Sunday, March 11, 2007

Alternate reality

A game belongs to the alternate reality genre if its in-game world crosses over into the real world. That in and of itself is a rather interesting concept, although whenever I read about Majestic back when it came out, I kept thinking that it seemed like too much work. You have to interact with things in the real world to play the game, which often involves calling phone numbers or searching the web in order to reveal clues that advance the plot of the game. If you'll recall, I'm a very casual gamer. Searching for clues in video clips or painstakingly assembling stray words in background images from different websites to figure out which book they're quoted from doesn't seem very appealing to me.

Alternate reality games (ARGs) always seem to suffer from two faults: the solid wall and the deforestation. ARGs are a solid wall when they are composed of too much information/disinformation (I Love Bees) or too little information (The Lost Experience), so that you can't even see which part is a clue, or if it's even a game at all. Even if you do, you can't follow the clues if you don't spend an inordinate amount of time on them, which is hard if you have a life or a job. Most ARGs also suffer from deforestation, in that they are often being played by thousands of people simultaneously, so there is nothing new for you to discover. The web is plastered with clues and spoilers that are hard to avoid if you're actually trying to play the game. Your quiet stroll through the forest, picking your favourite flowers, has been destroyed by masses of people trampling every flower underfoot.

Like Majestic, ARGs often strive to seem real, and to make you think you're not playing a game. More often than not, you aren't. These days, ARGs are just big hype machines, utilizing the new and hip "viral marketing" concept to ingrain yet another trademark deep into your consciousness. I Love Bees was a complicated advert for Halo. The Lost Experience took it even further by endorsing Sprite, Jeep, Verizon and And now, for some reason, Nine Inch Nails has succumbed to this form of advertising with an ARG promotion of the upcoming album Year Zero.

I admit that the concept for the album is cool, but that's no thanks to the ARG. Trent Reznor wrote the concept; the ARG is just obstructing and cheapening it by in essence being a silly hype machine. I do enjoy looking at some of the websites and seeing The Presence, but I can't help but feel the deforestation syndrome. Each one of these websites is already plucked clean of every piece of information. Where's the reward in finding something that someone else has already found?

It's not all bad though. I like the "leaked" MP3s (a very bold move), and the teaser trailer. I suppose a good thing about viral marketing ARGs is that they're free, and I can choose my own level of involvement. However, in most cases my involvement is close to none.

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