Four Rules for Building an Alternate Reality Game (ARG)

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming GIFCON presentation speech on my Rats in the Walls project, which was a limited ARG that took place from March–May 2015. This part of the speech talks about the four guiding principles I used to structure the whole project.

kilroy rats walls tompkins invocation

What defines an ARG?

If you look at other ARGs, like the ones for the film The Dark Knight or the games Portal 2 and Halo 3, you’ll notice a couple uniting traits: these are multimedia stories, they allow audience participation, they pretend to take place in the real world, and they are actually essentially marketing campaigns.

Real-World Stories

“Real-world” means that ARGs have a lot in common with a hoax. A great example of an early alternate reality story is H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, where the world of the story and reality became indistinguishable and suspension of disbelief was achieved to the point that Wells managed to cause a national panic. ARGs are identical to everyday life, but there’s a divergence from reality where the story takes place. Conspiracies and espionage stories do well because they take advantage of a hidden dimension that seems real.

Utilizing Multimedia

“Multimedia” means that you’re not constrained to work on a page. Using Twitter as a platform meant I could incorporate videos, pictures, text, hashtags, and reach people online and on their phones. Much of the work I did was live performances, chalking circles, walking around with a sign, and handing out flyers. I also worked with a friend of mine to create a promotional video for the project.

Since the project was meant for the Twitter Fiction Festival, much of the “narrative” aspect had to be communicated in a way that matched the medium. To create the “events” of the purely fictional parts of the story, like trains being abducted or the communications between Kilroy and Bill Bratton, I had to create a number of fake Twitter accounts that reported on events as if they were real people reacting to developments happening around them.

Audience Participation

On the other side was audience participation. ”Audience participation” means that you’re allowing people to take part in the story’s development. This is where the ‘game’ aspect comes in with an “alternate reality game”—the audience become players attempting to guide the narrative. In this respect, DMs, hypertext authors, and game designers have a much better handle on creating these narrative structures than traditional authors: you have to learn to create contingencies and alternate outcomes and plotlines, so that players’ choices have significance. Other aspects include being able to manage players, keeping them interested, and stopping them from breaking the game.

Marketing as Storytelling

The “marketing” aspect is interesting. With an ARG, your story is your marketing, and you gain your audience by catching people’s interest. ARGs, when done right, are really a form of viral storytelling, which means being shared and talked about is as important as the story itself, because that’s how you get readers. Publicity from ANIMAL New York, the HP Lovecraft Historical Society, and photographers like Daniel Albanese helped gain exposure through news outlets, but ideally, you’d want to make your ARG as shareable as possible. Tapping into specific communities and targeting certain kinds of people online or in real-life is essential.

Four Rules for Building an Alternate Reality Game (ARG)

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