You see a message at the end of an email newsletter written in Morse code. It translates to the URL for a website which contains a creepy looping video and nothing else. You inspect the source code of the web site and find a link to a private sound file. You listen ... and you have fully descended down the rabbit hole of an Alternate Reality Game.
Alternate Reality Games, (or ARGs) are games that emphatically express "This Is Not A Game." Their stories blend into the real world as platformless narratives, stories that overlay an alternate reality through fragments of text, video, events, objects, and more. They can be played by millions as part of viral marketing campaigns, or never discovered. And the spirit of discovery is key to a good ARG: they're designed to attract and mobilize a hive mind, groups of people who trip down the rabbit hole (also known as the "trailhead") and are expected to work together to find and decode bits of the story to progress, with their actions often influencing the outcome of the game.
The first ARG discovered was a mixture of technology and the supernatural called Ong's Hat, after the real-world ghost town of Ong's Hat, New Jersey – not far from where the Jersey Devil and other cryptozoological creatures haunt the forests and freeways. According to the lore of the game, a group of scientists from Princeton University exploring chaos theory and quantum physics in the 1980s discovered a theory for interdimensional travel using a device called The EGG, and produced some spooky results. Their research was published as a series of documents known as The Incunabula Papers, which were scattered around 1990s internet message boards like alt.conspiracy and alt.illuminati. Theories appeared in print magazines and online, and the full story eventually spanned online text documents, print, radio, television, and CD-ROMs, until the game's creator (known in ARG lingo as the "puppetmaster" of Ong's Hat) Joseph Matheny ended the story in the early 2000s.
ARGs often have a hint of the supernatural or science fictional, and always have a conspiratorial subtext: they exist in plain sight, making you question the world around you. They're at the cutting edge of interactive fiction, but they have also been used for commercial purposes.
The next most famous example was 2001's The Beast, an ARG created by Warner Bros. as a viral marketing effort for the Steven Spielberg film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Dubbed "the Beast" by its creators due to the fact that its asset list contained 666 files, The Beast's storyline revolved around a murderous artificial intelligence entity. Players were introduced to the game by searching the name of a fictional person who appeared in the credits of the movie's trailer as a "Sentient Machine Therapist" named Jeanine Salla. The players, who numbered over three million people by the end of the summer of 2001, found hundreds of websites, phone numbers, and physical locations to find out who she was and what happened. A now-defunct hardcore group of players calling themselves The Cloudmakers continued maintaining archives of the in-game websites until September 2013.
As the largest, most engaging ARG to date, The Beast set an example for many other ARGs as viral marketing tactics. The next most notable was 2004's I Love Bees, which was created by the interactive marketing agency 42 Entertainment for Xbox's release of Halo 2, and oddly used a beekeeping website as its rabbit hole. I Love Bees led players to pick up ringing payphones in 210 locations where they would hear 30-60 second clips from a radio drama set in the future, or participate in live phone calls with characters creating a real-time interactive narrative. I Love Bees also included jars of honey sent to previous ARG players, and drew 250,000 visitors in its first month alone, with three million total in three months.
42 Entertainment were also the minds behind the ARG leading up to the release of the Nine Inch Nails album Year Zero. Its rabbit hole was a hidden code on the back of their tour T-shirts, USB flash drives dropped in the bathrooms at shows, and images hidden in spectrogram recordings of songs. The game described a dystopian 2022 in the U.S., where the government drugs the population into submission and causes mass hallucinations of a giant hand known as "The Presence" coming from the sky. A rebel group from the future known as Solutions Backwards are sending the clues found in the game to the present to prevent this dystopian future.
"Serious ARGs" try to direct the collective intelligence and problem-solving of ARG players towards global issues like 2007's World Without Oil, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and ITVS, which let players explore and play out responses to the peak oil crisis, and 2008's Traces of Hope, a game about civilians caught in global conflicts by The British Red Cross (formerly located at tracesofhope.org, a domain which is now owned by cryptocurrency evangelists).
As evidenced by Wikipedia's List of alternate reality games, the success of these games as viral marketing efforts caused an ARG boom in the noughties: a few other notables included an ARG for the TV show LOST, as well as the movies Cloverfield and The Dark Knight.
Although there are still ARGs running for current TV shows like Mr. Robot, their popularity as a marketing technique has faded in the last ten years or so, and ARGs have quietly returned to their roots in the microhorror or creepypasta genre – scary could-be-true stories that spread through various internet media channels, supported by text, video, and hidden messages, often based on new folklore or dystopian alternate reality scenarios.
ARGNet lists games that are ongoing, including play-by-mail games like the Mysterious Package Co., online escape rooms, and mainstream augmented reality games like Pokémon Go. You can browse the forums of Unfiction and Lateral Realities to find theories and even more trailheads. And of course, there are subreddits with subreddits devoted to sharing trailheads and clues.
Kyle Perkins has compiled a list of the Top Ten Alternate Reality Games of 2018 including two called Eckva and The Church Of Higher Truth, whose starting points (embedded below) hit just the right balance of intriguing aesthetics and lack of information to whet your appetite:
One of the most active ARGs today is The Sun Vanished, a story told through Twitter in which "the sun has disappeared and all power has stopped. Dangerous beings utilizing flashing lights to kill or convert humans into strange creatures roam the earth in search of survivors." Its followers, who now number 315,000, interact by voting in Twitter polls, reading updates, and tweeting at the characters. While some Redditors argue that it's not actually an ARG, the beauty of Alternate Reality Games is that they can happen anywhere, anytime, and incorporate anything from the real world and the internet.
You might even find one right here, on montag.wtf ...