Picture a disturbing scenario with me.
You’ve just come home from work at an ungodly hour of the night, exhausted from days of overtime. You kick your shoes off and nearly sprint to your kitchen, your stomach aching from having missed a day of proper meals. You put last night’s leftovers in the microwave and sit at the dining table while your food heats up.
You pick up your phone and check Instagram, going through your friends’ I.G stories to see if they had a better day than you. As you swipe through an arm-breaking amount of photographs, something in plain black and white catches your eye, making you stop in your tracks.
“Submit your memories to the email address below.” The photo tells you.
It’s weird, to say the least, and you’re not sure what to make of it. But it’s interesting enough that curiosity wins over fear and you end up sending them an email containing a personal childhood memory. The next day, you receive a series of pixelated photographs and a sequence of seemingly random numbers.
You have just stumbled into an alternate reality game.
What Is an Alternate Reality Game?
If one had to describe alternate reality games in one sentence, it would be something along the lines of: “Interactive mystery novels that require MMORPG guild levels of coordination between national, and sometimes global, teams working together to solve puzzles that would make Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code die of envy.”
A mouthful, I know, but it’s a good way to give the uninitiated an idea of how alternate reality games work, the intense dedication they require, and the sheer difficulty of playing a single game.
Alternate reality games, sometimes abbreviated simply as ARGs, are designed to blur the lines between what is real and what is just a game. An essential part of the alternate reality gaming experience is creating enough suspension of disbelief to allow players to feel as if they’re uncovering a true dark secret that warrants the number of man-hours that go into solving the myriad puzzles of a game.
But before we move on, let’s clear something up first. Alternate reality games are not virtual reality games nor are they augmented reality games. While there can be an overlap between the three, alternate reality games do not require a digital medium to be what they are.
Only the interaction between game master and player through a series of complicated puzzles, the solving of which reveals an overarching narrative, is all that’s really needed for a game to be an ARG. Can an ARG be done through virtual reality? Absolutely. But one isn’t necessarily the other.
To understand this better, we need only look at one of the early predecessors of the modern ARG, Orson Welles’ radio show adaptation of H.G. Well’s sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds.
When actor and director Orson Welles decided to start a production of H.G Wells’ The War of the Worlds, he couldn’t have possibly expected his radio show would be a prototype for alternate reality games decades later.
Before the days of Netflix, there were radio dramas and The Mercury Theatre on the Air was one of the best the 1930s had to offer. The radio show, which ran under CBS, aired from September to December 1938 and featured literary classics such as Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, and Around the World in Eighty Days.
The show’s clever dialogue, captivating adaptation, and talented actors were all warmly received by listeners and highly acclaimed by radio critics, making Orson Welles officially one of the most lauded directors in the industry.
When expectations are that high, there’s little left to do but to match them. But Welles exceeded all expectations for realism in a radio show.
On October 30, 1938, CBS aired his take on The War of the Worlds, disturbing and terrifying thousands of viewers who tuned in to listen to the show’s Halloween special broadcast.
The broadcast was something of an epistolary novel on steroids. You can listen to its remastered version here. Without any context provided by the first few seconds of the show, listeners at the time had clear reason to believe that the show was real.
At the roughly three-minute mark, the show is “interrupted” by news of several explosions on Mars that appear to be headed towards the Earth. It cuts back to orchestra music and then gives us another news update that asks observatories nationwide to keep an eye on Mars, cleverly building on the Mars explosion premise and keeping audiences at the edge of their seats for the next news update. A little more back and forth between “regular broadcasting” and “news updates” rewards listeners with enough clues to piece together what’s happening: Martians are taking over the Earth.
The frantic rounds of rewriting that the script had gone through left its first act much longer than its second half, meaning that the station break had to be placed about 40 minutes after the show started.
40 minutes. That’s how long the thoroughly disturbed listeners of The War of the Worlds had to wait before they could receive a station identifier that would let them know the news interruptions were fake. When the expected half-hour break failed to come, previously composed listeners became frantic.
By morning, Orson Welles found himself swarmed by reporters asking if he knew what he had done. His Mercury Theatre on the Air had created a nationwide panic that resulted in stampedes and unfortunate suicides by listeners who wanted to escape subjugation by the Martians.
From what could be gleaned from the cast and production members of the show and notes on earlier drafts of the script, no one involved in the production had thought that the episode would be mistaken for a real Martian invasion.
But it’s this level of realism that alternate reality games and their fans strive for today.
The Many Moving Parts of Alternate Reality Games
It takes a lot of work to make an alternate reality game as disturbing and difficult as it should be. While many of the alternate reality games of the past couple or so years have been produced by individuals or small teams, the level of attention to detail that goes into them is unmatched.
ARG players like the mental challenge of ripping into a mystery and ARG developers are expected to deliver. How they do it comes down to these four basic elements that make up the games themselves.
The Rabbit Hole or the Trailhead
Every alternate reality game starts with a trailhead. As u/Mellonote, a member of the r/ARG subreddit, explained to a new player: “A trailhead is the first indicator of an active ARG. This can be a video with a coded message, a sound file with a cryptic clue hidden in it, or an object in the real world that hints to something more.”
ARG creators leave trailheads, sometimes called rabbit holes, all over the internet or in the real world and wait for players to pick up on the fact that there’s a mystery afoot and it’s up to them to solve it.
The Puppet Master
If you’ve played a tabletop roleplaying game before, this is the ARG version of a dungeon master.
Puppet masters create and run the world of their alternate reality games, releasing puzzles that the players solve and crafting a disturbing story arc for them to uncover in the process. Unlike D&D‘s dungeon masters however, a puppet master’s identity is kept mostly secret or presented through a persona as in the case of Daisy Brown and Dad, two of YouTube’s most popular alternate reality game channels.
In alternate reality gaming circles, the curtain is the separation between the players and the puppet master who runs the game. Neither party interacts directly with each other both as a built-in feature of an ARG and an expectation for both parties to keep up the realism of the story. The term originates from the phrase, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”
This leads us to the next key element that makes ARGs so effectively disturbing.
This Is Not a Game
Sometimes shortened to just ‘T.I.N.A.G’, This Is Not A Game is gospel among players of alternate reality games. Players and puppet masters, including any actors they may hire to act as in-game characters, are all expected to respect the mechanics of the game as being real.
It makes sense given that suspension of disbelief is one of the primary pillars of an ARG. Sure, it’s a factor for any work of fiction, but the way ARGs are meant to disrupt boundaries between what is real and fake call for an even higher dedication to the T.I.N.A.G principle.
The acronym comes from a series of clues for the first real ARG, Beast, which was created by Microsoft as a viral marketing tool for their movie, A.I: Artificial Intelligence., released in 2001.
The Most Disturbing (and Fun!) Alternate Reality Games (Some of Which You Can Still Join)
Why So Serious? (2007)
It all began with a single dollar bill.
In July 2007, Celina Beach received a dollar bill at a Comic-Con in San Diego that featured a defaced image of George Washington who was now sporting smudged black eyeshadow and red lipstick. The note carried the Joker’s signature catchphrase, “Why So Serious?”
While there had been many commercial alternate reality games before Why So Serious?, such as Halo 2’s I Love Bees, it was the viral marketing campaign for the 2008 film The Dark Knight that became one of the first widely known alternate reality games. The storyline of Why So Serious? interweaved the real world with the world of the movie, inviting fans to participate in the story before the film’s release.
Filmgoers who participated in the game launched at Comic-Con the year prior could watch how their decisions played out on the big screen. Clue hunting detectives helped the Joker rob banks, kidnap Batman wannabes, and vote for Harvey Dent in the Gotham City elections.
42 Entertainment, the agency that created and served as the puppet master for the alternate reality game, combined both digital and real-life mediums to create the impression that players were actually in the streets of Gotham, not too unlike Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds.
The original website for the viral ARG may not be available anymore, but if you have the time, you can check out its fan-made database that contains all the clues gathered throughout the run of Why So Serious?
Cicada 3301 (2012)
Years after its first run in 2012, the Cicada 2201 alternate reality game lives on as one of the most difficult and opaque mysteries of the ARG genre.
This ARG first disturbed players when it appeared out of the blue on 4chan in January 2012. Joel Eriksson, a Swedish computer analyst, was one of the first players to come across the trailhead, a black and white image similar to the clue above that said:
“Hello. We are looking for highly intelligent individuals. To find them, we have devised a test. There is a message hidden in this image. Find it, and it will lead you on the road to finding us. We look forward to meeting the few that will make it all the way through. Good luck.”
3301, the message ended.
What followed was a series of clues that would send internet users from different walks of life into a frenzy. Cicada 3301’s difficulty and sheer scale required the players to collaborate and organize global teams of players who deciphered hidden messages in photographs and obscure references to cultural material.
Though Eriksson’s background helped with the technical aspect of the clue hunt, Cicada 3301 required cooperation with players with a vast knowledge of history, mythology, and the arts as the game would often reference philosophy, classical music, and even Mayan numerology to further obscure its meaning.
Common technical areas of knowledge used in the Cicada 3301 game have led players and outsiders to believe that it’s a recruitment tool devised by the CIA seeing as the game makes use of skills in data security and cryptography.
The game has since been solved following the announcement of Cicada’s chosen few, one of which was then 15-year-old Marcus Wanner. But the answers to the game had never been released, leaving a determined fan base to keep chipping away at the puzzle even until today.
Happy Valley Dream Survey (2015)
Here’s a more recent disturbing mystery for you.
The Happy Valley Dream Survey brought alternate reality games back to the real world in 2015 when several posters of questionable origin were found throughout Portland, Oregon. The photocopied flyers asked Portland residents whether they’ve been having strange dreams as of late.
The posters read: “Have you been having strange dreams? The Willamette Valley Dream Survey is investigating a recent spike in bizarre, unexplainable dreams. If you have been experiencing any unusual dream activity, you can help by reporting a summary.”
Readers were then asked to call (971) 258-1465 and describe their dreams. The ones who embarked on this trailhead were answered by the disturbingly robotic voice of a woman who prompted callers to tell her their dream. After the initial call, thrill-seeking investigators and unwitting participants found themselves receiving strange calls in the middle of the night that would only last for seconds, leaving players with no time to answer the call.
The ARG appears to still be active as of January 2021 but players have been left stranded on what seems to be a dead-end for the game.
The true nature of the Happy Valley Dream Survey remains a mystery. Some fans believe it’s connected to the r/september5survivors cult while others think its another marketing campaign from Futel, a supposed non-profit organization that seeks to preserve the use of public telephones.
If it’s the latter, however, there’s still a question of what Futel really is. Just take a look at their About page and you might end up a little disturbed as well.
The strange language of their about page points to something more sinister than Futel just being a regular telephone non-profit. Think about it. What company provides a presence on the other end? It can be a way to say they can connect you to a mental health provider, but what mental health hotline says it that way? Add to that the notion of mandatory communication and it’s clear that whatever Futel is, it’s an even bigger part of the Happy Valley ARG.
Cipher Hunt (2016)
Last but not least of the 2000s’ iconic alternate reality games is Gravity Falls’ Cipher Hunt. Admittedly, this ARG is less on the disturbing side of the spectrum and more of a fun sleuthing adventure.
The game was developed and released by Alex Hirsch to promote his hit Disney cartoon series, Gravity Falls which follows two siblings, Mabel and Dipper, and their Uncle Stan as they solve the mysteries of Gravity Falls. The alternate reality game for the cartoon took fans on a quest to find a statue of Bill Cipher, the show’s dimension-hopping antagonist.
Most of the clues for the Cipher Hunt were hidden in Canada and the United States, with a few being hidden by Hirsch in St. Petersburg, Russia and Tokyo, Japan. Fans from all over the world pulled together to collect the clues in Catholic cathedrals, Shinto shrines, universities, and national parks.
Bill Cipher’s statue was eventually found on top of a tree and has since been moved to Confusion Hill in California.
Alternate Reality Games Are Helping Us Reshape the Future By Teaching Social Issues One Disturbing Puzzle at a Time
Alternate reality games may be a spooky puzzle for most, but educators, game developers, and advocacy groups have been discovering ways in which the game format can be used to reveal the truly disturbing aspects of our real world.
A World Without Oil was created in 2007 by game developers San Jose and Ken Eklund. The ARG uses the transmedia storytelling style of more popular alternate reality games to educate players about the environmental, social, and economic impact of a global oil shortage.
When you think about it, the game does have a more disturbing premise compared to earlier ARGs on this list. It might not seem to be the most exciting, given that there are no secret service agencies or cults involved, but a world without oil would have serious effects on our day to day lives, changing the way we travel and even the way we eat.
There’s no clear picture of what lies ahead of us in a near-future impacted by an oil shortage, but A World Without Oil tries to get its players to come together and find out.
A World Without Oil isn’t the only game of its kind. Its just one of the many Games for Cities available on the site which showcases several games geared towards collaborative decision making that help people understand how their actions affect their lives and the lives of people around them. You can check out more of their games here.