For the past 8 years, I have thoroughly enjoyed Alternate Reality Games (ARG) that tie in with major media releases, whether it is a new movie, tv show, video game, or even a studio album (Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero). My best attempt at describing these experiences is to call them “chaotic interactive narration”. Instead of using a standard chronologically unified story or game outline, clues and challenges are strewn across a number of media platforms (websites, videos, real-life locations, etc…) which has players ending up collaborating with others across the country, if not the world, in order to reveal the complete story and beat the “game”. These games provide a deeper look into the mythos of a film/game/tv show and I have always emerged highly entertained. If you have not participated in an ARG, I would highly recommend doing so.
There are a few characteristics that are mostly found in all ARGs. First off is the initial bait, or rabbit hole, that gets players interested. More often than not this is done through a website, which is usually hinted at in a video or ad. Next is a partial basis in reality. There’s no need to role-play or create a character in order to participate. Some examples from past ARGs are gathering information at a specific location or solving a puzzle using real-world knowledge. Portions of the game have been found in the most random of places; from dozens of custom “underground” websites, to in-person conversations, and even deciphering clues in hex code. Another shared characteristic is the lack of standard marketing tactics. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a marketing company openly state their involvement with an ARG or attempt to directly push the game at a target demographic. Instead, it usually spreads via social media and word of mouth, eventually encompassing a larger demographic than what would be initially targeted.
One of the primary characteristics of an ARG is the “this is not a game” mentality, which is uniquely shared by both the game’s creators and the players themselves. The ARG coordinators (sometimes referred to as “puppetmasters” or “PMs”) never directly interact with players. Instead, they utilize in-game characters and/or clues to help…or hinder…player progression. Due to this lack of direct contact or set direction, players will band together online to share resources, which ends up creating a “hive mind” of sorts. Even with these expanded resources, there is a chance that parts of the game/story may not be found, which can significantly alter the game. ARG designers keep this in mind by intentionally leaving “white space” in the story so they can adapt it to incorporate the players’ content.