking to bridge the gap between video games and television with its ambitious upcoming project, Defiance. Syfy plans to have events in the online MMO shooter game influence the television series and vice versa, particularly as the endeavor, rumored to cost as much as $100 million, moves into its second season. Initial assets are beginning to proliferate online in anticipation of the show and game’s April premiere, offering a glimpse into the show’s post-apocalyptic universe.
Most transmedia endeavors in the realm of television and movies in 2012 were more modest in scope, seeking to offer curious viewers an amuse-bouche before the main event. For Cinemax’s show Hunted, the amuse-bouche took the form of a five-step job application to work at Byzantium Security, a company with the provocative slogan “We’re not for everyone. Just the 1% that matters.” Sony created a similar teaser for its Skyfall campaign that challenged visitors to complete a text adventure as their application to MI6. Tim Kring tried a different tact with his fragmented web series Daybreak 2012, which offered a thematic sequel to the show Touch that explored the show’s mysterious “doda” before the show’s second season. Investigation Discovery even created a condensed murder mystery with a twist ending based on torrid love affair to promote a reality series hosted by soap opera veteran Susan Lucci.
Even some of the larger movie-themed experiences of 2012 like the viral campaigns for Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Dark Knight Rises focused on periodic teasers designed to make a big splash, like eccentric trillionaire Peter Weyland’s fictional TED Talk in 2023 for Prometheus and deaddrops containing Peter Parker’s school supplies and Spidey-shoes as part of Mark of the Spider-Man.
Social Samba served as the platform for a handful of the year’s more time-intensive extended television experiences, lead by USA Networks’ Suits Recruits. The platform had previously been used for online extensions like Psych’s Hashtag Killer game and MTV’s Teen Wolf: The Hunt, but pushed the platform to new heights. Hearkening back to the Sherlock Holmes game 221B‘s team-based gameplay, Suits Recruits required players to assume the role of either a paralegal or legal assistant at Pearson Hardman, share information with their compatriots to crack the case, and navigate the treacherous waters of office politics.
A Return to the Web Series
While traditional television and movies eased away from full-fledged alternate reality games in 2012, the web series community moved to fill the void. Leading the charge was Fourth Wall Studios with the official unveiling of the company’s RIDES platform through a dizzying array of shows, headlined by the Emmy Award-winning Dirty Work. As opposed to aiming for interactivity with the platform, it focused on adding additional layers of multimedia touchpoints to serve as a surround-sound of immersion. Stories ranged from the intensely dark science fiction show Flare to more lighthearted fare like the home shopping channel comedy RVC.
Guidestones was another platform-driven play aimed at rethinking the consumption of web video content: the story was designed to play out through a series of short videos emailed to subscribers at regular intervals, encouraging players to tackle the puzzles contained within in a fixed period of time. With a narrative centered around the very real Georgia Guidestones and a new season coming in 2013, the series matches its novel delivery system with an engaging story.
Tom Hanks also tested the transmedia waters through Tap Joint, a perplexingly obscure alternate reality game that promoted the animated web series Electric City through a virtual telegraph machine that features prominently in the series. One of the game’s most innovative features was using the mobile version of the website as an instruction manual for the desktop version, a functional application of the narrative possibilities showcased in Randall Munroe’s April Fool’s joke on xkcd this year. Rounding out the big budget celebrity forays into the web series space, Anthony Zuiker paired up with Yahoo and Norton Anti-Virus to produce Cybergeddon, providing viewers of the chance to team up with the show’s cyber-sleuths.
Some of the most engaging experiments in transmedia storytelling of 2012 came out of the established YouTube creator community. To support MyMusic, an over-the-top comedy about a radio station run by the physical manifestations of music genres, Benny and Rafi Fine started a series of weekly shows that have effectively brought the show’s fictional radio show to life. MyMusic serves as wish fulfillment for everyone who secretly fantasized about listening to the stations featured in WKRP in Cincinnati and NewsRadio. And then, there’s the Lizzie Bennet Diaries: a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice spearheaded by Bernie Su and Hank Green that somehow manages to find endearing qualities in the the most unlikeable characters of the source material. It’s a rare Pride and Prejudice adaptation that keeps me coming back to find out what’s going on in the lives of “Ricky” Collins and Lydia Bennet.
The Indie ARG Space
It’s getting increasingly difficult to draw the line between the indie space for alternate reality gaming and their better financed compatriots. Any one of the games I mention here (and many that I don’t) could easily claim I mislabeled them. Take, for instance, ZED.TO, a Toronto-based alternate reality game that held a series of elaborate live events that offer live theatrical experiences that rival many of the outrageous stunts pulled off during Tim Kring’s Conspiracy for Good. Similarly, the quality of the radio drama featured in the We Are the Earthborne ARG leaves me nostalgic for the halcyon days of audio dramas. I can’t even begin to make sense of TVTropes.org’s recently concluded alternate reality game, The Wall Will Fall, but its almost perverse complexity riddled with meta-references and in-jokes seems perfectly tailored to the community’s near-herculean organizational prowess. Alternet Reality delves into the horror genre through intense, live streaming challenges where the fictional characters’ fates depends on players’ ability to crack the case in real time.
The independent ARG that stuck with me the most this year, however, made no attempt to create the illusion of being anything but an indie project. On a lark, ARGNet founder Steve Peters announced an insta-ARG experiment parody of World Without Oil dubbed World Without Helium. The Mega Hard Wood Group emerged from that framework, exploring the serious topic of a world facing a helium shortage in the most whimsical manner possible. The game’s protagonist William Sawtooth III decided that if corporations can be people, people should be able to function as corporations as well. So Sawtooth sold shares in his personhood, putting his life at the whims of his shareholders. The game only ran for two weeks, but every day brought a new relatively simple yet ridiculous challenge delivered through a podcast to recover William Sawtooth’s shares from the Mega Wood Group board of directors that still managed to emerge organically from the story. Other games like Work With No Pants also embraced the absurdist aesthetic to great effect.
Persistence of the Serious Game
One of the most powerful serious games of 2011 returned to the USC campus this fall. Reality Ends Here was designed as a way of encouraging USC’s freshman film students to continue the practical experimentation and creative spark that got students admitted to the School of Cinematic Arts in the first place outside the classroom context. The project’s inaugural year won Indiecade’s Impact Award. Reality Ends Here returned to meet a new crop of incoming students this fall. The year’s projects included everything from a massive science fiction supercut remix, vignettes from an Israeli soldier’s struggles in the military, and a film created using Google Maps in place of a camera.
Education was a popular topic for serious ARGs this year, with World Without Oil creator Ken Eklund returned to the space for Ed Zed Omega, a game about high school dropouts with a twist. Instead of using Ed Zed Omega to encourage students to work with the current educational system, the game follows six fictional teens to address what steps high school drop-outs take when they make that decision. ARGs were even used to promote attending Easter services for Long Hollow Baptist Church, through the campaign Who is Phillip Randoll. A light puzzle-driven narrative was used alongside out of home advertisements to build up anticipation for church’s Easter drama, The Fortunate Death of Phillip Randoll.
Books and Puzzle Challenges
For the book publishing industry, 2012 was dominated by a continuation of existing projects. 39 Clues continues to push through its second series, Yomi Ayeni’s Clockwork Watch steampunk graphic novel shipped, and the upcoming transmedia series The Karada has been teasing its eventual release with the Wattpad story All Your Fates. Eli Horowitz, author of the recently solved puzzle book The Clock Without a Face, recently released The Silent History, a book designed exclusively for iDevices that can unlock location-specific stories for its readers. For non-fiction resources, 2012 saw the publication of Andrea Phillips’ Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling and Tyler Weaver’s Comics for Film, Games, and Animation. There are also a number of transmedia book experiences set to come out in 2013, including Thomas Greanias thriller The Alignment: Federal City and Mark Staufer’s lucid dreaming exploration The Numinous Place.
Oddly enough, some of the most exciting news items relating to the publishing world are tied to already published books. At ARGFest this year, it was announced that there are four meta puzzles hidden in Dave Szulborski’s book, This Is Not A Game that have remained hidden within the book for over seven years. Ernest Cline also revealed that his book Ready Player One contained meta-puzzles that mirrored the novel’s plot, and offered up a 1981 Delorean as the prize for the first to complete a series of three increasingly difficult challenges. First, competitors needed to find a secret room in an emulated Atari game created for the challenge. Next, puzzlers had to collect 80’s-themed items in Richard Garrett’s Facebook game, Ultimate Collector. Finally, everyone to clear the first two challenges were asked to set a new world record on one of six classic video games. Within eight days, the contest’s winner set a new world record on Joust, and Cline gave the Delorean away on G4TV.
A handful of other major puzzles hunts concluded their multi-year runs. For The Clock Without a Face, the last of twelve clock faces was located after players spent two years scouring the book for clues. No one solved the puzzle behind the series of puppet pirate videos We Lost Our Gold, but the creators decided Hurricane Sandy irreparably damaged the puzzle trail, dug up the treasure, and donated the money to relief efforts. Meanwhile, Real Escape Game, a narrative-driven series of puzzle adventures, made its way to the United States from Japan with a number locked room mysteries.
Final Thoughts for 2012
In spite of all the talk about the end of the world in 2012 and ARGs being dead, we’re still here. The games discussed above represent only a small sampling of the alternate reality gaming and transmedia storytelling spaces, and I expect that problem to get more difficult every year. Frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Readily available resources and innovative tools are lowering the barriers of entry for creation, and revenue streams are increasingly integrated into experience design beyond traditional advertising revenues through Kickstarter campaigns, live event admission fees, product integration, the sale of tangible items, and subscription services.
Hints at major campaigns for 2013 are already beginning to surface. JJ Abrams’ new Star Trek film hid a sign-up page for a new viral experience in the film’s newest trailer, and Google’s Niantic Project game is still in closed beta, with prospective players chomping at the bit to start competing for world domination. Animism has returned for a second alternate reality game launching on January 1st with Grind City University, there’s bound to be something for everyone.
I inevitably neglected to mention more than a few key moments of the year, like Homestuck‘s Adventure Game raising almost $2.5 million on Kickstarter, an international art heist game that culminated with an event at the European Parliament, or my unrepentant glee at finally getting to hear Jack and Eugene bicker as I play Zombies, Run. Feel free to share your own favorite moments in the comments, or check out our look back at the highlights from 2011.