Ask us how to describe alternate reality games (ARGs) and the best we can come up with is this: Dungeons and Dragons exploded. Similar to RPGs (role-playing games, like Dungeons and Dragons) and virtual reality, ARGs require players to fully immerse themselves into games. They’re the grown-up, expanded version of your kids’ Choose Your Own Adventure books. Creators of ARGs create a starting point (sometimes as simple and noticeable as a question on a Reddit forum), create wayfinding points along the way, and then let players create the story and the game between each point.
At times, it can feel like you’re in the last Tri-Wizard Tournament challenge, in a labyrinth that shifts and changes with each move you make and can be different from one player to the next — except you’re hardly playing alone. In many cases, you end up working as a team with other random strangers playing too. Players share clues, knowledge, and experiences that help them “travel” from one point in the game to the next. It’s honestly not too far off from those escape room adventures. Confused? Try playing an ARG. They’re fantastically popular but wildly difficult to wrap your brain around at first. So gear up and embark into a world of fantasy and virtual adventure. Yes, it’s a little geeky but the fun stuff usually is. Here, we’ll attempt to walk you through the basics.
Before you dive headfirst into the world of The Black Watchmen, the Jejune Institute, or Cicada 3301 (a few of the most popular ARGs), you need to know the lingo. With that in mind, here are a few key terms.
- TINAG: A popular phrase used is TINAG, which stands for “this is not a game.” It’s used to incite a rush or panic.
- PM: It is a game, though. With any game comes a Puppet Master (PM). Similar to the dungeon master when playing D&D, “Puppet Master” is used to refer to the creator(s) of each game. They’re the ones pulling “the strings,” so to speak. They can be both useful and detrimental to your gameplay.
- Curtain: Similarly, you’ll hear a lot about “the curtain.” Think of it as a bit of a reference to the phrase, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” When people refer to the curtain, they’re usually talking about the separation between players and the puppet master.
- Rabbit-hole: One other term you’ll see often? “Rabbit-hole” or, sometimes, “trailhead.” Remember when Alice in Wonderland goes down the rabbit hole? She continues her story belowground in a world of twists and turns during her adventures in Wonderland. Same concept. Rabbit-holes are the starting point, and for ARGs, they’re usually websites.
- Puppet master: In ARG, this person is the master of the game. They’re usually the game designer who creates the gaming experience for the players. The puppet master is a lot like a god. They watch over the players and make changes to their world. He follows the players’ actions and controls the scoring. They are also responsible for keeping the game fair and on track.
I Love Bees
Here’s where ARGs get a little sus. Oftentimes, they’re used as marketing strategies. One notable example is with I Love Bees (or ILB) and its use as a marketing strategy for Halo 2. In one of the first trailers released for Halo 2, a hidden message led curious players to a mysterious website that had been hacked. The adventure continued through multiple months, coinciding with the release of Halo 2.
Jejune Institute is another example of a well-constructed ARG. This time, though, it was hyper-local. The whole game took place in San Francisco, California. It started with an “induction room” and concluded with a seminar in a local Hyatt, four “chapters” later. Along the way, participants were sent all over the city in search of clues — and they found them everywhere from local businesses to random signs on chain-link fences. Nearly the entire game was created and put together by local artists who eventually collected a small team to help. Lasting from 2008 to 2011, it was mostly free and made no money.
The Lost Experience & Find 815
Both TLE and Find 815 were ARGs associated with the wildly popular American television show, Lost. The show was based on the lives of survivors of crashed airplane Flight 815 stranded on a strange “island.” Find 815 began a month before the Lost Season 4 premiere and took players along for the ride as one survivor’s boyfriend attempted to track down the flight. The game started with a fake press release that the show’s fictitious airline was back in business and concluded a month later.
The Black Watchmen
Most ARGs run for a small period of time but eventually end. You have a goal and once you reach it, it’s over. The Black Watchmen ARG serves a different purpose. It’s known as the first permanent ARG and has, so far, run for two “seasons.” It’s based on Funcom’s “The Secret World” universe. However, it’s not necessary for players to have any knowledge or experience of said universe.
The Ash Vlogs
Are you a fan of all those true crime podcasts and murder mystery shows? The Ash Vlogs is an ARG set in that realm. It follows the kidnapping and presumed murder of an Australian girl named Ash. It has a murder mystery plot that comes complete with a stalker, super creepy neighbor, an odd voicemail, and kidnapping. If you’re looking for something realistic and terrifying, Ash Vlogs is the winning ARG. If you’re interested in trying this ongoing ARG, you can walk through all previous clues and chapters at a fan-made wiki before embarking on the journey.
Cicada 3301 might be one of the most mysterious ARGs to exist. It’s so popular that the media has covered it ad nauseam. In fact, we wrote an entire article on Cicada 3301. Who started it and what was the purpose? Even people who “won” the game or completed the journey seem unsure.
Looking for more info on ARGs or hoping to join in on the fun? Reddit has a whole thread devoted to ARGs. Find other fans and players, sort out clues, and get the word on anything new that appears.
Dear David isn’t super intense, but it is spooky. Adam Ellis’s apartment is haunted. He walks you through his home and takes photos and records videos that prove his apartment has an unwelcome spirit. And even though it’s a slow burn, players say it’s an addicting and fun ARG to start with.
If you’re looking for something authentic, you’ll enjoy Hiimarymary. A girl wakes up in a home that isn’t hers but has a strange resemblance to her parent’s house. The scary part is she can’t leave. It’s really creepy, has a good plot, and filled with jump scares.
Everyone loves a good scare! Daisy Brown is a sci-fi horror blend available on YouTube that is told through video diaries. Daisy is tasked with the huge and terrifying responsibility of raising a monster named Alan. The creature was created by her father, a genetic scientist. Each day she documents the monster’s growth and her feelings about her situation change. Alan starts off as a harmless and manageable experiment but as he grows older, he becomes more dangerous and aggressive. Eventually, Daisy must make a tough decision about the creature she’s grown so close to.
My Dad’s Tapes
My Dad’s Tapes is a mystery ARG about a man named Chris who receives an ominous package from his dead father, Gerald. In the package are a bunch of VHS tapes that seem to show a murder. Throughout the ARG, Chris tries to understand the tapes, which becomes a dangerous and life-threatening investigation.
Robots Are Eating The Building
In Robots Are Eating The Building, the story takes place at a quiet academic institution called Harrisburg University. A bunch of tiny and destructive robots begin to destroy one of the campus towers. The only way to defeat the bots is to upload harmful data to the building’s network to overload the robots’ memories and stop them.
The White Door
In The White Door, a man wakes up in a mental hospital where he has no memory of anything. To find out who he is and why he’s there, the character must find cubes from around the world that reveal the truth. The game is a quest to restore the man’s memory.
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