A Charlotte Post Mortem

April 22, 2009 - 2:09 pm Comments Off on A Charlotte Post Mortem

One of the things about being an ARG designer is that you don’t often have time to be an ARG player. It’s easy to fall out of touch with the rhythm of the player’s side, that feeling of groping in the dark for a light switch that just barely illuminates a tiny patch and then the trek onwards to find the next flash.

I receive a fair amount of trailhead packages in the mail and via email, but either they come at a time when I’m too busy to participate or they don’t pique my interest. The tape recorder for the “Charlotte Is Becoming Real” game (could I have dubbed it anything goofier, I wonder?) was a perfect storm. It came when I had time to play and it was mysterious enough to make me monkey around and figure out just what in the hell it all meant. Normally these things come with some sort of overt puzzle. This, not so much. In fact, it took nearly two weeks to realize there was a puzzle there at all.

This led us down a twisting, snarled pathway of Facebook updates, websites, telephone calls from game characters, both authoritative and confused, frantic searches in Central Park for hidden objects, and finally a paid trip for two players to Berlin, where they had a finale in the Sacrow woods involving a mad psychiatrist, a wobbly rowboat, a bloodstained bathroom, and the grinning author of Therapy, Sebastian Fitzek.

Granted, there were some bugs in the game, at least from my perspective. First, the pacing was uneven – at times glacially slow and at times very quick. Second, the events of the finale were geared almost exclusively towards the two people who traveled to Berlin, and left the people at home no way to participate (or even watch live, because cell signal was weak and the phone battery ran out). Last, the players are left with more questions at the end than they started the game with, which runs contrary to how we expect ARGs to be. However, I’m reserving judgment on the last, because we do have a scheduled PM chat for next Wednesday and it’s possible that there is a reason for these questions to be left. I’m all for telling stories in new ways.

Now, those criticisms aside, I have a lot of praise for the game. First of all, I think that it’s important that an ARG be built around a solid product, and Fitzek’s Therapy is a rollicking good read (although perhaps a bit heavy-handed on the foreshadowing). I just finished reading it again for the second time, going back and noticing subtle clues that I wouldn’t have known to look for in the first reading. My mind is still on stormy Parkum Island, with my ears and toes chilled. But besides the book, the game was intriguing. It was fearlessly gung ho in ways that corporate American games are not: there were no waivers to sign, players were supposed to explore the return address the packages came from, someone needed to go to San Diego and dig up a tape recorder from a random place in a park, and so on. This was not a carefully-cultured, bubblewrapped entertainment experience. It felt more like a gritty, personalized, grassroots game, the kind you can sink your teeth into. A real, old-fashioned ARG, in other words, the kind your Mama used to play.

So to the game designers at VM-People and to Sebastian Fitzek I would like to say thank you for lighting a fresh spark of wonder in my cynical puppermastery heart. I had such a good time playing your game. I hope you do many more here in the U.S. and they’re met with great success. Kudos!

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