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ARG: another acronym to embrace before it destroys you

September 30th, 2004: Mike Sugarbaker says...
ARG: another acronym to embrace before it destroys you

Many of you likely know all about I Love Bees, the mysterious site the URL for which was flashed briefly at the end of an online trailer for Microsoft’s upcoming first-person shooter Halo 2. You may also remember the promotional online puzzle games that tied in with Steven Spielberg’s A.I., which games came to be known collectively as “The Beast” and whose community of players called themselves the Cloudmakers. Rich with game-world detail, convincing characters and sometimes-fiendish puzzles, these alternate reality games, or ARGs, are… well… basically just LARPs. I Love Bees recently took another step closer to LARPhood when it not only challenged players to find and answer pay phones being called by an in-game AI, but anointed the answerers of certain calls with membership in the “crew” of the AI’s lost spaceship.

One player is not happy. Eric Burns laments that the collaboration with strangers in real time that made his experience in the Cloudmakers so compelling will be weakened and eventually destroyed by this singling out of a few lucky players. But collective-detection to unlock a story is basically How to Host a Murder – you can keep fiddling with the puzzles and the means of revelation, but you can’t disguise the fact that, after all the fire and motion, you are still just waiting for the next piece of story to consume. A story is not a game. ARGs are now making the leap from that model to the model of Mind’s Eye Theater – by adding actual gameplay. So far, it’s just the game of Prisoner’s Dilemma; do you, the individual, stick with the group, or do you defect? Other games are possible in ARGs, and we will no doubt see more than a few of those possibilities soon. The question is whether going from the How to Host a Murder model to the model of today’s LARPs will come with the same loss of accessibility – and popularity.

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