Gwenhwyfar Thomas is a second-year university student studying Fine Arts, who landed the offer of a lifetime: a chance to work at Asterith International as a Graphic Designer. All she needs to do? Drop out of university, move to the city of Torstoy, and complete a probationary period over the next few months. Gwen created the Instagram account Pictures of Gwen, to document snapshots of her new life through sketches and watercolor art, celebrating highly aesthetic moments such as befriending a local magpie, exploring the local farmer’s market, and wandering through local parks. She even started working on a zine. In short: if Gwen Thomas didn’t move to a city, she’d probably be living the cottagecore dream.
However, dig a little deeper and something seems slightly off about this particular dream. Why would a major marketing firm reach out to an unproven university student, and ask her to join the company before she even applied to work there? Why is the city littered with tarot-themed graffiti, in what one commenter described as a “Torstow version of Banksy”? And why does the city of Torstow’s tourist website have a secret message hidden in the website, telling visitors to “seek her in the room marked with a spade”?
Learning More About Torstow: Zine Subscriptions Optional
Many mysteries remain unanswered, but one thing is clear: Pictures of Gwen is an alternate reality game, created by the team at Rogue Beacon, best known for their work on Boomtown Fair’s alternate reality game, featured on Night Mind’s channel. According to Pictures of Gwen‘s out-of-game website, while the game has started out as a simple story of a naive art student moving to the city to make a name for herself in the wonderful world of marketing, the story will soon take a turn towards magical realism, as Gwen “travels on the ley lines where mythology, art, and modernity meet…in the not-quite-shadow of a cyclopean tower that can only be seen through the corner of the eye.”
Mechanically, Gwen’s Instagram is the central hub for the story. From that central point, the narrative sprawls across a variety of websites, radio broadcasts, and even physical artifacts that breathe life into Gwen’s adventure and the fictional city of Torstow through monthly episodes. And while the game is free to play, invested players can sign up for monthly mailings that add a tactile element to the experience. The first mailing included everything from the first edition of Gwen’s zine and prints of some of her Instagram watercolor paintings to her welcome letter from Asterith International. And since players are meticulously documenting their packages once they’re delivered, the subscription element of the game remains a purely optional choice for prospective players.
The Smaller, the Better: Puzzling When It’s Not the End of the World
During the first month of gameplay for Pictures of Gwen, players were given a highly important task: help Gwen take advantage of a free promotion at a local restaurant. And completing that seemingly simple task required players to synthesize everything they learned about the town of Torstow, and Gwen herself.
The entry-point to the puzzle was relatively simple: one of the items contained in Pictures of Gwen‘s first package was a torn receipt stapled to a flyer for Chicken2K, “deliver[ing] the best eats & best beats in Torstow.” For players who go to the website now, it provides a 30-minute playlist of EDM beats, paired with a link to Supa Eats for online food delivery. However, prior to May 29th, the website flagged that Chicken2K was closed due to family wedding planning, and the DJ duo would celebrate their return with a RE-OPEN REWIND special. Anyone who reordered their last order on Supa Eats between 6pm-11pm GMT on Saturday May 29th would get their meal free.
That led to the first challenge for players: signing into Supa Eats requires a postcode, and Gwen was circumspect in describing where she lived. However, in one of her Instagram posts, Gwen does mention how her apartment is two blocks away from two parks in the city: Heberston Park, and Tavesmill Park. Conveniently, Torstow City Council’s website has a section dedicated to recreation in the city, and notes that both parks are located in Riverside, in postal codes TO7 5AA and TO7 5AC respectively. Since Gwen’s apartment is between the two, TO7 5AB allowed players to log into Supa Eats to see the list of restaurants.
Yet again, however, players were stymied: until May 29th at 6pm, Chicken2K was closed and players couldn’t view the menu. The receipt attached to the flyer showed Gwen ordered three items, but only her order of 3 pieces of old-school style chicken appeared on the receipt. For everything else, players would have to get creative.
The next hint came alongside Gwen’s watercolor painting of her magpie friend. In the description, Gwen mentions how she “fed [the magpie] some leftover chips – he loved them, such happy little squawks…have to get a massive chips next time.” This implied Gwen ordered a side of chips the last time, and didn’t get the largest size. But there was no mention of her third item, sending players on yet another search.
The final clue came from Gwen’s trip to the Riverside Plant Cafe, where she ordered a peppermint latte for the first time in her life. Offhandedly, she comments how she “normally doesn’t get more adventurous than a cherry cola“, providing the final piece of the puzzle. With this information, players had enough to reconstruct Gwen’s order: 3 pieces of fried chicken (old-school), a medium fries, and a cherry cola. Entering this order had the added benefit of providing players with Gwen’s home address, on the confirmation screen. However, players were overzealous – because so many people tried to take advantage of the RE-OPEN REWIND promotion, a very confused Gwen received three re-orders of fried chicken before an irritated delivery man told her she couldn’t take advantage of the promotion any more.
Alternate reality games often present their players with high-stakes situations to solve for the games’ characters. Failure might result in evil organizations rising to power, roving bands of demon dogs escaping, or even characters dying. But high stakes aren’t necessary for high levels of fun, and the first month of Pictures of Gwen is the perfect exemplar of that principle.
Gwen wasn’t depending on players to get her free food: she didn’t even know it as on the metaphorical (and literal) table. The puzzle itself wasn’t an overly complicated cipher, or a multi-stage logic puzzle. It was a question of close reading, and putting together the pieces. And while the window for entering the final solution was limited, players had significantly more time to prepare for their big moment. And yet, victory still tasted sweet.
Many of my favorite ARG puzzles over the years. During the Personal Effects: Dark Art ARG, fictional video game blogger Rachael Webster asked players to help her win a bet against her father to locate an old gaming cabinet she played as a kid. The stakes? The loser of the bet would have to get a new tattoo. In the Archer ARGs, players dove into Kreiger’s computer systems, all for the reward of a giant picture of a blueberry muffin the first year, and a 3D printable model of the show’s pirate virus the second. The world doesn’t always have to be ending for ARG players to feel invested in their narrative agency.
Future Pictures of Gwen Episodes and Good News for the Tarot Completionist
Pictures of Gwen: Episode 1 wrapped with Gwen’s surprise food delivery, but Pictures of Gwen: Episode 2 is starting up shortly. As before, the ARG is free to play, with Gwen’s Instagram account as the primary point of entry. To join the community, check out the Pictures of Gwen Facebook Group and the Vehemence ARG Discord server. The Podcasts of Gwen YouTube channel (from the same team behind the Lost in the Maze podcasts for the Boomtown ARG) also plans on releasing regular updates on ARG progress and the contents of the monthly boxes.
For those interested in experiencing the full tactile experience firsthand, the second package is available for pre-order for £50.00, and is bringing back a second issue of the zine, more of Gwen’s watercolor prints, three new tarot cards, and “a host of [other] surprises from Gwen‘s world.” The team has implemented a few tricks to make subscribing more affordable, though.
For people who purchased the first package, the £17 gift certificate for Heberston Circus contained within doubles as an actual discount card for the same value, for those who upload a selfie to the Pictures of Gwen Facebook Group, using #voucher. And while Episode 1 is now unavailable, those who missed out can also tack on an add-on pack of May/Gemini tarot cards to their orders, to chase the aesthetic to the fullest.
Note: ARGNet received a review copy of Pictures of Gwen: Episode 1.