playing the ARG


I haven’t been back around these parts in quite some time, I see.

Life has been busy.

Life has also had chunks of incredible boredom, but we shall draw a veil over this time. It was an unnatural state for me — and not very interesting, besides.

I don’t often get the chance to play ARGs, anymore. Mostly because I am so busy making (video) games as of late that I don’t even have time to fold my laundry, much less crack codes and crack wise with a community. I dress from the dryer, people. I’m a woman on the edge.

I also don’t get to play ARGs because … there really aren’t that many around, anymore. At least, there aren’t any games that, as Sean Stewart likes to put it, ask me to dance. I stop by Unfiction’s forums when I can, but even with all the activity in the News and Rumors section, I don’t see much that’s new, much that’s been broken out into a meaty, mystery-filled subforum filled with enthusiastic threads and fresh content. I see puzzle trails. I see meandering indie efforts.

It’s strange.

The last real experience I spent any great amount of time on was for A Map of the Floating City, an ARG-like web game that concluded late last summer.

For the most part, I truly enjoyed many aspects of the game, and thought that several elements were innovative, engaging, and immersive. But a year ago, I was also feeling a great deal of conflict within my own heart about this genre and all of its offshoots. My decision to play was reluctant, fueled only by my affection for Thomas Dolby’s music and a gentle nudge from his tour manager, who happens to be an old skool online journaler from back in the day before blogs and tumblrs and flickrs and all that jazz. Personally, I was still coming to terms with the grief of the past couple years – losing my Dad, losing my dream job. I wanted this game to heal some of that for me. ARGs had been life-affirming for me in the past, after all, and I craved that community feeling once more.

Unfortunately, the team-based scoring competition drove a rather jingoistic wedge through most of the community, and my own little Southern tribe was abandoned by its appointed in-game moderator for unknown reasons. And although The Delta had two major story characters on its roster, they were both effectively prevented from assisting us because of the plot.

And while I’ve truly enjoyed heading up to D.C. (twice now) for Dolby concerts and to meet my tribespeople, I have worried that this frustrating experience was going to be it for a while. Judging by my profile creation at the Floating City website, we’re coming up on the game’s one year anniversary. I haven’t found anything like it since.

However, I find that I haven’t given up on a) wanting to play more of these damned things, and b) eventually making experiences like this, again. I love video games, and I love where I work, but I am a storyteller, and I want to be a writer again.

I don’t know what that means for me, but that’s where I’m at.

Hello.

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 gpsmission.com 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.

Dear krystyn h. wells,

This mail is confirmation that you have successfully renewed your subscription to Xbox Live 12 mo. Gold Membership. This renewal goes into effect on Monday, November 10, 2008. Here is a description of the service:

Xbox Live 12 mo. Gold Membership

To view the total charges for this transaction (including any applicable sales tax), please go to https://billing.microsoft.com. If you have any questions, please go to www.xbox.com/support, or call Xbox Customer Support at 1 (800) 4MY-XBOX.

Thank you for using Microsoft Online Services.

The Xbox Live team.

Since 2004 I’ve had the full Gold subscription, thanks to a little game called I Love Bees. Online gaming via console has really blossomed over the last year or two, so I suspect that I would have gotten a full year’s subscription with renewals sooner or later, but at the time I first plunked down cash for a subscription card at the midnight release of Halo 2, there was very little reason for me to invest in such a thing.

The immediacy of the community that I had helped to foster as a player through an Alternate Reality Game was impetus enough: I wanted to continue feeling the camaraderie and amazing potential power of the collective after the ARG itself was over. And even though I miss being a player of ARGs, I still hope and work to make every ARG experience I help design and execute capture some of the potential for this sort of community to flourish again. It’s humbling and awesome when it happens.

My online gaming now mostly consists of Rock Band 2 and Little Big Planet, but I still love to hop onto Halo 3 and see what shenanigans are afoot. It still feels like coming home.

It is increasingly apparent to me that it is virtually impossible to legislate trust between players. Trust can be built, however, between the puppetmasters and the players.

The boundaries that exist between these two entities can blur, twist, and change from game to game, but ultimately, the puppetmasters are the arbiters of narrative flow. If they choose not to filter, if they choose to encourage, or to fabricate narrative elements in the game arena, that is certainly a design choice, but it remains theirs. The players are playing. To me, it has always seemed a fruitless exercise to blame players for a game that stumbles and fizzles. If a design choice gives a subset of players the power to move the narrative in ways that prevent play for an even greater subset, that is still a design choice on the part of the puppetmasters.

The players are people living in the real world, with real world rules as their only true guideline (unless they become criminals). The narrative that defines the game is still vetted by the puppetmasters.

Excellent.

I’d like to point you to a post that Jackie wrote in response to the recent publication of a Whitepaper on ARGs, created under the auspices of the Special Interest Group for ARGs at the IGDA.

It is cogent and well-expressed.

A lot of video gaming for me over the past few years has been accompanied by a rather intense sense of discovery. Many of the small things I’ve realized usually connect directly to my own fears and insecurities about gaming in general. What if I am not smart enough to solve this level? What if my hand-eye coordination is not up to snuff? What if no one wants to play with me?

Becoming a braver gamer is a process that I am experiencing currently. Mostly, I try to shed my fear of failure. I often want so much for a narrative to remain unbroken in a game’s flow that I often give up if I can’t solve a puzzle or complete a level smoothly the first time through. For so many reasons, games just aren’t designed that way. Learning curves and the vocabulary of movement are things that are built in to nearly every game you encounter in your life. There’s an initial dialogue between you and the game, a sense of introduction and agreement. You make a pact with the game to play with the rules it proposes.

My biggest mistake is assuming that those rules are it. There is nothing else. In the past, I’ve worked hard to frighten myself into clinging to those rules with a death grip, forgetting the joy of exploration, forgetting to have dialogues with myself that use the rules to break outside of what is generally expected. I wanted to be a participant, but not at the expense of my ego, or my pride. What I was missing all along was that my pride could be the thing that I earn a bit more of upon completion. A sense of gaining, rather than chipping away.

The past couple of years I’ve been challenged by friends to spend a bit more time looking around me. To see how I approach gaming, and to find encouragement in the idea that there is still all the game’s value and reward available to me if I take fifty tries to get to the end, instead of just one.

Alternate Reality Games have a great deal to do with this, naturally: in an arena where sometimes you have only you as a game piece, you have to assess and act as seems befitting for your reality in that moment. Is it your time to be a hero? Can you really don a cape and go flying off to save the damsel in distress? The rules of your own reality say “Well, generally, no,” but the rules of your reality also do not restrict against singing to prove you’re a human, either. I find pathways to solutions now that were not so apparent to me back in my Atari Childhood Days. I explore more. I have run across Halo 2 rooftops in the Outskirts, not only looking for the hidden sword, but trying to see the whole place from a new perspective. I’ve run behind the Hotel Zanzibar sign and smacked it with the butt of my gun. I’ve spent meditative moments way up above the sniper alley, contemplating sunsets and complex polygons. I’m no crazy skull hunter, but I also am a lot more comfortable about making the game work to my own pace now, instead of letting it dictate to me. That distinction may not have been lost on the lot of you out there, but for me it’s been a pretty empowering revelation.

What originally prompted this train of thought was my recent purchase of a fancy-schmancy dance pad for the Dance Dance Revolution games I have for the Playstation 2 and XBox consoles. I loved the games when I first got them, but felt frustrated and inhibited by the cheaper dance mat sliding around a lot as I worked up to more difficult songs. I don’t anticipate ever being stupendously awesome at this game, mind you, but I did feel like maybe I was letting something simple get in the way of me reaching my potential – especially with something that was getting me off my couch and getting my heart rate up. Breaking my leg to “Hysteria” would receive an A for Effort, but an F in Common Sense.

Now the game feels like a game again – complete with the addictive (PS2 version) lure of earning points towards unlockable items, like songs and challenge modes. “Oh, 7 more points? 7 more songs! No problem!” Songs that felt prohibitively dangerous on the old slippery pad now feel more funky and fun on the Red Octane now.

Perhaps it seems a bit odd to equate exploration of a gaming universe with what essentially amounts to shelling out cash for a better controller, but to me that is still a part of gaming for me – the environment one finds themself in, and the mode of emotion and motivation they use to achieve particular goals.

Not sure where I am going to store this new toy, though. It’s frkn heavy, and huge.

I wrote a post on the Unforums yesterday that I’d like to preserve here. A member asked the community if a newbie could conceivably jump into a game during its middle, or whether it was more advisable to try and catch a game at its beginning.

Understanding and sympathizing with the natural anxiety that lead to that question is not difficult. I know that had I not been grabbed by some of the very shiny stuff I was seeing in the Beast, I would’ve never made it past the first day I joined Cloudmakers.

Oh, and the day I joined Cloudmakers? May 6th, 2001, the very night of the A.R.M. rallies taking place in three major cities in the U.S.: New York, Los Angeles, … and Chicago.

I wish I could tell you I’d just hopped up and gone to that little bar hosting the event in my own hometown, and even helped with the puzzle solves, got myself a legitimate anti-robot militia armband. But, no. I sat and watched those IRC logs flood in, transcripts of cellphone conversations – it was mind-blowing, honestly, the sheer amount of information and speculation flooding into my inbox every single minute.

I was nearly a month late to the game, if you’ll notice. Cloudmakers itself formed on April 11th, and the rabbit holes had been languishing for a while before that. Sure, I freaked out over the massive amount of story that had already ‘happened,’ and I felt sad for the puzzles that were all marked ‘SOLVED,’ but I also found myself instinctively finding things to re-read and absorb. The story was intensely good, and the material was solid, and did not crack when I poked at it. It would be there the next day when I came back, persistent and consistent. I could trust in the universe to remain – I could allow myself to become a citizen, because it was still inviting me.

Instead of getting cranky in the thread (which is sometimes my wont) and shaking my fist and spouting off about how there really are no rules (no really there aren’t so shut up man just can it already can’t you see that I am trying to write a blog post?), I said:

I’d say the #1 rule for newbies is: don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

People will tell how How Things Are and How Things Are Supposed to Go, but:

if ARGs are alternate realities

held together by the sinewy and sometimes ethereal-looking net of a ‘Game,’

… then you will find that much like Life, ARGs generally work a bit better when you’re not forcing them to fit your pre-conceived notions.

Basically, use common sense, retain your sense of wonder, and for goodness’ sake, respect the real-life laws of your own country and/or the country hosting the ARG.

All the rest is rabbit holes and narratives on crack. Mmmmmm!

I discuss ARGs a great deal in my spare time, and get into these lovely, meandering meta conversations not meant to save the world, save a newbie, or save the genre. And many times, someone newer to the world than I will tell me that they’ve looked at the Cloudmakers archive of the game, at the Trail, and they just can’t believe that we played through that without our heads exploding. The implication is that of course one could never hop onto that horse mid-stream: go from your normal, predictable life into the midst of a strong community that had ‘already solved everything.’ It simply must be better to wait for a new game to come along, so that you’re ‘ready’ for it.

Oh … really?

It constantly amazes me to enter some of these Meta discussions and find out how wrong I’ve been doing things, this whole time. Heh.

“Where are you off to?” [Momo] asked.

“To our play class,” Franco told her. “That’s where they teach us how to play.”

Momo looked puzzled. “Play what?”

“Today we’re playing data retrieval It’s a very useful game, but you have to concentrate like mad.”

“Is it fun?” Momo asked, looking rather doubtful.

“That’s not the point,” Maria replied uneasily. “Anyway, you shouldn’t talk like that.”

“The point is it’s useful for the future.”

This quote is taken from Michael Ende’s Momo, a book everyone really should read. It’s as old as I am, and easily my favorite book.

To those denizens of the Unforums who don’t truly understand why I have issues with someof the uses of “We” and “Us,” read the quote again. Actually, you should purchase the book and read the whole thing, cover to cover. Ach, you think I joke, but I am quite serious. It’s an amazing little book.

The children in the book are in a play class because their parents have opened accounts with the Men in Grey, who have promised them that the more they hurry, the more time they save into a time account at their bank — this is time that they’ll have later on. That time that they’ve been saving can definitely be cashed out later, like paper money, or candy bars from a vending machine. (Except the Grey Men were totally lying. Time saved is time lost, don’tcha know.) But, their instructions were fairly simple: Eschew those things that are time wasters. Bring others up to speed as quickly as possible, and tell them How Things Run, because that way, we’ll learn how to play better. Efficacy in day-to-day living would obviously mean that everyone gets along better and has a better quality of life, right?

Clearly, this would be the case! Instead of the slow, sexy burn of discovery, We’ve got rules to get us past that first hurdle of discomfort. No more discomfort! No more mystery! Data Retrieval ARGs would be so handy – clearly-delineated Rules of Engagement. Updates that the Old Skoolers can predict with ease. Forum threads moderated into oblivion, with at least 50 emoticons to choose from — y’know, when linguistic nuance just won’t do.

The point is, it’s useful for the future.

We’re sick of viral marketing, and ARGs are why

We KNOW that marketers will eventually give us all of the details on their products if they want to sell them, so why should we care to solve silly puzzles in order to learn trivial product details? Seriously: why?

Don’t you worry your 8-bit head over it, dude. You’re already at the end of the Consumer Spectrum the viral marketers are pushing people towards. You’re not necessarily being marketed to, if recent efforts can be construed as “typical,” but you can still enjoy a free game. You can still ignore it. For free!

Anecdotal: I played Halo: Combat Evolved and liked it a lot. I was planning on purchasing Halo 2, but it wasn’t until I participated in several puzzle relay situations with the Unfiction community during ilovebees that I seriously considered purchasing an XBoxLive subscription – which is incidentally about to renew itself sometime next week, for another year.

Also: Our Colony? Not an ARG. Origen? Not an ARG. That’s been pointed up in the article’s comment section anyhow, and with some vehement eloquence by ARG fans.

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