Breaking the Fourth Wall

Breaking the fourth wall – stepping through the barrier between what is “game” and what is reality – is still largely a gimmick. A handful of games push it to the point of Eternal Darkness (a jewel from the Gamecube Island of Misfit Toys, famous for playing tricks on you, the player, in the living world) and actually toy with you, but it’s usually more of a snickering, “aren’t we hip” acknowledgement that you’re actually playing a game. The potential is there, though, for so much more. Games can do what other forms of entertainment can’t. Pennywise cannot actually leap out of It and hide in the storm drain, growling, “They all float down here,” as you stroll by. Watch Psycho a thousand times, and you probably won’t get stabbed. Games, though, can do more. In gaming, the killer can reach through the barrier between worlds, call you by name, and brush up against your real life.

Electronic games may play with the fourth wall, but another genre of games and their designers take a childlike joy in infiltrating the real world, pushing their game events into players’ lives, and getting into their players’ heads. Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) build worlds like electronic or tabletop games; however, they also migrate easily into real-space. Your puzzle-solving group can be infiltrated by a mole from a rival group. The killer offs your favorite character and mentions you by name in the recording of the event he makes. Everything becomes part of the game in an ARG. Designers hide messages in posters, in websites and work in the real world as much as they work in their fictional one.

ARGs began as marketing tools and experiments by existing game companies. The Beast and Majestic are among the scions of the family line. Majestic died an ignoble death, tossed on the pyre of post-9/11 paranoia, but for a brief moment, game characters called players in the night, characters had IM screen names and there was a whole conspiracy to get caught up trying to follow. The Beast was a marketing tool for the movie A.I., and gave birth to a community of eager puzzle-solvers, using everything from codes hidden in movie posters to puzzles based on lute notation to unravel the riddle at the game’s center. Later came the famous marketing push, I Love Bees, but ARGs are growing up, moving away from experiments and marketing gimmicks and becoming a full-fledged genre in their own right.

Perplex City is an ARG from Mind Candy Design, but it is also a world unto itself, a full-fledged city with a newspaper, design agency, publisher, subway system, bank, rail system, record label and even a high-class ice cream shop. An active community of bloggers (and characters in the narrative) provides news of the world. “And what world would be complete without a vast conspiracy at its heart?

The Receda Cube was formerly the main attraction at the Perplex City Museum and is itself a mystery. The Cube is a metallic cube that holds strange powers over those who get near it. It is beautiful, it is mysterious and it is missing. The Cube was stolen in very theatrical fashion by a group of conspirators, possibly backed by a religious cult, and is now missing, much to the dismay of Perplex City residents. Where the game breaks the bounds of “fictional world” is in the placement of the missing artifact: The Cube is hidden somewhere on Earth, and there is a reward offered for its return, to the tune of 200,000 real- world dollars.

As it says on the site, “Perplex City doesn’t stop when you turn off your computer. It’s all around you. It’s alive.” At the game’s core, players unravel mysteries and solve puzzles, which they acquire from events on Earth, various websites or from Perplex City‘s puzzle cards. Puzzle cards come in foil packs and range in difficulty from simple riddles and decoding exercises to fiendishly difficult puzzles nigh unsolvable by mortal men.

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The description doesn’t quite do them justice, as these are not the “1,000 Super Word Puzzles” books your grandmother got from the supermarket. The game’s designers use the cards themselves to toy with you. One example I have on my desk is a card with “The Road Not Taken” on it and a little note that “This is one of Violet’s favourite[sic] poems. It’s been hanging around her room as long as I can remember … What is the name of the poet?” The card is named Cold Fission, so all signs point to Cold. This is, perhaps, mere trickery, as cunning, clever souls (i.e. not me, the PR rep told me) will notice the card has a candle on it. Rubbing your hand on the card, the friction causing the surface to heat up, will make the letters of the poem fade away to reveal a series of letters hidden in the note itself.

On the back of the card is a brief guide to the game: Collect cards, which range from Common (and Easy) to Rare (and Difficult), solve the puzzles and win Perplex points, which get you fortune and glory on the leaderboard, which brings you closer to that huge cash prize.

Solving certain riddles brought me to aspiring supervillain and Ad Hoc Polymath Andrea Philips. Andrea was one of the Cloudmakers – the largest and most active community back in the days of The Beast – and now, she works for Mind Candy. When I ask her to explain her title, she says, “This means I do a little bit of whatever it takes to keep the game rolling,” be it designing and writing puzzles, or live event coordination.

“Entertainment as a whole seems to be heading toward a more immersive, participatory experience,” she tells me when I ask for a bit of background. “It’s happened in little drips at a time, but it’s been getting a lot steadier. The creative teams want to give their audience a way to really affect their experience. So, you have an AOL email address for Homer Simpson,” she says, “Or you have a website for some secret society’s cover business on Alias. Or Veronica Mars’ journal on her website. I consider all of these pretty ARG-y in nature, even if they haven’t moved to the full-blown participatory experience, because they’re all moving toward deeper levels of immersion. Videogames are getting at the same thing from another angle, by de-linear-izing a lot. You don’t really get the feeling that in something like Halo you’re really affecting the storyline, but meaningful branching seems to be an up-and-coming design goal.

“With something like Perplex City, we try to pull together the cinema/TV immersion bit with that meaningful choices bit.” They take it a step further than the character blogs by letting player interaction with the “fictional” characters have a real effect on the storyline, so not only can players follow the world and get to know the characters, they can also become influences on the plot. Rather than rooting for a favorite character, they can actually work to help them (or hinder them, as happened in one particular case).

“I think of what we do as ‘massively multiplayer participatory storytelling,'” She tells me how the Mind Candy team tries to infiltrate their players’ lives and blur the lines between reality and fantasy. “Our latest toy is SMS. We’ve been using that to great advantage to get out breaking news and alert players that real-time events are happening. We’ve also done the creepy phone call bit: Everyone in a crowded bar gets their phone ringing at the same time, with the same vaguely threatening message. Fun stuff.”

They’ve even taunted their players with a real, live black helicopter. “[We did] the infamous live event in London that ended with a mole from a secret society running off and escaping in a shiny black helicopter,” she says. “A real shiny black helicopter.”

On a lighter note, Perplex City is the reason 127 people formed a spontaneous conga line in Trafalgar Square, all in the name of puzzle-solving glory. Aside from the Cube itself being in the real world, they also use the media, be it through USA Today, coded messages in other publications or the “Lost: The Cube” stickers you may have seen here and there.

Not only do they like infiltrating lives, they like getting dark and scary, especially if they can use the player’s actions to make the story take a turn for the macabre. Andrea told me about one of their earlier episodes. “Early on in the game, a character named Monica was killed because of the players’ actions,” she said. “And a few months later, when they were trying to track down a bad guy, they came across the recording of the murder the killer had made for himself.” That was upsetting enough, but when they found the MP3, it was downright horrifying.

“The MP3 had tags in it,” she continued, “Comments: ‘Do you ever have the feeling that someone’s watching you? When the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, when you know if you turn round you’ll see them, but you don’t turn round? Are you having that feeling right now?’ The album is listed as: ‘My Greatest Hits.’ The composers are listed as: ‘James, Oliver, Chris, Tim, Rob, Jamie, Guy, Ryan, Matthew, Mat, Paul, Lee, Becky, Josiah, Dee’ – all Perplex City Players who were at Clapham Common [the event with the helicopter] … The players got the recording by hacking a music label’s intranet, and it became clear right about then that the file had been left there pretty much on purpose for them. And that this guy, ‘V,’ was several jumps ahead of them.” A pause for dramatic effect. “How’s that for horror?” I allow that it’s pretty much perfect and then ask what it’s like to plan something like that.

“Actually, it all comes down to getting into the head of your favorite psychotic killer and figuring out what he would have done. Part of it was that we really, really loved Monica. We were devastated when she died, and we wanted the recording out there partly so we could do something with that character one more time.” It’s not just the players who come to love the characters; it’s the writers and designers, as well. And sometimes, getting into the head of their favorite psychotic killer is a little scary. She continued, “It’s funny, you try to write things in character, and then you’re just appalled at the things that come out of you.” It makes you question yourself, like asking, “‘Does this mean, deep down inside, I’m a psychotic killer/weepy annoying emo/oh so blonde?’ I’ve had a couple of experiences by now where I’ve been writing the same character for a bit too long and took on some of those attributes in real life.”

I pressed for an example, picturing an ARG designer stalking around like a method actor, in character all the time and very creepy. “Well,” she paused before continuing. “I think I’m allowed to say this. In that Monica arc, the reason she died is because the players set up a meeting between her and another character, Sylvia. Sylvia’s husband had recently been killed, presumably because he’d found out a little too much about these bad guys. And I was writing Sylvia, this woman who had lost her husband. So I kind of put myself in her place, and all of this unrestrained grief just kind of poured out. It’s the kind of thing that can be both in character and kind of embarrassing all at once. And I found myself really … blue … all the time that I was writing on her. Once you get yourself that down to do the work, it’s hard to snap right back up again, I suppose.”

We moved on, then, discussing other ways they’d really like to completely immerse their players. Her favorite idea? Kidnapping. She really wants to kidnap one of you. “I really do! And I don’t think I’m the only one! In a perfect world, we’d be able to infiltrate your whole world. And the guy you buy your coffee from every morning would slip you a coded note. And then as soon as you call the phone number it leads to, the power would go out in your house and you’d get kidnapped. These things, they aren’t so very practical, but wouldn’t that be one killer gaming experience?” She admits that might limit the appeal to some extent, saying, “I think the group of people who like to follow along with a story and boss the characters around a little on email is much broader than the group who would enjoy being actually kidnapped.”

They follow a code of ethics, and the rules for puppet masters are fairly simple: Don’t get anyone arrested or injured, don’t break up any families and don’t break the integrity of the story. Just about everything else is fair game. She gives an example that raised my eyebrows, saying, “There was a game run for Audi, Art of the Heist. And I’m not clear on the specifics, but they actually ‘killed’ a player at one point in their game. I keep meaning to ask them how, exactly, they dealt with that.” The Art of the Heist was actually an attempt at an ARG-thriller, “part Bourne Identity meets The Da Vinci Codeper their marketing materials, and managed to rack up 125,000 followers during its run.

As to Andrea herself, she aspires to a higher calling: supervillainy. “[It’s] a pretty good gig. You hardly ever have to go to prison! And it comes with limitless wads of cash!” Her supervillain touchstone? “I might have to go with Lex Luthor. Except not look like him. All that money and brains, social acceptability, and the diabolical scheming to boot. And Superman never really stops much more than the plan du jour. There’s nothing like a permanent setback.” She confesses she wants a “Supervillain Megabomb.” Superheroes, be on your guard.

The line between gaming and the real world continues to blur every day, and ARGs are taking the lead in pushing the boundaries to the breaking point. It’s easy to see the appeal of gaming- made-real. Playing a game of Assassins keeps you on edge for days, even weeks, as your friends get cut down around you. Then, one day, Phil from Accounting pulls the Maverick he’s been hiding and your whole body goes electric as, for a few adrenaline- charged seconds, you live in a John Woo flick. Or the killer from your “web game” reaches out and calls you by name. Or you get a frantic late night phone call from one of the game’s characters, screaming about government agents after him, as happened in Majestic.

What gives ARGs their power, especially the power to scare, is the reality they create. Suddenly, there really are hidden messages in the posters you see and the websites you visit. A theft in the virtual world is hidden in the real world. The killer knows your name. There really is a conspiracy working against you and vast treasure to be gained for defeating them. After all, it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

Shannon Drake likes commas and standing out in the rain.

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