This week, I (maybe foolishly) got involved in an ARG.
ARGs, or Alternate Reality Games, are an interesting subculture I’d rarely heard of before. They’re a strange cross between video games, roleplaying, and real life. Players communicate through the internet, but seek clues scattered both online and in the real world. The creator of the game – the Puppetmaster, I believe the typical term is – feeds you enough snippets to get you going. After that, you and your teammates need to figure things out on your own.
I jumped into this one a little late, just in time for the story to start. Earlier puzzles had unlocked an animation that simulated ‘entering’ the game world. It even gave us our location. With my luck, I ended up in the Land of Darkness and Fear. My brother, more successfully, entered the Land of Tea and Frogs. I’m not jealous. At all.
The next phase involved cryptic snippets of numbers and letters that looked like this:
Fairly quickly, we realized that these corresponded to words in the World Book Encyclopedia. (An advantage of ARGs is that you have a lot of people to work with. This one’s pushing 40,000 and someone will always have solved the puzzle first.) I ended up literally running to the library four times in one day (it’s a thirty minute round trip, and I was sore for two days afterward), only to end up having to decode numeric ciphers. The decoded messages spelled out an ominous message, warning us about a mysterious enemy. The final clue, based on the ‘time trail’ of when the other clues were posted, led to this screen:
Eventually our PM revealed what was going on (although they are a fairly unreliable narrator). He/she gave us a very long, convoluted story about (surprise) something powerful and nasty that wanted to kill us.
Players harassed the PM with questions and suggestions until our mission was clear. We had to gather enough points to destroy our enemy’s assets. (There’s a lot of fancy terminology, but I”m ignoring it.) The turn the game took then was extremely interesting.
Points could be gathered by ‘selfless acts of charity and kindness’. This ranged from holding the door for people to playing freerice.com for hours on end to drawing commissions for each other. I thought it was really cool that a game could inspire people to start doing stuff we really ought to do anyway.
That’s not all, though. Playing the ARG inspired all sorts of creativity. People were drawing their in-game personas, their lands, their adventures. RP posts popped up where people narrated their ‘adventures’. Players from across the country got together via the internet to talk, puzzle out clues, and have fun together.
From my limited experience, ARGs are really cool. It’s the closest you can get to living a video game, and it inspires cooperation, friendship, and innovation. As I worked to solve puzzles and guess what was going on, the writing part of my brain was ticking away, imagining what adventures would really lie in wait for me in a land of darkness and fear. So if you want to have some fun and ‘write’ a story in the real world with other people, try to find an ARG nearby! (Or one that doesn’t depend on location.) Just be prepared for some confusing puzzles and sore legs.