ARG stands for Alternate Reality Game.
It is what it sounds like: the game’s creator wants to create an alternate reality where their game takes place. That alternate reality bleeds into real life! 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!
With ARGs, content creators breathe new life and new dimensions into stories that dataminers and spoilsports might have ruined by jumping to the solution faster than the other players could have solved it.
Games With Real Life Elements
Are dataminers raining on your parade? Time to take that content and put it behind IRL puzzles, so they’ll be forced to work for it just like everyone else!
For example: The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth’s unlockable character.
This ARG is an especially good example of what ARGs can be! The first ARG (part of the game’s Rebirth expansion a couple of years earlier), unlocked a character called the Lost. But The Lost had all of its information hidden in the game; dataminers found The Lost within the first few days of the expansion pack’s release just by closely examining the code. The creator of the game was understandably frustrated by this. Puzzles are supposed to be a fun way to bring the community together, and the longer it takes to solve, the more satisfying it is when the conclusion is finally discovered. That doesn’t mean puzzles should be deliberately obscure, it just means that data miners turn a month-long, community-wide effort to code break and brainstorm into a three-day, single-person effort to shortcut the solution.
The next ARG came with the next expansion, and it hid The Keeper, a new playable character based off of the game’s shopkeeps. The Keeper wasn’t even in the game until the most devoted of players cracked the code, which involved a mix of Twitter, real game values (item #109 relates to money, a coin machine in-game stopped taking coins at 109…) and conspiracy-level codebreaking to get to an Imgur post, which then led to a missing poster IRL which also had a callable number on it. When called, the number gave a voicemail message. Asking the right question triggered the creator (Edmund McMillen) to replace the message with another voicemail message that could then be deciphered into GPS coordinates, ultimately leading players to find a real figure of The Keeper, buried.
Finally, The Keeper was patched into the game.
By hiding the information for The Keeper in reality itself, the community had a much better time unraveling the mystery. You could really feel the excitement and hype for this new discovery in the forums. They weren’t even sure what they were unlocking yet, just that it would be worth it.
Sometimes ARGs aren’t even made to unlock things, they’re just there, existing in the strange in-between world of internet fiction and reality. Just like games, video-based 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 an 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.
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?
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. Another ARG asked people to join a Facebook group to find woman’s missing sister – that was also done by hand. Popular ARGs put a lot of work in to get a following!
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)? The story of the ARG is just as important as puzzle features.
Plenty of people found Game of Thrones too bleak to continue watching right from the start, and so they just stopped watching it – an ARG too difficult or too bleak to try and solve is subject to the same rules. Daisy Brown is widely considered a good ARG, but it is difficult to watch at times: the story involves a young girl who’s forced to raise her genetically modified younger sibling after their father dips out of the picture, and as a result it contains some domestic fights that seem a little too real. I can’t imagine trying to watch Daisy Brown’s Youtube series if it were poorly written, or if the ‘twist’ was that she was dreaming the whole time or something.
Impatience kills ARGs before they even have a chance, too. If nobody turns up to solve puzzles, there’s no reward for the ARG maker, who is likely making their ARG as a passion project. Nobody to witness? No incentive to make art. This leads to a lot of folks dropping their ARG projects and leaving them critically incomplete, which disappoints anyone who stumbles upon what’s left of it later.
Impatience on the other side is also an issue! Impatience from the end consumer can lead to solutions getting cranked out, yes – but they can also lead to datamining, which makes the solutions a little too easy. Suddenly, a puzzle that was supposed to last a community a week has been solved in less than a day, and the hype train has to keep going, which rushes the creator – it’s unfortunate, but many ARGs go full-video as a result. Videos require frame-by-frame dissection, and dataminers can’t find things light-years ahead of the rest of the community if it’s in video format, even though ARG websites made for the purpose are wonderful puzzle delivery systems.
ARGs are a great new way to tell stories – finding good ones are like finding gold!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-pj8OtyO2I (This is the video for This House Has People In It)