There are no shortage of options to get your scares this Halloween season; everyone has their favorite horror movies, or their favorite horror stories and books. Some people like going to haunted house attractions and being chased around by actors to get their fix, and some people have horror video games they enjoy playing for scares. I am here to recommend a lesser known horror experience to all of you: the wide and weird world of internet ARGs. For those who don’t know, ARG stands for Alternate Reality Games, which is an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform and employs storytelling over various forms of media to deliver a story that may be altered by players’ ideas or actions. It is defined by intense player involvement with a story that takes place in real time and changes according to players’ responses. It is shaped by characters that are actively controlled by the game’s designers. Players interact directly with characters in the game, solve plot-based challenges and collaborate as a community to analyze the story and coordinate real-life and online activities. ARGs generally use multimedia, such as telephones, email and mail, but rely on the Internet as the central medium.
ARGs have existed for a while, since around the turn of the millenia. In their inception they were often used as a marketing tactic for larger commercial releases like movies or video games. One of the most successful ARGs was a game known as “The Beast” a viral marketing campaign for the the film “A.I Artificial Intelligence” where players were tasked with uncovering a murder mystery using 666 different files. The game grew exponentially eventually including an active player base of three million players that were made of equal part men and women, young and old. “The Beast” actually grew so much that the game’s creators had to constantly make new content or edit existing content to stay ahead of player. Another popular ARG was the ARG ran for the film The Dark Knight where convention goers at San Diego Comic-Con were given “jokerized” versions of one dollar bills that led them to a website where they were recruited to be a henchman of The Joker, they were then instructed to be at a location near the convention center where they saw a phone number written in the sky that when called played a recorded message of a man begging for his life, which obviously gave them more information to continue the game. Eventually the players who followed the game to its end were rewarded with the first trailer for “The Dark Knight.” But it didn’t end there; the game continued after the end of San Diego Comic-Con on various websites with more and more challenges for the players. The point of the game wasn’t just to entertain fans and advertise the film; it was meant to fill in the narrative gaps between “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight.” The end of “Batman Begins” teases The Joker character and in “The Dark Knight,” The Joker has his own criminal enterprise at the start of the film. The players of the ARG are a part of that criminal enterprise. The events of the game are the events that carried The Joker to where he is in the opening scenes of “The Dark Knight.”
It is exactly this kind of interactive storytelling that makes ARGs so exciting and effective. The game engages players and makes them a part of the story, making it much easier to deliver a narrative and have it matter to the players because it isn’t just a narrative being delivered to the players in a passive way; it actively includes them in the story. That makes ARGs the perfect set up for a horror experience. When something frightening happens in an ARG, it feels so real and therefore is able to be a much more effective scare than anything a traditional narrative or attraction can deliver. When you think about it, ARGs are just an evolution of the suspension of disbelief that so many other forms of entertainment ask. When you watch a horror film, you know that none of it is real: there is no killer or monster and there are no victims, just actors on a set playing out a scenario for a camera. The actors at a haunted house aren’t really trying to harm the customers, and video games are just lines of code that can’t actually do anything in the physical world. But for each of these experience, we, as the audience are asked to just believe for the duration of the experience so that we can be entertained. ARGs ask just a little more from the audience. They ask us to believe enough to blur the lines between our world and the games so that we can play an active role in the narrative and be entertained.
When you actually give yourself over to the game, it can be remarkably effective. This is evidenced by the success of “The Beast” and the “Cloverfield” franchise of movies which has used ARGs as the primary form of marketing for each film in the series and has maintained a massive player base involved in the games since the game for the first film started in 2007. So if you’re looking for a new horror experience for this Halloween, why don’t you try an ARG? There are tons of great ARGs that have run their course and plenty that are being run as you read this. The Marble Hornets series that popularized the internet myth Slenderman is still up in its entirety on Youtube, just waiting for new people to stumble upon its secrets. A game being run right now is The Sun Vanished on Twitter, where you can follow the experiences of one individual as he tries to make sense of a world gone dark, and to contend with otherworldly threats lurking in the darkness. It’s as simple as going to @TheSunVanished on Twitter, scrolling down to his first tweet and letting yourself believe in the game.