The new reality in gaming

ARGs blur the boundaries between virtual, real worlds

April 20, 2006|By SUSAN CARPENTER | SUSAN CARPENTER,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Everyone knows how to wear clothes. To put on a shirt, you slip your arms through the holes. To slide on shoes, you insert your feet.

But the shirts and accessories from Edoc Laundry are a little more complicated. They actually come with instructions -- not about wearing them, but how to interpret them -- because the new clothing line isn't just clothing. It's a game.

To the casual eye, the clothes' graphics look like the latest in urban cool, but step a little closer and you'll see words embedded in the designs. Each word translates into a secret code that when typed into the Edoc Web site (edoclaundry.com) unlocks a video that plays into a larger story. It's a game -- piece together enough clues, and the players solve a murder mystery.

Landing in boutique stores and online outlets last month, Edoc's shirts, caps, wallets, belts and backpacks are the newest permutation in alternate reality games, or ARGs -- games that blur boundaries between the virtual and real worlds using Web sites, blogs, instant messaging, e-mail, telephones, fax machines and more to bring players together in solving a multilayered puzzle. Conceived as marketing tools for movies, video games and other products, some ARGs are now becoming commercially viable in their own right.

It's been five years since the first ARG sent players on a story-based scavenger hunt both on- and off-line. Since then, thousands have joined in, and dozens of games have come and gone, doling out clues on the Web and sending players into the real world to pick up ringing pay phones, play poker in cemeteries and engage in acts of derring-do.

Take, for instance, the game Perplex City (perplexcity.com). The story is about a cube that's been stolen from an alternate universe. The players' job is to figure out who took it and where it is.

Two weeks ago, Colin Clark (a living, breathing 23-year-old in Long Beach, Calif.) communicated via e-mail with a handful of fictional game characters, coordinating a campaign of crank e-mails and phone calls in Perplex City. The fictional city's police department was hiding murder evidence, and the game's players needed to put the cops on high alert so they could break into the department's online file system.

Clark and his crew called using real telephones and real numbers. When the call connected, Clark heard a recording of a woman's voice, stating in a British accent, "We apologize for the difficulty getting through. Extra staff have been assigned to take your call. Please try again." The phone barrage was later reported in the game's newspaper.

But the murder, the files, the police department and even the newspaper are merely constructs of the game. They exist only to the extent that the puppet masters, or creators of Perplex City, have created Web sites and other evidence.

As high-concept and involved as this all seems, it barely scratches the surface of what Perplex City has already done and plans to do. The game, which launched in England over the summer and arrived in the United States in February, has incorporated real planes flying over cities trailing banners with clues.

In the coming year or so, it will begin to blur the lines between the virtual and real worlds even more radically. A record label that exists online in the game will begin releasing albums that can be purchased in bricks-and-mortar stores. And a group of gamers who co-authored a book as part of gameplay will see their work published.

"All good storytellers are trying to make their worlds as deep and immersive as possible," said Michael Smith, founder of London-based Mind Candy, which created Perplex City. "Tolkien was a great example. He not only created a wonderful story, but all the books reference one another. He had huge maps. He created fake languages, so in many ways that's what an ARG is trying to do, but we can use the Internet to bind the different assets together."

It's no coincidence that the main players of ARGs are tech-savvy 18- to 34-year-olds. ARGs began as viral marketing campaigns (or campaigns combining word-of-mouth with the Internet) for products enjoyed by this age group -- starting with the first ARG, the Beast, unveiled in April 2001 to promote the Steven Spielberg film A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

Initially, the idea was to create a video game that would serve as an interactive sequel to the film. That changed when Jordan Weisman, the creative director of the project for Microsoft Games, read the script.

"I realized it was not a movie people were going to run out and say, `I can't wait to play the game!' It was a very personal story," said Weisman, now chief creative executive of the ARG development firm 42 Entertainment.

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