ARG stands for alternate reality game, and I’ve written articles on them before. Essentially, it boils down to a sort of scavenger hunt that ends with a mystery being solved. Sometimes the mystery is unlocking game content, sometimes its discovering what happened to a character created for the ARG, sometimes its finding real treasure hidden by the game master. The sky’s the limit!
No matter what, though, they’re at their best when they have a large audience to brainstorm and solve them. ARGs try to bridge the gap between fiction and reality, so the more ‘real’ the first steps feel, the better the engagement, and the better the solutions from the audience. However…
There are times when you can get too real, or start in the wrong place for the product. An ARG run by one of Buzzfeed’s content creators got some negative feedback before it even really began.
Many of the fans in the comments were disgruntled not because of the content of the ARG, but rather where it was being shown – Aria Inthavong works as a presenter and content creator for Buzzfeed, and his focus has always been real cases. His show was the base for the ARG on the main channel. He has a second channel that’s more casual, and features YouTube livestreams alongside fan-based Q and A, and if anywhere was going to be the landing page for his ARG, I would have expected that second channel.
However, I suspect that Buzzfeed Unsolved Network is anticipating a content drought. One of its most popular series, featuring a pair of paranormal investigators exploring old and mysterious cases, is about to come to an end. A two-person show where both are good at improv (and the pair is clearly friends) is almost always going to be more engaging than a one-person show of the same format.
How do you fill a gap, especially one left by such a well-beloved part of the channel? You… sort of don’t. Buzzfeed brought on a bunch of one-person shows, and weeded out the weak, leaving only a handful as regulars on the channel. Aria Inthavong falls into this category, one of the strong remaining showrunners.
Buzzfeed Unsolved: Online
He’s only stayed so long because he’s good at what he does! Aria’s content focuses mainly on cases of internet tragedies, and he started just before the final season of Unsolved: Mysteries began airing. His stuff is digital: Youtubers who snap and go after other Youtubers, young folks who were persuaded by strangers online to kill their families or specific targets, harassment that escalated, video-taped murders posted to TikTok, etc. all sorts of things. All featuring death.
Aria tends to keep a very serious tone, occasionally stopping to add his own commentary to the script. Many of his cases are really ugly. Where Shane and Ryan spend a lot of time talking about cryptids, ghosts, and unattached people who have been dead for decades (or centuries), Aria’s cases are often very fresh, and relatives of the people in those cases may very well still be alive and watching. As such, the tone with which he handles cases is very important!
Unsolved: Online is consistently much more somber than the show that got Unsolved its running start.
Knowing that, it’s not so weird to see how fans are a little weirded out by the ARG’s introduction. It’s blending the lines a little too much for the fans’ liking. Imagine listening to a very real case about a very real murder in one video, and then in the next recommended video he’s asking for help finding a friend who sent videos with weird JPEG artifacts in them. You’d be a little weirded out, right? Or if you stumbled upon one of his mid-video cuts, one of the clues he’d left scattered along the way leading up to the ARG, you’d probably be more confused than anything. Obviously everything posted to that channel is heavily scrutinized by a team behind the scenes, there’s no way anything slipped by on accident. So why even begin with the pretense that this may be real?
The Content of the ARG
Of course, if you see the ‘official ARG starts now’ video with no context, you’re likely to realize pretty quickly that it’s a game. Despite what some say, that’s a good thing! You don’t want well-meaning kids contacting the police over your Youtube video, after all. However, the logic of an ARG means you have to stick to the script that it’s all real, even if you find people pointing out logical inconsistencies to you in the comments. You’d never post a video about a friend going missing without doing anything else to help first, right? Especially when you’re constantly reviewing cases where people didn’t and then bodies were recovered later as a result? The first stepping stone was a little rough, and for more than just placement.
Anyway, the content as of this article is just heating up. Aria’s ARG consists of a couple of mysterious videos and text messages that his friend sent him before disappearing off the face of the Earth. Strange, face-like glitches appear in the videos he shows to the audience, which include a video of his friend’s livestream where he melts into RGB fuzz before said stream cuts out. He looks tired, like he’s been trying to decipher the messages himself overnight, and he reads off messages that don’t sound like his friend. He projects a certain level of frantic uncertainty about the whole thing. Essentially, Aria Inthavong asks his fans for help deciphering his friend’s final messages to find him.
Before that, he also included little hints that something was going to happen soon. He’d disappear from his chair for a second in the middle of a sentence. He’d pause, and look behind him for movement. It would suddenly cut to him facing the wrong way before jerking back to his original statement, or just continuing as if nothing happened.
He then uploads the supposed glitched videos, and plugs his Twitter as a place to post what fans have ‘discovered’ and put together clues as a community. It’s obviously an ARG. Obviously.
Like I said earlier, placement could have been better. Showing faked videos alongside real ones is a little odd for a channel that has otherwise claimed to focus on the truth of the matters it covers. Healthy skepticism is always present in the ghost videos, every option and every suspect are covered when it comes to murder cases, even boring ones that would rule out more “cool” and “mysterious” stories. For an infotainment channel, that is actually saying a lot – other channels that claim to investigate things tend to throw their hands up and say “yep, must have been a ghost! Must have been aliens! Must have been Bigfoot!”
On the surface, it looks like Buzzfeed Unsolved Network is abusing the trust they’ve built with their community to add an extra air of mystery and trustworthiness to the ARG. I don’t think that’s what they intended. As previously said, you’d never want someone to misinterpret your plea for help solving puzzles as a genuine plea for help finding a missing person. Besides, it’s been pretty obvious that something was in the works for a while now, with weird gaps in videos and strange artifacts left in content that could have easily been removed. Nobody could reasonably misinterpret that as real except for children, and that channel isn’t aimed at children.
I think at any other location, this would have gone over very well. Aria is well-liked, after all, and he has a small fanbase all his own. It would be foolish to believe that was Buzzfeed attempting to pass this haunting off as real. But intent and reception are two very different things!