The First Rule of Fight Club Doesn’t Lend Itself to Virality Secret societies are a bit of a trope within the alternate reality gaming space, and for good reason: investigating and infiltrating secret societies gives a diagetic excuse for locking information behind a series of puzzles and challenges. Want to know what’s really going on by joining the fictional cult? Complete the initiation ritual first, proving that you’re worthy of admittance into an elite circle. Ferreting out evidence from an evil organization operating out of a series of fronts? Find vulnerabilities in their systems, and then pore through confidential documents to find incontrovertible proof of their malfeasance.
While secret societies make a perfect narrative construct for ARGs, the trope also creates barriers to encouraging players to share the alternate reality game without stepping out of the narrative. Prospective secret society members shouldn’t proudly proclaim “I joined another secret society today” on social media – those recruitment efforts are best conveyed by surreptitiously passing notes at coffee shops, or through whispered conversations in church pews at an abandoned church. And when the organizations are evil, publicizing their crimes becomes outright dangerous, within the narrative conceit.
In all the seas, in all the world, there has never been a land quite like the isle of Eroda.
Starting in late November, the Eroda Tourism Board started running ads on social media inviting users to check out VisitEroda.com. Unfortunately, both website and advertisements failed to provide any information on where to find the remote island, leading a curious Twitter user to share a tweet that launched a firestorm of speculation:
After clicking on the ad, Austin was introduced to a fairly sparse description of Eroda: according to the website, Eroda was an isle comprised of four quaint fishing villages. At first glance, everything seems normal with the slightly outdated tourist page. Each village is home to its own unique guest accommodations, making it easier to visit a brief list of local businesses and attractions. But something was clearly…off about the isle of Eroda. When describing the Fisherman’s Pub, the Tourism Board warns prospective visitors “don’t mention a pig in the pub”, while the Eroda Ferry description is paired with text reminding tourists to “avoid leaving Eroda on odd numbered days.” And while describing the island’s Fishing Charters, seafarers are told that, “for extra good luck, make sure you wear one gold earring”. A peculiarly superstitious island, at best. To say nothing of the peculiar fact that Eroda is ADORE spelled backwards.
The tourist bureau’s website also seemed a little fishy. Despite actively running multi-lingual ad campaigns for Visit Eroda across its Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram profiles, the website made no mention of any of its social platforms on the website. The site also built out sponsored ad units, advertising itself. Even stranger, nothing on the site invited visitors to do anything.
And so, the internet was provided a tantalizing mystery: someone was paying money to advertise a fictional island, but didn’t give visitors any indication about what to do with that knowledge. And it blew up. At the time of this article, Austin’s initial tweet has been shared over 12K times, 84K people followed the Visit Eroda Twitter account, two thousand people followed the r/Eroda subreddit, and a thousand people joined the Eroda ARG Discord server to try and figure out what was going on.
LOST on Another Island: JJ Abrams, the Mystery Box, and the Undeniable Allure of Infinite Possibility Over a decade ago, the internet was fixated on another mysterious island, and the numbers 4 8 15 16 23 42. LOST was halfway through its third season, and showrunner JJ Abrams gave a TED Talk on his philosophy towards storytelling, The Mystery Box. In it, he tells a story.
When Abrams was a child, he went to Lou Tannen’s magic shop in midtown New York City, and bought Tannen’s Mystery Magic Box: a $15 box (now $25) containing $50 worth of magic. To this day, Abrams has never opened the box. In the talk, he explains how the box as it stands “represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential…[and] I started to think that maybe mystery is greater than knowledge.”
A major element of Eroda’s allure in those first few days was the infinite possibility the fictional island provided. Could Eroda be a horror ARG, introducing a remote isle of superstitious townsfolk as an immersive version of The Wicker Man? Maybe…there’s enough evidence to support it. Or maybe the source material is Brigadoon, and the 2004 copyright date paired with warnings about travelling on specific dates is a sign the island is out of phase with our reality. The immersive production company Punchdrunk is working on a television show starring Jude Law where he plays a man “who is drawn to a mysterious island off the British coast and is confronted with his past as reality and fantasy become blurred.” Or maybe it could be tied to an upcoming indie game called Adore.
Thanks to Visit Eroda’s focus on introducing the setting of the fictional world, all were very real possibilities, supported by scant evidence. And so, for a time, Eroda could be everything to everyone. And that scope of infinite possibility extended to the nature of interaction with the fictional isle, as well. Was the site a puzzle to be solved? The inclusion of a page on the site that offered high resolution files of Eroda’s map in both JPG and PDF formats was curious. Or maybe this was a challenge of social engineering or role-playing to extract information…after all, whoever was behind the project was actively paying to promote those channels.
Starting at the beginning of October, people across the United States started discovering flyers for a sleep study in search of volunteer subjects. “SEE YOUR OWN DREAMS RECORDED IN FULL COLOR”, the signs brightly proclaim. The posters directed prospective volunteers to the New Noology Network website along with a Twitch channel that regularly broadcasts sleep study sessions with test subjects. Applications to participate in the New Noology Network’s research may start out simple, but simple personality tests asking whether you like the taste of raw meat has quickly given way to video trials asking applicants to go on an audio-driven tour of their neighborhoods.
New Noology Research Trials: Livestreamed fMRI Scans For the first few weeks of the New Noology Network, the primary outlet for interacting with the sleep study program was watching a series of hour-long livestreamed sleep studies. Livestream viewers were placed in front of a research station, monitoring two screens tracking the test subject. According to the Twitch profile, this Dream Recording and Re-Visualization (DR&RV) research presumes that memories and emotions are the key to mapping brain stimuli from waking life vision to dream vision.
For the most part, these streams were exercises in tedium, with livestream viewers monitoring two screens: on the left, viewers were presented with a report on brain activity. On the right, the monitor rotated between footage monitoring the test subject from two different vantage points, and a visualization of the Dream Recording and Re-Visualization project in action. Occasionally, a researcher would appear on screen to monitor the subject directly. Viewers also had the chance to vote on a hemisphere of the brain, which presumably influenced the research.
All this changed during a stream two weeks ago. Towards the end of the final stream, when something unexpected happens with the sleep study. As Inside a Mind explains, “the final few seconds of the stream reveal we’ve not actually been watching a science experiment, but instead it’s all part of a set…and before the stream cuts off, a strange van can be seen passing by.”
Welcome to the Global Consciousness Initiative With the curtain pulled back at the remote testing facility, the New Noology Network changed tactics and reached out to online applicants, asking them to sign up for the Global Consciousness Initiative. While the DR&RV project was focused on the connection between waking and sleeping brain activity, the GCI’s focus is on “studying the effects of coordinated and crowdsourced activities upon global mass psychological states through analysis of measurable disruptions distributed network random number generators”: in short, a test into whether coordinated behavior by a few could influence psychological states of the collective.
To participate in the Global Consciousness Initiative trials, players are asked to listen to a series of audio clips, following the instructions to the letter. Each audio clip helps ease participants into the proper mindset, provides instructions on where to go, and finally asks players to record a short video completing a variety of tasks.
Instruction 1: Record a video of your eyes, blinking six times slowly.
Instruction 2: Stand in the threshold of the door to your home, and declare “I am not afraid”.
Instruction 3: After walking outside, wander a bit and choose a particularly enticing door. Describe what lies beyond.
Instruction 4: Continue wandering, and voicelessly mouth your name.
Instruction 5: Repeat the word “stuck” three times: first as a whisper, then spoken normally, and finally shouted out loud.
The Global Consciousness Institute’s soothing vocal prompts and ambient musical backing track transforms the experience of recording the videos from an operational list of tasks into a meditative and personal experience, making it easier to get over the slightly transgressive act of yelling out “STUCK!” in the middle of a city. And while Trial 0 is centered around peoples’ local neighborhoods, select participants reported receiving a second set of trials asking players to extend the experience into their daily commutes.
Two years ago, I wrote a brief introduction to the world of escape room in a box games for Boxing Day after playing Wild Optimist’s Escape Room in a Box: The Werewolf Experiment. Juliana Patel and Ariel Rubin initially funded production of their game through a Kickstarter campaign, before partnering with Mattel to produce a mass market version of the game that includes one particularly devious puzzle that still sits as a trap on my desk for unwary coworkers. The Wild Optimists have partnered with Mattel once more with Escape Room in a Box: Flashback, a game that manages to create the most elegant narrative and puzzle-based experience I’ve seen in the space.
New Retro Packaging, Same Lycanthropic Focus While the retro ’90s design aesthetic of the box and Flashback title might imply this game is a throwback to the electronic board game era of Dream Phone and Electronic Mall Madness, the Wild Optimist’s newest escape room in a box is actually a direct sequel to The Werewolf Experiment. In the first installment, players were tasked with facing off against the mad scientist Doc Cynthia Gnaw, rushing to avoid becoming a casualty of her latest experiments. For Throwback, Doc Cynthia Gnaw is back with a vengeance, and players need to dive into her history to get out intact.
Because the narrative framing is so straightforward, these games don’t have to be played in sequence: the group I assembled to play this game had never played The Werewolf Experiment before, and at no point in the 90-minute experience did I need to stop and explain what happened in the previous chapter.
Puzzles in Three Acts: Letting Players Choose Their Puzzling Fate In The Werewolf Experiment, the solving process was largely a linear one. Upon opening up the box, a series of puzzles became available. By solving puzzles, players would figure out the combinations for a series of plastic combination locks or receive hints to explore unexpected places to uncover additional puzzles until they figured out how to open up the final locked box.
Flashback refined that model by splitting gameplay into three separate rounds: a word-puzzle round themed around Doc Gnaw’s childhood friend Doctor Lisa David, a science-oriented puzzle round themed around Doc Gnaw herself, and a childhood round themed around their friendship. If smaller teams are tackling the escape room, these rounds are probably best tackled sequentially so everyone can appreciate the full breadth of the experience together. However, larger teams may find it easier to get everyone more consistently engaged by splitting up into smaller groups, and tackling the themes that speak to them while also making it harder for a single person to dominate the solving process.
This is where the game’s strong theming steps up to become the hero: because each of the rounds have distinct theming and color-coding, it’s possible to have all the game’s pieces splayed out on the table at the same time without getting confused about which puzzles are tied to which theme.
Ahoy! Last July, Netflix released a teaser trailer for Stranger Things season 3…by releasing a period-appropriate commercial for Starcourt Mall, a recent addition to the town. Why worry about multi-dimensional portals to hell dimensions that might lie dormant under the town when thriving businesses like Sam Goody, Waldenbooks, and Chess King are just a stone’s throw away? The only direct reference to prior seasons of Stranger Things that appeared in the trailer was the reluctantly chipper appearance of Scoops Ahoy ice cream parlor employee Steve Harrington, forced to cover up his signature hair for the sake of American capitalism. With Scoops Ahoy featuring so prominently in early marketing for the show, it was only slightly surprising to learn that Netflix partnered with Baskin Robbins to create Scoops Ahoy pop-up locations in Burbank and Toronto to bring back a taste of the 80s for fans of the show. The fact that these pop-up shops served as the trailhead for a binge-worthy alternate reality game that mixed spycraft and ice cream? That was the real surprise.
The Rocky Road to Scoop Snoop: All Aboard the USS Butterscotch
The new season of Stranger Things premiered on July 4th, but Scoops Ahoy was open for business two days earlier – so when Buzzfeed’s Crystal Ro went to the Burbank location, Ro knew enough to be suspicious of the morse code appended to the tub of U.S.S. Butterscotch ice cream and the Russian cipher wheel innocuously placed on the plexiglass. Players extracted the password CEREBRO from the phone call and received the instructions ‘SSH 188.8.131.52 -p 1985’, but were asked to return on July 5th. Once the first episode dropped, players realized that the password to get through to the next stage of the game was the name of Dustin’s communications system.
Outside of the brief mention of CERBERO and thematic similarities, the Stranger Things ARG is something that runs in parallel with the new season of the show, so players didn’t have to binge-watch the full season before diving into the show’s companion game. However, the rest of this article will dive fairly deeply into an experience that is still available as a single-player experience, so be warned.
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 ofestablished YouTubersand 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.