As Comic-Con descends upon us this week, now would be the perfect time to address that magical moment when games and movies collide. And no, I'm not referring to the abominations that leak out of your local retail game stores around the same time that a summer blockbuster hits the big screen.
Imagine grabbing a poster of an upcoming movie and finding a message on the back of it. You go online, type in a couple of search terms, and websites from the future start to appear on your screen. Already you're in deep as you try to solve a murder, run from an Anti-Robot Militia, and try to make sense of a mad artificial intelligence program. Fortunately, you have millions of other people online trying to help you out and solve the mystery.
Back in 2001, this was the start of something big. A small team of developers from Microsoft used what they learned about games to create a world around the players in order to promote "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence," the Steven Spielberg movie about robots. Codenamed "The Beast" since it had 666 assets for players to rummage through, the game used video, web pages, video games, and even real life events to create an immersive story around the player. The game took off with millions of people playing around the globe.
While not every alternative reality game (ARG) will reach such epic potentials, you can learn about them and get a little taste of what it takes to participate in one. Here are the three main ingredients you need for an ARG.
1. A Story to Pull You In
What's going to get you to run in sweltering 90 degree weather? Forget that fitness stuff. I bet you would pump those legs in the fate of humanity rested on your shoulders. To get you warmed-up with the idea of ARG, here's title that lets you take on the world, one step at a time.
"Run, Zombie, Run" puts you into the sweaty tennis shoes of Runner 5 as you try to pick up supplies lying around the remains of civilization. When zombies inhabit every corner of the world, small clusters of humanity rely on runners to search for supplies and get back before they become a snack. The difference between this mobile game and other zombie titles you might play is that you are really running around your neighborhood. As you make your lap around the block, the game keeps track of where you're going and how fast you are getting there. Slow down and you might find yourself in the middle of a surprise zombie attack. Once you get back home, you get to dole out the virtual goods you obtain on your run to your slice of humanity.
But what keeps you strapping on those tennis shoes is not that runner's high. There's a story to follow every time you hit the ground as you track the survivors as they struggle against the coming horde and even each other. The radio drama plays out as you try to keep pace with the music on your phone. With every run, the world opens up just a little bit for you to check out. Sometimes a good story requires you to work; this one needs you to sweat. "Run, Zombie, Run" is already on its third season of stories, but I would advise against binge running.
2. People to Shape the Story
Film school isn't easy. There's a lot to learn and little time for fun and games – or maybe not. A phone call, a secluded location, mysterious figures; while this has all the trappings of the next "Scream" movie, it's only the beginning of an alternative reality game that will bring students together for competition and collaboration. "Reality Ends Here" started only a couple of years ago at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, but it's already making waves with its use of game design to encourage creativity in the freshmen students.
Each student gets a random pack of color-coded cards. Green cards tell the students what they have to make, but they can use other modifying cards in the pack to add points to the project as well as difficulty. Weekly prizes such as mentorships or visits to the set are given to the students at the top of the leaderboard. Students are allowed to trade cards with other students, work together on a project, or solve puzzles to obtain additional cards. Putting the cards together creates deals which can range from film to live performances to comics and games you create.
While you could simply be happy working through the cards given to you, it's the people in the game along with you that help to shape what's going to happen next. You may find yourself on opposing teams staring at each other from across the cafeteria. Otherwise, everyone may just come together for one big deal where everyone makes it to the top for the big prize. Being a part of the story, you as well as everyone else participating, shape the game in a variety of ways from the events that happen to the way the narrative comes to a close.
3. The Right Setting
With thousands of fans running around, stars from all across the spectrum, and practically everything you can imagine under the sun, this next bit of advice is going to sound utterly ridiculous: keep an eye out for something strange. San Diego Comic-Con may be the epicenter of nerd culture this week, but it is also a breeding ground for some of the biggest alternative reality games in the world.
In 2007, eagle-eyed visitors caught on to the defamed one dollar bills with the grinning clown on the front of it. Participants logged on to a website that took them on a wild hunt around the convention to find clues and solve puzzles. Those who followed the trail got a chance to see the first trailer for "The Dark Knight" before anyone else. The game continued by taking fans of the franchise through the story of the rise of the Joker, the election of Harvey Dent, and finally to a free IMAX screening of the movie. Other movies, including "Cloverfield" and "The Avengers," have pulled similar stunts where playing along can get you an exclusive reward.
For these games to work, you need a place to hold them. While cyberspace might suffice for some, there's nothing like interacting with the real world to give both the game and the story a sense of weight. You can use places like phone booths or graveyards to give the game a foot in the real world. Other games like the Lovecraft ARG happening now in the San Diego Library or the Art Hunters at the Springfield Museum of Art look to bring in people through story and clues. Both games turn information into keys to help players delve deeper into the story.
So while you're at Comic-Con, keep your eyes out for those "Jurassic World" pamphlets, talk to everyone you see, pick up anything that looks funny on the floor, download every app from every movie there, and bring plenty of deodorant. That last one won't help you with the game, but it will certainly help you out in the real world -- and that place matters, too.