By Hiawatha Bray
The Boston Globe - April 25, 2005
Millions of us saw the television commercial last year. Outside a luxurious estate, a man paddles in his brilliant blue swimming pool, munching rich red lingonberries. He glances up to see an orange sports car arc through the air and plunge into the water a few feet away.
The ad promoted the excellent color reproduction of the new flat-panel TV sets by Sharp Electronics.
But something else was in play, something hinted at by the Internet address on the screen www.moretosee.com.
Indeed, there was a great deal more to see and do, and a tempting prize awaiting the curious viewer who followed the mystery to the end. The Sharp commercial was more than a TV ad. It was a "rabbit hole."
That's what they call the opening move in new kinds of totally immersive games, played out on the Internet, on TV, even in real life. These are called "alternate reality games," or ARGs.
"The whole illusion you're trying to create is that there's this whole segment of our world that you don't know about," said ARG designer Dave Szulborski, whose book on the subject is titled "This Is Not a Game."
Nobody's better qualified to write about ARGs than Szulborski. He helped to create one of the earliest of them the daring, controversial, and misbegotten game Majestic, from Electronic Arts Inc.
Billed as "the game that plays you," Majestic was an "X-Files"-like adventure that drew the player into an alternate world of dark secrets and government conspiracies.
But unlike most desktop computer games, you didn't just install Majestic and play it on your PC. You signed up for the game over the Internet, providing your phone number, e-mail address, and an instant-messaging user name.
The game operators at Electronic Arts "puppetmasters" in ARGspeak used phone calls and electronic messages to provide new clues in the story. A player's desk phone might ring in the middle of the workday, delivering a breathless message from a frightened informant warning of a new peril. Or the conspirators might send an instant message bearing a thinly veiled threat.
Electronic Arts had high hopes for Majestic, but the game was a flop. In an effort at realism, the game was designed to run in "real time," like the TV series "24." But this bored many players, who didn't want to wait hours for new clues. As if that weren't bad enough, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 occurred shortly after the game was launched. In the aftermath of that trauma, few people wanted to play a game about an evil band of conspirators.
But Szulborski and others thought the concept was too good to abandon. They began cobbling together their own games online puzzles that forced players to seek out clues through a variety of online and offline channels.
Szulborski has produced a number of these games, including "Urban Hunt," which featured a fictional reality TV show involving a nationwide quest for a half-million dollars.
In reality, there was no show and no prize. But that didn't matter to ARG buffs. "Most of these, the only reward is the game aspect of it," said John Mitropoulos, 38, an information security specialist in Charlotte, N.C., and an avid ARG player. "You're participating in kind of like those mystery parties people have."
Sharp's ARG was different. Launched last autumn, it was titled "The Legend of the Sacred Urns." This game featured a hunt for a rare artifact, with a Sharp home entertainment center for the first player to find it. Many of the vital clues were embedded in a series of oddball TV commercials.
Visitors to moretosee.com could view the ads, with pointers that highlighted visual clues. All the other game play took place on Internet bulletin boards, where players swapped suggestions and analyzed each clue in exhaustive detail. An Ohio resident, Ken Floss, solved the mystery on Dec. 1 to win the grand prize. But for most ARG fans, the puzzle is its own reward.
You'd think ARG games would appeal to a fairly small group of players, but Microsoft Corp. knows better. The company's video game Halo 2 was one of 2004's biggest hits, partly because it was promoted with a hugely popular ARG called "ILoveBees."
The trailers for the game that Microsoft ran in movie theaters last year concluded with an Internet address ilovebees.com. The address pointed to a website for a small beekeeping business, but visitors were soon drawn into a tense drama about a future alien invasion of Earth, similar to the one in Halo 2.
"ILoveBees" players would get more information about the threat by identifying pay telephones in the real world, then going to them at prearranged times. The phones would ring and players would hear new chapters of the story and would acquire more clues.
Apart from the movie trailers, Microsoft barely advertised this game. But driven mostly by word of mouth, about 2 million people visited the ilovebees website. "We've received pictures of fans recruiting strangers on busy streets, pictures of fans answering pay phones dressed in full scuba gear, and we've even seen fans waving ILB [ILoveBees] banners on CNN at the presidential debates," said Chris di Cesare, director of product marketing at Microsoft Game Studios.
The ARG universe continues to grow. But it's a shadow universe, veiled to some eyes. For instance, recent visitors to many popular blogs may have noticed wanted posters searching for the person who stole a brand new Audi A3 from the New York Auto Show. There are other ads for a fellow named Virgil Tatum, who claims to be the world's greatest computer game designer, and for a company called Last Resort Retrieval, which specializes in locating stolen works of art.
Coincidence? Perhaps. But rumor has it that all these ads are actually rabbit holes introductions to a new ARG called "Art of the Heist," and sponsored by Audi.
The German automaker refuses to confirm or deny the truth of these rumors, thus adding to the mystery.
You may be the sort of person who's already begun tapping the name "Virgil Tatum" into Google. If so, welcome to the rabbit hole.