The Apocalypse is Here Let’s Solve Puzzles: Subversion and it’s Flaws

Over the course of the ARG presentations, I had a very interesting time seeing how the formula was played with. For our group, we sought to create something very conventional to the extent that ARG’s can be conventional, playing on the tropes while emphasizing a potential for players to connect to one another through the experience. Though we laughed certainly about the campiness of time travel, having difficult explaining how the timelines worked even to one another, this wasn’t questioned. We hadn’t even considered the more simplified parallel world aspect envisioned by other teams. Additionally, we sought to avoid emphasizing explicit education in our ARG. Yes, we expected players to learn and grow from the experience, but we didn’t fully elucidate those objectives among ourselves ‘til after getting ideas thrown back at us by the other groups. However, the most interesting subversion for us was the idea that puzzles not be the essential aspect of the ARG. Seeing the ARG that eschewed puzzles and the this is not a game mentality for character creation and roleplaying, along with the group that replaced it with policy writing it struck an interesting chord with me about the essential role of puzzles in ARGs.

In the process of exploring ARGs, the idea of explicit creation of characters for an alternate world seems on some scale to be a betrayal of the principle of ARGs. At their core as alternate realities, when players step into the ARG, they are inherently playing a created character of themselves. When players joined secret societies in UChicago ARGs, they certainly were not literally joining the society. Rather, the themselves of the alternate world joined the society. In this context, creating a character to explore an alternate world strikes me as on some level leading the world of ARGs entirely. If playing a character in an alternate reality is ARG gameplay, then doesn’t one eventually come to the conclusion that all games are essentially ARGs. The explicitness of the ‘This is Not a Game’ mentality places what I consider explicit requests to role-play as  a breaking of that. Even if players as characters need to participate in disruptive activities or signal support for fictional organizations, the fact that they remain in some way themselves makes it ARG.

Additionally, the group that converted the core gameplay loop to policy struck me as an interesting divergence as well. In some ways, writing a policy is sort of solving a puzzle, and the entire conception of the twitter response and the appeals to a council were brilliant in the format they were explained to us in. In some ways, the policy writing is still an act of puzzle solving, solve the problem of how to both craft an effective policy that is able to be passed. However, it just struck me as sort of boring. I was fascinated by the idea of ARG’s as an escapist environment, and the notion of spending my free time writing essays gave me a degree of pause. In addition, it sort of explicitly signals the gamification, you must do this to advance. We fell into the same thing in our game in terms of gamifying the structure, so this is not intended to criticize, simply ask how we maintain the idea that THIS IS NOT A GAME.

The brilliance of puzzles in the THIS IS NOT A GAME mentality is that a puzzle is an explicitly gamified object. In the constant struggle between problem-solving and problem-finding, the distinct question emerges of which giving someone a puzzle to get through represents. Hacking into a computer is not normally a game, but in the world of ARGs, hacking disguised or as a limited form of the legitimate version of itself represents a gamified element. However, puzzles don’t need to disguise the gamification, because they are explicitly gamified. Since in real life, puzzles are games naturally in the game world they are as well. Thus, when a puzzle is deployed in order to provide a gamified end to the problem-finding, it is a gamification that stays true to our THIS IS NOT A GAME mentality. Naturally, the person hiding something might believe that only the brave heroes with his clue will solve the puzzle, rather than the dastardly NPCs, a feasible in reality reason for the puzzle to exist in the exact format it does. In our arg, puzzles are the player’s informants way of keeping the information in our hands and out of the hands of our enemies. The puzzle in the ARG is so essential because it allows for the creators to directly gamify without breaking from the THIS IS NOT A GAME principle.

Ask Again Later – Crusading can become Embarassing

During the Ask Again Later role playing session, I took on the guise of Fitzgerald Gray. In designing the character, I neglected to realize I had designed an absolute combat powerhouse out of a normal non-supernatural character. Upon receiving my character sheet, I saw that many of my combat abilities had been taken away, while one was added: Holy Warrior. Suddenly rather than simply being an aimless, orphaned drifter looking for purpose, I was a witchhunter greatly concerned with keeping that a secret and wholly willing to do what was necessary to keep it that way. This resulted in some conflicts between my personal desire and what my character desired. A crucial personal factors bled into the character, under Bowman’s definitions. Through my outside knowledge bleeding into the character, I assumed that the supernatural player characters weren’t the overall antagonists of the story. I was suspicious of Jameson, the eventual villain from the beginning, and would’ve taken steps to dispatch him if I’d realized that there were opposing player factions. Additionally, my personal desire to be nice and friendly, made me nervous to be as standoffish as my character would be. Since I was interacting with strangers, I wanted to avoid seeming unlikable due to my character actions. Thus, when my companies Jodie and Boom were attempting to stop a stranger from following us into the mines on our dangerous quest, we found it difficult to be mean and simply reject him as our characters might have.

Meanwhile, on the opposite end, I truly reached a unity with the emotions of my character. In the dark back staircase of the Gray Center, there was both great tension and satisfaction when I put my gunplay skills to work striking holy bullets at the creatures spawned from the pit. After the actions in the mine, the nervousness about being Fitzgerald faded and I fully assembled into the character of a holy warrior trying to keep the unnatural under wraps. I held another player at gunpoint, until my companions refused to support me, because my holy bullet had winged her and she was a confessed witch. Then, it was a matter of finding the escaped hellhounds to avoid word of them getting out.

At this point, a second problem emerged with my character that he was a direct block to the knowledge of other characters. A core principle of improv as discussed in class is the idea of always yes anding other people’s ideas and stories. Back in the pit, I would’ve loved to have entered the pit and seen what that would cause. However, I also recognized that my character wouldn’t so I tried to give room for another character to, but noone was interested. This meant the true nature of the pit went undiscovered as it had little to do with the main story of the game. Additionally, when chasing the escaped hellhound, I discovered it had moved into a pack of civilians. Rather than engage them in the story and answer their questions, I lied and insisted it was a normal dog with rabies until they agreed to not dig further. Though it lead to them eventually joining the mayor in a campaign against the evil, simultaneously, I had avoided really engaging with their characters. Thus, in the context that roleplaying is improvisation, there is a clear divide their. In comedic improv, you can generally continue to evolve things for the comedies sake. Whereas in a larp, without a good overhead perspective, you must behave as your character even if you don’t think its contributing to the best story possible. I had always viewed narrativist roleplaying as a way for characters to intersect to construct stories, but it was interesting to see how I was as an individual able to carry out a story that diverged from the main one. My plotline with the pit, the hellhounds, and finding my ally Boom’s missing cat had almost nothing to do with the town civil war most of the rest of the players were involved in. However, despite its lack of mention in the epilogue, I had a pleasant little time in my own private war with the forces of hell.

The Evolution of MMOs from Minimalist to Enacted Narratives

I began playing World of Warcraft sometime before the Burning Crusade Expansion was released in 2007, at I estimate around age 8. At that point, it was shortly before I transferred schools midway through elementary school, and having played the game on and off for the past 11 years, World of Warcraft represents one of the longest relationships in my life. My early memories of playing characters are extremely sharp and lucid, not from my successes, which were few. Rather, I remember when my Gnome Warlock, “Satso,” was unable to complete the quest to bind his Voidwalker solo. Wandering Ironforge, the dwarf and gnome capital, I acquired the assistance of an upper level cloth character who dispatched the boss in a second. After helping me, the character gave me gold and a set of runecloth bags and set me off to continue the adventure with the aid of the voidwalker, who provided me with a companion that my warlock could not. This emergent narrative represents the community aspect of Pre-Wow MMOs that faded with the second generation.

Early MMO’s were rather minimalist in their design. Developing the hotly debated tab targeting system to replace hitboxes that would put too much strain on early 2000s servers. When you create a character on classic servers of the original Everquest, you are given nothing. You have no narrator to give knowledge of how to progress or where to go and are simply set on your own to journey through the land of Norrath. Instead of a tutorial or yellow check mark overhead, you simply get to experience your character entering a sort of lived in highly conventional fantasy World. To the sort of fantasy-fan that would initially have played Everquest, Sony Online Entertainment created an Evocative Space of both the more literary Tolkien-esque fantasy and the counterculture Gygax-isms familiar to players of Dungeons and Dragons. The High Elves live in their white city in the mountains above the wooded treetop homes of the Wood Elves. Gnomes in their mechanical cities compared to Barbarians in the frozen north. This combined with the embedded narratives. The subtle quests and tasks that emerge from talking to the townsfolk. When players enter the Hole and fight its various magical mysteries, the developers reveal to the players the story of the war that shattered Erudite civilization in the same way as a modern narrative game like Gone Home.

This simple storytelling worked, because it created an inhabitable world for the players to live in and explore their own stories. Beneath the world of Norrath that created so many possibilities, the real story of Everquest was you sitting in the city assembling a party and developing a routine of clearing through enemy camps to level up. The sort of pedestrian street level stories of cooperating with strangers to destroy a group of elementals, rather than a world-ending threat provided joy to the millions of players who made their way through Everquest. World of Warcraft began the process by which this minimalism was done away with. Each World of Warcraft zone in the early days had quests that provided the primary means of advancement, but they didn’t distract from the core interaction with other players to level up and play dungeons, the conventional source of emergent storytelling. The few truly game-changing enacted narratives like the Jailbreak Quest Chain, where players exposed the Dragon Onyxia’s infiltration into the Alliance government in order to become attuned for the raid on her lair, provided a story-telling heavy exception that didn’t get in the way of player interactions.

This tendency changed with the post 2010 Wow-killers released during the games Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm peaked. Their influence would later fall back onto World of Warcraft, which now relies heavily on isolated single-player storytelling in an isolated disconnected world, away from the server community of ostensible strangers from Classic WOW. In 2011’s Star Wars the Old Republic, players experienced a unique solo storyline depending on their class that led to them reaching a high-ranking position in either the Sith Empire or Old Republic. This simplified version of the traditional Bioware storytelling recognizable from Mass Effect or Dragon Age, created an entirely personal enacted narrative for you to play through in the Star Wars universe. While, creating a sense of emerging narrative by giving you choices in the storyline, at its core, by siphoning players off into ludo-narrative dissonant pocket universes in which they’re the head of the Jedi Order, it isolated players from creating their own narratives through simply playing together.

You can find countless forums across the internet wishing for the old style of MMO, for which there is currently no current game that scratches the itch of. To these orphaned MMO players, for whom there is nothing like there old experiences, emergent narratives and the nostalgia about them represents a massive influence on these people. In considering game design of MMORPG’s we should look to the MMO to recognize the strength and power these emerging narratives possess. That we can develop long, complicated, and intentional storylines, but the real memorable narratives can be developed from simply giving people a sandbox and letting them run wild, forming connections with one another that could be remembered for a lifetime.

Improvised Dino Attacks

Rob Wittig in writing about netprov focuses specifically on what he describes as “fake characters who pretend to do things in the real world.” He analyzes the concept in a specific way that goes beyond any networked improvised network. He cites 5 major influences: literature, mass media, internet, personal and social media, games, theater and mass media. When he thinks about the Netprov community in terms of games, he focuses specifically on the ARG/mimicry influences, cutting off a large swathe of legitimate Netprovs from the system, the play by post rpg.

In 2005, before most Lego themes became directly licensed or generic city themes, Lego often developed more advanced mythologies around its in-house developed themes, from the most famous of which likely being Bionicle to the forgotten and short-lived set lines like Dino Attack, which lasted for only two very similar five set runs. However, that would not be the end of the Dino Attack line, as alongside the sets release on the role-playing board of the 2nd largest Bionicle fan forum BZPower, the Dino Attack RPG spawned, which would last until 2011 across thousands of forum pages. (https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Roleplay/DinoAttackRPG) The Wittig reading might segregate this from being netprov, because it doesn’t represent an interaction between the fictional and real world but play-by-post RPG’s like this, which are the staples of the the roleplaying board on nearly every message board, from official ones like the Activision-Blizzard’s World of Warcraft board to fan forums like BZPower.

The game takes from all the same influences that Wittig’s netprov does. Post-apocalyptic literature influences the setting and characters. Theater links in with the origins of the narrativist role-playing rule set, along with more traditional tabletop roleplaying games. It is entirely based off of a mass-media property. And finally, the game takes place on the internet in one of the earliest forms of social media, the internet forum, as a group of featured players tell their characters story before an audience of readers. A skeptic may also say that netprov must be transmedia, and while the entire plot development took place on a forum, the prose-ified archive and the massive backlog of fanart that can be found with a simple search for “Dino Attack RPG” on google, shows a community of avid viewers observing the adventure.

Thus, I think the Wittig interpretation of netprov seems limiting and an example of intellectual gatekeeping. He depicts it in this context as this sort of strange arthouse political production poking fun at modern society that calls people out into the public. However, in my time, I’ve formed great connections entirely online through a simpler, more fun brand of netprov, in which you get to inhabit a character in a fictional world. Where onlookers stay if they enjoy the stories, and rather than providing a magnifying class on society, simplify provides a fun escape from the daily doldrum.

Wrestling is not a Game

Pop culture places a certain degree of spectacle on method acting. People seem to love and admire how Daniel Day Lewis built and lived in a long cabin for Lincoln or learned to sew dressed for the Phantom Thread. In that way, Jim and Andy plays upon a common trope of a certain type of actor getting too deeply intertwined with the role their playing. What specifically makes Jim and Andy interesting is the paralleling of Jim Carrey adopting the character of Andy Kaufman, a man who spent a great deal of his life likewise adopting a certain caricature of himself. In the documentary, Jim Carrey describes a great deal of bleed, Andy taking over his personality to form a separate identity from himself during the process. In the process of playing the character, Jim Carrey directly describes having to figure out “what the hell I am again,” after leaving the Andy Kaufman persona. (Jim & Andy, 1:25:00)

            Jim and Andy like Man on the Moon plays out as a series of Andy Kaufman’s greatest hits but performed again on the unsuspecting crew of the movie, rather than the extras in the film. The most interesting aspect of this is the encounter with Jerry Lawler, where Jim Carrey’s interpretation seems to override the historicity and bleed in to the pair’s relationship. Things planned in good fun between Jerry and Andy in the 80s were taken entirely seriously by Jim Carrey as he openly mocks Lawler, while claiming that “I’m not making choices based on what Jim does, that was Andy.” (1:02:00) Jim Carrey describes how Jerry Lawler came “from another world,” and Jim’s Andy “felt it was necessary to stay in character” of disliking Lawler, conceding the sort of inaccuracy of the portrayal. (39:00) Jim Carrey describes wrestling as “another world” to his acting as Kaufman, but the interesting thing is how Kaufman would likely say the opposite.

            There are two modes of discussing wrestling, shoot and kayfabe. Kayfabe is the presupposition that wrestling is real, and discussion under the idea that professional wrestling is in fact a legitimate sports competition. Until the 90s, kayfabe was maintained at all times, the bad wrestlers rode one bus, while the good guys rode another with no interaction, regardless of any personal relationships. Meanwhile, when things are discussed as a shoot, the backstage politics and real lives of wrestlers are discussed in the context of scripted and pre-determined sports entertainment. And in shoot interviews, Lawler describes Andy Kaufman as directly influenced and inspired by this mentality in his work. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PKw7cV20NqM) Growing up in Long Island in the territory days, what influenced Kaufman’s foray into wrestling was an appreciation of the philosophy of the business. Additionally, unlike many of Kaufman’s jokes that remain veiled in mystery, the process behind Jerry Lawler and Kaufman’s feud has been documented in countless interviews and podcasts.

            Rather than randomly provoke and harass Jerry, like Carrey did in the documentary, Andy Kaufman contacted Jerry Lawler as a notable fan in order to arrange things, friends the whole time. Wrestling, before the curtain fully came down, presents an interesting parallel to ARG’s. Wrestlers appeared in public as their characters at all times, giving interviews in character at all times. Like an ARG, despite having scripts and story beats, a match can’t be planned to the second and wrestlers have to prepare for one another’s moves and crowd interactions. Rather than looking to the Jim Carrey idea of getting completely engrossed in a character to the point of blending with it in order to create a sense of reality. ARG developers might take a cue from Andy Kaufman and the world of professional wrestling, commit fully when visible and in front of the curtain, then maintain the spirit of collaboration when the audience isn’t around.