It’s Tuesday morning and you’re waiting beside a phone booth. An email from an unknown person has instructed you to wait for a special call that will give you further instructions. Someone gets into the phone booth to make a call of their own. You’re anxious. If the line is busy, you might miss out.
Eventually, the person steps out and gestures for you to go ahead and enter, completely ignorant to your real intentions. Finally, the phone rings. You pick it up and hear a voice read out a series of code words. You scramble to scribble them down on a small piece of paper. After the call is finished you rush home and share the code words with others. They’re members of an Internet forum and they’re participating in the same experience of solving the obscure and difficult puzzle.
Such is the popular image of alternate reality games, or ARGs, cemented by the success of games like The Beast, which was used to promote the movie A.I., and I Love Bees, which was used by Microsoft to promote Halo 2.
However, David Fono, lead designer for the upcoming Toronto-based ARG, ZED.TO, wants to get away from that term, especially since ARGs are no longer just fun promotional tools.
“They tend to be more about stories… The puzzle aspect has become a lot less of an essential component over the years,” he says. “When you say ‘game,’ people think about challenges, about winning and losing, about objectives. ZED.TO doesn’t really have those; it has interactivity, but it’s not about winning or overcoming things.
“It’s about story and making choices within that story.”
In that way, ZED.TO sounds a bit like the game Myst, a popular PC game adventure series from the ‘90s where players could only experience the story by solving different sets of challenging puzzles. However, for Fono, ARGs — or as he prefers to think of them, “live interactive performative narratives” — offer many more possibilities for storytelling than a traditional game does.
“A well-done ARG with money behind it [will] have all the same kinds of roles that you would see in something like a major film,” he explains. “What defines an ARG is its use of so many different things, so it’s kind of unlimited in terms of what’s involved. An ARG designer is a generalist, a person who does a whole bunch of different things. I’m a developer by trade, so I do a lot of that myself. ”
Fono and his team hope to bring that ambition to ZED.TO, which revolves around the story of a Toronto-based company, ByoLogyc, which inadvertently ushers in the apocalypse. In addition to the current online campaign (where you can even see a “promotional video” from fictional ByoLogyc CEO Chet Gertram), the game will include some major live theatre events.
“There’s going to be a show at the Fringe Festival, we’re going to have an installation at Nuit Blanche, and then we have a finale show running between mid-October and early November,” Fono explains. “And all of these are not going to be traditional theatre shows; they’re going to be highly interactive. We’re taking the ARG philosophy and putting it into a theatre show.”