Tens of thousands of years ago, mankind’s earliest civilizations were visited by extraterrestrial beings. Due to their superior knowledge and technology, these early visitors were treated as gods. Native Americans knew them as the Sky People. To the Sumerians, they were the Annunaki. Whatever they were called, these visitors came to earth and instructed mankind, leaving behind countless monuments behind. At least, that’s what some people claim. The theory commonly referred to as the “ancient astronaut hypothesis” serves as the foundation for a cross-platform collaboration between James Frey’s Full Fathom Five, HarperCollins, Google’s Niantic Labs, and Fox Searchlight.
According to Endgame‘s legend, Earth’s ancient alien visitors warned mankind that they would return one day for a reckoning known as Endgame. Some believe it to be a punishment for squandering the aliens’ enlightenment, and straining earth’s resources, while others view it as a method of selecting a favored sub-section of humanity for preservation. Whatever the cause, the nature of Endgame is clear: twelve of the most ancient civilizations must select a teenager to represent their society in a deadly treasure hunt where failure means death — the only survivors of Endgame are the members of the winning civilization. For thousands of years, the twelve societies have been training potential representatives from birth to save their people, in case Endgame should fall to their generation. Finally, after over thirty thousand years, twelve meteorites touched down, signaling the beginning of Endgame, and twelve teenagers started their journey to locate three keys hidden across the globe.
This narrative serves as the core of the Endgame experience across every platform. However, people interested in exploring the world of Endgame are presented with a number of dramatically different ways to interact with the story. For players looking for a solitary experience, puzzles infused into the novel leads to the secret to unlocking approximately $500,000 in gold coins kept on display at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. For those looking for a more social gaming experience, an alternate reality game delves deeper into Endgame‘s backstory, while an upcoming mobile app allowing players to take the conflict to the streets in a competitive, PVP style of gameplay.
Prelude to Endgame
While Endgame officially launched earlier this month, the teams involved in the project have been quietly seeding clues about the project since early this year, with many of the characters in the novel starting to establish online presences on Twitter, Google+, and other social media platforms. At the Endgame is Coming website, players could link their Facebook account to watch a personalized video suggesting which of the twelve factions they were most likely to be aligned with, along with their chances of surviving the coming cataclysm. Magnetically sealed puzzle boxes were sent out to a handful of interested parties, with personalized videos directing players to endgameiscoming.com/event. Once a critical mass of people joined in, players learned that something would be happening at Union Square Park, the day before the book’s official launch date.
That event marked the official beginning of Endgame with a bang, as a section of Union Square Park was cordoned off to protect a meteor impact site that left behind the wreckage of a bicycle and hot dog stand. The crash site attracted men in hazmat suits conducting an investigation, faux news coverage and protesters warning of an event that would destroy everything.
A Solitary Endgame: The Hunt for the Earth Key
James Frey mentioned that one of his inspirations for creating Endgame was Masquerade, a children’s book from the 1980s that contained clues to the location of a jeweled hare hidden by the book’s author, Kit Williams. The buried treasure was eventually found by Ken Thomas three years after the book’s publication, although accusations of Thomas receiving help from Williams’ former girlfriend cloaked the treasure hunt in scandal.
Like Masquerade, the primary vector for storytelling with Endgame is a novel, with Fox Searchlight developing a movie adaptation. Since the plot of Endgame revolves around twelve teenagers following along a global scavenger hunt, the book is littered with a series of puzzles and riddles, personalized to their particular strengths and life experiences. Sometimes, the narrative explains the solutions to those riddles. But just as often, readers are left to try and tackle the puzzles on their own. Other puzzles injected into the book are intended for the reader alone, and lead to a key that can be used to unlock a case containing $500,000 in gold coins. Frey learned a lesson from Kit Williams’ scandal, and ensured that neither he nor Nils Johnson-Shelton knows the solution to the puzzles hidden within the book’s text. For the book’s puzzle design, he turned to Mat Laibowitz at Futuruption, best known for their Midnight Madness puzzle hunts held in New York City.
This co-mingling of narrative puzzles and meta-puzzles can get confusing as the book progresses. Some puzzles like the text hidden in the book’s cover and the illustrations separating chapters have a clear division from the narrative. Others are integrated more directly within the text. Sometimes, this is done with a deft hand and goes by practically unnoticed: a series of messages injected into the idiosyncrasies of one character’s speech patterns is a particularly skillful example. Others are more awkwardly constructed and tend to break the narrative flow: descriptions of time, distance, and direction are particularly affected by this construction. During a particularly dramatic moment, a character’s index finger is described as being “extended to 166°30’32”. During another sequence, characters are described as being “in Turkey for 2.45 days”.
There are multiple entry points to the puzzle hunt: for the trail I have been following, a puzzle within the book lead me to a validation page, asking me to solve a similarly themed puzzle before taking me to an interactive website containing yet another challenge. Progress along this journey is tracked through Google authentication, ensuring that all players have agreed to the game’s terms before proceeding. According to those terms, the puzzles are divided in four discrete phases. The first Stage went live with the book’s launch, with the remaining phases released on three separate, as-yet-unannounced dates in the future. The first person to solve all the puzzles will receive the Earth Key, an item that features prominently in the first book. Solving a similar puzzle trail in the second Endgame book will lead to a million dollar prize, while the final book holds the secret to 1.5 million dollars.
Structuring the contest around secrecy is abnormal for complex puzzle hunts of this nature: collaboration is often required to tackle challenges that call upon disparate skill sets, and the communities that form around tackling the puzzles help educate less experienced solvers interested in getting a taste of the experience. The decision to actively discourage collaboration is all the more surprising since the full puzzle experience will be gradually released over time, so there is no danger of a particularly savvy puzzle solver finding all the answers earlier than planned.
A Communal Endgame: Preparing for the End of the World
For players more interested in a collaborative approach to the end of the world, Endgame: Ancient Truth turns the clock back two years prior to the start of the novel, following the enigmatic Stella as she explores the history of the twelve lines. So far Stella has provided players with basic information on the twelve factions featured in the book, along with daily puzzle challenges that unlock glimpses into Stella’s slightly atypical family life. Stella also interacts with players by responding to emails in video responses.
The alternate reality game is separated from the puzzle hunt by more than just time: participation will not provide any hints or clues to the $500,000 prize, but also doesn’t come with the hunt’s restrictions on sharing information. Indeed, the alternate reality game’s meta-page explicitly states that “collaboration and sharing of information is not only allowed, but encouraged.”
A Combative Endgame: Adding PVP to the Ingress Model
Earlier this year, Niantic Labs announced plans to follow up the successful release of its geo-locative mobile game Ingress with a new project, set in the Endgame universe. Details on the upcoming mobile app are sparse, but during the franchise’s New York City launch event, John Hanke gave a few teasers of what’s to come. For the mobile game, players are asked to align with one of Endgame’s twelve factions and enter a global, location-specific PVP arena. As Hanke explains,
As you walk around the world, you’ll have a map on your phone, and you’ll see all the other players around you. If you are close enough to them, [your avatar] can fight them…and every time you fight, [your avatar fights] to the death. Everywhere you go in the world with this game, you’ll have to be ready to play and you’ll have to be ready to defend yourself or attack somebody.
This combative model of Endgame may seem to mesh closest with the book’s narrative, where twelve teenagers are thrust into a battle to the death. However, the many ways of interacting with Endgame as a reader, filmgoer, puzzle solver, or player are mirrored in the ways the characters in Endgame approach their roles. In the book, some approach it as a solitary puzzle to be unraveled. For others, it is a contest between players, to be won by dominating the competition. Still others forge uneasy alliances with their fellow Players, despite the belief instilled across generations that death is a certainty for all but one. Endgame as a franchise is designed to cater to the type of experience people are most comfortable seeking out. And while that may lead to a disjointed experience for the most dedicated players who immerse themselves in all aspects of the campaign, the net effect remains a thoroughly engrossing story paired with well-crafted puzzles that may be the most ambitious project of its kind.
To get started with the Endgame alternate reality game, check out Endgame: Ancient Truth for information on getting started and a list of communities following the ARG, or dive straight into the experience at AncientSocieties.com. For the $500,000 puzzle hunt, start off by reading Endgame: The Calling before registering to participate at Kepler Futuristics.