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The Definitive Guide to ARGs: Unraveling Their History, Systems, and Mysteries

Explore the captivating world of ARGs with our comprehensive guide. Uncover their intriguing history, intricate systems, and captivating mysteries.
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Immerse yourself in the captivating world of Alternate Reality Games (ARG), where fiction and reality blend to create unique and immersive experiences. What exactly is an ARG? Imagine embarking on a thrilling adventure where you must solve puzzles and interact with the world around you to discover the truth hidden behind an intriguing story.

The Definitive Guide to ARGs: Unraveling Their History, Systems, and Mysteries

Definition and Meaning of Alternate Reality Games

ARGs are also notable for their use of multiple media, such as websites, social media, email, text messages, and even in-person events, to disseminate clues and advance the story.

Every interaction counts and contributes to the overall plot.

ARG, traditional games, or augmented reality?

While traditional video games take place in a virtual environment and augmented reality superimposes virtual elements on the physical environment, ARGs deploy in as much of a virtual environment as in the real world, inviting players to explore their own environment and interact with it.

Generally, it is a complex and intriguing story, populated by fictional characters and mysteries to be solved.

The clues are scattered across different platforms and often take the form of coded messages, cryptic videos, or cryptic websites.

Players must work together to decipher these clues and advance the story, creating a sense of community and shared engagement.

Compared to traditional video games or augmented reality, ARGs develop a unique experience that transcends the boundaries between fiction and reality.

A quick history of ARGs

Let’s go back in time to discover the roots of ARGs.

The first ARGs saw the light of day in the 1980s, but it was in the early 2000s that they truly captured the hearts of gamers around the world.

Alternate Reality Games (ARG) took off with “The Beast” in 2001, designed by Elan Lee and Sean Stewart to promote the film “AI Artificial Intelligence." . This game introduced players to an immersive experience mixing reality and fiction.

In 2004, Lee and Brian Clark founded 42 Entertainment, which was the catalyst for the emergence of many successful ARGs. Among them, “I Love Bees” (2004), directed by 42 Entertainment for Halo 2, made an impression with its captivating plot.

The evolution of ARGs has been influenced by figures such as video game researcher Jane McGonigal, whose book "Reality is Broken" (2011) highlighted the potential of games for social change. Dan Hon also played a key role in “Perplex City” (2005), designing transmedia puzzles, exploiting augmented reality, and creating an active community of players.

The popularization of ARGs has increased thanks to renowned YouTubers, particularly in the United States, with channels such as Inside a Mind and Night Mind.”. In France, “Fleudup"  played an important role in the popularization of ARGs thanks to its YouTube channel. His analyses and explorations of ARGs have contributed to raising awareness among a French-speaking public of this type of immersive game.

The constituent elements (story, characters, clues, etc.)

The constituent elements of an ARG can vary depending on the specific game, but here are some common elements that are often found:

  1. Story: A complex and immersive storyline forms the heart of the ARG. The story can be linear or non-linear, with twists and mysteries to discover as the game progresses.
  2. Characters: Fictional characters play a crucial role in the ARG, interacting with players across different media to convey clues, challenges, and story elements.
  3. Clues: Players must solve puzzles and discover clues scattered across multiple platforms and media, such as websites, social media, videos, emails, text messages, etc.
  4. Interactivity: Interaction is essential in an ARG. Players can communicate with each other, cooperate to solve puzzles, interact with fictional characters, and make decisions that influence the course of the story.
  5. Multimedia: ARGs use a variety of media and communication channels to distribute their content, including text, images, videos, audio recordings, online games, in-person events, etc.
  6. Live Events: Some ARGs incorporate in-person events, such as scavenger hunts, character or cast meet-and-greets, special screenings, interactive art exhibits, and more.
  7. Community: Players often form an online community dedicated to the ARG, where they can share theories, clues, and advice, collaborate to solve puzzles, and discuss the story.
  8. Scalability: ARGs evolve over time, with new challenges, puzzles, and twists added regularly to maintain player interest and extend the gaming experience.

Examples of known ARG stories and clues

Control’s AWE Expansion (2019):

  • Plot Summary: The AWE expansion for the video game "Control" came with an ARG that challenged players to uncover clues about a mysterious paranormal event occurring in the Federal Bureau of Control.
  • Where the Clue Was: The clues were hidden in cryptic emails sent to players, social media posts, blog posts on the game's website, and more.
  • What form was the clue in? Clues took the form of QR codes hidden in images, coded messages in YouTube videos, hyperlinks hidden in text, etc.

The Jejune Institute (2008)

  • Plot SummaryThe Jejune Institute was an interactive ARG based in San Francisco, designed by artist Jeff Hull. It invited participants to explore the city for clues and participate in live events to uncover the secrets of the fictional institute.
  • Where the clues were located: The clues were scattered throughout the city of San Francisco, on billboards, hidden objects in public places, and through interactions with live actors.
  • What form were the clues in? The clues took the form of coded messages, artistic graffiti, live artistic performances, and interactive objects scattered throughout the urban environment.

The most famous alternate reality games

  • The Beast (2001): Clues lead to a mysterious robot named "The Beast.".
  • I Love Bees (2004): A computer program takes control of a blog about bees, sending coded messages.
  • Perplex City (2005): Participants search for a stolen valuable card through puzzles.
  • The Lost Experience (2006) : Exploration of a global mystery linked to The Hanso Foundation.
  • Year Zero (2007): Participants discover a dystopian world controlled by the government.
  • The Sun Vanished (2018): A young man shares his observations about the mysterious disappearance of the sun.
  • Petscop (2017): Viewers explore a fictional video game with disturbing elements.
  • The Black Watchmen (2015): Players immerse themselves in a world of espionage and conspiracy.
  • The Institute (2019): Participants follow clues to find a mysterious character.
  • Ingress (2012): Players explore the real world to discover and capture energy portals.

Technical elements in creating an ARG

The different forms of indices

1. Visuals:

  • Encrypted Images: Use of images containing hidden elements or visual codes (steganography).
  • Maps and Plans: personalized maps or plans with geographic indices or coordinates.
  • Symbols and Pictograms: Creation of unique symbols or pictograms to decode.
  • Augmented Reality: Clues integrated into images or environments via AR.

2. Textual:

  • Coded Web Pages: Using HTML/CSS to hide clues in the source code of web pages.
  • PDF or Word documents: files containing cryptic text, puzzles, or hidden messages.
  • Coded Messages: Use of various cryptography methods (César, Vigenère, binary coding).

3. Hearing:

  • Audio Recordings: voice messages, specific background noises, or pieces of music containing clues.
  • Radio Transmission: Broadcasting clues via fictitious or real radio frequencies.
  • Encrypted Sounds: Sounds that, once analyzed or modified (speed, inversion), reveal clues.

4. Digital:

  • Multimedia Files: Videos or animations containing visual or auditory cues.
  • QR Codes: QR codes to scan that lead to clues or websites.
  • Executable Files: Simple programs or games that reveal clues when executed.

5. Interactive:

  • Online Games: Online mini-games or puzzles that reveal clues after solving.
  • Digital Escape Games: Escape game scenarios integrate clues into the puzzles.
  • Forums and Online Treasure Hunts: Online discussions and quests where clues are gradually revealed.

6. Physical:

  • Real-world objects: USB sticks, letters, postcards, and objects with hidden inscriptions.
  • Art Installations: works of art or exhibitions containing visual or conceptual cues.
  • Role-playing: interactions with actors or fictional characters who provide clues.

Focus on languages and codes.

In an alternate reality game (ARG), the use of various computer codes and languages adds a level of complexity and engagement for players. Here is a small table of some codes and languages commonly used in ARGs, accompanied by their specificities:

Code/Language Use Specificity Difficulty level
Base64 Encoding data into an ASCII character string. Used to hide text messages or binary data in a text format. Easily recognizable with '=' signs at the end, and relatively simple to decipher with online tools or scripts. Down
Code Morse Coded language using a series of dots and dashes. Can be used in audio recordings, visuals, or even light sequences. Historical and universally known, good for puzzles based on listening or observation. Down
Caesar Code Simple cryptography technique where each letter of the text is replaced by another, shifted by a few positions in the alphabet. Accessible to beginners, ideal for basic puzzles. Down
Binary Code Two-digit number system (0 and 1). Can be used to represent text or instructions. It represents the basis of computer science and is interesting for puzzles involving simple numerical logic. AVERAGE
Hexadecimal Base 16 numerical system, often used in computing for concise representation of binary data. More compact than binary, it is often used to hide clues in colors or computer files. AVERAGE
ASCII A character encoding standard for electronics and computing, representing text in computers. It is useful for transforming binary or hexadecimal data into readable text. AVERAGE
RSA cryptography Asymmetric cryptography algorithm based on integer factorization. More complex, suitable for advanced puzzles involving computer security. Pupil
Steganographie A technique for hiding messages or information inside other files, such as images or sounds. Ideal for hiding clues invisibly, requiring in-depth analysis of the file. Pupil
QR Code Two-dimensional barcodes that can store data are often used to link to websites or text. Easy to integrate into physical or digital media, ideal for quick transitions between game elements. Down
Programming languages Scripts or programs written in a programming language may contain puzzles or be clues themselves. It requires some programming knowledge and can be used for more technical challenges. Pupil

The advantages of creating ARGs to promote an activity (or business)

Alternate Reality Games (ARG) offer businesses, artists, publishers, or enthusiasts an innovative and interactive method to promote their activity.

By merging the real and virtual worlds, ARGs offer an incomparable immersive experience for enthusiasts. By deeply understanding their community and their aspirations, weaving compelling and cohesive narratives, artfully leveraging relevant technology and media, and constantly refining their gameplay mechanics, ARG creators can create unforgettable adventures that captivate players. .

Here are some key benefits for those who choose to create ARGs to promote their business:

Increased engagement

  • Deep Immersion: ARGs captivate participants by immersing them in an intriguing story that requires active interaction with the brand. This immersion creates a strong emotional engagement.
  • Active participation: Unlike traditional advertising campaigns, ARGs require participants to be active, which builds engagement and interest in the brand.

Expanded visibility and reach

  • Word of mouth: ARGs tend to generate word of mouth as participants share their findings and inspire others to join the adventure, increasing brand visibility.
  • Media Coverage: Original, well-designed ARG campaigns often attract media attention, which can significantly increase the brand's visibility beyond its usual target audience.

Loyalty of the clientele

  • Memorable experiences: By providing a unique and memorable brand experience, ARGs can build customer loyalty. Participants are more likely to develop a strong emotional connection with the brand.
  • Community: ARGs encourage the formation of communities of players who discuss the story and puzzles, thus creating a feeling of belonging to the brand.

Competitive advantages

  • Differentiation: Using an ARG for promotion allows a business to stand out in a crowded market, offering a unique value proposition.
  • Innovation: By adopting ARGs, a company demonstrates its innovation and ability to use the latest technologies to engage its audience.

Brand building

  • Brand Storytelling: ARGs help tell the brand story in a creative way, reinforcing its identity and values to an engaged audience.
  • Cohesive Brand Experience: By integrating ARGs into an overall communications strategy, businesses can deliver a consistent and holistic brand experience.

ARGs provide a dynamic platform to engage customers in a deeply interactive and immersive way, building visibility, engagement, and loyalty while standing out from the competition.

Some caveats

While ARGs offer unique immersion and significant promotional potential, it should be noted that they are niche, suited only to certain businesses. Creating and managing an ARG requires a considerable investment of time and resources.

ARGs can be perceived as intrusive if not executed correctly, and they can even pose data privacy and security risks.

It is essential to carefully consider whether this strategy actually aligns with the objectives and whether the company has the resources to effectively manage an ARG.

Some concrete examples of using an alternate reality game

  1. Student Coders: An ARG can be used to teach and reinforce programming skills. Students could participate in a game where they must solve coding-related puzzles to progress through the story.
  2. Investigative Journalists: ARGs can be employed to simulate real-world investigative scenarios, allowing journalists to hone their research, data analysis, and problem-solving skills in an interactive environment.
  3. Cybersecurity Professionals: ARGs provide a platform for simulating cyber attacks and vulnerabilities, allowing cybersecurity professionals to test and improve their skills in detecting and responding to cyber threats.
  4. Promotion of a fiction book: An ARG based on the fiction book invites participants to interact with the world of the book through puzzles and character interactions, thus providing a taste of the story and stimulating the interest of potential readers.

ARGs: the future of storytelling and artistic production?

ARGs provide fertile ground for your exploration and experimentation in interactive storytelling and community engagement.

Whether you are an artistic production company looking to push the boundaries of creativity, a coding and programming student wanting to gain practical experience, or an art and games enthusiast looking for new immersive experiences, the ARGs open up an entirely new range of possibilities.

Thanks to their ability to merge narrative elements with interactive challenges and mobilize a community of dedicated players, ARGs are unique experiences. They allow you to enter alternate worlds, solve complex puzzles, and collaborate with other players to achieve common goals.

ARGs open up a field of experimentation for new forms of storytelling and interaction while promoting the development of technical and creative skills.

Some frequently asked questions about alternate reality games in France

How do I make an ARG on the internet?

  1. Define the story and goals: Design an engaging plot and determine the goals of your game, such as promoting a product or telling a story.
  2. Choose the platforms: Select the online platforms where your ARG will take place, such as social networks, dedicated websites, forums, blogs, or mobile applications.
  3. Create Clues and Puzzles: Design clues and puzzles that will guide players through the story. Make sure they are complex enough to stimulate interest but accessible enough to solve.
  4. Integrate diverse media: Use a combination of text, images, video, audio, and other media to enrich the player experience and make the story more immersive.
  5. Plan twists: Introduce unexpected twists into the story to keep players engaged and keep them playing.

It is crucial to ensure participant confidentiality by avoiding disclosing personal information and using pseudonyms. Additionally, it is important not to involve real people to avoid potential excesses.

Also, be sure to follow the gaming community in case it gets stuck or faces technical difficulties.

What is an ARG on YouTube?

There are two types of ARG videos on YouTube: those that serve as explanations or discoveries and those that constitute an ARG themselves.

Channels like Feldup in France or Night Mind in the United States are references for amateurs, offering detailed analyses and in-depth explorations of ARG.

A notable example of an ARG hosted entirely on YouTube is that of "Local58.".

Local58 unfolds as a series of videos that appear to be broadcasts or program interruptions from a fictional local television station named "Local58." The atmosphere is strongly inspired by horror films and conspiracy theories, with a touch of surrealism. The videos are often presented in a retro style, reminiscent of television shows from the 1980s and 1990s, with interference and VHS tape glitches.

Local58's content mixes psychological horror, supernatural elements, and social commentary.

Each “Local58” video serves to enrich the overall viewer experience, adding new layers of mystery and encouraging interpretation and speculation. The diversity of the videos, ranging from disturbing emergency messages to apocalyptic scenarios, contributes to “Local58’s” unique appeal as storytelling.

Online ARGs on YouTube: why is Feldup THE YouTuber to follow?

Simply passion. From his debut in June 2014 to his epic projects ten years later, Feldup is still here to captivate us with his creepypasta tales, ARG mysteries, and the unfathomable mysteries of the internet.

Whether it's short videos of 10 minutes or epics of more than 3 hours, or even more when you combine its ambitious projects like the Youtube Iceberg with its 5h15 of content, Feldup takes the time to explain, to popularize for newcomers, and to raise awareness when necessary.

But Feldup isn't just about these weird videos; he also makes music (and a very good album that I personally recommend) and was even motivated to make some ARGs for us.

What makes his content so valuable is the atmosphere he injects into his videos. Yes, they are dense, and the themes they address are often dark, but everything is designed to immerse us in this universe in the most pleasant and adequate way possible.

Why are ARGs considered transmedia storytelling?

ARGs use multiple media platforms to tell a story, like websites, social media, online videos, emails, phone calls (yes, even phone calls), etc.

This multi-platform approach allows participants to discover the story through various experiences, thus reinforcing immersion in the story. ARGs often encourage collaboration and interaction among participants, creating an engaged community around the story.

Where do the communities that investigate an ARG find themselves?

Communities investigating an ARG are found primarily online, on dedicated forums, specialized websites, social media groups, and discussion platforms such as Reddit or Discord.

These spaces provide participants with a place to share clues, discuss theories, collaborate on puzzle solutions, and exchange information about the progress of the story.

Some ARGs may also include in-person events where community members meet to solve puzzles together or participate in story-related activities.

If you wish, you can already start by exploring the ARG subreddit.

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