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A genre of online game where a fictional storyline is written and presented as if it were a legitimate construct within our own world, as opposed to existing only in reality of the story.

Such games vary widely in scope. Some have few game-like elements, and most are limited to the Web. However, a few have incorporated puzzles and challenges, and even non-web elements.

The key feature of an Alternate Reality Game is that it does not present itself as a game per-se: it gives the outward appearance of being a real-life adventurous situation, just something the player has stumbled upon. However, an ARG is distinctly a game. The games consist -- for the most part -- in tracking down clues scattered across the real and virtual world and assembling them to solve a mystery.

The widely accepted "first" ARG was The Beast, designed as a promotion for the movie AI Artificial Intelligence. While ostensibly a web-game, it also included fax and telephone numbers the players could call, print advertisements, and even several real-world rallies. The Beast was solved by a group of puzzle-solvers collectively known as "The Cloudmakers". The Beast was named such by the players, as it was... difficult. Or because it had 666 files in it (the "Number of the Beast"), depending on who you ask.

This can often be, but is not always, a form of Viral Marketing, although not all Viral Marketing includes a game aspect.


Real Life Examples:

Anime & Manga


Films

  • The aforementioned "Beast", made to market the movie AI Artificial Intelligence.
  • In 2011, the "social media film" Inside (also known as The Inside Experience) premiered as a series of short clips released onto YouTube telling the story of a girl named Christina, who was trapped against her will in a room with a laptop that she used to contact the outside world. Viewers were encouraged to find clues within the videos and these clues led to several hidden URLs with even more clues, including area codes, maps, and even a phone number that could be called to hear another hidden code. Viewers could post their findings on the movie's facebook page and communicate with the characters.
    • It gets better! Viewers that found codes and clues were even allowed cameos in the film, often as sympathetic facebook users working to track down the kidnapper and free Christina.
      • A quick summary of the film, the codes found within it, how they were cracked, and a list of the hidden URLs and links can be found on The Other Wiki.
  • The Transformers movie. Sector 7. Don't tell anyone!
  • The Buy n Large website, released by Pixar in the months leading up to the release of WALL-E, was part this and part Viral Marketing. Although it didn't have the Game aspect, it was very heavy on the Alternate Reality aspect.
  • Project A.P.E. was an ARG promoting the 2001 Planet of the Apes movie. The game combined a web-based sub-plot with geocaching. The clues included coordinates that led to twelve caches hidden around the world that contained authentic movie props for the first to find them. The Project A.P.E. caches remained available to find after the ARG concluded, though ten years later they have all been stolen except for one in São Paulo state, Brazil.
  • Metacortechs, a fan-game set in The Matrix, centering around a woman who worked at the same company Thomas Anderson did, a group of hackers communicating via cheesy desktop backgrounds, a New Age Retro Hippie Con Artist obsessed with dolphins, a crooked boss, a strange AI construct... It was released around the time of Reloaded, prompting some cries of Viral Marketing, but was in fact a Fan Work.
  • The Dark Knight had a rather epic one, that went on for months, both on and offline.
  • The 2009 Star Trek film had one at various Web sites, such as here, as well as real-life locations.
  • Cloverfield, come on. It all started with the short teaser trailer preceding Transformers (2008), scaring audiences with a huge roar and the head of the Statue of Liberty. Even news channels ran stories about the mysterious advert, with only information being the release date as 1-18-08, and that J.J. Abrams was producing it. Later, the 1-18-08 site was updated with photos, some of which had messages written on the back. Then www.cloverfield.com with a text message number on it. And the whole slusho site, featuring cartoon characters with thought bubbles to completely random things (a fish dreaming of a hammer, etc.). Tagruato sites were put up, its backstory being a drilling company that provided the secret ingredient to Slusho!. Parallel to it was TidoWave.com, an ecoterrorist group opposed to Tagruato. The ARG contributed to the experience as much as actually watching the film would.


Literature

  • The novel Cathy's Book has some elements of an ARG -- it comes with a packet of "evidence", including phone numbers that can be called and Web sites that can be visited, which in conjunction with information from the book itself allow the readers to solve its central mystery.
  • John Dies at the End has a ARG website investigating into the rumors about the book. It's found at http://www.johndiesattheend.com/


Live Action TV

  • A precursor to full-blown ARGs, Homicide: Life On the Street spawned a short-lived web-sister, Homicide: Second Shift, several of whose characters made guest appearances on the TV program. The second shift commander even became a regular character for one season.
  • The new Doctor Who was accompanied by a number of Alternate Reality Web sites during the Russell T. Davies era. This got very elaborate for Series Two, with multiple connections between the sites, before being abandoned in Series Three (there were a couple of sites, but no related game). Subsequently, Torchwood: Miracle Day had such a game.
  • Recent Myth Arc-based series such as Lost, Heroes and The 4400 make extensive use of this technique. Lost even went so far as to release a novel supposedly written by one of the passengers on Flight 815.
  • An ARG was the reason that some of the letters are color-reversed when location names were shown on Alias.
  • The BBC's Jamie Kane, in which the player investigates the death of a fictional pop star.
  • What Happened in Piedmont appears to be an alternate reality game, though for what is not obvious at this time. Stay tuned!
    • It was for the Sci Fi Channel miniseries adaptation of "The Andromeda Strain."
  • Blood Copy, the ARG that ran last spring-summer before HBO released True Blood. Started great and then... things quickly declined when it was discovered what the game was for.
  • Numb3rs had an episode revolving around ARGs, in which a group of competitors were intimidating/killing other players. This episode actually spun off its own ARG, Chain Factor, in which the episode's villain made his own ARG disguised as an addictive, mass-participatory Flash game (codes could be found online and in the real world which could be entered in to unlock new powers for every player), as part of a Batman Gambit to destroy the world's economy. In the end, though there was a way to avoid it in the last stage of the game, the plan in fact succeeded.


Music

  • The Nine Inch Nails concept album, "Year Zero" was preceded by an intricate ARG based on the future world of the album. Entry points ranged from hidden messages in concert T-shirts, USB drives "abandoned" at concerts by promoters to clues hidden in tracks from the album itself, encoded via audio steganography. A thorough wiki exists, cataloguing the aspects of this crapsack future world.
  • The band AFI set up one of these, revolving mostly around their Decemberunderground album. It is commonly referred to as the Five Flowers Mystery. Details here. Plus, according to this blog entry, there could be another of these going on.


Video Games

  • I Love Bees: a promotional game for Halo 2. It was extremely successful and netted over a thousand participants, many not even Halo affiliated, and kicked off the ARG craze. None so far have replicated its success, though.
  • Iris for Halo 3.
  • The Secret World has had several linked ARGs leading up to the release of the game. Coverage of these can be found here.
  • Batman: Arkham Asylum had one through several sites (of which only http://www.arkhamcare.com/ still appears to be up)... Where you break the entire Arkham security, being rewarded with villain and other character bios... Until, at the end, the Riddler sends you an e-mail, thanking you for basically setting up the entire plot of the game proper! Nice Job Breaking It, Hero.
  • As of March 1, 2010, Portal was currently involved in an ARG leading up to the announcement of its sequel.
    • Portal has had ARG like elements since its release, such as the username and password written on a wall inside the game which works on the game's website.
    • As of April 1st, 2011, Valve has begun a Potato-themed Portal 2 ARG that bleeds into various indie games. No joke.
    • Not only that, G La DOS is involved and has taken over the developers of said games, as well as several of the former leading users
    • And as of now, several user accounts of players in the game have been hacked by her. Valve certainly has geniuses in their hands.
    • spitfire1945, one of the main ARG players, explained everything on his podcast.
  • Adventure Quest has a ARG which has no actual site, but takes place with forum posts, and IRC Chats in Falerin's IRC, Caelestia.
  • Project: Enemy Unknown (which has been reworked as Citizen Skywatch) was created to help promote 2K's reboot of the X-COM series. Time will tell how effective they are, though the sheer amount of Wild Mass Guessing on the subject of Citizen Skywatch does not appear to bode well at this early stage. Some of the guesses included a new Bioshock game, a game currently known only as Agent, and (of all things) a new Grand Theft Auto game.


Web Original


Other

  • Lockjaw: a game created by the Cloudmakers themselves.
  • The Basin Hills Project, aka "Operation Falcon Punch", came up as a post on The Imageboard That Shall Not Be Named on June 2008. What was initially a pretty standard ARG has ultimately failed as the players started stalking the Puppet Master, who called it quits.
  • The Lost Ring, a promotion for the 2008 Olympics, is a Bilingual Bonus-laden ARG involving a lost Olympic sport.
  • The rather strange "Gleemax" thing that Wizards of the Coast ran - just what was that about, anyway?
    • A new forum from Wizards. Gleemax.com hits something now.
    • Also, it has been a long-time in-joke on magicthegathering.com that Wizards' R&D department was run by Gleemax, an alien brain in a jar. Card version seen here.
  • Notes to Mary is a bit of a subversion: a man began by writing fictionalized versions of letters to a friend, which told a creepy story, and someone commenting on it insisted it was "definitely some sort of game or viral thing", which inspired him to pull an entire ARG out of his ass, culminating in a rick-roll of epic proportions.
  • Evidence: The last ritual is single-player ARG. In which you register online with your email account. Then the game tracks how far you are in the game and sends you actual emails to your account in which messages from fellow detectives to the killer himself. (Little friend? Where have you gone?) However the game has the hardness of battletoads and the first three myst games.
  • Perplex City: Now-defunct ARG run by Mind Candy Games which encourages players to buy packs of puzzle cards with clues to the location of an item, with £100,000 (or a rough equivalent in the finder's local currency) to the person who found it. There was going to be a second season, but it was repeatedly delayed and eventually cancelled after one-third of the new run of cards was sold.
  • The iPhone/iPod app Microdot is a free, downloadable ARG. The player's device becomes a "Microdot" device/communicator that is used to solve puzzles and receive debriefings in order to track down a terrorist organization named Vanquish. The app not only requires the user to solve puzzles, but to travel to real-life locations, scan products, and identify actual brands.
  • How come everybody forgot Majestic? It was one of the first self-supporting ARGs! (Which failed)
  • BR 1 ng Fo Rth is shaping up to be an alternate reality game.
  • What's In The Box is one of these. Nobody's sure what it's for at the time of writing, but it has elements from both Lost and Half-Life.
    • Half-Life relations are evidenced by paying attention to the stock market ticker in the test film accessed by clicking the top quarter of the ring. "Largest single collapse in history since Black Mesa"
    • During the above mentioned Portal ARG, Many people claimed there was a connection between the two. Valve quickly denied any involvement.
  • The Hunt for the Gangadiddle (sometimes shortened to just 'Gangadiddle') is a particularly well-structured ARG.
  • A Majora's Mask ghost-story (commonly referred to as Ben Drowned) evolved into this, involving a cult ("The Moon Children") and an apparent Groundhog Day Loop. The original story and youtube videos, and The Moon Children site the main website. As of October 10 2010, it's back online.
  • Wonderland or Bust is a modest ARG about a cult, its insane leader, and the people he victimizes. Better than it sounds, and currently enjoying a new life. The game has recently moved into the real world, with a contact phone number listed and a package being forwarded.
  • Little Lenny Penguin Breaks the Fourth Wall, which can be found here, possesses many ARG elements and is set to feature more, being frequently updated.
  • Test Subjects Needed involves mail, texts, and live action meetups. It now has multiple games to play and turns out to be a promotion by Wrigley for 5 Gum.
  • Collapsus, released in 2011 by Submarine Channel. A combination of documentary and transmedia with some light ARG elements as well, only takes a few hours to beat.
  • An internet group has recently been formed, centered around solving ARGs. They are known as the Internet Batman Brigade! And they have their own ARG planned, set to start up as soon as the Ben Drowned ARG ends.
  • One is brewing on This Very Wiki. A Puppet Master is still being chosen.
  • "In Memoriam," also known as "Missing: Since January" in the US, was a puzzle game with ARG elements. It would use e-mail and web links to send the player "clues" to the puzzles, which in-universe were Criminal Mind Games created by a murderer/kidnapper. The US version's box art was made up like a post office missing persons poster, the angle being that the investigators needed gamers to help solve the puzzles and find the kidnapped people.
  • LIS_DEAD is a still-forming ARG/interactive blog.
  • This Is Not Tom. is one that was put out by John Green a few years back. It required the player to solve a series of incredibly difficult puzzles just to find the next chapter of the story. It very much relied on the game part of ARG, as not participating in the game meant not being able to read the story part at all. Just to give an example of how difficult some of these puzzles were, one week the regular update didn't come. Why? Because even though the ARG had thousands of followers, not a single one had noticed a secondary puzzle hidden in the previous week's chapter, and the new chapter wouldn't come until the puzzle was solved.

Fictional examples:

  • Halting State by Charles Stross has a spy-focused ARG as a major part of its plot.
  • The protagonist of This Is Not A Game by Walter Jon Williams is a professional ARG writer; the book begins with her being trapped in Indonesia during rioting and enlisting the help of the people who play her ARGs to get her out.
  • In Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge, ARGs are a major publicity tool for entertainment Mega Corps, with the possibility of major profit for the person who first discovers them.
  • In the Cory Doctorow book Little Brother, the protagonist and his friends are skipping school participating in an ARG. Which finds them near a terrorist attack that sets off the plots of the story.
  • Mercury Rising features an ARG sponsored by a Government Conspiracy to test how uncrackable their new secret code is.
  • The Game
  • In 2004, beer company Stella Artois started up a website called Helpmefindjon.com, which was advertised almost exclusively through graffiti of a pair of glasses (Jon's apparent trademark frames), a reward of at least £20k, and the website address. It led to a plea from a woman to find her brother, by searching on a website recreation of his room and finding clues as to his recent activity. Enough searching found that Jon had made a deal with an acquisitions company, in return for a lifetime's supply of Stella Artois. It turned out that he had infact sold his soul to the devil and disappeared to a remote island off the coast of Scotland.
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