The lights are on
Back in 2001, I played an EA-published game called Majestic. It was unlike anything I had ever played, as the story was told via cryptic phone calls to my cell phone, AOL Instant Messenger bots, and unsolicited faxes.
Ever since its untimely demise, I’ve often hoped someone would bring the concept back. The alternate reality game (ARG) genre spun off in a different direction, becoming a marketing tool with experiences like Halo 2’s ilovebees and The Dark Knight’s Why So Serious (both developed and executed by 42 Entertainment).
Alice & Smith’s The Black Watchmen re-centers the genre, making the game the point instead of simply a vehicle for promoting something else. The game, which is currently the only ARG sold on Steam, began as a tie-in with Funcom’s MMO, The Secret World, but has become its own entity. The company is largely business-to-business, offering work for hire and services to game developers.
“We started in 2007, doing an experimental alternate reality game,” says Alice & Smith’s Andrea Doyon. “Over the years, we got better and better at it. My partner and I had a marketing agency, and we were approached by Funcom to find out if we could help them with a more elaborate alternate reality game. That’s where we did the Gate 33 pre-launch alternate reality game and later on, the End of Days alternate reality game. We enjoyed it so much that we decided to sell our marketing agency and start a game development company.”
In The Black Watchmen, players enlist as an agent, go through simple codebreaking and investigation training using external website tools, and then are let loose on solving puzzles that become progressively more layered and complex. ARGs are carefully constructed webs of truth and falsehoods, with as little differentiation between the two as possible.
The Black Watchmen has a number of dummy websites that exist simply to further the game’s narrative. In order to interact with them, you’ll need real-world information. For instance, one puzzle required me to log into one of the game website’s intranet. The puzzle required me to source NBA basketball schedules in order to discover a character’s password.
There are currently two seasons worth of content, which Doyon says could take players anywhere between 15 and 30 hours to complete per season. There’s also another, optional layer if players want to dive deeper. The third season is in the works right now, but you don’t need to wait for that to jump in.
If you start today, you can play all of the solo missions that have been made available. However, if you get caught up by the time season three rolls around, you’ll be able to adjust your agent level to enhance your interaction.
The default level is entirely user-motivated. You play when you want.
However, during the season, you can opt to receive phone calls. There’s no guarantee that you will, as Alice & Smith wants to ensure there is some mystery.
The level above that makes you eligible for packages to be delivered to your home. Again, there’s no promise you’ll receive something, but you could have unique information the community needs to progress the story.
The top level is limited to one person per season. This requires a physical and psychological examination to ensure you’re up for the task. You’ll need to write an essay explaining why you want to be selected for this elite agent tier, and the community will vote. If appointed, you’ll be flown to a live mission location with actors, sets, and events that require input and cooperation with other players.
Unlike Majestic back in 2001, players do have an impact on the story. Doyon says that in crafting each season, the team leaves room for player decisions, feedback, and mission performance.
“We love to be able to change the story as it happens,” Doyon says. “We generally have 50 percent of the content, the storyline, and the structure of the game before we start the season. So there’s 50 percent that we haven’t decided how it’s going to go. This enables us to take initiative from the players and community. That’s why we release three mission sets, do the live event, and then take a one- or two-week break. In that break, we write the rest of the content and adjust based on how players are enjoying the game.”
Doyon explained how the most recent live event impacted the story and demonstrated consequences for player action. Alice & Smith brought in a player who participated in an earlier live event as a top-tier agent. In the scenario, she was kidnapped, with the new live event player and the online community tasked with saving her.
“They had to save her, but they didn’t. We deleted her account. We deleted her profile. It was over. The emotion of people when they realized they failed and there were clear consequences was exactly the kind of experience and surprise that we wanted the players to have. You can’t do something like that if you already have your season, your assets, your shooting, your actors.”
The puzzles are clever, the storyline is engaging, and the eerie background music and creepy videos help set the stage for sinister happenings. If you are looking for a unique experience that bleeds into your everyday life and requires you to put those Google skills to good use, The Black Watchmen is worth your time. And if you’ve never played an ARG but have always been curious, this is a great place to start.