The Endgame ARG: New Beginnings or More of the Same?

Posted filed under Experience.
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“What about you? What are you waiting for? The Revolution? End times? Forget waiting. The revolution is here and you need to know the truth.” —  Stella, Endgame: The Calling

This was the urgent message Stella had for me as I watched the video promoting the alternate reality game (ARG) accompanying Endgame: The Calling, the first in a series of three novels by James Frey and Nils Johnson-Shelton. According to Stella, a character in the Endgame ARG, an ancient secret was being kept hidden from the world by a corrupt organisation and the only hope we had was if people like me, motivated, creative and special people like me, rose up in nothing less than revolution to stop them and reveal the truth to everyone. It was all meant to sound terribly exciting and, well, revolutionary.

The problem was, I felt like I’d heard it all before.

Way back in 2008, at a gaming conference in London, writer and interactive designer, Adrian Hon, identified what he saw as the emerging cliches of the relatively nascent alternate reality game genre. In a playful talk, Hon skewered an increasingly amusing series of tired tropes on display in many ARGs of the time. They included:

“Helping a teenage girl; helping an attractive teenage girl. Helping an attractive amnesiac teenage girl;…“the fucking order” or, “some secret society” or anything to do with the Illuminati or any of that crap…Fucking countdowns…Treasure hunts: oh, I’ll smack the next person who proposes a treasure hunt…Millions of blog entries that no one will read apart from five people…(and) jumping through fucking hoops: by which I mean…seeing an intriguing movie credit that leads you to an intriguing website that leads you to an email address that leads you to an autoresponder that leads you to…”
— Adrian Hon, Let’s Change the Game Conference, 2008

Hon’s expert dissection of ARG cliches of the time was probably only possible because he had made many ARG-like experiences through his role as Chief Creative at the interactive studio Six to Start. I too have flirted with the form and its cliches (yes, guilty as charged your honour) through my role as Creative Director at Hoodlum, a Brisbane-based multiplatform studio. Which is possibly why, seven years after Hon’s speech, I could only greet Stella’s breathless call to action with a weariness I usually reserve for tax returns.

Unsurprisingly, the story of the novel Endgame: The Calling is also a checklist of well worn ARG tropes, as is much teen fantasy/dystopian fictions like The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner. It tells the story of twelve teenagers who are chosen to do battle with each other in a global game in order to find a special key that will preserve their ancient bloodline and save the world.

In interviews, James Frey has stated that the idea for the book series and the ARG were inspired by the 1979 children’s picture book Masquerade by Kit Williams, which, in a precursor to the modern ARG, hid the clues to a real world treasure in the details of its intricate illustrations. The Endgame book series and associated ARG is being promoted by its creators, James Frey and Nils Johnson-Shelton, in collaboration with Google’s Niantic Labs, as a ground breaking storytelling experience — which feels like the default position any new media property is obliged to take in these hyperbolic times (can’t something just be “really cool” anymore rather than “unbelievably game changing”?). But there’s no doubting the impressive scale of this thing. There will be three novels, a movie franchise (currently being developed through Fox Searchlight), a global app-based locative game as well as, of course, a multiplatform ARG that fills out Endgame’s intricate mythology via community interaction across Twitter and YouTube. Oh yeah, and there’s $500,000 in gold to win for the reader/player who can decipher various clues peppered through the pages of the novel. For the second novel the prize is $1 million and for the third novel the stash climbs to $1.5 million. This prize sum is unprecedented for an ARG, although other experiences like Perplex City, which Adrian Hon designed, incorporated cash prizes.

The question is, however, how much of the Endgame ARG will also be unprecedented (at the time of writing, Endgame: The Calling had not yet launched). Will it be the revolution in storytelling its creators promise? Stella’s call to action didn’t fill me with great hope. How is it that a well funded, well resourced property written by a successful high profile author like Frey, and an innovative company like Google’s Niantic Labs, could be trotting out the same old tired cliches? Perhaps that was my answer right there — a “well funded” (i.e.; expensive), “well resourced” (i.e.; expensive) property written by a high profile author (i.e. expensive). Nothing generates safe, conservative, cookie cutter creative choices like lots of money — the unstoppable tsunami of Marvel and DC comic book movies that have already been scheduled well into the next decade are proof of this.

But it couldn’t just be the money. Niantic Labs have reportedly been given a green light at Google to experiment without concern for a viable business model, which is how they’ve been able to create Ingress, a fabulously clever locative game with serious storytelling and social potential. Ingress uses the technology behind Google Maps to create a massively scaleable game in which players worldwide compete to secure “energy portals” positioned around real-world cultural landmarks — everything from the Statue of Liberty to that weird community mural in your local park. Thanks to the technology and smarts of Niantic, Ingress is probably one of the best current examples of location-based gaming that meaningfully engages players at both a local and global level. So Niantic’s (relatively) big bucket of money didn’t get in the way of them doing something new with Ingress. But even when there is no money, the history of ARGs has shown us that even independent (i.e. penniless) producers often circle back to the same old tales of high-tech activism, corporate conspiracy, ancient secrets and, yes, cute teenage girls that need your help.

Sigh.

Maybe it has something to do with the technology shaping the story. For example, the techniques of early cinema literally mimicked the proscenium arch of theatre — perhaps the interactive and hyper-networked life of twenty-first century digital consumers pushes storytellers towards narratives that imitate the treasure hunt structure of browsing, networking and hacking. But this sort of thing is so everyday now that it borders on the mundane. It’s no longer the novelty it was when The Beast, reputedly the first ARG, crawled from the digital swamp to the chirp of a 56k modem. Do we still need to be so literal about the devices we use for storytelling that they become part of the story? Even Apple has finally discarded the skeumorphism of leather bound calendars in its latest operating system. Can’t ARGs finally be liberated from the technology that delivers them?

However, to their credit, the creators of the Endgame appear to be very aware of some difficult lessons from the patchy history of ARGs. As Niantic founder, John Hanke, indicated in a recent interview with StuffTV: “Endgame is a game, not a marketing stunt like previous ARGs…A lot of those were done as marketing stunts, for Halo or the Batman movie; so they were designed to build up a frenzy around launch and then fizzle out … So what we’re doing is inspired by ARGs, but it’s really not like any of those ARGs.”

To avoid these sorts of pitfalls, Niantic brought on Jim Stewartson, a veteran of previous marketing-led ARGs including I Love Bees (for Halo 2) and Why So Serious (for The Dark Knight). “One of the things we’ve learned is that you have to create experiences that will serve a number of different categories of people,” says Stewartson, “from casual observers down to the most hardcore players.”

An exciting aspect of Niantic’s plan for Endgame is its unique ability to incorporate location into a storytelling experience. Prior to joining Google, Hanke founded a company called Keyhole which eventually became Google Maps which, as discussed earlier, is the technology behind Ingress. Yep, these guys know location more than any other company. What’s more, as Stewartson argues, mobile technology is far more advanced and ubiquitous than in the days when I Love Bees employed payphones to distribute their story (try pulling that stunt now).

So, there are some very smart people involved, a high profile author with a story that appears to neatly fit an ARG experience and the technology finally seems to be in sync with the possibilities. And, of course, there’s the prize money — there’s nothing like cash to turn a causal newb into a frenzied hardcore fan.

But will Endgame be the game changer that ARG fans have been waiting for, the one that finally takes their niche artform into the mainstream? It’s not at all clear and even Hanke seemed to be hedging his bets in the interview with StuffTV on whether it will herald a revolution in storytelling; “It’s just a much more open-ended, flexible, immersive, deeper, longer-lasting way of telling a story. At least for certain types of fantasy, science fiction, those things where you really want to create alternative worlds, that really should be the primary form, not a secondary thing.”

And maybe that’s the crux of my problem with ARGs (if you hadn’t already worked out, I do have a few problems with them). Not all stories need the expansive (and expensive), interactive, multiplatform ARG treatment. Fantasy? Sure. Science fiction? Undoubtedly. But would House of Cards or Parenthood or Louie be better with a multiplatform ARG?  And, I would argue, even when the story does suit an ARG experience, there is little evidence audiences actually want it (despite the highly opaque stats presented in company press releases and sizzle reels). Notwithstanding the fanfare surrounding classics of the genre like Why So Serious and The Beast, it would be hyperbolic in the extreme to describe them as mainstream entertainment experiences. In fact, the hype often surrounding ARGs is a result of them being so different, strange and unclassifiable, more akin to digital installation art than mainstream entertainment. The impenetrable interactive design of past ARGs virtually guaranteed their cult status but its hard to build a revolution when no one knows where to go or what to do. And how much do audiences want this revolution anyway? Undoubtedly, they want to talk about the story, but do they really want to participate in it, create it or even leave the house for it? If there is a revolution happening in storytelling right now, I would argue its the phenomenon of “binge-watching” pioneered by Netflix that ensures that most of us will not leave the couch until we’ve watched just one … more … episode of our favourite TV show.

It’s a frustrating paradox that something as seemingly creative and open-ended as ARGs could produce so much uniformity in their subject matter and execution. But there have been lessons learnt along the way and subsequent innovations in storytelling and gaming have been taking them on board — Ingress has overcome a major obstacle to participation by making the story and gameplay accessible from anywhere; the Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012) embraced the lo-fi storytelling qualities of vlogs to retell Pride and Prejudice for a YouTube generation; and Zombies, Run! (2012 and incidentally co-created by Adrian Hon) immerses jogging enthusiasts in a world crawling with brain-sucking zombie hordes. All of these examples, while not strictly ARGs, do take ARG-like elements and make them accessible, entertaining and commercially viable — all without an ancient conspiracy, treasure hunt or amnesiac teenage girl in sight. Will Endgame join this list of innovative story/games? My initial impressions from its pre-launch publicity material suggests not. Surprisingly, it sounds kind of old-fashioned in its execution, from a time long past (which, these days, is pretty much anything more than three years old). I may be wrong. I hope so. But while Endgame’s story has a long way to go, I wonder if ARGs as a form has already reached its own end game.