The expression "alternate reality games" refers to a type of game that overlaps the game world with reality, by utilizing real world media, in order to deliver an interactive narrative experience to the players. Over the past years, alternate reality games have captured the imagination of millions of people by getting them to play within worlds that are as fantastic as they are real.
Photo credit: James Thew
The birth of new forms of communication which characterizes this digital age has driven story tellers and game designers to explore new ways in which their audience can participate with the interaction between fictional and real worlds.
What started as experiments with two of the biggest companies in the game industry, Microsoft with "The Beast" and EA with "Majestic", have moved on and combined efforts between advertising agencies, movie studios, television networks. This resulted in promotional campaigns and games that extended the story universe beyond the big or small screen and into the hands of the audience.
Today, not only the big industries, but also small independent companies are willing to create successful financial models around this new genre of entertainment. Looking at the games that have appeared in the past five years shows trends such as playing with funding possibilities, exploring the relationships between fictional and real world spaces, and investigating new ways to interact with stories shown on the small screen.
Television has been exploring the possibility of extending the story beyond the small screen and onto the internet since Fox first aired Freaky Links in 1999. They were not the only ones seeing the potential of the new media and were quickly followed by ABC, which experimented with several extended realities prior to last year’s The LOST Experience.
As broadband internet becomes more widespread and digital video recorders more common, networks will continue to experiment with ways in which they can engage viewers both on and off the small screen.
With all of this activity, it is an exciting time to talk about alternate reality gaming.
In this mini-guide I have collected for you the most popular and recent alternate reality games. Characterizing traits that helped me analyzing them are:
Please note that this mini-guide is an overview of alternate reality games and in no ways intends to represent a complete resource. You are very welcome to suggest new inclusions or corrections anytime by using the Comments section to be found at the end of this mini-guide.
Catching the Wish
Catching the Wish took players to the fictional Aglaura, NJ where mysterious forces seemed to follow residents wherever they went. Dale Sprague, community activist and web designer, was plagued by dreams that seemed so familiar and real that he was driven to document them in a series of graphic novels. The events actually occurred three years earlier and were explored by players in Chasing the Wish, a previous alternate reality game by Dave Szulborski.
The game was designed to support a series of three graphic novels which refer to previous events as well as direct players to websites and characters in the current alternate reality game. Following in the footsteps of the previous alternate reality game, which was praised and criticized for its great reliance on personal email interaction, Catching the Wish was a character-driven narrative where personal communication with the characters that populated the fictional world was rewarded in kind.
Players participated in conference calls, communicated via email, and even met characters in person. The game was designed to appeal to players who placed an emphasis on character interactions and realism. Events occurred in real time and as naturally as they do in our everyday experiences.
Founded by Dawne Weisman, EDOC Laundry is a clothing label that specializes in apparel for smart and stylish people while also delivering a large interactive story that develop online. While the interactive story is accessed through codes discovered on the apparel, the clothing and the online elements can stand apart.
Not only are the clothes so stylish that people have purchased them with little or no knowledge at all of the online elements, but players are encouraged to share the information that they have discovered forming an active community that does not require people to purchase every article in order to uncover the story. On the inside of each article of clothing the phrase "nothing to hide" is printed in code.
That code is used as a key to reveal a secret phrase hidden within the bold graphic design. Players take the secret phrase to the EDOC Laundry website where they can then input the code which will provide them with a video, audio, image, or text based clip that reveals a part of the story.
On the surface, the story is a classic mystery plot that revolves around the murder of the band manager for Poor Richard, a very popular yet fictional band. On a deeper level, the story mirrors that of the American Revolution. While most of the story can be revealed through those assets, it is backed up by several other websites.
Last Call Poker
At first glance, the Last Call Poker website provides free flash-based online poker. However, hidden not too deeply under the surface was a complex alternate reality game that included a wide array of story and play opportunities for casual and devoted players. Launched in the fall of 2005 as a promotion for Activision’s Gun, the website and story took players through a span of 150 years as they traced the history of a cursed Navy Colt.
With casual or competitive online poker games, deeply immersive narratives, and ample opportunities for real world creative play, players could engage with the game in a variety of ways. Through episodic storytelling that provided a game long story arc occurring in present time as well as weekly stories that took players back in time to trace the gun’s history with both fictional and historical figures, Last Call Poker was one of the first alternate reality games to effectively consider various levels of engagement.
Players that could only devote a short time in a single week and players that were heavily involved for then entire eight weeks were both rewarded with a complete story. While dozens of other players were searching for the same character, the excitement over discovering new pieces of the story encouraged players to cheer on their competitors helping to solidify the community surrounding the game. While the alternate reality game is no longer being played, the story and game play is detailed on the website which still exists and continues to provide free online poker games.
The LOST Experience
The popular television show LOST has always had a loyal online following intent on discovering the secrets behind the mysterious program. Produced by the networks that carry LOST in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, the online experience provided players with a storyline that runs parallel to the television program while also hinting at and even revealing some of the shows deeper mysteries.
While the experience contained the alternate reality game standards of cryptic websites, video clips, and intriguing voice mail messages, it took it a step or two further with a character appearing on a late night talk show, a massive chocolate giveaway, and even a book available on Amazon and written by a fictional author who died in the plane crash that started the television series. The game also experimented with new advertising methods.
Since the advent of digital video recorders, such as TiVo, that allow viewers to easily skip commercials, networks have been struggling with ways in which they can appeal to advertisers. During several episodes of the television program, ABC aired commercials relating to The LOST Experience. Players, not wanting to miss clues to the Experience, sat through the commercial breaks.
Ocular Effect was created as an interactive tie-in for the ABC Family television movie “Fallen” which premiered on July 23rd, 2006. The game began with a mysterious countdown that tempted players until “Fallen” aired, at which point the website changed and delivered interested players to a message board which was monitored and maintained by the creative team as a means to help to facilitate discussion and deliver content.
By utilizing complex Flash content and on-location videos featuring the main characters, the game took players on a virtual journey around the world as they followed the characters to six cities in three different countries. While the game did not feature characters from the TV movie, or the books upon which it was based on, it was set in the same story reality where nephilim (mythical/biblical offspring of angels and humans) exist in our world.
The story of Ocular Effect was complex and simple at the same time: help Faith, an orphaned teenage tattoo artist who has always been obsessed with specific rune-like symbols, on her voyage of discovery, learning more about herself and the meaning behind the mysterious symbols.
Omnifam was designed and executed by several genre enthusiasts as a fan-fiction piece revolving around the story universe of ABC’s Alias. While not the first alternate reality game to be written independently by fans for an existing media property, it was the first to do so for a television property and, more importantly, for a television property that had played with ARG-like aspects in the past.
It went much deeper than the previous official efforts and included stronger interactivity and a richer narrative experience. As a piece of fan art, the creators did not have access to the current and future story lines. As such, they built off existing back story creating their own separate storyline with new characters and events. This allowed them a certain amount of freedom while not conflicting with the show or upsetting fan expectations and understandings.
The initial vision was that players would be faced with a series of missions that would take a week to complete. The first mission was a set up as a qualifying test to allow the player access to the future missions. That initial mission was available to players no matter how far along in the experience they happened to join the game and, after completing it, players would join in with the existing game audience as new missions were made available. Each additional mission would provide a specific goal that would advance the overall story arc.
Orbital Colony was initially conceived as a way in which active players in the non-fiction community could learn how to design and produce an alternate reality game. The goal was to maintain an open development group that received aid from experienced developers. However, they quickly realized the inability to keep the group visible while still allowing for a unaware player base that could become steeped in the mystery.
Once the group closed itself to wandering eyes, the volunteer team struggled to stay together and it took almost two years before the game would launch. As they had played dozens of games between them, they had a strong idea of what worked from a player’s perspective and this helped them tremendously.
Despite a non-existent budget, they utilized their various interests, skills, experience, and locations to build a dynamic experience that included a variety of online communications as well as hidden cache locations in four different countries creating a truly global experience. To supplement their knowledge and create a game based in factual fantasy, they contacted a number of people in the space industry, gaining access to official images and information that would only add to the realism of the experience.
Perplex City, created by London-based Mind Candy, is one of the first successful self-supported alternate reality games. The game finances itself through the sale of collectable puzzle cards that provide insight into the Perplex City universe. The cards also direct players to the massive online world where the story of Perplex City unfolds. But the story isn’t just told online, there have been a number of live events, primarily in the form of city wide scavenger hunts, that have provided some of the most talked about story events.
The fictional Perplex City is a large city in an unknown universe that has recently connected to Earth. Perplex City’s priceless artifact, the Receda Cube, has been stolen and is hidden somewhere on Earth. In order to recover the cube, one of the city’s residents enlisted the help of Mind Candy to spread the word on Earth.
As the Perplex City culture revolves around puzzles, where they compete in puzzle contests much as we on Earth compete in sport, he proposed the puzzle cards as a way to familiarize the citizens of Earth with the world of Perplex City and offered a £100,000 (approx. $200,000 or €150,000) reward for the safe retrieval of the cube.
Despite some initial controversy over whether players would need to purchase the cards in order to participate with the alternate reality game or discover the location of the cube, neither is true. The cards support the game both monetarily and story-wise, but the game is free to any who wish to participate. Though, it is undeniable that the cards have become a source of community building with players meeting both on and offline to trade the cards, solve puzzles, and discuss the game.
The ReGenesis Extended Reality is an alternate reality game that runs along with the popular Canadian television show, ReGenesis. Extending the one-hour bio-threat drama over multiple platforms, including websites, email, video-on-demand, voicemail, and real world events, the game allows players to explore the world as agents aiding NorBAC, the North American Biotechnology Advisory Commission.
When the television program was picked up for another year, they made the experience more accessible to wider range of player types. Through video on demand, viewers interested in the extended reality story but without access to the internet or the time to commit to the experience were able to receive story updates. As the websites are designed to change throughout the experience and in sync with the television episodes, they need to be displayed on a user by user basis.
Additionally, website access is blocked to visitors that have not registered to the site to both minimize discussion and avoid search engines and archival websites from copying, or caching, the websites at various stages of the game play. The unfortunate side effect is that casual browsers and information seekers often include people that would tell others about the game or that would register once they were sufficiently intrigued by the experience. Because the game environment is so controlled and all of the players understand they are interacting with a fictional world, the typical confusion found on in-game message boards is drastically reduced.
Studio Cyphers is a serial based game with game episodes lasting about a month long each. It utilizes an interesting subscription based model that allows those who subscribe to an episode access to additional content and interaction while anyone may follow along with the story and work through the puzzles for free.
The story universe revolves around the Cyphers, a team of paranormal investigators who have operated independently with no problem for years. However, things have changed and psychic forces being what they are, they need help and created the Wakefield Agent program in order to get it. Against this backdrop, the series lays down episodes which contain individual mysteries for players to solve while also delivering clues to the larger game story.
Although the episodes are part of a larger series, players must subscribe to each one individually. The US based company charges $9.99 to players within the United States and $13.99 for those outside of the country, presumably to cover the additional communication and shipping costs. Players who subscribe are given the title of “Wakefield Agent” and, in addition to the interaction, are granted access to game and story updates prior to those who do not subscribe.
Who Is Benjamin Stove?
As a promotional campaign, “Who Is Benjamin Stove?” was unusual. It was not designed to promote a specific product and nor was the client revealed until several months into the campaign when they suddenly found themselves in the campaign. It’s confusing, but it worked. Designed by Campbell-Ewald and executed by GMD Studios, Who Is Benjamin Stove? launched in early January 2006 with a character who had discovered an odd painting while was visiting his parents for the holidays.
The painting was of a crop circle in a corn field that had the shape of an ethanol molecule; a shape that would reappear a number of times throughout the campaign. The game’s mystery revolved around the original owner of the painting, Benjamin Stove, with players and characters trying to discover who he was, where he might be, and, eventually, what led to his interest in ethanol.
The big event of the game took place in late April when Benjamin Stove published an open letter to General Motors with General Motors responding in ads in the USA Today as well as a number of popular websites directing people to their Live Green, Go Yellow campaign website for more information. The community for the game gathered on forums hosted on WhoIsBenjaminStove.com, a website created and maintained by one of the central characters. While this is nothing new to alternate reality games, the control that the game gave to players was unique.
Troy is a meta-game that deals with the privacy violation on the net, stimulating the player digital voyeurism. As visitors try to download a game made by a fictional character, they are lead to a 404 site. The average visitor would probably not bother clicking on the link to the parent directory. But visitors who are inquisitive and prying enough will click on the link and be lead to files and information they weren't supposed to see
In the parent directory there is a couple random files and pictures; it appears to be just some filedump that someone has uploaded, including some early prototypes of games and design docs, but no "Troy." There is a folder called "EvansStuff" that the player may be drawn to open and view its contents, as Evan Vincent was the creator of the missing game, maybe he placed it in there.
The idea was to give the player a sense that they were looking at stuff that the Experimental Gameplay team might not have been trying to make public. Nothing too personal at this point, and gives people also a chance to see a couple pictures of the team around the office. Visitors should also be tempted to look through Evan's Stuff folder, which sounds a little bit more personal and private. It's a tough game, indeed, and it has also a distinct geek taste because of the riddles complexity. The solution for the game can be found here.
Learn more about Alternate Reality Games