In October 2020, the TikTok channel PBHere started posting videos from inside a seemingly abandoned facility. Over the next few months, player suggestions helped guide the alternate reality game’s amnesic protagonist to learn more about why they were locked in a room there to begin with, and how to escape. Over the series’ 31-episode run, PBHere told a remarkably succinct standalone narrative driven by audience interactions, that attracted over 1 million subscribers and 60 million views…as expressed through over 16 minutes of 3D animation by series creator yatoimtop.
One of the things that made PBHere so special was its ability to seamlessly create a project that felt highly interactive, while operating within considerable constraints in both time and resources as an animated TikTok adventure. And the game’s opening escape room challenge provides a perfect illustration of that balance.
Escape the Room: Stranded PBHere With No Memories
PBHere begins with video of a person trapped in a room talking to his cellphone with no memory of who he is, why he’s there, or even how long he’s been stuck there. A quick camera pan shows the room is sparsely decorated: there’s nothing in the room other than a bed, a chair, security cameras, and a keypad-locked door with a meal slot.
Since the letters “PB” were embroidered on the jacket, players quickly took to referring to their reluctant protagonist as PB. Over the next few videos, PBHere lays out the rules for interaction through PB’s video responses: first, by snarkily responding to a video comment of “hello”, before responding to a question asking if he remembered anything at all. In the next installment, PB explored the room in response to player feedback, confirming that the suggestions were good, but ultimately resulted in dead ends.
PB even followed up on the significantly more violent recommendation of throwing a chair against the window. After the chair breaks in pieces on impact PB quips, “well it was a good idea, it was just a flimsy chair. And also my only chair.” Within the sparse environment, PBHere established the rules for the game. The game responds directly to player input, that player input could range from open questions to recommended actions, and that those actions can have negative consequences.
Having set those ground rules, players proceeded to tackle the puzzle at hand: after more closely inspecting the keypad itself, players noticed that four digits were more worn out than the rest: 0, 2, 4, and 8. And when PB passed his cellphone through the door’s slot to get a better look at the hallway, eagle-eyed viewers noticed that a series of musical notes were etched into the ledge under the door’s windowpane. The notes spelled out ‘CECFD’ – in order to play those notes on the keypad PB had to type 80824, unlocking the door…before stumbling across a slumped body in a hazmat suit just around the corner from PB’s holding cell.
PBHere‘s initial locked room served as both tutorial mission for players, as well as an illustration of the types of gameplay to expect out of the experience. But as the door unlocked, both scope of experience and scope of gameplay expanded.
From Locked Room to (Seemingly) Abandoned Facility
Once PB escaped his initial captivity, he recovered a note and ID card from the slumped figure in a hazmat suit, who turned out to be IBT Chief Engineer Henry Carter, who locked PB up to keep him safe. At this point, the narrative branches out in directions that would be unfair to spoil in an article: to learn about who PB is, why he was locked up, and his eventual fate, watch PBHere‘s YouTube playlist of the events that followed.
As for the mechanics of that escape, PB discovers an internal memo that directs players to the InfraBioTech website that serves as companion to the video escape experience. In addition to the core mechanics explored in the tutorial mission, details scattered across the IBT labs help players unlock intranet pages exploring the lab’s history and the story’s central conflict, while a final TikTok poll left the fate of the narrative in the players’ hands.
PBHere and the Illusion of Agency
PBHere was unquestionably an interactive experience: and yet, the nature of that interactivity evolved as the story progressed. What started as open-ended questions and requests gave way to more traditional gating mechanisms, with PB relying on players to provide instruction on what rooms to visit, and passwords to progress the narrative.
This raises two important questions in terms of PBHere‘s agency and interactivity: how much control did players have over the events of PBHere, and how much agency did they have to change things?
The answer for player control, at least, is a simple one: player choices drove every narrative beat of the story. PB dutifully listens to players, often explicitly calling out which choices were done with player support…whether that involves choosing what combination to enter on a keypad, or which rooms in the facility to explore. Every major narrative beat is one that required player involvement to advance.
The case for player agency, however, becomes much more muddled. Player decisions were responsible for driving the story forward throughout…but were they also capable of sending the narrative down divergent paths? Within the first room, players learn that even “bad” choices, like breaking a chair against a door, can be made. And through the game’s final choice, PB’s future is very publicly left in players’ hands, meaning the story was designed with at least two endings in mind. But how much actual choice did players have, in between the illusion of full control depicted in the first room and the actual moment of choice at the story’s conclusion?
Without asking the creator directly, it’s impossible to tell. There were a number of narrative beats along the way that had the potential to influence the narrative beyond moving events inexorably forward. What would have happened if players gave PB the administrative password the first time he asked? And what would have happened if players didn’t tell PB to return to the holding cell? Ultimately, whether or not players had actual agency within these moments doesn’t matter, because the world yatoimtop created was compelling enough that players believed they had those choices.
Explorations in Intimacy with the Remote Control ARG
Structurally, PBHere played out as a virtual escape room, with players treating PB as a remote control human to be puppeteered through a series of challenges. And while PBHere wasn’t the first alternate reality game to play around with the concept of remotely puppeting humans, it did so in a uniquely intimate manner.
Many ARGs and related projects that played with the concept in the past have focused on creating a first-person experience for players looking to vicariously live through a story. When Cards Against Humanity partnered with the Mystery League’s Sandor Weisz to create Hannukah.LOL, Weisz crafted a narrative where the protagonist’s kids locked their puzzle-loving father in the basement until he could solve his way through their narrative. With limited connectivity in the basement, “dad” only had a few minutes of Periscope streaming time every day to follow printed out instructions players left him via Little Printer. Dad’s face was never shown throughout the series, leaving it as an exercise to the viewer to fill in his identity (even if they did recognize a voice in the final video).
Similarly, the MIT Media Lab’s Halloween BeeMe experience centered around two human test subjects who agreed to have livestreaming cameras strapped to themselves. Periodically, an audio message would prompt them to execute the top-voted suggested action, and they were obligated to do so as long as it didn’t risk their safety or violate the law. Even escape rooms have been getting into the act, with a now-popular virtual escape room format involving the designation of a human to serve as “player avatar” for virtual attendees.
Other remote experiences go for a more cinematic approach: with Intel and Toshiba’s The Inside Experience, Emmy Rossum starred as Christina Perasso, a girl trapped in a room with only a laptop (and the dubious wisdom of the internet) to guide her way out. The Inside Experience switched from diagetic footage from security cameras and the laptop’s webcam to non-diagetic action sequences to create a thriller film driven by audience participation.
With ARGs that center the first-person perspective, it’s easier for players to treat the often faceless central character as an avatar to inhabit, plunging players more directly into the world. But the trade-off in making it easier for players to project themselves into a character is that it’s harder for those characters to have narrative arcs themselves, in favor of being a proxy for the community. And while it might be easier to enable character development and growth by centering the central protagonist, doing so makes the story’s world something they are observing from a distance, rather than inhabiting themselves. PBHere, however, manages to embrace the best of both worlds.
Intimacy in PBHere, and the Importance of PB’s Dance Montage
In many ways, PB is positioned as a blank slate for players to fill with themselves. He starts out the narrative with no memory…no name…and no inhibitions to prevent him from doing whatever the players tell him to do, even if that results in breaking his only chair. And PBHere’s iconic animation style contributes to that effect. As Scott McCloud notes in his book Understanding Comics:
When two people interact, they usually look directly at one another, seeing their partner’s features in vivid detail. Each one also sustains a constant awareness of his or her own face, but this mind-picture is not nearly so vivid; just a sketchy arrangement…something as simple and basic…as a cartoon. Thus, when you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon you see yourself.
Even though players are looking at PB throughout the series, the simple animation of his face makes it all too easy to mentally take his place in the world of InfraBioTech.
Despite this, PB does establish his own unique personality. For almost the entirety of PBHere, the series is shot through PB’s front-facing camera, through casual video confessional-style updates that help players get to know PB and his unique voice. And in one of the few times that pattern is broken, PB demonstrates a rare moment of full autonomy. In Update 12, PB finds a boom box, and listens to music for the first time in his life. The resulting minute-long montage is the single longest update in the series, and focuses solely around PB vibing in the moment and enjoying himself. Not because players told him to do so, and not because it’s something that will help him escape the lab…just because he wants to do it.
This break in tone helps set players up for the episodes to come, where players successfully picked up on subtle nuances in PB’s behavior to help drive one of the major player discoveries that shaped their understanding of the rest of the series.
PBHere, After PB is Gone
PBHere can function as a standalone series, either on TikTok or through the series’ YouTube playlist. This alone can provide a relatively complete picture of the ARG’s events. If you’re curious about how the various puzzles got solved, the game’s Google Doc guide fills in many of the details. PBHere’s final upload, while out of game, is particularly interesting to watch because it pairs the ARG’s credits with behind the scenes footage of how yatoimtop animated PB.