Mary Knize

The Allure of the Alternate Reality Game

3 min read


It all started with a creepy video and a hashtag. A random person tweeted out a recording of a creepy voicemail that they received. It has since been deleted. In the voicemail, a computer voice reads out military code that spells out, "Danger SOS it is dire for you to evacuate be cautious they are not human SOS danger SOS".

Since then, a hashtag has popped up: #theyarenothuman. A search of those tweets brings up countless conspiracy theories. Intrigued by what was probably a hoax, but an interesting one, I wasted an evening reading a bunch of these theories, and one thread by user the anon took me further into weird parts of the internet than I expected.

In this thread a group called Cicada 3301 is mentioned, and I found mention of them on reddit posts as well. It turns out that this organization is responsible for a series of puzzles and alternate reality games with no clear purpose or agenda. When I was a child the idea of codebreaking and finding messages hidden in plain sight fascinated me, and finding out about Cicada 3301 has reignited that excitement within me. While I haven't dug much deeper into Cicada 3301, I do plan to look into it at some point.

Having never really come across the term "alternate reality game", I started looking into that as well. The only one I've found so far that I have any recollection of is the marketing campaign for The Dark Knight. In the 18 months leading up to the film's release, a huge alternate reality game kicked off at San Diego Comic-Con and spread across the country, leading people to find cakes with cell phones hidden inside and to participate in campaign rallies for Harvey Dent.

It turns out that alternate reality games have been used as marketing devices for a while now, from the movie A.I. to Halo 2. Most recently, the University of Chicago used an elaborate alternate reality game as part of freshman orientation. But I'm more interested in games that exist for the fun of the game, not as part of a marketing ploy. I've found a few interesting games, like the Haunted Majora's Mask Cartridge that began as a creepy short story that exploded into a full-blown ARG.

Another game that I find fascinating is The Wilson Wolfe Affair, an offline ARG. Players are sent a crate of old-timey animation memorabilia that turns out to hide clues to a sinister mystery. It looks absolutely engrossing and I'm debating trying it out for myself.

An alternate reality game that I don't think is really a game but an art project is Poppy. I stumbled upon her on a recent list of ARGs and I've probably spent most of my time this weekend watching Poppy videos. I don't even know how to describe Poppy. She's beautiful, creepy, and I can't stop watching her videos and listening to her music. I could probably write an entire blog post about her. Is there an endgame to Poppy? I'm not sure there is. Does she make some deep statements about our culture and society? I'd definitely say yes.

As someone who has a background in live theatre, programming skills, and a fascination with codes and cryptography, I really would love to create my own ARG at some point. I have a story that I've been mulling over for years, at first wanting to write a novel, then wanting to adapt it as an RPG. But perhaps, since it does take place in a world very similar to ours, it would best be played as an alternate reality game.

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