It’s been almost fifteen years since Andy Darley entered Wakerley Great Wood in Northamptonshire with his trusty trowel in hand and dug up the Receda Cube, ending the first season of Mind Candy’s alternate reality game Perplex City and claiming the game’s £100,000 prize. While the game’s main narrative was solved with the discovery of the cube, some of the game’s most ardent fans continued to chip away at the game’s unsolved puzzles, designed to be nigh impossible. And on December 30th, the final puzzle was solved when players got in contact with a man based on nothing more than a single photo, and a first name: Satoshi. After over a decade, the puzzle Billion to One has been solved.
A Brief Perplex City Primer Perplex City was an alternate reality game that launched in 2005, whose story unfolded through a series of collectible puzzle cards. According to the game’s lore, Violet Kiteway stole an object known as the Receda Cube from the Perplex City Academy Museum. After being teleported to our world, she buried the Cube and posted cryptic messages hinting at its location under the name “Combed Thunderclap”.
Not knowing his own daughter was the thief, Perplex City Academy Master Sente Kiteway partnered with Mind Candy to release a game: Perplex City. The game was designed to let people of Earth learn about their world and the theft, with the hopes that Earth’s puzzle-solvers could figure out what their Perplexian counterparts could not. And so, 256 puzzle cards were released into the world in four separate waves.
Clues on the cards might lead players to websites, blogs, emails, and telephone numbers, and a San Francisco live event even had one character escape the scene in a black helicopter…but for many, the heart of the game were puzzle cards themselves: every card had a silver scratch panel hiding a unique code that players could use to track their solves, powering a live leaderboard. Three puzzles were particularly notorious for being unsolved.
Ten years ago, a college student purchased a used copy of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask from an old man at a garage sale. The blank cartridge had no label: just the word MAJORA written on it with a black permanent marker. Over the next few days, under the username Jadusable, the fate of this nameless college student unfolded through a series of posts to 4chan’s /x/ board, the anonymous message board’s home for all things paranormal.
The story of Jadusable’s haunted Majora’s Mask cartridge remains one of the most iconic examples of internet creepypasta stories, under the name BEN Drowned. One of the things that set BEN Drowned apart from its peers was its use of video game footage as evidence to support the first-person narrative of Jadusable’s explorations of an increasingly cursed cartridge, culminating in a dramatic twist when followers opened the arc’s conclusion contained within the downloadable file, TheTruth.rtf.
The Haunted Cartridge arc that concluded the initial creepypasta story was followed by The Moon Children arc, an alternate reality game that gave players direct control over the fates of a forum of cult members tangled up with the malevolent force behind the first arc. But that wasn’t the end of BEN’s story. For that, fans would have to wait almost a decade for series creator Alex Hall to bring the project back from the dead.
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.