making 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.


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 If you have any questions, please go to, 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.

Apparently, I did not disable my plugins before upgrading this blog a few weeks ago. Because of that, my attempts to log in would result in a redirect to the login screen, over and over. My Google-fu searches for a solution to this issue finally led me to this: ftp to the server, re-name the plugins folder for this blog, and then attempt logging in again. Now I could update the database and proceed normally. Whew. I’ve been wanting to write about game stuff, and my nerd apathy and frustration kept me bereft and annoyed. Haha.

But, I have some great news: 42 just won a Gold W3 Award in the Games category for the Why So Serious? ARG. I am just sitting here, grinning. Today is a good day. I’m even wearing my CFB shirt!

(We also got two Silver awards, but it’s not as clear on the site as to what they’re for, etc. I believe they’re both for WSS? as well!)

Can YOU find all of the hidden clues? Make sure you’ve got the high-quality version playing, as some of the Easter Eggs are very subtle and quick!

Have fun searching!

Every art form has its patrons.

I was just talking with another designer here at work, and one thing she said is something that is vital to ARG design:

It is important to let the players have the narrative of the story.

Pushing the narrative, especially through meta-communication (asserting excessive control through the in-game conduits, or through out-of-game methods) can have a pretty distinct chilling effect on the immersive nature of the experience.

(Maaaan, I had several more paragraphs written here, but I just deleted them because I can’t make a succinct enough point, and there are dudes jackhammering and sawing right outside my window here in the office. Anyway, I’ll just leave the basic concept note there, and if I come back to it, I come back to it.)

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.

World Without Oil is taking home the Activism award at this years SXSW Interactive Festival!

Congrats to the team, and most especially to the players, without whom the game would have been a mere shadow of activism and awareness against the backdrop of reality.

Thanks again to Ken Eklund, creator and driving force behind the design and aesthetic of the project. I am very proud to have worked with you, and I am excited to see what you come up with next!

Thanks to Jane and Ken for alerting me to the news that the World Without Oil ARG is one of the top five finalists in the Activism category for the SXSW Web Awards this year!


imbri posted this link in an IRC channel, and now I know why I kept thinking, all day Friday, why I should maybe try to remember why February 8th felt like a day I should remember why it felt important and significant and stuff. It bugged me, but I was also way tired and eventually gave up. I can’t even remember simple words and names, lately, so.

But, anyway. Happy 6th birthday, Lockjaw.

Alternate Reality Games, I think, were bolstered by that little grassroots project helping to fill the quiet that followed the end of the Beast. I am still very proud of being part of that amazing little team. What’s even more amazing to me personally is how every single person on that team was dealing with a significant amount of life crap during the campaign, stuff that would normally smush your average modern human, but somehow we all soldiered on and completed the game. A few of us have kept on with the genre in the years since, creating cross-media narrative projects as our actual day (and night and weekend) jobs.

Thank you, Lockjaw players, for giving me a reason to look forward to the next day. It was hard work, but I love that collaboration we shared very much. It meant the world to me, and that’s no lie.

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