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THE STATE OF PLAYFULNESS
Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) stand distinct from other types of game in that they can span any and all mediums, genres and methods – yet they remain relatively unknown even to hardcore gamers
By Joe Martin
It’s mid-April and London is hot and drizzly as two people I’ve only just met blithely watch a man in leather armour tie my hands behind my back. One of them, a fashionably coiffed girl called Sophie, giggles as he does it.
With the knots secured the armoured man falls in behind his captain; an elf named Iorveth, who had previously been my favourite character from CD Projekt Red’s epic RPG, The Witcher 2. I say ‘previously’ because right now he’s looking at me with contempt, spitting as he talks and rudely demanding to know what we’re doing in ‘his domain’. He says he’ll have us butchered if we try anything funny. Sophie stops laughing.
There’s a short silence in which we don’t know who’s going to talk, then my other companion, Matthew, puts himself forward. He tells Iorveth that the three of us are fugitives, framed for murdering the king and we’ve come to him for help. “We need help,” he says. “Um, please.” The soldier sniggers wickedly and twirls a sword in my direction, anticipating violence while Iorveth adjusts the red bandana that covers half his face and laughs openly. Behind my back, I start to experimentally strain against the knots.
“It’s much easier to get lost in an alternate reality the first time you play an ARG,” Michael Anderson tells me from his office in Philadelphia. “That first time you go through, so many of the things which eventually start to seem trite are so fresh and new.” Michael points to the first ARG he followed as an example. It was 2004, he was a student and, along with some friends, was throwing a party during one of the presidential debates. Over the course of the event he noticed something strange; that many of the posters and placards in the crowd didn’t seem linked to any of the candidates involved.
“Some of the people at the debate were holding posters with a picture of a bee on them, for some odd reason,” says Michael – who at the time didn’t think much of it. It was only later that week when he read an article in The New York Times that he realised those posters related to the now-infamous Halo 2 ARG, IloveBees.
Played out across the US and spanning multiple different platforms, IloveBees tasked participants with helping an AI from the future by cracking codes to find payphones across the country. Famously, one player in Florida even stayed by a phone to receive a call as Hurricane Frances closed in around him – though it was the accompanying audio drama that appealed to Michael more than the real-life adventure. “The payphones seemed like a cool gimmick, but it was the six-hour audio play which really hooked me on the concept,” says Michael. “That was my introduction to ARGs.”
Eight years later, Michael runs the largest online news source for ARG players across the world, ARGN.com, with the support of a dozen regular contributors and editors who help him track all manner of transmedia events. He off-handedly references a dozen other ARGs as we talk – Subservient Chicken, The Beast, HashTagKiller – and points to an upcoming convention he’ll be attending too.
There are even some games he’s played more than once – and the difference between replayable and limited run ARGs is something he’s particularly interested in at the moment. “Replayability is the aspect a lot of veteran developers are trying to crack at the moment, because therein lies scalability… but what draws a lot of people to ARGs is the belief that their actions can have a direct impact on the story,” says Michael. “That can remain in replayable games in the form of story trees and so on, but it becomes a lot more limited.”
I point out to him that his continued closeness to ARG communities – and particularly his replaying of existing games – suggests he’s not as jaded as his earlier comments implied. He concedes that, yes, his default state is still one of excited anticipation, even now. There’s simply too many new ideas to get bored and developers are constantly presenting new ways to advance the medium.
“When someone finds out about a new ARG, we refer to it as ‘finding the rabbit hole’ as a nod to Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass,” says Michael. It’s an apt name for it because, once you’ve found the rabbit hole, you feel just like Alice – compelled to delve deeper forever…
This is just a small extract from the full feature in Issue Three. To read the entire article, click here to purchase the complete digital edition of Continue for just $2.99/£1.99/€2.25.