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The Portland Phoenix
August 8 - 15, 2002

[Features]

Get a clue

Alternative Reality Gaming taps into the collective detective

By Jess Kilby

I have a confession to make: I was a Nancy Drew freak. While other kids my age were playing with Barbies and GI Joes, I was curled up in the big blue armchair in my living room, engrossed in my mom’s faded old copies of The Password to Larkspur Lane and The Secret at Shadow Ranch. Before Nancy, it was Encyclopedia Brown. And of course, there was always Harriet the Spy.

Though I eventually grew out of the mystery genre, I never lost my love for the sleuthing life. So imagine my delight in April 2001, when I caught wind of a strange new game that was afoot; a sort of viral marketing promotion for Steven Spielberg’s upcoming movie, A.I.

It started with a whisper of something odd about the A.I. trailers and posters: a woman named Jeanine Salla was listed as a “sentient machine therapist” in the trailer credits, and, on the back of the posters, letters circled in silver spelled out the phrase “Evan Chan was murdered.” Letters in gold squares formed the message “Jeanine is the key.”

A few curious souls Googled “Jeanine Salla” and came up with a handful of mysterious, slickly produced Web sites that all seemed somehow related, particularly in the fact that they were, um, not of our world. (Actually, they were of our world, circa 2142 — the era in which A.I. is set.) A little poking around revealed hidden text and other clues on the sites: passwords hidden in photos, phone numbers coded in basic encryption. And of course, links to other Web sites, where the mystery only got deeper and deeper.

Wired picked up on the story, thousands of people flocked to the game sites — and, eventually, to message boards where players congregated to share clues and solutions — and the game was on.

It lasted three months. Seven thousand people played, and ultimately unraveled the mystery of Evan Chan’s murder. The game was, in every sense, an unqualified success. (And it ended up having nothing to do with the movie, really, which let players walk away from the whole experience without feeling like whores to the marketing machine.)

In retrospect, though, it’s amazing the whole thing even got off the ground. It was so . . . unprecedented. A “game” that lived by the tagline “This is not a game,” relying on real-time role playing, storytelling, cipher-cracking, and the collective arcane knowledge of its players; that didn’t necessarily begin online, and didn’t necessarily end there. It was a little bit of everything that had come before it in the gaming world, and yet, as the final sum of all these historical parts, it was so much more.

And I missed out on it. After a cursory exploration of the early material, I wandered away for a few weeks to pursue the rest of my life. When I was finally drawn back to the game by all the national media attention it had attracted, too much plot had already unfolded. I was overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of it all, so I shrugged my shoulders and walked away from the Beast — as the game has come to be called — for good. But part of me dared to hope that I hadn’t seen the last of this wild new game genre.

Then, just last week, the buzz machine kicked into gear for a new Beast-like game, this one for the American remake of the classic Japanese thriller, Ring. Excited, I started poking around for more information.

Turns out Ring, the game, ain’t so hot. But it also turns out an entire, full-blown genre has indeed grown up around the Beast during the past year, called Alternate Reality Gaming (ARG). Several highly successful ARGs have already run their course, most notably Lockjaw, which was designed by a core group of Beast players. A few games are also mid-run right now, but probably too far gone for any newbie to jump in.

Happily, there are also a few games set to launch in the near future. Hidden Alliance is expected to start up sometime in September. Push, Nevada, tied to ABC’s new show of the same name, is currently pissing off would-be players with its quasi-launch: some game materials are online, but the forces “behind the curtain” (called Puppet Masters — yes, the genre has already spawned its own lingo) don’t seem ready to interact with their audience until the show’s September 17 premiere. Push is also raising a few eyebrows over its endgame: a million-dollar prize to the winner.

The fear among veteran ARG players is that the prize money will destroy the integrity of a crucial game element: the “collective detective.” In a game as complex and time-sensitive as a well-executed ARG, forwarding the storyline is not a one-person task. Nor is the game tailored to each individual player. New discoveries are typically a group effort, and the results are always shared with the community. It’s a we’re-all-in-this-together thing. But a million bucks can make a player cagey — and if nobody shares information, the game is likely doomed to stall. (Or, Push could beget a whole new sub-genre of ARGs.)

And, for those who wish they could have been a part of the “early” days of this nascent genre, there will likely be a second chance to experience the magic, in the Son of the Beast. Nobody knows when the game will launch, or what it will actually be called, just that the team behind the original ARG is working on something new. Expectations are high, and rumors are already flying (the Ring game was a suspect, briefly). Who knows? Maybe you’ll be the one to discover the first clue.

Jess Kilby can be reached at jkilby@phx.com. “Technophilia” highlights the latest and greatest of the tech world and runs once a month.

For more info on all things ARG, visit www.argn.com.

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