Creating, Managing, and Getting Lost in My Own Damn ARG

LIKE MOST authors, I endured years and years of people giving me The Look—you know, that mixture of pity and amusement that looks like constipation—whenever I mentioned being a writer. The Look, loosely translated, means gosh, is that why you look so malnourished and scurvyish, because of the poverty and the alcoholism? and wasn’t ever really all that far from the truth, at least up until 1997, when I finally discovered that whiskey does not, in fact, contain vitamins.

So, when I sold my second novel, The Electric Church, I had a rush of enthusiasm which inspired me to take a shower, cut my long, tangled hair, and wear pants for the first time in years. I also started creating a web site long before the book had even been copy-edited. I had the idea to create a ‘real’ web site for the eponymous church, and embedded some simple codes and puzzles into the pages using every old-fashioned HTML and javascript trick I could think of. When my publisher saw the final result, they decided it beat trying to come up with a web site themselves and hired a professional designer to create a nifty, candy-colored Flash site for it. They also suggested we take the puzzles to the next level and create a modest Alternate Reality Game (ARG) to make the site fun and promote the book.

This worked out really well. I was free to write material for the game while someone else actually made things happen. The game itself was a modest hit, with an enthusiastic bunch of folks on the Internet solving puzzles and having a good time doing it. Being a lazy, lazy man, when time came for the sequel to come out (The Digital Plague) I decided to promote that book by. . .doing another ARG.

So I set out to make something as fun as the first. I hit upon the idea of creating a fake Forum for the fictitious Department of Public Health for the government in the books, and having characters post there. At first the posts would be the sort of normal things people living in a future dystopia would post about—or at least what I imagined they would post about—like leg-lengthening, how great it was to be living in the future, and the possibility that everyone was living in The Matrix. Then, as the titular disease started to spread (parallel but separate from the events of the book) the posts would get more ominous. I left just one of the boards unlocked, and only one character had a viewable email address. I devised a few puzzles I thought were nifty, utilizing a free phone message system, some video and images, and some dynamic web pages.

I bought six bottles of rye and locked myself in the bathroom with my laptop and settled down to run the game. Although overall it was a success, things did not exactly go as expected, and I ended up learning a thing or two.


1. I Am a Strange and Discordant Man Incapable of Predicting the Actions of My Fellow Humans. Whenever you design a game or puzzle like this, you try to imagine what folks are going to do—questions they might ask a chatbot, for example, or HTML tricks they might use. Mainly you try to avoid having someone skip to the final puzzle through sheer luck, and to anticipate any confusion that might arise to cause frustration—you want people to enjoy themselves, after all. I thought I’d done this. I thought I’d looked at every pathway through the puzzles and seen all the angles, but I was so very, very wrong.

The thing about these sorts of games is that people approach them assuming anything could be a clue. Mistakes you made, typos you missed, pop culture associations that never would have occurred to you—all of these will swarm into your precious, carefully-crafted game and lay waste to your plans. The people playing will bicker endlessly on Internet forums about minutiae you didn’t even realize was present in your graphics and HTML, fixating on details you never consciously noticed instead of the huge shiny clues you created for them.

In my ARG, the one thing I never anticipated, but should have, was this: Not only would people assume anyone new posting to the unlocked forum was a Non-Player Character (NPC), but some people would actually allow this misperception to continue. In other words, someone with an interesting nickname would create an account and post to the forum, existing players would wonder aloud if he/she was part of the game, and the new poster would not only allow this misperception but would actively encourage it. And all I could do while this went on was make Little Fists of Rage and scowl.

2. No Solution is Obvious. When you’re designing your puzzles, you try for that perfect balance of difficulty and solvability—you don’t want people to give up, frustrated. What always happens is, puzzles you think are really difficult get solved immediately by some super-genius lurking in their secret underground compound, while puzzles you tossed together in desperation five minutes before launching the whole shebang sit there, impervious to the efforts of the hive mind.

Sometimes it’s truly inexplicable. At one point in the TDP game, the title of an HTML page changed after a few seconds to the ISBN of the book. Players had to append the ISBN to the URL to reveal a hidden page—an old trick in the ARG toolbox, and something they’d already done a few times in the course of this game. Yet somehow, when the group of players got to that point, they simply didn’t think of this, and some time went by where everyone stood around complaining and I sat there like an idiot waiting for someone to make the connection. I finally had to send out a small hint, which led to a bit of head-slapping and sudden progress. Worse, I was suddenly out of booze, and no sign that the game was going to be won any time soon.

3. If you’re lazy Everyone Will Know Immediately and They Will Mock You. When I created the forum that would serve as First Base for the game, I created a slate of characters in the book’s universe. I tried to give the characters distinct personalities and gave them each a tiny arc—starting off with calm posts about what would I imagined would be normal concerns for citizens of a future dystopia, and slowly getting scared and desperate as things went south. They posted pictures of their infections, pics supposedly snapped on the street, and recordings. And slowly, they stopped posting altogether as they died.

I was pretty proud of myself. It wasn’t a lot of posts, really; maybe twenty characters altogether posting anywhere from one to a dozen posts. It felt like a lot, and being a lazy man once I’d done all this work I decided the rest of the game should be smaller, so I killed everyone but one character off, and even intended that one character to be more or less quiet. Mainly, that last character with her email was meant to be just an emergency valve if someone was stuck. Naturally, people started emailing her immediately, and responding to all the emails became a second job as folks started bombarding the email with anything they could think of, trying to trigger a response—assuming, I think, that the email was automated. Which it should have been, if I was anywhere near competent. I should have seen that coming, but I didn’t. That could pretty much be my personal motto.

Anyway, all the players expected a lot more characters to interact with, because. . .well, because I’d led them to believe there would be characters, based on the population of the forum. As my steadfast refusal to provide such NPC delights became increasingly clear, my status as a Jackass also became disturbingly clear to everyone.

Overall, however, it was a success; a few fine folks pursued the clues all the way to the end, and everyone enjoyed themselves. I don’t think I’ll be doing another ARG for the next Avery Cates book (The Eternal Prison), however. For one thing, it’s a lot more work than you imagine. For another, I’m all out of Rye.

1 Comment

  1. janet reid

    I can fix that last part. Too bad you moved and didn’t give me your new address. I’m holding onto your pants till you update!

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