Media Game theory

Join the perplexed

After scanning Violet Kiteway’s weblog (Quirky Acuity) for just a few moments, it becomes clear that the young librarian is having a bad year.

Things got off to a rocky start when the cherished Receda Cube was brazenly stolen from the local university in Perplex City. Since then, Violet has been squabbling with her father about politics and her younger sister Scarlett still hasn’t returned the boots that she borrowed six months ago.

To make matters worse, Violet’s employer recently took his own life. Some suggest that the head librarian’s addiction to a cognitive-enhancing drug called Ceretin caused suicidal thoughts, while others speculate that he was murdered. Violet isn’t sure what she thinks, but she admits that “the atmosphere in the library has been really weird” since the head librarian’s death.

The fictional Perplex City has a more user-friendly site than some real burgs. This screen contains clues to the eponymous ARG game that recently landed on U.S. shores.

Perplex City doesn’t really exist, and it is not one of the “virtual worlds” that this column regularly discusses. However, you can easily access websites for the town’s daily newspaper (The Perplex City Sentinel) and leading bank. Although they are fictional characters, Violet and Scarlett have been interviewed by real-world commentators on the leading sports-radio station in the United Kingdom. Perhaps most important, there is no such thing as the Receda Cube. Nevertheless, it is buried somewhere on our planet. The first person to discover the location of the cube will receive $200,000 in real-world money.

Perplex City is the latest and most ambitious example of an emerging game genre that transforms the “real world” into an imaginative play space. Alternate Reality Games are massively multiplayer experiences which embed puzzles and riddles in the semiotic fabric of our daily lives. In these games, a complex narrative web is spun by anonymous “puppet masters” who lurk secretly in the shadows.

E-mail messages, traditional postal mail, radio advertisements, posted flyers, fake websites, planted newspaper articles, cell-phone messages, radio advertisements, midnight phone calls, and even fabricated newspaper articles are potential clues in the ARG universe. At times, professional actors interact with players to move the stories forward.

Perplex City follows in the footsteps of a legendary ARG called The Beast. That game began in April 2001 when a handful of people noticed odd references to a “sentient machine therapist” in a trailer for the film AI. Turning to the internet for more information, curious viewers discovered interlocked websites for futuristic organizations set in the 22nd century.

In ARG terminology, they had “fallen down the rabbit hole.” The game was on.

Between April and September of 2001, more than one million people became immersed in The Beast’s cross-media narrative. Sharing new discoveries on the internet, they pieced together a complex story from thousands of digital clues including web pages, e-mail, voice-mail recordings, and photographs left in public restrooms. At one point, scores of players congregated in downtown Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles to collect clues at hastily organized anti-robot rallies.

As game designer Jane McGonigal notes, fictional characters in The Beast telephoned players at home and sent fax messages while they were at work. The game “recognized no game boundaries; the players were always playing, so long as they were connected to one of their many everyday networks.”

The Beast was a promotional gimmick for a Hollywood blockbuster, but Perplex City is an end in itself. Players play the game by purchasing packets of cards from affiliated game shops and on-line vendors such as Each card features artwork and puzzles connected to the game’s narrative, and solutions direct players to clues hidden in websites and traditional media outlets. The puzzles range in difficulty and the answer to one might become the foundational clue for the next, something that ARG players call a “puzzle trail.”

The recent murder of economist Monica Grand launched one such trail. In her dying moments, the game character mentioned the Beit Quadrangle at Imperial College in Toronto. Canadian players immediately descended on the campus where they found posters directing them to local theaters. Clues embedded in a movie trailer led to the discovery of an on-line game called Receda’s Revenge. The solution to that game warned players that something would soon unfold more than 3,400 miles away in the skies of Manchester, England.

At the appointed time, an airplane flew over the city trailing a banner advertising Receda Resorts. After hacking into the website of the fictional resort, players learned that they were supposed to gather in the center of London later that month. Sixty people showed up for the event, chasing leads around the city for several hours. At the end of the day, two menacing figures materialized near the group, grabbed one of the amateur detectives, and dragged him aboard a black helicopter.

As the helicopter faded into the horizon, the remaining players realized that their friend was a mole who had been working with the puppet masters all along. During his escape, he “dropped” a backpack containing cards and badges for everyone who had participated in the event.

If games that deliberately blur the boundaries between life and fantasy sound like fun, you’ll be happy to learn that it’s not too late to get involved. Perplex City arrived in the United States a few weeks ago, and most of the 17,000 players joined within the last six months. The game’s developers (Mind Candy) recently received $3 million in venture-capital funding, and they will use this money to further expand the game.

You don’t even need to purchase cards in order to play. With Mind Candy’s blessing, players are posting cards and debating solutions in on-line forums such as The game’s fans — who sometimes call themselves “the perplexed” — maintain a comprehensive guide designed to get new players up to speed.

The Perplex City entry in Wikipedia is a great place to start, as is Guy Parson’s excellent guide, Perplex City in 60 Seconds. Those intrigued by this genre should also investigate David Fincher’s excellent film The Game and the novel Pattern Recognition by William Gibson.


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