Last month, JC Hutchins received a creepy package in the mail containing a doll wrapped in vintage newspapers. ARGNet’s coverage of this special delivery was given the light-hearted title, ARG or Not, Please Don’t Send Me Creepy Dolls. Much to my co-workers’ chagrin, our mysterious benefactor adhered to the letter of that request, if not the spirit, in sending a follow-up package to my work address earlier today.
A Quick Refresher: The Initial Mailing Back in December of last year, JC Hutchins jokingly shared a Facebook Marketplace ad for a creepy doll, with a single word in response: NOPE. A month later, he received a package in the mail from “Ray Stantz”, with a return address listed as Dan Aykroyd’s former Los Angeles residence, a house itself rumored to be haunted. Inside the box? The doll from the Marketplace listing, wrapped in 1930s era newspapers with a message scrawled in red ink saying “LOOK AFTER THIS CHILD”, along with a series of period photographs of masked figures, vintage stamps, and other curiosities that look suspiciously like coded messages.
In a recent interview with the immersive entertainment podcast No Proscenium, Sean Stewart (one of the co-creators of the alternate reality gaming genre as we know it) described alternate reality games as a dance. “In ballroom [dance], they used to say, and forgive the gendered reference, the gentleman proposes the step, the lady decides whether or not to accept. And I think increasingly, entertainment is moving into a world in which as creators we propose the step, but it is a dance. And you can’t do it if they don’t want to come along.” While alternate reality games will typically have creator-driven narratives, one of the most exciting parts of the genre is when creators carve out spaces for their audiences to dance, even if that leads in unexpected directions. And over the past few weeks, found footage horror channel Jack Torrance and horror-centric YouTube theorist Nick Nocturne went on one hell of a dance.
Meet the Dance Partners
Back in 2011, the YouTube channel Jack Torrance purportedly purchased 10 boxes of old footage and vintage records at an estate sale held in a barn just outside of Austin, Texas. The channel gradually started uploading videos, restoring Super 8 and VHS tapes for digital consumption. The found footage was a melange of short clips of Ouija boards, mannequins, and dessicated hands juxtaposed against more sedate scenes of daily life like a child playing or a girl applying makeup. Two years ago, the found footage was replaced with a series of four “modern” videos of someone exploring a house containing some of the items featuring in previous videos before switching back to found footage again.
At the time, Nick Nocturne had been running the YouTube channel Night Mind for almost a year, analyzing and summarizing online horror experiences like Marble Hornets, Unedited Footage of a Bear, and Alantutorial. Nocturne’s videos specialized in condensing sprawling experiences into more easily digestible forms, all through the lens of his four-eyed interdimensional cat persona. Night Mind ran a feature breaking down the series and its cinematography in conjunction with Nyx Fears.
Soon after the video aired, Jack Torrance went dark for two years. During its first five years of operation, Jack Torrance was an experience to consume and theorize about, with little to no direct interaction between uploader and audience. Viewers could theorize about what the footage might mean, but the channel was deathly silent. The only clue: in the descriptions of one of the channel’s final videos, the phrase “help” was spliced into the copy of the video description.
Invitation to Dance: The Return of Jack Torrance
Two weeks ago, Jack Torrance returned to YouTube with a livestreamed video titled “Find me”. In a video response, Nocturne explained that he interpreted that title as a challenge to the players to find the mysterious uploader, and that he was up for the channel. In addition to the response video itself, Nocturne left the following comment on the “Find me” video, which quickly rose to the most upvoted comment on the video:
If you want to be found, very well–I’m calling your bluff.
Make me come to Texas and I’ll track you down.
Nocturne received his response in the next video upload, with a corrupted message embedded in the video description answering “it is calling will you answer”. Interpreting this as an invitation to dance, Nocturne planned a trip out to Austin, Texas to hunt down the mysterious uploader and whatever supernatural force might be involved.
Between June 1st – 3rd, Dungeons & Dragons is introducing a new adventure storyline to the franchise through the Stream of Many Eyes, a Los Angeles-based event that will be livestreamed on Twitch, featuring gameplay sessions with D&D streamers from popular tabletop shows including Adventure Zone, Dice, Camera, Action!, and Critical Role. And for the past month, Wizards of the Coast has been running an alternate reality game that bridges the gap between Wizards of the Coast’s Forgotten Realms and our own world with No Stone Unturned.
The alternate reality game kicked off on May 1st with a code hidden away at the bottom of the Stream of Many Eyes‘ announcement page on the Wizards of the Coast website.
Decoding the morse code revealed the hashtag #nostoneunturned, which had recently been used on Twitter by Kalesh Marivaldi under the Twitter handle @Immortal4tress. The next day, Marivaldi hijacked the official Dungeons & Dragons account to present fans with a challenge. According to Marivaldi, Elminster, one of Faerûn’s most powerful mages, sent a powerful stone to Earth along with a guardian to protect it. The guardian’s memories of his prior life were replaced with new ones, leaving him ignorant of both his true role and the nature of the artifact he protected. The Forgotten Realms had need of the stone, so Marivaldi charged Earth’s denizens with the task of finding the guardian, helping him reclaim his memories, and sending the stone back to its rightful home.
Lace up your favorite pair of running shoes. Pull up a playlist of some of your favorite songs. Finally, plug in your headphones. Now, you are Runner 5.
Some of you have been Runner 5 for quite some time now. Zombies, Run is well into its fifth season, with 190 missions from Abel Township to date. After finishing those missions, you may have volunteered for dozens of side missions and challenges to protect your village from zombie hordes, rival towns, evil scientists, and shady corporate interests. Others may have fallen behind. That’s okay – if you only go out running once a week, it would take over four years to catch up with Abel Township’s efforts to rebuild a semblance of civilization in the wake of a zombie apocalypse.
ARGNet has written at length about Zombies, Run in the past. But for those new to the free-to-play mobile game, Zombies, Run is an episodic audio narrative designed to blend seamlessly with your running experience. At the start of your run, just load up the app, choose a playlist, and begin your mission. As the series’ silent protagonist Runner 5, you are thrust directly into the narrative through a series of short audio drama vignettes to provide a narrative context behind your run. Your own playlist serves as the musical interludes between the story. Sometimes, tortured groans from zombie hordes serve as impetus to pick up the pace, or risk getting caught and devoured.
The free-to-play version of the game allows you to unlock one story mission a week. If that pace is too grueling, a $19.99 yearly membership unlocks every story mission, along with a host of other features.
Keeping Things Simple Through Iterative Design
Zombies, Run‘s success is built off the back of the most non-intrusive user interface in mobile gaming and its incredibly rich storyworld. It’s generally easy to spot players of other location-based games like Ingress and Pokemon Go on the streets, because gameplay is so heavily centered around looking down at your smartphones, and briefly stopping along your route at dozens of different locations. Zombies, Run still lures players into the real world for its gameplay, but does so more stealthily. It’s practically impossible to distinguish a Zombies, Run player from someone simply listening to a podcast or musical playlist on a long walk or run. And the game’s frequent updates have held to that core principle. Recent updates have made it easier for runners to binge through a series of missions by enabling auto-play functionality to get caught up on the 200+ episodes the first five seasons of Zombies, Run will eventually encompass. Audio syncing capabilities have expanded to allow runners to pull in music from external services like Spotify or Pandora to serve as soundtrack for their runs, expanding past the phone’s built-in playlists. And new offerings like 5K, 10K, half-marathon, and marathon training plans help provide structure to personal goals.
None of that would work without Zombies, Run‘s riveting narrative, which provides the backbone of the experience. Over the past five years Zombies, Run co-creator and lead writer Naomi Alderman has been leading the team of writers through the difficult task of guiding players through their role of silent protagonist through the trials and tribulations of post-apocalyptic survival. For the most recent narrative arc, Alderman notes,
Season 5 takes Runner further from home than we’ve ever been before, in search of the truth about the origins of the zombie plague. Season 5 also sees us have to tackle enemies who are more powerful – and know more about us – than any we’ve ever dealt with before. There’ll be wolves and bears, soldiers and spies and of course constant zombies chasing Runner 5.
The team clearly places a priority on ensuring the highest quality of writing and audio production goes into every mission, and the series pulls on writerly talent from sources ranging from the game’s own fan base to Alderman’s Arts Initiative mentor Margaret Atwood, for a brief cameo appearance.
Even Runners 5 who don’t expect to reach the newest content for a few years still have a few surprises in store for them. One of the more surprising projects in development is a Zombies, Run board game, coming soon to Kickstarter. The pending game is being pitched as “real-time, open world, story-driven, co-operative, and app enhanced.” The other main update? Virtual races.
Bad Robot is releasing a new Cloverfield movie on 03-11-16, more than eight years after its cinematic debut. The film, 10 Cloverfield Lane, isn’t exactly an official sequel to the original, but has been described by JJ Abrams as a “blood relative” to the film. Whether this blood relative will mark the return of the enigmatic Cloverfield Monster remains to be seen, but the familial resemblance is evident with 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s new alternate reality game.
It’s highly doubtful that a thorough understanding of a eight-year-old viral marketing campaign will be required to enjoy the return to the Cloverfield universe…but then again, it can’t hurt to be prepared for anything.
The Mystery of 1-18-08 On July 4, 2007 moviegoers were treated to a trailer for a JJ Abrams film with no name. All they had to go on was shaky footage of the surprise farewell party for a cool dude named Rob, wholesale destruction of property by…something, and a date: 1-18-08.
From the date, players quickly discovered the (now-defunct) 1-18-08.com, which served as home for a growing collection of photographs. Click on a picture and shake it enough, and you might flip it over and find a message or two. Stay on the site long enough, and you might catch a muffled roar. But for the “main” Cloverfield site? That was pretty much it.
The story emerged as players explored beyond the photographs. One path led players to tracking down (now blank) MySpace profiles of a group of friends that would eventually gather for an ill-fated party on January 18, 2008. Yes, MySpace. Hey, it was a different time. Jamie Lascano was particularly active, and set up the website JamieandTeddy.com to document her only slightly creepy long distance relationship with Teddy Hanssen through a series of private vlogs, protected under the password “jllovesth”.
Cards Against Humanity gave their fans nothing for Black Friday this year. More specifically, they sold their fans nothing for $5 a person. It was quite the profitable venture for them, too…they earned $71K with their blow-out sale, giving the company’s non-founding members a well-deserved holiday bonus. And they’ll have earned it, after the logistic nightmare they’ve endured preparing for another year of Cards Against Humanity’s holiday bullshit.
At this point, Cards Against Humanity asking their nearest and dearest fans to give them money in exchange for a series of random gifts (and puzzles) over the holiday season has become a tradition. In 2013, the company embraced their Christmas cheer with 12 Days of Holiday Bullshit, sending 100K fans everything from lumps of coal to personalized Cards Against Humanity Cards. In 2014 the holiday of choice shifted to the Ten Days or Whatever of Kwanzaa, bringing an expanded list of 150K fans good tidings, miracle berries, and rights to a 1×1 square plot on an island in Maine. This year, it’s all about Eight Sensible Gifts, embracing their practicality and Hanukkah cheer.