This Is Not An ARG

ARGs and Adam Foster

ARGs and Adam Foster

Recently, I attended an IGDA-sponsored lecture given at Bungie Studios by Valve’s Adam Foster on Alternative Reality Game Puzzle Design.

Old Map of Boston

Old Map of Boston

That first sentence is incredibly long and confusing. But the lecture itself was simple and straightforward enough. Adam covered his mod Minerva and his preferred encoding techniques, such as MD5 hash and SSTV, that he used to deliver BBS phone numbers, strange blurred images, and ASCII renditions of concept art for Portal 2. Adam attributed his interest in ARGs to what he calls “the literary idea of the false document”, or in plainer terms, a photoshopped image that looks like a scan from a real mysterious piece of paper. Examples of the false document include faux memos, faux letters, faux inventory lists, etc. I do wholeheartedly agree with Adam that the “false document” is intriguing, and serves as a mysterious, complex, and fulfilling narrative device, but I tend to favor dusty old maps myself.

Anything can go wrong when an ARG is in the hands of the people. Adam answered this problem when he went over his process with designing his “impossible puzzles that people can solve”, and how his attempts to lead players in the right direction would sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. Different players would get off-track and get stuck on red herrings that troll players would create. Eventually, the next clue that Adam intended players to find would always appear correct and official, allowing the logical trail of progress to occur.

My favorite definition of an ARG was told to me by one of my professors, John Williamson. He referred to ARGs as “storytelling as archaeology” and called the designer of an ARG the “puppetmaster.” Adam Foster ended his talk by telling us he was fascinated with how he could direct millions of people, like a puppetmaster, towards finding a specific clue.

The Secret World

Photograph from The Secret World ARG

The Secret World

My initial interest in ARGs began when I followed FunCom’s The Secret World announcement scheme, a chaotic and messy trail of clues that spanned several weeks. It had a raw, wild power (what with all the Lovecraftian themes, the mystic poems, bloodstained letters and runic symbols) that I ended up eagerly and rapidly consuming any scrap of content they put out. Even though I barely contributed to the game, it sparked an innate desire to fully and completely deconstruct their process.

They began the campaign with cryptic emails sent to famous game news publishers, and then set up a correspondence with a false identity only known as “A friend.” Historical figures from actual legends filled the character cast. There were clock puzzles, four word-runes, old and stained photographs, and GPS coordinates that created the shape of a pentagram spread across the earth’s surface. The mysterious phrase “Dark days are coming” was the only promise most of the puzzle-solvers had. It was all very well-designed.

Losing the Magic

But despite how well FunCom or Adam Foster designed their ARGs, the ending is always the same. The magic is lost. For a brief stint of time, reality does alter, and you begin to question the machinations of the ARG’s design. Much like the premise of The Secret World, you start to lean towards an imagination that there is indeed a secret world, one of mystery and myths just around the corner. Immersion is instantaneous and lasts for the entirety of the experience. And then a product is announced.

Congratulations. You completed the marketing event.

Suffice it to say, however, The Secret World did include ARG elements in their gameplay, and they are the masters of the “false document” that Adam Foster espouses so. For example, an early quest in the game involves decoding an image of a false document. There are no compasses, map-pointers, or list of objectives. All you have is a bloody piece of paper to go on. It brings back some of the magic, I’ll admit.

ARGs in Smaller Communities

Aside from completing quests in The Secret World, my current interest with ARGs is establishing them in small communities, such as school campuses, places of employment, or even cities. Imagine if your local city started spray-painting runes on public buildings, and then asked its inhabitants to solve the puzzle. There has to be some beneficial ending, like getting kids to read or cleaning the streets. Gamify community service through ARG mechanics.

By the way, my favorite slide in Adam’s presentation was titled “This talk is not an ARG.” It only had one bullet point:

  • Sorry.