Posted on April 9, 2024 in Technology

Are ARGs Still Cool?

Okay, so the Mandela Catalogue’s creator recently got into some hot water, and now the interference from the real world is starting to rain on the parade he had going on in the virtual world. Many of the ‘great’ projects are either on haitus or unofficially finished, meaning no new content. But hey – maybe this is an opportunity, and not a downside to the ARG’s big moment in the spotlight a couple of years back?

Firstly, What is an ARG, or an Alternate Reality Game?

It is what it sounds like: the game’s creator wants to create an alternate reality where their game takes place. Whether it’s through implying the existence of demons in ‘real life’, or simply moving game elements into physical locations like Geocaches, ARGs create a new alternate reality for these things to happen. These games have existed before, but they used to be limited to the people with TV or print presence – the internet allows the Average Joe to get in on reality-bending fun!

Video Series

ARGs are trying to lead users into unraveling more of the story – unlike games, it usually doesn’t come in the form of unlockables, and sometimes there is no solid answer after the fact. The most distinguishing part of Youtube-based ARGs is that they’re played straight, as though everything in them is reality and being posted by a real person. Picture a movie like Paranormal Activity, but instead of purchasing a disk or watching it in theaters, it’s posted up on Youtube as though a friend of the family found it, and is even looking for answers themselves. Suddenly the context changes a lot, and the movie changes with it.

Marble Hornets, one of the most popular Slenderman fictions, can be called an ARG by these standards. It tells the story of a man attempting to film a movie while a mysterious figure comes closer and closer in the background, slowly being edited together by the original filmer’s friend, who he swore to never discuss the film with.

Adult Swim’s This House Has People In It spun a wild tale of an allergy medication that spread psychosis and split apart struggling families. One video, which focuses on a family right before their young son’s birthday party, is used as advertising for a surveillance company that doesn’t exist – but it does have a website, which reveals that the company’s incredibly shady. How else are we, as viewers, seeing this content if not through that company posting it?

Another plays as an advertisement for that aforementioned allergy medication with side effects including psychosis and death. It starts like an average ad, only to bleed into a strange waltz through a woman’s life as she struggles to fight off the effects of the meds. Police are seen in front of her house, she dances through an unfinished basement in her wedding dress, she even draws over her child’s portraits with caricatures… the drug has done something to her, and she can’t reconcile that reality with this one.

Film ARGs are some of the most entertaining communities to be a part of, as popular theories come and go. Maybe these take over the space left behind by weekly TV shows – the puzzles keep coming, and the community is united by a common goal of understanding an Alternate Reality.

Other Types

But if the creator is especially skilled, you may find projects like Welcome Home even more engaging than any video-based project. Welcome Home is a current favorite of many ARG fans because of it’s unique approach to the “haunted children’s media” trope. Instead of scaring you with hyperrealistic images or distorted pictures of the cast, Welcome Home invites you into a seemingly normal website based on a seemingly normal show from the seventies where a couple things here and there are… off. The site itself seems to be leaking something from an alternate reality into our world, where links sometimes take you places you don’t want to go, or play audio clips from “behind the scenes” of the show. But that doesn’t make sense – the show is based on puppets, and puppets need to be puppeted by real people to put on a show. Right?

…Right? It’s brilliant!

Such a convincing setup would be impossible without such a well-polished website. The Welcome Home project is currently ongoing, and – because the creator has set this up in such a brilliant way – the breaks between updates are very natural and make sense to us as outsiders.

Bad ARGs

All of this sounds great, and entertaining: what happens when the ARGs kind of suck? When the creator doesn’t understand puzzles, or the conclusion doesn’t make any sense? Or even worse: what if it’s way too easy to solve? What if it was derivative of another project from beginning to end?

Reddit’s ARG subreddit laments the split between the bad ARGs and the good ones: the bad ones are often promoted more than the good ones are, because the original creator either doesn’t know how to suck people in organically or spread word on social media well enough. An ARG on Tumblr managed great success by imitating spam ads, so sometimes it really is just a matter of repetition and posting about the project obsessively, something too commonly associated with pushy salespeople to feel comfortable to most. Popular ARGs put a lot of work in to get a following, for better or worse, and being easy to spot or jump into is not necessarily a great indicator of quality.

Bad ARGs often don’t know where they’re going, story-wise. Or if they do know, it might not be compelling or interesting. Have you ever gotten to the end of a video game, and it goes off the rails in a bad way? Or have you ever watched a TV show end so badly it erased all of it’s cultural impact afterwards (looking at you, Game of Thrones)? When the world ends in the story, you are reminded, as a viewer, that it was just a story and not a window into a different world. The story of the ARG is just as important as puzzle features.

Now that we’re past the initial buzz of the medium itself getting attention, what happens next will be interesting: will creators keep falling into these tried-and-true paths about extra-dimensional monsters and secretly-murderous children’s content? Or will we find something else frightening to build puzzles around?

ARGs are a great new way to tell stories – finding good ones are like finding gold!

Sources: (This is the video for This House Has People In It)