Author: Michael Andersen (page 2 of 47)

Going Beyond the Text with the Subtext Game

Jonathan is in trouble. After receiving a phone call warning that his apartment wasn’t safe and needed to be evacuated, a guy in a black ski mask kidnapped him, and the next thing he knows, he finds himself locked up in an office building. There’s a list of phone numbers there…and yours is one of them. Can you help him escape, and figure out why you were looped into this slightly menacing predicament? That’s the open question of Subtext, an SMS-driven experience that comes off as equal parts alternate reality game and virtual escape room, with a healthy side of paranoia.

In Subtext, players take on the role of Jonathan’s off-site support squad, serving as his virtual assistant in escapeology by completing tasks ranging from conducting research on fictional companies, solving light puzzles to help Jonathan navigate the building, and using social engineering to smooth the path. In terms of gameplay, Subtext is similar to its single player ARG counterpart The Black Watchmen, with the narrative guiding players through a string of linear challenges in service of a larger narrative. Where it differs is in its framing – by using chatbot functionalities to power Subtext, the hero of the story is the writing. While The Black Watchmen has a strong narrative focused on players joining up with a secret organization and climbing through the ranks by completing tasks, its strongest point is translating ARG style challenges into a single-player video game experience, with the narrative serving as an added bonus. And while mobile apps like Simulacra and Another Lost Phone place more of their focus on the narrative, those stories’ framing focuses on the phone as found object, making gameplay feel like an exercise in digital archaeology. Subtext taskes advantage of the low fidelity nature of the text messages that form the backbone of the story to create a more active immersion, and the experience has numerous moments of clever writing that makes it all too easy for players to fall into the conceit that they’re chatting with another honest to goodness person in need.

The full Subtext experience takes a few days to complete, but is designed to work around the player’s life. Since Subtext‘s forward momentum is fueled by successful solves, inactivity allows players to put the game on pause at any time – and if players get stuck, continuing to text with Jonathan will often yield hints which range from helpful to practically essential on one or two of the more frustrating tasks. There are a few developer-imposed breaks in the narrative so it would be a difficult if not impossible game to competitively speedrun on the first pass, but that doesn’t stop me from being curious about whether players are rushing through, or taking their time to savor the experience.

The full Subtext experience is sold as pay-what-you-want-as-long-as-you-want-to-pay-at-least-$6, although there is a free demo that will give you a 5-minute taste of the experience that has quickly become my favorite introductory example of alternate reality games in action. The delightfully creative challenge perfectly encapsulates what makes Subtext special, both in terms of writing and tone. And while none of the moments in the full experience exceed the rush of adrenaline at finishing the demo puzzle, there were one or two moments that were on par. Subtext asks players to imagine “what if the game was real”, and it lives up to that promise – especially if you opt in for the full experience, which opens up the potential for phone calls or even physical mail to round things out. Those additions aren’t necessary to the story, but they do contribute to the world-building, particularly when it comes to bringing closure to the story.

If you’re interested in learning more about Subtext, play the demo. Even if you don’t think you’re interested in the full experience, play the demo: it’s that good, and will help you decide whether the full game might be up your alley, at a negligible investment of time.

Literally Give Your Heart Away on Tender This Valentine’s Day

Happy Valentine’s Day! Are you single? Interested in not being single? If so, you should consider signing up for Tender. It’s an AI-driven dating site designed to help you find your soul mate, and it almost certainly hasn’t been co-opted by vampires looking to hunt down suitably compliant blood bags at the click of a button. Just answer a few completely innocuous questions about your emotional state, loneliness levels, interests, and blood type, and Tender will procedurally generate a profile guaranteed to find you that special someone who, again, is probably not a vampire. Even if it is part of what looks to be an official Vampire: the Masquerade alternate reality game.

Let’s take a step back. In early January, a handful of established YouTubers and Twitch streamers started tweeting about their good buddy Knox coming out of the woodwork and asking them to check out this new closed beta dating site, Tender. In between jet-setting around the world, Knox released a series of puzzles on his Twitter account that led to a website, Trust No More. Posts on that site from a writer going by the pseudonym “Manchuria”  In parallel, he started receiving messages from the user “BetrayedMind1”, warning that something was amiss with Tender. Players helped Knox solve a series of puzzles left by the person, leading to a meetup at Griffith Observatory where players laid claim to a conspicuously guarded briefcase. The contents alluded to Tender’s experiments with gamification and operant conditioning to get users hooked on the website. Even more foreboding, documents allude to a secret “Regent Dashboard” known only to select employees at the company. An unidentified Tender engineer’s notes indicate the Regent Dashboard is actively manipulating its users:

Weird. The conditioning reminds me of the effects of the Toxoplasma parasite on rodents. Doesn’t completely change them. Doesn’t make them suicidal exactly. Just a subtle shift. Less afraid of open spaces. Inhibited risk judgement. Willingness to step into danger. Behavior that makes them easier to catch for predators.

Soon after, players unlocked access to the Tender Beta app, allowing them to interact with the perfectly innocuous dating site that’s probably not conditioning its users to be more trustworthy and docile. Under the guise of finding a soulmate, users are rewarded for completing “quests” with experience points, to level up. Some tasks ask players to complete basic research tasks, while others ask users to share simple fill-in-the-blanks status updates about their plans.

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Back to Earth Makes Its Microtransactional Debut With an ARG Short

StarFate Corporation is in the business of making mankind a better version of itself. The company’s flagship product, the StarChip, allows its owners to record and analyze every experience they ever had, capturing details unassisted humans couldn’t dream of securing. Just implant a simple little chip into the back of your neck, and the ability to tap into the network is unlocked. It’s really a damn shame someone figured out how to hack the chips.

In the coming months, Back to Earth will describe what happens to the world in 2023 when presumably unhackable chips become compromised, as told through a short film, a graphic novel, and a television show in development. Our introduction to the storyworld of Back to Earth starts before the cataclysm with StarFate.Tech,  a short immersive experience that lets players ride shotgun with StarFate Corporation engineer Jono Walters as he investigates a train derailment that shouldn’t have been possible.

The short immersive story plays out across StarFate Corporation’s internal systems, with an unidentified assistant guiding players in unlocking Jono’s chip-enhanced memories through a series of nine “Mindchain” blocks. Each block contains clues to unlock the next in the sequence, leading players to hunt down file IDs, timestamps, and user IDs using contextual cues in the text, audio, and video files that document Jono’s investigation in addition to the occasional research task requiring players to hack into the occasional voicemail box. There’s something to be said for an ARG that can be completed in less time than it takes to watch a movie, and Back to Earth‘s debut starts off with an experience that packs in enough surprises to whet the appetite without the time investment of a AAA video game.

Due in part to this brevity, the StarFate.Tech immersive experience has the feel of a finely crafted tutorial mission, gradually introducing players to the skills necessary to unlock each new block, with new complications added every few rounds. It also serves to introduce the game’s StarCredits, a blockchain-based digital currency that exists both in-world and out of world to provide a micro-transaction based backbone to the free-to-play experience. Upon registering, players receive 1 StarCredit. Fractions of a credit can be used to ask “SysOps” for hints along the way, or to unlock a short video that provides a graphic end to Jono’s tale.

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MIT Media Lab Experiments with Remote Controlled People for Halloween

This Halloween, the MIT Media Lab is launching BeeMe, a dystopic tale about an evil artificial intelligence named “Zookd”. Starting at 11pm EST on October 31st, the story’s protagonist will be tasked with stopping Zookd in real time. There’s just one twist: in order to face off against Zookd, the protagonist will relinquish all free will, leaving their every action over the course of the story up for popular vote.

According to BeeMe’s project page, the game is designed to “push crowdsourcing and collective intelligence to the extreme to see where it breaks down”. The system itself is relatively straightforward: viewers can log on to the website and submit recommended actions for the protagonist to do, as well as voting alternate proposals up or down. After a certain amount of time has passed, the remote controlled human is charged with carrying out the most popular choice. In a lighthearted example, BeeMe’s Twitter account shared an example of BeeMe volunteer Evan staring intently at a stuffed giraffe as a direct result of the dubious wisdom of the crowd during a focus group leading up to the official release.

Cognizant that not all requests would involve staring at stuffed animals, project lead Niccolo Pescetelli explained to Business Insider that “anything that violates the law or puts the actor, their privacy, or their image in danger is strictly forbidden…anything else is allowed.” The experience’s trailer doubles down on this ominous spin on things, with the “Wisdom Program Communications” program seeking verbal assent from the “Agent” before handing over bodily autonomy to the collective BEEs (Behavioural Enhancement Entitites).

Handing over individual control to collective forces has been a subject of fascination for some time, with Twitch Plays Pokémon seeing if the comments section of a Twitch channel could be capable of beating Pokémon Red one move at a time. While the game’s initial “Anarchy” mode treated all commands sequentially, the game’s eventual introduction of “Democracy” mode subjected all decisions to a public vote. BeeMe‘s structure bears a close resemblance to Twitch Plays Pokémon‘s Democracy mode. While the Twitch incarnation of this idea took collective commands and input them into a Nintendo controller, BeeMe will be feeding those commands into a trained actor.

This past year’s MIT Mystery Hunt also explored different variations of this idea with their Inside Out-themed puzzle hunt. For Twitch Plays Mystery Hunt, puzzle hunters collectively played a single player game in Anarchy mode. Completing that puzzle unlocked Under Control, where one player on each team was sent as tribute to give up their free will and follow instructions sent via YouTube Live comments to navigate an augmented reality world that was only visible to people watching the stream. The Hunt’s grand finale required players to follow a series of intentionally convoluted instructions to remotely control “Terry” as she navigates the halls of MIT while livestreaming her progress via camera rig.

BeeMe takes things a step further, challenging viewers with an open-ended playground to navigate, with almost no limits in place to curb the crowd’s impulses, for better or for worse. The question here isn’t merely one of seeing whether collective intelligence can identify the optimal courses of action, but whether they can impose enough structure to act upon those courses while resisting the temptation to stare at stuffed giraffes, or worse. As the game’s promotional materials repeatedly asks, “How does it feel to be the Internet?”

Pescetelli estimates that the Halloween hijinks should take around two hours to play out, although the full length is ultimately up to the choices made by the project’s viewers. But the real question remains: will viewers be able to Twitch Plays Pokémon their way into saving the world from an evil AI, or will their capricious choices cast viewers as the real villain of the story?

Go to BeeMe.online to join in the experiment at 11pm on October 31st, and follow @Beeme_MIT on Twitter. But try to behave – there’s a lot at stake.

How to Lose Yourself in Unknown 9’s Transmedia Sprawl

Last month, the Institute for Higher Knowledge posted a seemingly innocuous online personality test asking people to discover their true potential. That simple test serves as an entryway into the strange world of Unknown 9, an ambitious transmedia franchise from Reflector Entertainment that plans on revealing its occult mystery across television, film, video games, podcasts, novels, comic books, live events…and an alternate reality game. The prologue to Unknown 9 wrapped up with a live event hosted by the McKittrick Hotel during New York Comic Con, but the first phase was largely designed to establish the occult, conspiracy-laden setting for the storyworld. The second phase launched earlier this week, making this a perfect chance to step into the story. How you do that, though, is based on what type of experience you’re looking for.

Unknown 9: A Rolodex of Immersive Contributors
Before getting into Unknown 9 itself, it might help to take a step back and appreciate how Reflector Entertainment is telling it. The first component of the Unknown 9 universe is The IHK Enrollment Initiative, the alternate reality game that developed as the unseen figures behind the test guided players through a series of eight gated “doors” that introduced players to glimpses of the Institute’s footprint, through everything from recordings from a call-in radio show, creepypasta posts to the r/nosleep subreddit, and even a fully-playable visual novel.

As players neared the final challenges from the Institute, Terry Miles released the first episode of The Leap Year Society podcast, expanding players’ investigations into the IHK to the seemingly related “Leap Year Society”, a secret society that exists within secret societies that gathers once every four years, on the leap day. Miles previously made a name for himself on previous podcast fiction projects playing the character of investigative reporter and producer Nic Silver in TANISThe Black TapesThe Last Movie, and RABBITS. The loosely connected shows blend real-world urban legends, unsolved crimes, and conspiracy theories with supernatural events with a format that pays homage to the Serial podcast’s investigative style. Like its predecessors, The Leap Year Society podcast pairs its episode releases with additional links and files for listeners to explore, to see if they can figure things out before the show’s hosts. While The IHK Enrollment Initiative is a player-driven journey of discovery, The Leap Year Society podcast is a guided tour.

Once players completed the opened the final “door” to the IHK Enrollment Initiative, the Institute’s director Aja Robinson invited them to the LYS Induction Ceremony, an hour-long immersive theater production hosted by the McKittrick Hotel (home of Sleep No More) and directed by The Company P’s Christopher Sandberg. Sandberg is no stranger to integrating alternate reality games with immersive theater through his work at The Company P, where he was responsible for projects like the Emmy Award-winning The Truth About Marika, in addition to working on Conspiracy for Good and an ARG for Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. The initiation gave prospective inductees a taste of the society’s esoteric rituals, before a climactic attempt at otherworldly communication went pear-shaped, a prospective inductee got possessed, and the newly minted IHK members were rushed out to learn that the IHK and LYS are literally two sides to the same coin. After the fact, the IHK tried to distance themselves from the incident by removing Aja Robinson from the organization, replacing her with Chelsea Rose Lancaster as director. In her new role, Chelsea claims the supernatural events were just theatrics, and the possessed attendee merely someone who suffered an unfortunate seizure at the event.

New York Comic Con attendees also might have grabbed a preview of Unknown 9 Archives at the Dark Horse booth. The full comic, set to release in Spring 2019, follows the story of the 17th century merchant Kieran as he is introduced to the network of knowledge seekers that likely evolves into the secret societies players are tracking across platforms in the present. In addition to the comic book, Reflector revealed to Variety that a film is in development by 10 Cloverfield Lane screenwriters Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken, a television series is in the works from Heroes executive producer Tim Kring, and a novel trilogy by Layton Green. The video game component is being developed by Reflector Interactive, drawing on Reflector CEO Alexandre Amancio’s experience as a creative director on the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Combined with co-founder Guy Laliberté’s experience as one of the founders of Cirque du Soleil, Unknown 9 is bringing decades of experience to the table.

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#NOFILTER Imagines an Even More Dismal Social Media Hellscape for Us

Social media can be an absolute trashfire. But don’t worry, starting on October 2nd, it’s about to get a whole lot worse – that’s when pseudonym productions is launching out #NOFILTER, a “horrifyingly satirical, totally narcissistic thriller starring YOU.” For as little as $14, players can sign up to participate in a six-week long experience that invites players to enter an alternate world where the United States government created Connections™ as a mandatory social media platform designed to solve all our problems.

Sarah Elgar, pseudonym productions’ president and creative director, explains that the game is designed “to satirize the sad state of social networks…in the most absurdly over the top ways possible”, and the skewering of social media starts before the game even begins, with the registration process. For $14, players can sign up for the “Follower” level, which provides access to the main game experience that takes place on the Connections™ platform, with the ability to score coveted invitations to the games’ weekly live  “physical happenings”, centered around at least four major cities in California, Florida, and New York. Paying a premium for “Verified” or “influencer” status opens up more personalized character interactions, as well as in-game recognition for their elevated status as a reminder that some people are just better than others.

Once players are registered, they become drafted onto the Connections™ platform, where they are encouraged to perform compulsory life-affirming tasks like completing daily wellness routines and selfie duties. In parallel, players are encouraged to explore the stories of prominent users like the platform’s creator Nolan Stauf, yoga instructor Taylor Hill, and internet provocateur Vokorev with a story that might just verge into the supernatural.

While the game hasn’t launched yet, the #NOFILTER website provides a number of hints at the experience to come, sharing a sample chat log with Nikki as she goes about her daily selfie and NeoGa (Neo Yoga) quota in for the day that devolves into something else entirely. The FAQ is also peppered with more than a few bon mots, and the responses alone provide the best sales pitch for the experience available. Reminding prospective players that status is everything, the FAQ notes that “those who want to be all-in for 6 weeks and absolutely be part of everything they can and have us basically worship them should select the Influencer level, naturally. because Influencers are the most important people in the world. obviously.” The how to play section comes with its own ominous warning, noting that “#NOFILTER‘s story is a satire of social media, so it will help to be familiar with various social networks like facebook, instagram, and twitter – and the horrible trolling, doxxing, bullying, and narcissistic behavior that goes on there. but if that’s not your jam, you’ll still enjoy this experience. in fact, more power to you.” But as much as the game will explore peoples’ horrible behaviors online, it has a clearly stated zero-tolerance policy towards players directing that behavior towards each other – players caught harrassing, bullying, or violating the privacy of other players will receive instant bans, with no refund.

Validate my self worth by sharing this article. Then go back and like, share, retweet, hashtag, pin, upvote, toot, snap, and Insta-fave it whenever you see it online to fill the void in my life. Or better yet, sign up for #NOFILTER to find out how much worse things can get.  But remember, the game starts in earnest on October 2nd, so act quick or you’ll risk a serious case of #FOMO.

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