live event

Late last year I developed a wee little crush on the This Is My Milwaukee ARG.

It was never quite clear if the developers behind the narrative knew that what they were creating was something a community would label as an Alternate Reality Game, but the team seemed to take it in stride, answering several phone calls in-character, and even hosting a freezing-cold live event in NYC’s Central Park in the dead of winter.

The narrative ground to a halt, however, causing sincere dismay amongst the small Unfiction group that had been following the story faithfully from the beginning. In fact, it took us all several weeks to stop posting our own little pleas and prayers in the Unfiction forum section for TIMM that the thing would come back alive, that it would sweep us back into its absurd embrace where Milwaukee was being run by a mysterious corporation named Black Star, where Chuck Jagoda was not only a big eater, but had things like museums named after him.

To date, the TIMM website lays dormant, and the playerbase has scattered, for the most part. Occasionally one or two people will ‘check in’ on the ARG by posting in a forum thread at Unfiction, or calling one of the in-game numbers, but the momentum has all but vanished. There is no there there.

And so I feel a little weirded out over my feelings on the Intimation ARG.

Intimation’s narrative started right around Christmastime in 2008, and has been a steady ticking clock of updates and scattershot narrative that requires an avid community to glue it all back together into a cohesive format. Live event geocache trails administered through seemed like they might have been just the hook to bring in a fresh batch of players, based upon our necessity to collect more fragments by visiting actual geographical waypoints, but sadly, the game stalled when certain locations did not have the player base to support completing those missions. (I was pleased as punch to get to do two of them, though, for both Hollywood and Los Angeles!)

The team adapted successfully, however, bringing those pieces from actual twisty walkable paths to virtual web-related ones: we were now invited to trawl a maze of nodes and letter pairs, all leading to other places that had trivia questions about the Halo universe, audio files from the Lewis and Clark crew, and the fairy-tale story of a little girl scared and lonely inside of a machine.

(If this all sounds a little reminiscent of the previously-produced ARG ilovebees, give yourself a shiny gold star!)

Excitement mounted as a few more avid ARG players joined the audience – the fresh blood gave more urgency and organization to the proceedings. As a group, our collective interpretation of the events was stronger, more intense, more fraught with meaning…

… just in time for ARGfest, where we were surprised by a dead-drop placed in a small park in Portland, just a few blocks from the main hotel where the convention-goers were staying. Four small Braille-inscribed skulls later, and the community grew again: new people who’d helped out on the ground were drawn in to the story, and wanted to know more. The existing players got the thrill of teaching new people about what had transpired before. Player resources were created.

Momentum was reaching a pleasurable high.

And, here we are, dead in the water. After the small skulls were found in the Portland park, after the accompanying data cards were read and analyzed, after the story told us to expect a door to open, after we waited for days for the cue to begin saving the little girl in the machine of whom we’d grown so fond, a curious silence fell over everything.

Meta speculation in the community posed the idea that perhaps whoever was behind the game left directly from ARGfest to Comic-Con, which just concluded this evening in San Diego. But, mostly, there was confusion. All these new players suddenly had nothing to do but wait. All the old players felt a little foolish for getting their hopes up for either a stirring conclusion, or the finish on a satisfying Prologue segment to a larger experience.

Momentum was lost. And I can’t help but feel like it’s My Milwaukee all over again – the narrative ceasing, a normal update completely missed, the new players dropping away from the tempo and music of a story just as we’d begun fine-tuning the harmonies.

It is my hope now that Comic-Con is over that the developers come back to this project and finish it off properly. I believe they missed a great opportunity to carry things forward, to safeguard our collective trust in them to close things off in a satisfying way. (Insert metaphors here about striking hot irons and herding cats, where needed.)

I worry, perhaps a little too late, about the grassroots aspect of Alternate Reality Gaming, about the ability and determination of almost any team nowadays who are attempting a campaign to see it through successfully.

A solid finish has alarmingly become the exception, rather than the rule.

I suspect our little group of players for Intimation will hear from the characters soon enough, but I wanted to mark this intense feeling many of us have been having about the opportunity missed, about the sharp yank I personally felt at being dropped from the story so suddenly, when I’d finally begun to care more than a little about the characters.

Ken Eklund’s World Without Oil project has been nominated for a Webby Award. Curiously, it’s under the category “Games,” but congrats to the team (again)!