On TV, on your phone and online

through music and games

Something is happening

The way people create and engage in stories is changing

Resonance is a grand narrative told across multiple platforms on a massive scale

A new science-fiction universe is being created and there is only one question…

Will you help?

Once, Twice, Three Times a Detective

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar of Gamasutra writes about non-linear adventure games:

As I was on vacation, I picked up my sister’s copy of Sherlock Holmes stories, and quickly I got caught up in the really really beautifully narrated and well thought-out plots. As I had my phase of obsessively playing the classic LucasArts adventure games, the very first Holmes story “A Study in Scarlet” led me to think about the adventure game genre.

In “A Study in Scarlet”, Sherlock Holmes is first introduced to the reader by the narrator and companion Dr. Watson. It is through his eyes that we perceive the story and Holmes’ actions, not counting in the second part that explains some of the necessary background of the plot.

It’s almost always the question of “What did the game designer want me to understand so that I can find the trigger to advance the narrative?”. It’s trigger that sometimes puts me off, because in a badly designed game, it can end up in senseless actions being asked of the player and therefore he/she gets stuck for no valid reason. With good puzzle design, this can be minimized, but still, it all puts the player’s range of action into an uncomfortable corset.

This design paradigm consists of the basic idea that the player should be able to solve a problem by using their own brain power instead of hunting for triggers. Triggers are a more primitive way of the designer forcing the player to think, sadly resulting in use-everything-with-everything orgies if badly done.

A non-linear approach allows the player to make mistakes and encourages the player to make their own conclusions and gives them the power to execute on them. Of course a autonomous world to do that in is awesome already by itself and it should allow for pretty new motivation to replay an actually linear plot line if it was not for the player :D.

Of course, as a gamer I’ve run many detective games. These range from the high thrill, high horror, low schlock games like SLA Industries to the low key, psychic conspiracy thrillers like The 23rd Letter.

In the 80s, I remember playing Consulting Detective with the older kids and thoroughly enjoyed the level of detail, the requirement for immersion and visualisation and the reliance on observation and deduction. But it was not a popular game because to the average teenager, the game was hard. We were smart kids (most of us anyway), and yet we seemed more stupid in a group. Smart as we were, we were no Sherlock Holmes.

It is my belief that when running a detective game, you have to remember that the players are often less than the sum of their parts (due to confusion, interrupted narrative, last night’s football results and the imminent arrival of spicy food and naan bread).

This means that even smart individuals may miss important clues, may not see the allusions and the inferences in the newspaper clippings, fag ends and hastily scrawled dying notes which litter the genre. We all have day jobs and families and we’re not the super-obsessive compulsive consulting detective that the game might assume so the designer has to take the step of telling us once, telling us twice and telling us a third time to make sure we get the clue. We might misremember small facts, forget to keep copious notes (which, in my opinion, spoils the enjoyment of the game) or simply we may not be wired to think that way. Kevin Beimers of Straandlooper spoke about this aspect of game design at an event we held at Belfast Metropolitan College earlier this year. Clues need to be logical and discoverable.

There is also the problem when this translates into a video game that the game will often, by necessity, highlight items which are important. Games like Myst and Hector: Badge of Carnage thankfully escape much of this but it can be maddening to be tapping around trying to figure out exactly how to get something to work as a fan belt.

But we enjoy the discovery, even as it frustrates and confounds us. I’ve had almost as much fun watching someone play an engaging game as I have had playing it. So, why are there so few multiplayer detective games?

Are there any?

The Fun Theory

When designing games I tend to think about what will make the game more ‘sticky’. At the start, I can usually enthuse someone about a game by talking to them about it. You’re the consummate salesperson for your game and design and in theory no-one can sell the concept like you can. To get people to play (or better still, to pay), you have to describe the game in such terms that it seems fun. This was a challenge with The 23rd Letter because it doesn’t contain pictures and like it or not it’s the visuals which usually interest someone in a game.

In theory, with the concept of Playbor (work that seems like play), you can make anything seem like fun. Whether this is Tom Sawyer fooling others to whitewash the fence or the complicated patterns from the Folding@Home project, you can get results by adding simple things like achievements, leaderboards and a dollop of fun.

I’m very interested in the motivations of people especially with respect to getting them to change behaviours. Work I’ve done with the University of Ulster was describing scenarios for changed behaviours and how you can take advantage of those for good (or evil). Needless to say that lots of companies are looking at this area because it goes beyond advertising. In this world, advertising is already dead and we’re presenting people with things that would normally be described as ‘not fun’ and making them into ‘fun’. That’s actually a lot easier than getting someone to click through on a banner advert.

Can you get more people to take the stairs by making it more fun?

This is the essence of games.

Not everyone can appreciate the fun of a game like Left4Dead (one of the very best co-operative games on the market). And not everyone is going to appreciate games like Diner Dash or Farmville. But there is a feeling of enjoyment and achievement in all of these games which is what is common in games.

This is Jane McGonigal at TED talking about how games can be used to fix real-world problems.

My aim is to start a new company (working title: Alien Salvage) which will focus on the development of games which will have both learning and healthcare applications as well as being fun.


Not a post per se, but something to help me bookmark a link which may be interesting to others as well as me.

Content management and delivery tools for indie ARG producers:
Alternate reality games and other kinds of distributed story/play projects place heavy demands on their creators’ abilities to manage and deploy content. To meet these demands, many commercial ARG developers have built proprietary software packages that streamline and automate the process of managing and delivering content (for more on this [and much else — including many useful resources for independents] see Christy Dena’s post, “Cross-Media Management Technologies”).
A few years ago, these kinds of systems were out of reach for most DIY designers and artists. This is no longer the case. Thanks to freely-available social media, mobile technology, and web publishing tools, ARG producers with shoestring budgets can now roll their own custom ARG management and delivery systems.

Because I still want to build one. When I get the time.

The Great Game

Alternate Reality Games (or Layered Reality Games) are going to be big.

When someone mentions ARGs, I always think of Total Recall (the film) [thanks Eamon]. The protagonist takes a virtual holiday which interweaves the real world with a spy conspiracy in his head (or is it?). Everything in his life becomes involved in the game – a girl he picks from a menu becomes his lover, his wife (with whom he has difficulties) becomes a killer spy, his co-workers seem to be sleeper agents designed to keep him quiet and the whole movie is left for you to wonder is it real or has he been placed in a sleeper community after some deep cover espionage?

Deep Cover Espionage, of course, leads us on to The Prisoner. Progressive and not a little confusing, it’s propensity for involved games and the inability of the protagonist to leave the game does indeed suggest it’s an ARG gone bad. The game element can be seen every episode

Michael Douglas played “The Game” in this 1997 film where an ARG went wrong and involved all sorts of violence. I kept wondering during the movie whether or not the twist in the tail would be I expected. Would everything in the film just be part of the Game? Or did the Game start and his actions make it spiral out of control?

Hollywood loves disasters. Look at Jurassic Park. Never have I seen science maligned as much as in that movie. The same is true for ARGs. It’s a new idea so while they use ARGs in their marketing, they’re also happy to point out how these things can go wrong.

Why is there such a need to have ARGs go wrong? Is it because the idea of story involving us must mean action, death and violence at every turn? Why can’t the fun of the game just be in the game? Possibly because most games would involve messages on a phone or computer and wouldn’t really involve guns or sex – which, at the end of the day, seem to be what sells movies. And a little too much sex and violence in an ARG would probably get you in trouble with your partner.

Mission Impossible enjoyed the use of elaborate reality games when they would convince enemy agents they were in their home territory or being held far from home in order to confuse and disorientate them. Once the information had been gained, the elaborate hoax dissolved leaving the mark feeling very much in the dark.

Viral campaigns for movies such as Cloverfield and A.I. worked really well to weave a pattern around the events in the movies. This makes you wonder though – there’s obviously a class of writer that is now being created in the industry – someone who’s job it is to weave elaborate ARG plots which in itself is a very specialist skill. It would indeed be a challenge I would relish – a project for another day definitely.

Live Action Role Play (LARP) and Murder Mystery Parties represent a limited ARG. The environment you can move around is limited, the people you encounter will all be in on the game. There was an urban legend I was told about a LARP group that had hired a hotel ballroom and some extra rooms for a “Victoriana” game. During the evening, some guests from the hotel who were not involved in the game, wandered onto the “set”. Interacting with the Victoriana gamers had the guests convinced they had walked into another world. LARP isn’t all about foam boffer weapons and men with masks wandering around damp forests – it’s about playing a role in a game but using the whole body.

Treasure Hunt was a Channel 4 game show which ran for nearly a decade with the winning formula of clues, a studio research team, a helicopter and a pretty girl. If the contestants managed to guide the ‘runner’ to the treasure using the clues, then they would win a cash prize and all of this was against the clock.

This is related to Geocaching, an outdoor treasure-hunting game where the participants use a GPS device (like a modern mobile phone) and search out hidden treasure, usually a logbook and toys or trinkets. According to wikipedia, over 800,000 geocaches, over 100 countries across seven continents are registered on various websites.

The Adventure Game was another ARG-related game show, aimed at children, from the BBC during the early-mid eighties. The story was that the contestants had travelled to the planet ‘Arg’ (was that prescient?) – the game seemed, from the viewer point of view, internally consistent and the contestants played along with the game format. The Vortex task at the end of every episode, also presented a unique perspective – rather than being a physical or mental task, it was a tactical task based on the presence of an invisible destructive force on the game grid – a force that could only be seen by the television viewers.

Knightmare came pretty much after the Adventure Game where a ‘blindfolded’ child was led around a maze by three friends and had to interact with various physical tasks and puzzles. The environment was a mix of physical sets and computer imagery (using Chromakey). Wikipedia states that Knightmare was conceived by taking the computer game “Atic Atac” from the ZX Spectrum and ‘revolutionising’ it using television. Somewhat ironic.

Flash Mobs would be another nod to Alternate Reality Games – when a mob of zombies descends on a mall or participants engage in a massive and worldwide pillow fight, there is a ‘game’ element that is being used. The activity is usually coordinated by the internet and can bring a lot of attention. The concept itself seems to have originated in a Larry Niven story “Flash Crowd” from 1973.

De Profundis is a final example of an Alternate Reality Game. It’s a story-telling game involving the posting of letters from participant to participant. De Profundis has also been played using email or blog posts across the internet. It ties literary story-telling to the Lovecraftian Cthulhu Mythos – encouraging participants to describe their descent into madness and the occult in flowery prose fitting the style of the genre. Described as more of a psychodrama than a role-playing game and certainly having more in common with creative writing than table-top games:

In De Profundis we don’t declare to the Game-master that we are going to do a library search. We go to a real library ourselves to look for vague comments and hints which cause shivers of cosmic terror. We have all the books of all the libraries in the world to look through and fish for secrets and hidden, disguised truths.

So what?

ARG’s tie together several things. They bring the ability to source material from the Internet (giving a virtually unlimited amount of virtual scenery to the Game) and then link that to a location (hyperlocality) using a GPS and a time (temporality) in order to weave together puzzles. There’s also a virtually unlimited amount of interactivity. We have to answer questions like whether ‘participants’ are also ‘creators’ within the game. That’s something that really interests me with my background.

I have also been contributing to (viewing mostly) the 4IP social network (hosted on ning) called ’38 minutes’. In particular the area that interests me on 38minutes most is “Alternate Reality Gaming”. I’m sufficiently interested in ARGs that I
intend to start a Masters degree to study them. I just need to flesh out the concept and learn to program computers!

Over the next few blog posts I’ll examining the following steps.

Step Zero: The Concept
Step One: The Engine
Step Two: The Game Rules
Step Three: The Plot
Step Four: Profit!