By Haley Moore, August 17th, 2009

Jim Babb (Awkward Hug), Elan Lee (Fourth Wall Studios), and Michelle Senderhauf (varin.org) work on solving the final puzzle in FestQuest.

ARGFest-o-Con is still rattling around in my brain cavity, and I am still experiencing the aftereffects, both real and imagined. I have been busily showing off my swag to every person who comes within ten feet for the last month; at this point I think I might be getting a little obnoxious about it. For those of you who missed it this year – and believe me, you missed something special – let me walk you through the event as I experienced it or at least, the parts I can remember.

Friday afternoon’s festivities were something of a love letter to Awkward Hug, the creators and stars of Must Love Robots. Dozens of ARGers collaborated to build robot costumes for the Robot Speed Dating event that would set up the game’s finale. (This combined my two favorite things: crafts and gaming.) The speed dating offered players an early opportunity to flex their puzzle-solving muscles, challenging each other to solve puzzles to “decrypt” each others’ robo-hearts.

I collaborrated with another ARGer to create this smokin' hot rasta bot costume.

I collaborated with another ARGer to create this smokin' hot rasta-bot costume.

Friday night, we adjourned to an official meet-and-greet cocktail party, where I got to put faces to many of the ARG-related names I’ve seen online over the years. (And was surprised to learn that I already knew some of the people I had “met” earlier that day.)

As far as Saturday’s panels went, there was a lot of tension vented in the panel on “Blurring the Lines,” with the creator of the controversial game I’m Sorry and recently outed PM Martin Aggett. While I’d like to weigh in on that panel and what the contents mean for immersive gaming as a whole (something which FriarTech has already done splendidly), I have to admit that I missed half of it hanging out in the hall, talking to Jeff Hull and Sean Aaberg of Nonchalance.

From left, Jeff Hull, Sara Thacher, Uriah Findley and Sean Aaberg of Nonchalance shudder under the terrible countenance of the Jejune Institute's founder.

From left, Jeff Hull, Sara Thacher, Uriah Findley and Sean Aaberg of Nonchalance cower under the terrible countenance of the Jejune Institute's founder.

Nonchalance’s panel on The Jejune Institute really embodied the ARG experience. After passing out drinks in cups printed with what were obviously puzzles – drinks that, I should point out, smelled like Windex and looked like engine coolant, and that I let my neighbors play food taster on – Nonchalance gave us a walkthrough of their real-world experience, which involves several dozen sites and artifacts scattered throughout the San Fancisco, which they refer to as “trap doors” into the “Elsewhere.” Some of these trap doors included wooden “hobo coinage” that players can get from, well, from hobos; pieces of miniature sculpture, an actual hidden office, a localized radio broadcast, all leading back to a secret page on the game’s web site.

The experience cost six figures to produce, according to Hull, largely from private sponsors. It now services over a thousand visitors on a heavy day, with players forming lines at some of their installations. The project excited me because it also comes close to representing that elusive and majestic animal, the Replayable ARG. Sara Thacher, who completed the Nonchalance panel, said that players return to the tangible puzzle trail multiple times, and bring their friends. The Jejune Institute project is an extension of the PMs’ work as street artists, and it seems to be more an artistic endeavor than a commercial one, at least for now. Aaberg summed up the collision of raw art with gaming in my favorite quote of the weekend:

“I’m not really into ARGs,” he said. “I just like fucking with people.”

We also heard from Patrick Moller of vm-people, a German ARG company helped consulting company Roland Berger create an ARG to use as a recruiting tool to identify desirable employees. With the U.S. in an economic downturn, the story of their game, Join the Pirates, seemed a little like a fairy tale to me: not only are big companies hiring in Germany, but they’re also willing to hire ARG makers to help them hire people. Moller said that the fictional secret society created in Join the Pirates will actually be developed into a permanent community. It made me pause and wonder if using ARGs as a marketing strategy to move product isn’t missing the mark a little bit.

Between the panels, Dee Cook and Michelle Senderhauf presented an In Memoriam video for Dave Szulborski, the beloved independent ARG developer who created such games as ChangeAgents, Chasing the Wish, Urban Hunt, and Monster Hunter Club – and this writer’s immersive gaming guru. Most of us had a connection with Dave, whether we were avid players, behind the scenes operatives, or co-conspirators in his wild, imaginative, ambitious schemes. Most of us had made paper cranes for Dave while he was in the hospital, through the Folding the Wish project. Dave’s wife, Marianne, and his son, Tyler, attended ARGFest and were presented with a memory book made by the ARG community, containing artifacts of and tributes to his work. With them they brought a heart-shaped vessel containing some of his ashes, which was placed in the ARG Museum along with a large collection of artifacts from Dave’s games.

(It’s also worth noting that, weeks after the convention was over, a dedication to Dave was included in the finale of Must Love Robots. In panel, the creators credited his books as their inspiration for, and guide to creating immersive media.)

A mysterious package found at the ARGFest keynote.

A mysterious package found at the ARGFest keynote.

Again, I should stress that this was my first ARGFest, and I came to this one because I felt a need to pay tribute to Dave in my own small way. But what I found there was a relentless stream of the gaming that I adore. I don’t know if ARGFest usually incorporates this much interaction, but this year we were not just treated to a very enjoyable FestQuest (which we didn’t finish, but still had fun playing) – after we arrived back from our puzzle tour of Portland and settled down with our food for the keynote dinner, the organizers announced that we would all play a ten-minute ARG together. One attendee found a rabbithole package under her seat, and from there everyone in the room got busy, visiting web sites on their web-enabled phones, calling in-game numbers and shouting out solutions. The experience is still available to play, and I’ve adopted it as my go-to reference to explaining the idea of an ARG to newcomers.

Jordan Weisman’s keynote gave us all a personal view on the prenatal stages of immersive storytelling, from the early days of FASA and Weisman’s forays into VR, to the strange fusion of licensing deals that eventually created The Beast. Weisman said that the main lesson learned from developing that game was that no one group of developers could beat the distributed playerbase – the “hive mind” as he called it.

And we, the hive mind, kept the gaming going through Sunday, with several groups setting out to play Bulpadok’s The Hidden Park, and others venturing out to find a dead drop for an ARG called Intimation (WriteupForums). We all met up at the location of an urban microcache, and I even found a piece of urban crochet which had been installed the previous night by the writers at Yarn Bombing.

ARGers play with an interactive sculpture in downtown Portland

ARGers play with an interactive sculpture in downtown Portland during Sunday exploration.

All of this cannot begin to describe the social experience of ARGFest. Spending the weekend with a hundred other people who all share a passion for immersive gaming is something that we should all get the chance to do at least once. But more than that, there was some sort of alchemy between our penchant for finding adventure in mundane places, and the weirdness of the city itself. Portland offered us the opportunity to witness bar fights and motor accidents, go party crashing, eat death-themed donuts and smoke cigars we bought on the street, and get chased by bums. I even had a run-in with a nudist in the con hotel… er, long story. The point is, whether it was our willingness to take the city in or the way the city embraced us, we had one wild, crazy, dirty, magical, dangerous time, and I wish I could do it all again.

For visual evidence of our Portland adventures, check out ARGFest on Flickr and YouTube.

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Posted in community cross-media crowdsourcing events gaming social media

Haley Moore is a newspaper reporter, artist, and playwright based in north Texas. She has worked on several indie, fan and commercial Alternate Reality Games.

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