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Ever since NASA faked the moon landing, motion pictures have played a leading role in bolstering the believability of hoaxes, practical jokes and, most recently, alternate reality games (ARGs). Thanks to the success of I Love Bees and the interactivity spawned by the mysteries of Lost (which is running a second immersive game right now), ARGs have been building core audiences of obsessive fans — the kind that cover the Internet in chatter (which serves to promote projects) while having a whole lot of fun.
Social networks and video-sharing sites have begun to play key roles in the development of these interactive mysteries, because they can lend just enough of a veneer of truth and allow game masters a cheap way to create personas, drop clues and let players connect. Three new projects with interactive elements that could spell ARG have popped up on my radar in the last week: Enitech Research, Nowheremen and What is Scion City?
First, a disclaimer: Reporting on ARGs-in-progress is a pain in the butt. The whole point of building an alternate reality is to blur the line between fact and fiction, a tendency that is beaten out of prospective journalists from day one. And the people involved in making and maintaining the games are necessarily guarded about their involvement, as unmasking the principals doesn’t serve to help the audience and players keep up their suspension of disbelief. So with that in mind, bear with me if I make a few mistakes due to gullibility and omissions in the spirit of gamesmanship.
Enitech Research came to my attention when Cruxy‘s Nathan Freitas posted a link to it on Twitter, suggesting it was a promotional gambit for the new Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles series that debuts this Sunday. One of the researchers featured in a video posted to YouTube is a veteran of CyberDyne systems — which any Terminator fan will remember as the California tech outfit that reverse-engineered the technology to build Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Besides a web site, with a blog that asks and responds to feedback from the public, there’s even a Facebook group for former CyberDyne employees.
Next was Nowheremen. Sean Bury, best known for his work with Invisible Engine Films, pinged me over IM to point out the trailer which had just been released on Tuesday. Details about the new web show had been cropping up since September, with the latest revealing the trailer and a Jan. 22 debut date. A number of sites are involved, and the Ning-based forum and social network on the main show site already boasts dozens of members. Beyond the creative collective behind the project, X12 Productions, and the fact that they are working with visual effects team Ghostlight Digital, I couldn’t get anything else out of Bury, even after plying him with a Scientology joke.
Could Nowheremen all be a promotional gambit for a product or company? What is Scion City? certainly seems to be. Produced by Douglas Gayeton and written by none other than GigaOm contributor Wagner James Au, the machinima series (built in Second Life) is also available on YouTube, along with all sorts of supporting material aimed at solving an interstellar mystery. The Scion is a Toyota-built car that’s designed to be customized, and What is Scion City? similarly invites fans to help keep the story going after the initial run. Co-director and well-known vlogger Michael Verdi also plugged it on Twitter (which itself is a perfect vehicle for more cross-platform, multimedia, interactive, genre-bending zaniness).
ARGs are a perfect fit for both people looking to promote new shows on the cheap (as a few people conversant in social networks can spawn dozens of new characters and clues to keep players intrigued) or for sponsors looking to fund immersive, cutting-edge brand experiences. And for geeks who love a good mystery — not to mention the feeling of contributing to solve it — this spate of new games should keep us busy for the foreseeable future.