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July 05, 2005

Reviews

The Devil's Own Work: A Sable & Shuck Wrap-Up

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Sable & Shuck, the promotional alternate reality game crafted by Draft London for Stella Artois, has finally come to its conclusion - not with a bang, not even with a whimper, but with a wall of silence punctuated only by anguished complaints from its players. Despite offering a £10,946 ($19,225) cash prize to the player who cracked the final puzzle, the solve eluded the community and the closing date passed without comment from behind the curtain.

A newcomer reading the post-game thoughts from the players might imagine that S&S was an unmitigated disaster. On the contrary, the game showed many a flash of brilliance during its rocky eight month run. Unfortunately, however, the exceptional design and colourful premise failed to compensate for the chronic gameplay flaws that ultimately rendered the game a much-maligned alternate reality car crash. By squandering such high quality material and even inspiring some players to disown the brand itself, it will live on as a warning to would-be corporate PM's in how seriously 'ARGvertising' can backfire.

So where did it all go wrong?

The game began with mysterious web addresses printed on the reverse of Stella Artois' sumptuous print ads, leading players to a network of sites owned by the sinister Sable & Shuck consortium - a mysterious corporate entity specialising in "soul acquisition" in return for luxurious goods and services. A little exploration revealed that the Prince Of Darkness had diversified somewhat, and now possessed stakes in airlines, travel agencies, design firms and newspapers.

Of course, in the world of alternate reality gaming, no evil conglomerate should be without a gutsy protagonist harbouring deep suspicions. Thankfully, Jon Harker bravely stepped up to the plate with his exposé of Sable & Shuck's dirty dealings, having sold his soul for a quick lift home after a night out on the town. Makes those ill-advised, drunken calls to your ex pale into insignificance, doesn't it?

At launch, then, the promotion showed real promise, with a clever hook and an intricately linked collection of elegant sites. Furthermore, the devil really was in the details, and there were dozens of witty and erudite references to satanic mythology, numerology, and Stella Artois scattered throughout the game as a reward to the eagle-eyed player.

Yet after a brief flurry of activity, including personalised emails to players, six weeks passed before the first update on Halloween. This snail's-pace rate of activity was to continue throughout the length of the game, with the devil never quite able to make sufficient work for such idle hands.

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The game took a new direction when Brigid, a woman claiming to be Jon's sister, announced Jon was missing-presumed-in-hiding' and offered a substantial cash reward to whoever could find him. Players were instantly suspicious of her true motives - something of an ARG custom, after all - but some out of game research confirmed that the prize was in fact real and the buzz surrounding the game returned once more. Meanwhile, Jon was on the run from Beezulbub and hunting for the Book Of Star, an ancient tome which was rumoured to contain the secret to vanquishing him. He promised to keep players updated, and searching his site revealed The Hiding Room - a visually stunning piece of Flash that hid numerous clues, not least of which was his journal. In fact, as one of the game's must-see elements, I'd recommend checking it out while it's still online. With their usual eye for detail, the PM's even chose the bottle-opener in Jon's kitchen carefully - a real life product named Diabolix.

Yet this level of minutiae proved to be counter-active at times. With such long spells between updates and players unsure if they had missed vital clues, it sometimes felt as if there were too many subtle hints, and too little to distinguish the playfully cryptic from the genuinely useful. Perhaps more damagingly, it slowly transpired that players had no alternative but to assist the shadowy Brigid in locating our hero despite their deepest misgivings. While it's not unusual for ARGs to be heavily pre-scripted, Sable & Shuck failed to create the illusion that players had the opportunity to influence events, generating a real sense of futility in the latter stages of the game.

On the other hand, Sable & Shuck continued to broaden its scope, making use of voicemail, SMS and multimedia messaging, online auctions, clues in out-of-game websites and increasingly challenging puzzles. The various sites and auto-responders were modified throughout the game, cleverly allowing new players to enjoy the game from start to finish, no matter when they joined in.

Indeed, while the ARG community played the game "as it happened" and enjoyed a little more interaction, it seems very much as if this promotion was designed to be a puzzle trail aimed towards a more mainstream audience, going some way towards explaining the sporadic progress of the real-time game. The prize itself also suggested that the campaign was tailored towards the individual rather than encouraging collaboration, with none of the co-operative puzzles that Perplex City, another prize-based game, has utilised.

Having finally sold out their protagonist to an agent of Satan in February this year, players were at least rewarded (or, in retrospect, cursed) with the deceptively simple last puzzle. Six symbols, each representing a sign of the devil, required positioning on a grid and numbering according to their worth. Nobody suspected that over four months later, this conundrum would remain grudgingly unsolved.

It would have been foolish to expect an easy solution considering the large financial reward, but the final challenge was nonetheless fatally flawed. It echoed the themes that had run throughout the game, from symbology to Fibonacci and the Stella Artois brand itself, but as a result the hunt for clues was met with a shoal of red herrings. The total lack of context or relationship to the game's story gave players no foundation to begin working from. No hints were forthcoming, and the few explicit clues provided - 'It begins where it ends', 'The worth of a thing is what it will bring' - were maddeningly oblique. Potential solutions ran into the billions, and the terms of the contest excluding those from outside the United Kingdom only served to exacerbate matters.

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The initial excitement soon waned into bitterness and resentment. With trust in the puppetmasters best described as flimsy prior to this, the remaining goodwill towards the game evaporated away. When the closing date for the competition passed last Monday without so much as a site update, let alone an email or word from the PM's, players were all too eager to have the last word.

"Reassuringly rubbish."
"I'm very disappointed."
"I feel so... empty."
"…frankly I don't care anymore."

Sable & Shuck excelled in many areas, as this review attests. As an exercise in marketing, though, it generated little short of a vitriolic antipathy towards the brand through its disregard for players, and is best characterised as a serious failure. We can only speculate as to the true intentions of the game's designers, but it seems fairly clear that embracing the alternate reality gaming community was never part of their plan - and by largely ignoring a group that had the potential to become the most ardent supporters of the game, Sable & Shuck shot itself in its own hoofed feet. Yes, the passionate fans of the ARG genre can create a fantastic buzz around a product, as evidenced by Audi's just-finished campaign, but this game showed would-be corporate puppetmasters that the reaction to a poorly executed game can be just as strong - and intensely negative.

To quote a biblical passage that the game once referenced: Sable & Shuck, you have been weighed on the scales - and found wanting.

(The Terms & Conditions of the final puzzle state that: "If the puzzle has not been solved by 27th of June 2005, the prize will be given to the participant who, in the opinion of the Promoter, provided the closest answer." With details of the winning entrant due to be announced in the coming weeks, ARGN will keep you posted!)

posted on July 5, 2005 10:35 AM | print this