Wrapped Inside A Mystery In An Engima: Perplex City Revisited

Shannon Drake | 14 Feb 2007 16:00
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It's been about six months since we visited the mysterious world of Perplex City. The time for an update was nigh, so I ventured into the jungle once more, to find the temple where Andrea Phillips and the rest of the Puppetmasters dwell, so we might catch up on the City and its players.

The Escapist: It's been about six months since we talked. What's happened in Perplex City since then?

Andrea: In the past several months, Perplex City has seen loving and successful mother of three Anna Heath murdered; the data link to Earth sabotaged by that secret society, the Third Power and restored by our band of cube-hunters here on Earth - but not before some of the Third Power were transported here to Earth; we've discovered that Sente has been authorizing creepy and dangerous experiments on human subjects; our ing?e Scarlett shot a man and ratted out her own father; the city's elected leader, Camryn Scott, was ousted after an unexpected vote of no confidence, and the new leader of the City Council has locked down the data link, though the Cube-thief is still somehow relaying cryptic messages through a secret website. You know, the usual.

The Escapist: Have the players gotten any closer to finding the Cube? How long do you think the chase will continue, given current events?

Andrea: All of the necessary information has been out there for some time now, and the players are definitely making progress. Not far now, my little Smurfs.

Actually, I have a little bet with myself about whether it'll be done before this interview makes it into print. Not saying which side of the bet I'm on, though.

Note: The Cube was found just a few days ago. I've conducted a followup to this followup, and the answers are below.

The Escapist: From what I recall, you guys actually did a live event in San Francisco. How did that go? Is it a different audience Stateside than in Britain?

Andrea: The San Francisco event was really interesting. We took a lot of risks in planning the event, in terms of technology we planned to use, how familiar we were with the area, the time we had budgeted to do the event, and so on. We were very ambitious. Sending players on a scavenger hunt through San Francisco and simultaneously answering puzzles online, followed up by a series of games where players had to position RFID tags, all with a clock ticking. It didn't all work smoothly the day of the event - we spent the day rushing from one fire to put out to the next - but the players seemed to have a great experience, and that's the important thing, isn't it?

The story setup for it was that Perplex City was initializing a backup data link in San Francisco, and the event was a series of games planned to activate the link. Shortly before the event, though, the original link was sabotaged, so the help that the players had been expecting from the people in Perplex City who had designed the puzzles wasn't forthcoming. For an added sense of urgency, if the players didn't get the new link activated in time, the carrier wave would be lost and it might be impossible to restore the link at all.

The part I was most invested in was the phone calls, because that was my big moment (I was very pregnant and thousands of miles away at the time). I pressed the big red button that called everyone in the auditorium simultaneously on their cell phones, with a message screaming at them all to run outside, RIGHT NOW, where they were buzzed by helicopters and threatened by the Third Power. The timing on that was pretty key, it had to happen at precisely the right moment during a video presentation, and I was terrified it wouldn't work. If it hadn't worked it would have been very embarrassing ... thank god it did!

That's the life of a PM, you plan for these dramatic touches and take big risks and hope that it works more than it doesn't. David Varela, one of our writers, has likened our live events to a swan swimming across a lake; it looks smooth and serene, but underneath there's paddling like mad to keep everything in motion.

And you know, it is a different audience in the US from the UK, though the differences are subtle. I think American players are a bit more aggressive, more willing to kick the tires of the game and see what happens.

The Escapist: Since our topic is immersion, and ARGs are all about immersion, what do you do to create a sense of immersion in your players? Do you have any in-house rules when it comes to writing stories, doing events, etc.? Are you essentially "in-character" all the time?

Andrea: Is this your way of asking me if I've kidnapped anyone yet? Because I haven't. (Dammit!)

The biggest thing we do to create a sense of immersion is to do as much as possible to blur the line between the game and the real world. You use the same tools for play as you use to live your regular life; your phone, your email, your web browser, and so on. There's not a button to press to start playing the game, and you can't pause, you can't save, there aren't any cheat codes. That's a big part of the underlying nature of an ARG. It's all about creating an experience that feels as real as possible to the players.

We actually used to have a very solid This-Is-Not-A-Game line, and it's interesting how we've backed down from it over the past few years. The solid line is that the characters and in-story elements always have to have a plausible motivation for what they're doing. The characters have to believe that they're real, if you see what I mean. But we've learned that it's OK to do some things with a bit of a wink and a nudge, like the walkthrough we've created. That's clearly not a part of the story, and in terms of story it isn't terribly plausible to have it. But there was a need for something like that and the benefit to players outweighs the damage done to suspension of disbelief. It's been fascinating to see how strict realism is apparently much more important to the puppetmasters than it is to the players.

The Escapist: Looking at the site, you're doing virtual puzzle cards, board games, etc.. Why go down so many different avenues with it? Is it just different ways to tell a story?

Andrea: Well, I could say it's just different ways to tell a story, but I'd be fibbing. At the end of the day, Mind Candy is a business, and we're still exploring all of the different ways we can apply the skills we use to run an ARG. It's kind of our shameful family secret, that at the end of the day, we want to make a little money out of all of this.

The Escapist: How do you fit, say, the board game in with the puzzle cards in with the live events, storywise? In other words, how do you keep so many disparate threads together?

Andrea: Well, the main thread of consistency for everything is the world. We've got two years of material to work with now, much of it text. That's a lot of canon to keep straight, let me tell you. There are a few ways we keep it all together. One big way we keep everything together is by having different items tied to the world, but not to the main thread of the story. The board game, for example, is Perplexian, but it's not really a part of the quest for the Cube.

Another technique we use a lot, though, is to look through our back catalog and pick up interesting threads we've left hanging out in the past.

That's a tough question, though. You might as well ask how it is we manage to keep breathing, and there aren't really words to explain HOW, precisely. We just ... do it.

The Escapist: One of the big questions I got about the article was, "Wow, this sounds cool, but it's kind of overwhelming. Where would I start?" How would you suggest people get involved with Perplex City and/or other ARGs?

Andrea: For people who want to get started in ARGs, the obvious move is to wander over to Unfiction and visit in the forums. Read some posts, introduce yourself, maybe pop onto IRC. It's a really lovely group of people, and they really believe in making the genre accessible to new players.

For Perplex City specifically, there are a ton of resources for people who want to get up to speed, even beyond Unfiction. There's the Story so Far at with a story summary, a walkthrough tutorial as a sort of introduction for how an ARG plays with you, and so on. There's also a community of Perplex City players - - that periodically have IRC chats specifically to bring new players up to speed. And of course there's the wiki at that can answer nearly any reference question you have. I adore that wiki, and I would shed many bitter tears if it were to ever vanish.

The Escapist: Another comment I got from a lot of people was "I want to start my own ARG." What advice would you give aspiring Puppetmasters?

Andrea: If you build it, they will come. Seriously, though, for someone who wants to run a game, there are so many things I'd say. Play a few games, or at least read about them, and learn from the experience of others. Don't believe you can plan for every contingency, because the something that comes up is something you'd never have imagined. Plan hard, lock down your servers as best you can, make sure you can rely upon your dev team, don't let realistic get in the way of fun-to-play.

The most important thing, though, is just dive in and do it, and learn from the experience.

I'd also invite aspiring puppetmasters to join the IGDA SIG on ARGs. There's a mailing list for it at . It's a little quiet most of the time, but we'd love to answer questions from new puppetmasters looking for a little wisdom from their fellows. It's part of the purpose of the SIG.

The Escapist: What's next after Perplex City? Does the game have an ending planned at all?

Andrea: Pardon me as I wander off for a moment. I need a shot of whiskey after staring into the face of an ARG that runs live the whole rest of my life. Yes, we do plan to end Season 1.

The ARG component has been on hiatus since mid-October, so the players have received only periodic updates to the newspaper and updates to the secret Library of Babel site. That's going to be over early next week, actually, and we'll be moving into the next phase of the game. It'll be interesting to see how the timing of everything works out. Obviously we can't plan around when somebody will find the Cube, because we can't magically know when that's going to happen. Oh, but we wish we could know.

We've also already started a lot of work on season 2. I'm really excited about what we have planned - we'll be trying a lot of new things. To learn a lot more about that, though, you're just going to have to wait a while. Though, for the players out there, I promise you aren't going to need to wait nearly as long as you did after Project Syzygy!

The Escapist: What about Mind Candy? Do you guys have any plans to expand to other areas?

Andrea: We've already begun some of that, with the board game, for example. I can't give too much of our business planning away, though. Trade secrets!

Post-Cube Followups

And, indeed, just days before I was ready to post this, someone found the Receda Cube. Andrea was nice enough to answer a few more questions.

The Escapist: I've been told the Receda Cube has been found since we chatted last. Who found it, where was it, and how did they manage it?

Andrea: A nice man named Andy Darley found it. The specifics are available here:

The Escapist: When the initial article ran, we'd left in a typo or something like that, a capitalized letter where it shouldn't be and we fixed it pretty quick. As a result, we got emails and forum posts along the lines of "Was that intentional? Was that part of the game? But then it disappeared!" There was a real paranoia, even in people that hadn't played Perplex City. How does that make you feel?

Andrea: It's amazing, isn't it? I remember reading those forum posts. I can see how it could seem terrifying, but that kind of thing now just leaves me with a deep feeling of resignation, now. It reminds me of an episode very early in the newspaper, when the Futures - horoscopes - made an innocent reference to eel and avocado rolls. The players kept trying to figure out why eel and avocado rolls, how it fit into the story, and it was honestly just color. I started calling the Reddest Herring of the Month. It's an inevitable side effect of this kind of game, though. You're training people to examine everything closely, telling them any little thing could be significant. So you have to expect an incredible degree of scrutiny over everything you do. It's just part of the dance.

The Escapist: What do you take away from Perplex City's first season? What have you learned? What would you differently? What lessons are you bringing into the second season? Do you get a break or is it right back into the grind?

Andrea: I've learned so, so much. Honestly I could spend a week solid writing on that topic and not dry it out. I've learned, as above, that no matter how hard you try, people can read too much into anything if they really want. I've learned if you pour yourself into the characters and the story, the audience will feel it and reward you for it. I've learned that it's hard to be absolutely perfect in every way for two years solid. I've learned that if you're trying hard enough, your audience will forgive you for not always being perfect. I've learned that one month's color might be the next month's crucial plot point - in the end there's no such thing as a throwaway line. I've learned it's incredibly difficult to bring something fresh to what you're writing every single day for two years, but there's always a way if you try.

And I've discovered what it's like to be utterly enraptured by your work. I've taken vacations and even been totally disconnected for days at a stretch since we started running, but it's unsettling, to think that your story and your world are going on without you. Naomi makes fun of me because I had a baby in late September, and I was back online checking in within 36 hours. I couldn't stand not knowing what was happening. (They kept trying to get me to go away, mind you, but what else can you do with a baby sleeping on your shoulder? ... Just like I have right now, as a matter of fact.)

Which leads me to your next question, we aren't taking much of a break, no. We've actually been working on Season 2 for quite some time already. It's going to be terrific, I promise.

The Escapist: Can you give us any hints about what the second season will entail? Along the same lines, Mind Candy seems to like pushing the envelope in finding new ways to tell stories, from the live events and the helicopter to the board game and so forth. Do you have any new events/products planned?

Andrea: We definitely have a bunch of new tricks up our sleeves, but I'm not telling. Wouldn't want to ruin the surprise!

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