Game magazine: Issue 135, available now at newsstands, print or digital. The article runs about 6 pages, with citations to Incunabula/Ong’s Hat and myself throughout. Here is a small excerpt (used with permission) from that article:
“But what exactly is an ARG? For the community, that definition is largely rooted in the ‘this is not a game’ aesthetic. ARGs are games that do not acknowledge that they are games; they pose as alternate realities hidden away in streams of dormant internet code. Their stories exist not in unified narrative, but are spread across phone lines, email addresses, websites and any other forms of media that the puppetmasters – that is, the game’s creators – deem to be useful. ARG’s exist in real-time as constantly evolving, potentially boundless storytelling experiences.
Yet despite these definitions, there remains no established rule set. “There aren’t really rules for ARGs,” says writer and transmedia artist Joseph Matheny. “There’s the basic TINAG principle that everybody has to practice, and things like the launch has to be clandestine and the rabbit hole – that is, the first media artifact that draws in players – can’t be obvious. But you’re not limited to those rules. An ARG can be whatever you want it to be as long as you’re building an immersive world for players to embed themselves; to cross the scene and to become an active participant in the story.”
Matheny himself was there at the beginning of the ARG, when the increasing prominence of online media got him thinking about new forms of storytelling. “I’ve been a tech person since the Eighties,” he reminisces. “I was an IT expert and moved up into software, and I used to play the Steve Jackson games a lot. I also played the Flying Buffalo play-by-mail games, which were kind of like a LARP but done through mail, phone and faxes. You would send your mailing address and your phone number and you would start getting stuff in the mail.
“I started thinking about the integration of story arc within games and started putting all of these pieces together, and Ong’s Hat came out of that.”
Ong’s Hat was more of a experiment in transmedia storytelling than what we would now consider to be an ARG, but it’s DNA – the concept of telling a story across various platforms and new media – is evident in every ARG that came after.
The project, also known as the Incunabula Papers, was a selection of documents posted on The Well, a pioneering internet social site in the late Eighties. Having sat dormant for a decade, the documents provoked a widespread online investigation in the late Nineties, with participants immersed in a fictional story about alternate realities via bulletin board systems, old Xerox mail art networks and early eZines.
With Ong’s Hat, Matheny took the concept of ‘legend tripping’ – that is, the act of venturing to areas of some horrific and supernatural event a la The Blair Witch Project – and shifted it online. “I set up this mythos, and hid elements of it all over the internet,” he remembers. “There were phone numbers that you could call and you would get strange voice mail messages; you might even get a call back from one of the characters. Everybody would come at it from a different angle. It was not a zero-sum game. The whole thing was set up to be an infinite play, so different people would get different things out of its persistence.”
This element of the experience, with players reassembling the scattered elements of the story in order to determine exactly what it all meant, would go on to become one of the defining features of the ARG. Rather than present an A to B narrative, ARGs present storytelling at a form of archaeology, the players themselves responsible for discovering and building the chronologically unified narrative.
“People who are interested in this kind of experience are interested in working together. It’s what the community calls the ‘collective detective’ scenario,” says Matheny. “One of my influences was also the murder mystery theatre things that they used to do…I think that people like that kind of stuff. They like to feel that the story is crossing the proscenium and they’re immersed in the story – even to the point of being a character in the story. I think that’s the hook with ARGs.””
“Ong’s Hat was more of an experiment in transmedia storytelling than what we would now consider to be n ARG but its DNA – the concept of telling a story across various platforms and new media- is evident in every alternate reality game that came after.”
Game magazine: Issue 135, available now at newsstands, print or digital.