Immersion and the ARG

In watching the interview about Sleep No More and generally just thinking about the show and immersive theater, an interesting question is posed in relation to ARGs. In Sleep No More all of the audience members, the parallel to the players of an ARG, wear masks. According to the interview, this is central to the immersive nature of the show. It allows the individual to fade into the crowd and behave as they wouldn’t usually, to become part of the show. In an ARG, however, players are not necessarily masked in this way. In a primarily online ARG, a player might be masked by their username, but if the game has some real-world components that mask is taken from them. The question I see is would allowing players to remain metaphorically masked, able to take on new identities, enable them to build the game world up in interesting new ways?

While I know theater and ARGs seek immersion in different ways, the question of masks is still important, I think. Theater seeks to immerse in a way that makes the audience feel like they are living within the show. This, to a degree, is true of an ARG, however in a game you must be able to continue with your everyday life, whereas you are fully able to set that aside for the duration of a performance. I think allowing players to take on game identities, like in a LARP, would assist them with stepping in and out of the game as necessary, and maybe even help with bleed.

Tacoma as a Spatial Story

The discussion on how videogame designers and videogame studies should combine and separate modes of perspective when looking at similar storytelling mediums seems like a very necessary one to be had. I agree with Henry Jenkins–with two viewpoints on the radical ends of the spectrum, the ludologists and narratologists, there needs to be some middle ground to leave possibilities of “what video games can be” open to allow for creativity and experimentation to thrive, since the medium of video games is relatively new compared with other mediums (such as books, movies, music, etc).

I see many of Jenkins’ ideas on spatial stories translating onto Tacoma, which is the game I chose to play a bit of last weekend. The game has a unique approach to what could have been a normal visual-novel-like game, which is allowing the player the explore the various strands of “present” within a single past moment. The affordances that come with this is the ability to choose how deeply you want to know the sub-plots and characters. It isn’t necessary to listen to the entirety of all strands (or to listen to them at all sometimes), but the game helps the players to understand the main narrative through a mechanic of indicating where you need to go at what point in a given scene time to catch key conversations in a strand.

When you go to a different area of the ship, you encounter different recordings of the past, with the order that you encounter them not necessarily matching up with the order that they happened. In this sense, there is some showings of an “episodic” feature, where the order in which you see something doesn’t affect your understanding of the overall plot (pg.7). One example of this is a scene where one of the characters is playing the guitar in their bedrooms; with this room and recording of the past, we are presented with details that allow the player to imagine this fictional world on a deeper narrative level. It wasn’t necessary, however, to see it in the first place, since it didn’t act as a device for furthering the plot. Instead, this scene acts as an encouragement for spatial exploration; the result of playing into this spatial exploration is the reward of a more rich glimpse into the world of Tacoma.

Netprovs VS ARGs VS LARPs

For my blog post, I will analyze netprovs and their place within both ARGs and LARPs. I will be referring to Rob Wittig’s transcribed article, titled Past and Futures of Netprov. In this article, Wittig explains the history and methodology of netprovs, laying the foundation for other creates to explore this unique experience. Networked improv narrative, or netprov for short, is the use of transmedia to create fake characters and enact them into the real world. They bridge reality and fiction through these interactive mechanisms. Since our course revolves around alternate reality games, it would seem rather useful to break the different aspects that make up netprovs and see where they fall within the spectrum of other role-playing games such as ARGs and LARPs. In order to analyze netprovs, I will refer to some of Wittig’s ten qualities that define them. I ultimately conclude that most of the elements that make up netprovs are found in both ARGs and LARPs.

The first is that they are networked narratives, that foster collaboration and improvisation in real time. I immediately envisioned my LARPing experience, Ask Again Later, when reading this quality. Just as within the LARP, the players follow no scripts, no predetermined paths. Instead, they are collaborating with their fellow LARPers to form novel and dynamic relationships/narratives in real time. In reference to ARGs, they too have a level of improvisation in real time, as events do not always go as planned. This forces game designers to be constantly on their toes, and ready to collaborate with the players to create a unique and personalized experience.

The second quality is that netprovs use several media platforms to bring forth their fake characters into the real world. This is directly correlated with ARGs which also heavily utilize transmedia as the source for game play. This fosters accessibility and collaboration amongst players.

The third quality is that netprovs use both featured and casual players. This quality is notable within ARGs as well. In ARGs not all players solve every puzzle or attend every event. There is a dynamic of very invested super players along with the players who are following and reading along. Both ARGs and netprovs share this trait.

The fourth quality of netprovs is quite an interesting idea. Wittig states that, “netprovs are experienced as performance as it is published … later read as a literary archive.” He allows such a literary archive in the world as a single work performance or for the potential for it to be repeated. In my opinion, ARGs differ here, because the experiences are so unique to the specific group that participated in them, that there could absolutely be no way to repeat the experience.

The fifth quality is that netprovs incorporate breaking news. This reminded me of my LARP experience, Ask Again Later. In this LARP, the game makers would occasionally gather us all around and explain some breaking news that essentially brought forth new information into the alternate world we were in. Netprovs utilize this ‘breaking news’ aesthetic as well.

The sixth quality is that netprovs use actors to take part in live performances. This is a quality found in both ARGs rather than LARP. In ARGs, players are constantly conversing with with bots and other characters created by the game makers and participate in live performances where they ultimately get to meet these actors.

The seventh quality of netprovs is that actors create their own charaters in real time. This was an aspect closely resembling LARPs instead of ARGs. One of the must fun and exciting aspects of my LARP experience was that my character had a clean slate as far as motivations and personality. Throughout the LARP, my character continued to evolve in real time as I played through the improv. Netprovs too utilize this quality of active creation of characters.

The eighth quality is that they are usually parodic and satirical. This is where I would say they differ from ARGs because ARGs tend to focus less on satire and more on other aspects of alternate reality that make their games unique and serious. This is why several of the ARGs we have discussed throughout our course have been about environmental activism and saving the world from corruption.

The ninth quality of netprovs is that they utilize the physical world as they make players and actors travel to specific locations to seek information and watch live performances. Here, Wittig directly makes a correlation between netprovs and ARGs because ARGs heavily utilize this quality as well.

The tenth quality is that netprovs are designed to be incomplete narratives, allowing new players to join without feeling left out or out of the loop. This quality is greatly incorporated into ARGs as well as players who are not physically solving puzzles and going on site to locations and solving puzzles, all come together on transmedia forums and chat rooms to be able to collaborate and still actively participate.

Works Cited

Rob Wittig, Past and Futures of Netprov

Spatial Design and its Importance in ARGs

Carefully constructed places allow for a different kind of storytelling. Spatial storytelling is probably the most intuitive way for humans to learn and take part in a game. This boils down to our very human nature. When placed in a new situation or setting, our brain automatically responds by analyzing what is around us. Because of this, it is something that all people know and do in their everyday lives. People feel more comfortable doing this then trying to answer any kind of riddle. I was impressed by Return of the Obra Din but also felt as though it did not hit on one of the strengths of spatial design and storytelling.

              I believe that one of the most important aspects of spatial design is the collaborative nature that it reinforces. For this I will use an example from when I participated in an escape room game when I was back home. Nothing represents spatial storytelling better than throwing 8-10 people in a room they have never seen before and expect them to find their way out. Because I went to the game with only my immediate family of 4, we had to be paired up with another family. I thought this might be awkward because we could be very different group with different abilities. What I found however, was that we functioned as a cohesive group almost immediately. After about an hour, we escaped and left the event as friends. I do not believe this was because we were socially inclined to become friends (The dad of this group was a factory worker, whereas my dad is a biologist) but we still put aside any sort of differences for the sake of the game. I believe this is because in spatial storytelling, everyone can interpret the setting differently. Because of this, it is important to incorporate everyone’s points of view. I also feel that spatial storytelling is by no means a high stakes game. What I mean by this is when working to solve a riddle or answer a problem, there are clear right and wrong answers whereas with spatial storytelling it is different ways of interpreting the same setting. Because of this character are much less likely to feel intimidated and will offer their opinion and observations more often. Because spatial storytelling is so fundamental to how we behave as humans, it is necessary to include it within ARGs.

Rabbit Holes and Social Media

Debatably the best form of a rabbit hole is the use of social media. This is true for many reasons that I will get into on this blog post. I will then compare how the different forms of social media offer different advantages and disadvantages. First, I will react on the in-class exercise of deploying these rabbit holes on other class members. I thought that this exercise was one of the most important that we have done in the class thus far. It is very important for an ARG to have a good rabbit hole; without the rabbit hole, players would have no way to step into the game world. Because of this, the rabbit hole needs to be seamless and fairly universal. This exercise helped my group decide how our own rabbit hole would be achieved. It also let us see how the strengths and weaknesses of the different forms of social media could be put to good use.

              In the previous paragraph, I mentioned that a rabbit hole must be fairly universal in order to draw in a wide and diverse player group. That is why social media is such a good rabbit hole. If we were to do something within the university for an ARG, the player group would be small (only a possible of around 6,000 undergrads at the university) and not very diverse especially in terms of thinking. Social media on the other hand can pull from millions and millions of possible players. These potential players are all extremely different and represent the general population well. Social Media is also a good rabbit hole because it is not expensive. When trying to reach out to a broad group of people hoping that some will respond, you do not want this to be expensive. For example even something as simple as using a physical object for the rabbit hole that only costs around $1, would result in extreme costs before the game has even started. Social media on the other hand does not cost a single dollar. Social Media is also a good rabbit hole because it can tell a full story. Social media profiles are supposed to give a glimpse into the entire life of the person. Because of this, social media can tell a full story and be riddled with clues.

              Now that I have explained why social media is in general a good rabbit hole, I will break down the individual forms of social media. In my opinion, I believe that twitter is the best form of social media for a rabbit hole. This is for a plethora of reasons: 1) twitter allows for all forms of media including pictures, videos, link, that could lead to the next step, 2) twitter profiles can be built and established a long time before the game in order to establish credibility, 3) people are more likely to interact with a tweet than a link in an email because of less fear of security. I believe that LinkedIn is also a very good form for a rabbit hole this is because LinkedIn is fairly official and people are much less likely to scam you on this platform. On the other side, people are not often looking for play on LinkedIn and might be deterred from entering into the rabbit hole. Thirdly, I believe that Facebook is a fairly good platform based alone on how much you can build up and hide within a page. However, people are generally pretty wary of Facebook scams and that might deter participants as well.

Embedded Narrative in Dishonored 2

Many games published and/or developed by Bethesda Studios are often known for their use of environmental storytelling, a concept similar to our talks on embedded narratives in class. A fine example of this method comes from the Dishonored franchise of games, specifically the second game. While the game has a coherent story that can be fully summarized by playing through with little deviation from the main plot there is a plethora of lore that is almost never relevant to the current story. This lore comes in the form of letters, books, recordings, and even art work that is scattered throughout the world. While exploring each individual level the player can pick up several of these items and interact with them in some way. A few of these notes contain clues to progressing through the game while others are simply there to build the world, nevertheless each serves a specific purpose in the broader context of the world.

The first and most relevant component to these embedded elements is that they often provide more depth to the main plot of the game. A book may be a biography of a major character in the story or a painting may reveal some aspect of the character’s personality as seen by one of two in universe artists. These small touches are crucial to the game because Dishonored is a franchise built around the concept of player choice affecting the game world. The player has the choice to play through the game in a lethal or nonlethal manner, it is possible to play through every game without killing a single person. That makes these tiny details for each character crucial to the overall meaning of the game, they inform the decision to either kill or spare the main antagonists before it comes time to decide.

The second and broader reason for these minor details is to build up the world past the game’s story. Some books contain a historical record of some kind while others detail the religious practices of the different countries in the game. Not only does this create a large history for dedicated fans to dive into but it also helps build the world for casual players. The fact that a book such as “Litany on the White Cliff” or “The Fishmonger’s Cookbook” exists and can be interacted with sends the message to players that this is a real world with a real history and their actions will have serious consequences within it. So even if players don’t interact with the majority of the content within the game it still serves a purpose in building up the world around them.

Being, Experiencing, and Executing Story

I wanted to talk about my experiences as both a player in the LARP and as a game maker during Queer Game Night. In some ways, it’s hard to compare the two, because they were very different games, and very different scenarios. At the same time, there’s still a few universal experiences that comes with the gaming process, from making to playing. In particular, I’d like to relate my experience to the playcentric approach of game design, as discussed by Tracy Fullerton. I’d also like to discuss story building and narrative for the player and the game designer.

For those of you who were not able to go to the LARP earlier in the quarter, it was a game set in modern times in a small, backwater town with elements of fantasy added to it. This setting was already made for a previous campaign, though the story was new for our group. The character I created was Miss Kitty Gainsborough (no autographs, please. Alright, maybe a few, if you insist), a wealthy socialite who happened to have demon blood within her. As much fun as I had playing Kitty, there was a moment, standing in a room with only a few people lingering, I thought ‘Am I an NPC?’. Most of my gameplay experience consisted of standing in a spot and waiting for someone to come up to me and initiate conversation. This was, in part, because of the nature of my character herself- she doesn’t work, and her method to solve problems is to pay someone to fix it. Why would she go running about the woods or investigating murders? On the other hand, I couldn’t help but wish the storytellers were more active in trying to hook my character in the narratives being developed. Not once did her demonic nature come up, nor did the fact that her family’s wealth was dwindling and she wasn’t as rich as she made herself out to be. Of course, I think the storytellers did a wonderful job, and I definitely did have fun, but I wonder if there were others who felt like their character hadn’t been brought to the fullest potential, and how, if possible, that could be rectified.

On the flip side, I had experience in starting to make a card game at Queer Game Night. My group had to build a game off of the mechanic of ‘coming out’. It would seem like it would be relatively easy to make a thought-provoking game off of such a mechanic, something that is well known to the general populace, but not as commonly experienced by people outside of the LGBT community. Yet, we kept coming back to ‘why would people want play this’ or ‘why would people play this how we want them to’? By the second question, I’m specifically thinking of how we wanted to make a card game about coming out that was cooperative, rather than competitive. We wanted to craft a game that was more wholesome and welcoming. Yet, how do we inspire people to want to play a game like that, and how to we keep them entertained while playing? While we were working as a group, we didn’t necessary speak about a playcentric model, but most of our roadblocks and potential issues we discussed were related to player enjoyment and motivation, and how that jived with the kind of game we wanted to create.

In relation to narrative, I feel like this is the driving motivation for myself both as a player and a game creator. The urge to create and fulfill Kitty’s story is what eventually lead me to help summon a spirit, steal bodies from a hospital, and make impromptu graves, all of which you’d hardly expect a flighty socialite to participate in. On the other hand, as a game creator, I was focused on trying to create a game that would allow a group of people, in a way, build their ‘coming out’ story. I believe that this implementation and building of narrative is what would motivate the players to play my game, as opposed to being motivated by competition.

As both a player and creator, I’ve found how important it is to think of the player throughout the process, from the very start of brainstorming for a game, to the moment of implementation. It is, after all, the player for which a game is made. I also find that narrative is a tool to help engage the player in the same way mechanics are; it can hook players in, it can keep them interested, or it can even motivate them to action, to find out what comes next.  

Return of the Obra Dinn, Henry Jenkins, and Bad News

The beauty of The Return of the Obra Dinn, for me personally, lies in the fact that the game is a masterpiece in storytelling spatially and temporally.  I feel that though Henry Jenkins describes narrative architecture of being evocative, enacting, embedded, or emergent, Obra Dinn to me not only exhibits characteristics of several, but also subverts general conventions of these categories.

When playing Obra Dinn, I was in awe of the different ways that the narrative unfolded and untangled over time, both spatially and temporally.  It reminded me the most of an embedded narrative, one where viewers “assemble and make hypothesis about likely narrative developments on the basis of information drawn from textual cues and clues.”  Each snapshot of a death, as shown by Memento Mortem, slowly unraveled more about the storyline as the player searches around the ship to find contextual clues and information.  Jenkins, however, also describes embedded narratives as “less of a temporal structure than a body of information,” though I would argue that Obra Dinn stands forthright as an embedded narrative that also prides itself on its complex sense of temporality.  It reminds me of the game Braid, where moving backwards means moving forward in the game; in advancing in the storyline of Obra Dinn, one has to advance earlier in the storybook, then jump back to areas forwards (technically backwards) in the story to hunt for earlier clues.  Obra Dinn excels in its ability to time almost begin to exhibit a spatial aspect, as it did not feel like a line in 1D space, but rather, a multidimensional platform in which to roam through.  Timeline events were sloppy—and not even in a bad way—in being able to tell a story in which there were events stepping over each other and lapses where the player had to fill in gaps purely through inference, the game is successful. Obra Dinn is a testament to the fact that stories need not unfold linearly; real life occurrences and events are complex and messy, spilling over each other and affecting each person differently—so why can’t media narratives be the same?

Another question I have been grappling with that may be interesting for others to comment on is how Obra Dinn is either different from or similar to Bad News, and how each game excels in its own way.  For starters, Bad News exists in a shorter timeline and involves only one death.  Narratively and temporally, however, Bad News doesn’t unfold backwards in the same way as Obra Dinn: sure, it starts from the death, but one advances forwards in time to find the next of kin. In Jenkins’ terms, I feel that the game blurs the lines between an embedded and emergent narrative.  Spatially, Bad News felt like Obra Dinn in the embedded way that one explores an ecosystem fertile with narrative clues and hints; however, Bad News also exhibits an emergent narrative in that the storyline can be actively shaped and molded by whomever the player chooses to visit.  There was an aspect of live improvisation involved that reminded me of games with open-space worlds like The Sims that Obra Dinn could not provide.

What’s the best social media platform for creating a rabbit hole?

After our social media rabbit hole exercise, I wanted to figure out which social media platform would yield the highest conversion and how to get the most players for an ARG as possible. I thought this would also be pretty useful in understanding how to grow a user/follower base for other projects.. The social media platforms that we used were: LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, Tinder, Youtube, Pinterest, and Twitch, and Snapchat.

When thinking about which platform would be best to use I think that it is first really important to understand who your exact demographic is. 30 year olds are going to have different social media preferences to high school or incoming college students.  For this example, I am going to assume that target market are incoming college students at the University of Chicago. The second important thing in my opinion is understanding what a certain social media platform is used for and how many people in the target demographic use it (Tinder is used for dating, Linkedin for networking, Twitch for gaming). By understanding the focal points of social media platforms we can eliminate ones that do not fit the purpose of the project and do not target the demographics of the incoming freshman. Lastly, it is important to look at the conversion rates for different social media platforms. This means how many people on average will actually click on the rabbit hole and convert to players. I think a good way to extrapolate would be to look at advertisement data that many of these social media platforms have.

Using the above framework we know the target market are incoming college students at University of Chicago. Immediately we can eliminate LinkedIn as many freshman do not have a LinkedIn account. Dating apps also tend to be pretty personal/not used a ton in comparison to other platforms. Pinterest has an older demographic and is predominantly female. Youtube is not really a social media platform but for of a content discovery and pure media platform. This leaves us with Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitch.

From the above charts courtesy of sproutsocial, we can see that Facebook is the most popular social media platform amongst our target demographic. Facebook also has facebook groups, interests, and can therefore be used to curate content even further. Instagram also has a pretty high percent of users but does not beat out Facebook.

The last criteria is to look at the conversion rate. Facebook’s conversion rate is 4.7%, Instagram’s is 3.1%, and Snapchat is .6% (pulled from Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/priceonomics/2018/03/09/the-advertising-conversion-rates-for-every-major-tech-platform/#3396f5f15957 )

Thus, Facebook seems to be the winner. The last component to analyze would be the cost per impression and then see which option is most cost efficient, but I believe that the advertisements across platforms have pretty competitive prices. I also think Twitch is interesting because you are targeting gamers who are probably going to be more likely to convert to an ARG because they like to play games, but again not many students are on Twitch in comparison to Facebook and I thin the goal here is to also convert non-gamers as well.

Let me know what your thoughts are on this/if you think I missed something I probably did!

Tiered Engagement Case Study: Hi I’m Mary Mary

The “tiered” format of alternate-reality gaming reminded me of an ARG I’m actually following right now. It’s called “Hi I’m Mary Mary” and it’s essentially a webseries/Twitter play with ARG elements.

The plot is this: there’s a girl who only knows that her name is Mary. One day she wakes up in a house with no memory of her life. She is unable to leave the house, she can’t communicate with the outside world (she can post videos and tweet things but has no idea if people are responding) and nothing really happens during the day. But at night, she is quick to discover she’s not alone: the house is inhabited by monsters that constantly torment her.

That’s all I’m going to really say about the plot: this is a surprisingly engaging storyline that I wouldn’t want to spoil for anyone interested in checking it out. But what’s fascinating about this entire thing is that there are multiple ways to engage with the storyline.

  1. Simply watch the videos. These portray the major events in Mary’s life inside the house, and her encounters with the monsters. These videos are entertaining, intriguing, and terrifying, and more or less encompass a complete ecxperience.
  2. Read Mary’s Twitter. Much like TheSunVanished, Mary’s Twitter offers a more complete and consistent narrative compared to the videos, documenting her daily life in the house, and some encounters with the monsters we don’t see in the videos, while also helping audiences by giving it a solid sense of timeline.
  3. Read Mary’s blog. This is where ARG elements really come into play (which I’ve learned from the creator was intentional after the series got noticed by several ARG reviewers): Mary makes blog posts about things she found in the house. Unknown to her, there’s another force hiding within her blog, leaving hidden puzzles and messages in the source code giving the audience tips and warnings.

The only way to really know everything about Mary’s life is to engage in all three of these things. But the fact of the matter is most people are only going to really engage with this story via the videos and maybe the Twitter account. And yet there’s still enough going on there that it won’t detract from the experience. I’ve met a number of fans of the series who had no idea about the blog, and just thought the whole thing was just a webseries. They were accepting the occasional installment of a new video every few months as a complete story, and it was still rewarding despite them not being aware of hours of new Hi I’m Mary Mary content via other avenues.

I actually asked the creator of the series about her target audience shortly after I finished this reading: she explained that she hadn’t really had a specific demographic in mind for her audience, but had been hoping to appeal to fans of Slenderverse webseries like Marble Hornets and Tribe Twelve. Those shows hit sort of the sweet spot for ARG-webseries: there’s a game hidden within that viewers have to really engage with in order to discover the much larger story, but the videos themselves still tell something that’s satisfying for viewers. You can engage as a casual viewer, or you can come along for the ride.