Saturday, January 10, 2009

An incoherent question about ARGs

I've been thinking about ARGs lately, specifically about how they are an irksome combination of utterly fascinating and, simultaneously, quite boring indeed. And I think the boring part is a matter of lack-of-fit between my own ways of thinking (and playing) and the way most ARGs are constructed. My problem is, ARGs don't look enough like fanfiction.

Backing up a bit, ARGS--alternate reality games--are immersive games which are played partly online and partly in the real world, and are a sort of extremely multimedia form of storytelling. That's the part I love, as some of you know, since I have a bad habit of tying people to chairs and going on and on at them about whatever interests me. Sorry about that. Anyway, Andrew Losowsky's Alternate Reality Games and a future of narrative explains it more clearly than I'm doing.

The bits where I cease to be interested have to do with the mechanisms of actually solving them. Most of them rely on a huge amount of solve-this-code, translate-this-Sanskrit-thing. As a means of showing how online can communities can manage to find someone who knows whatever bit of esoterica is required, this is quite cool, but...actually sitting around waiting until someone who knows Sanskrit tells you what something means isn't really very interesting. It just isn't. (Dan Hon pointed up this problem here, and he's speaking as a designer.)

Even if it takes nanoseconds, those nanoseconds transform you from someone who is actively theorizing and reading to someone who is passively consulting an expert. Basically, I enjoy stories: I don't give a shit about source code. So I would prefer stories that require skills having to do with storytelling. For instance: imagine if fanfic authors* wrote an ARG. Instead of relying on codes hidden in the source code, the clues would be hidden in the subtext--when you noticed two characters interacting suspiciously, the thing to do wouldn't be to look for a phone number encrypted in the page; instead you'd go look for a community that shipped them, and the website/phone number/whatever would show up there. The "meaningful" bits would be part of the story, the parts that close readers and enthusiastic fans enjoy looking for: hidden motivations, coded relationships, meaningful but small gestures.

So the incoherent question: would this work, and if so, are there people in fandom already doing this? I would be their biggest fan ever, so point me at them. I know there are talented fan-authors-and-artists already writing multimedia stories; have any of them crossed the line into making it slightly more complex and game-like, so that readers have to work a bit harder to find all the pieces? Okay, that's several questions.

*It's probably not a coincidence that one of the ARGs I found really interesting (and for which the use of code made sense, given the context) was MetaCortechs, which itself gets described as fanfiction, because it was inspired by the Matrix Trilogy.

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