Wikipedia describes an Alternate Reality Game as “an interactive networked narrative that uses the real world as a platform and employs transmedia storytelling to deliver a story that may be altered by players' ideas or actions.” That probably doesn’t tell you a whole lot, though, so let’s break it down a bit.
The “interactive” part is fairly self explanatory, but for the sake of clarity, let’s get specific. In an ARG, players are generally able to interact directly with the characters of your story. They can do this through any number of different ways: email, blogs, telephone calls, and even snail mail.
This is arguably the most important part of the whole equation. The interactivity with the story-world drives immersion and lets the players believe that they’re making an impact, which makes them want to stick around. That sticking around is extra important in the event of an extended campaign, a dry spell, or when things start to go off the rails a bit.
This part is a little more esoteric. The vast majority of ARGs and transmedia stories (there are subtle differences between the two, which we’ll get to in a moment) have multiple levels of interactivity, and multiple hubs of activity. This is what makes it “transmedia”.
In traditional media, you pick up a book or sit down for a movie, and that’s it. Maybe there’s a sequel. Maybe the movie has a companion book, or a novelization. But, generally speaking, most of the media we consume comes in a single, neat little package.
ARGs and transmedia projects are different, because they tell their story across two or more units. It could be a blog supplemented by Youtube videos, or a network of different blogs (possibly on different blogging platforms), or it could be a twitter feed supplemented with emails and/or actual phone calls. There are probably thousands of different combinations of media employed in telling these stories, and with each one you have to trace the entire interconnected web if you want to get the whole picture.
Tying into the “networked narrative” idea is the concept of a “real world platform.” This is something that a lot of newbies to the genre struggle to wrap their heads around. How can you tell a multi-layered, immersive story using the real world?
Well, as I mentioned, we’re used to consuming our fictional media through a single source. A novel’s “platform” is a book or maybe a Kindle. A movie’s platform is the screen or a DVD. That’s why we immediately know that these things aren’t real.
The goal of an ARG is to immerse you so fully in the story that your suspension of disbelief can let you believe (or at least pretend) that the story is real. One of the main ways that an ARG (a good one, at least) accomplishes this is by telling the story through platforms and formats that you associate with real, true things.
If someone calls you on the phone, do you immediately assume that person is a fictional character? Of course not. (Well, maybe some of you do, I don’t know your life.) If you watch the news on TV or Youtube (or wherever else you get your news), do you assume that it’s a fictional story just because it’s on a screen? No. If you read someone’s blog, do you automatically assume they’re telling a fictional story? Well, that depends on context.
The Puppetmaster behind an ARG goes to great lengths to build up a realistic world, full of realistic characters, who you can interact with in realistic ways. The goal is to incorporate the story elements so thoroughly into the lives of the players that they are indistinguishable from real life.
ARGs and transmedia fiction are more alike than they are different. They have the same kind of format (that is, spanning their story across several platforms/media). However, their core goals are different.
A transmedia project’s only goal is to tell you a story. The transmedia aspect of that story may or may not lend important nuance to the work, or it may be trying to push the boundaries of what we consider fiction. Regardless of what the intention is, the ultimate goal is simply to tell a story that people will enjoy reading. These may or may not be interactive.
I’ve already told you that the ultimate goal of an ARG is to convince you that it’s real or, at the very least, to disguise the fact that you’re playing a game well enough for your suspension of disbelief to kick in. This is what sets it apart from being “just” a transmedia story. (That isn’t to say that transmedia works aren’t also incredibly ambitious and impressive.)
If you’re looking to play an ARG, where do you begin? Well, there is nearly always at least one ARG running, somewhere on the internet. If you can find your way to one, you can play it, but that comes with the unfortunate side effect of already knowing that it’s a game and having to try to force that to the back of your mind. Your goal, as someone interested in playing ARGs, is to bring the Puppetmasters to you.
There are many different communities out there on the web that revolve around ARGs. If you want to be at the top of the list for being contacted by a Puppetmaster (or, more likely, one of their characters), you should start by making yourself known around those communities. If you check out the “Important Resources” list at the end, there are several useful sites in there.
Beyond that, just start playing the games that you can find. ARGs are terribly addictive. Once you start playing, you won’t want to stop. The same is true on the other side of the curtain. Once someone has made one ARG, regardless of how successful it was, they’re going to want to make another. If you’ve played one of theirs before and interacted with the characters enough for the PM to get some contact info out of you, you’re going to be in their potential players list for good.
Another important thing you can do, if you want an abundance of ARGs to play, is this: SUPPORT THE CREATORS.
Until you’ve tried, you really have no idea how many hours and how much effort goes into planning, running, and maintaining an ARG. Honestly, only crazy people do this shit, because it’s EXHAUSTING. If an ARG has merch attached to it, buy that shit. If an in-game site has ads, turn off your adblocker. If, after everything is said and done, your Puppetmaster team comes out of the woodwork and they have a Patreon or a Kofi or even just a Paypal account, donate! You can make an ARG without spending any money, but it’s hard. And, even then, the PMs have put in countless hours of work. If you wouldn’t expect fast food employees to work for free, don’t expect that of your PMs, or any other artist.
So, you think ARGs are awesome, right? Of course you do. (That’s because they are.) Now you want to make one. But, where do you start? Well, honestly, you can start with the “important resources” and “further reading” below. But beyond that, you need to play a shitload of existing ARGs. Research the early greats of the genre. And when you finally feel like you know enough about what you’re doing and you’ve come up with your storyline, PLAN.
Plan for MONTHS before you even make your first blog. Fill up notebooks with your notes and outlines. Get together a team. I’ve tried to run ARGs alone, and it doesn’t work. Unless it’s tiny, you’re going to end up enlisting at least one other person, if not more. When you feel like you’ve planned enough and you’re ready to start - wait another week, because you’ll think of something else.
https://www.reddit.com/r/ARG/ - R/ARG is the place to be if you want to be informed of what's going on in the ARG sphere. Most small-time PMs (like us!) post trailheads to their new projects here, sometimes in character, sometimes not.
https://reddit.co/r/OrbisObscura/ - Orbis Obscura is a community dedicated to exploring ARGs and internet mysteries in general. The community is very often active, and almost always working on something. This is an excellent stop for any ARG-goer. Discord Server - https://discord.gg/5HpYM2U
http://www.unfiction.com/ - Once upon a time, the UF forums were the best place to get involved in the ARG community. The forums are defunct now, but the main page is still a great source of info for those new to the genre.
https://www.argn.com/ - ARGNet always has their finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the ARG world. They’ve got tons of helpful news articles spanning YEARS of ARG news, as well as a list of currently running major ARGs.
http://www.braingle.com/brainteasers/codes/index.php - If you don’t understand at least the basics of solving codes and ciphers when trying to build or play an ARG, you’re going to have a bad time. Several of these come built-in with encryptors/decryptors.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternate_reality_game - Honestly, you can never go wrong starting with Wikipedia. If you’re looking to get a basic understanding of something, you can’t do better.
http://amzn.to/2dGAYpv - Dave Szulborski was a god among Puppetmasters, and an expert on the subject. I have this book, and I love it. If you wanna make an ARG, this is a must-read.