The Bleeding Edges: The Black Watchmen

The Bleeding Edges are a series of articles on games that blur reality and fiction.

There was once a wonderful thing on the internet: The Stone. It was when we were all tiny babies (1997), and Wikipedia was still a twinkle in Jimmy Wales’s twinkly eye. You got access to it by buying a physical object, a small stone pendant, and with the code imprinted upon it delved into a creepy online world of conspiracy and truth. The game was ostensibly a puzzle game, but you played it via search engines, and even real life actual research. It was wonderful while it lived, and slightly clumsily lives on here. I constantly seek something else like it. The Black Watchmen [official site] – a tangential spin-off from The Secret World – while delivered more in the style of the more recent ARGs, certainly picks up some of its themes.

Things start off a little silly. Based on the group from Funcom’s The Secret World, but without any knowledge of that game being necessary, this comes from Alice & Smith who have spent many years working on ARGs (Alternative Reality Games) like Behind The Yellow Curtain, and Gate 33. A successful Kickstarter saw them embark on what they claim is the world’s first “permanent alternate (sic) reality game” (despite The Stone having run for eleven years, the sillies), currently two seasons in and still going. You join the ranks of their agency by completing a few extraordinarily basic puzzles, which if they were the criteria for joining a clandestine organisation protecting the world for terrible occult dangers, would perhaps be a little lax. Can you, er, use the internet, basically. But from then on things ramp up nicely.

The delivery is minimal within the game itself. A mostly black screen with small details, prompts more than anything to get you out of the game and into your web browser, researching, exploring, finding real and mocked up websites, and solving puzzles to advance.

There are these moments, these perfect pockets of discovery, where you just try something and stumble upon a solution. I’m asked to work out a connection between three doctors working for the Rosenberg Clinic and illegal human experimentation, and when I search the case number in the online archive I find three pdfs – background reports of all three in question. And I scour them for connections. Maybe they went to the same university? Nope. Perhaps a shared workplace somewhere in their CV? Not there. Childhood homes? Nothing. I learn about all three of them in detail, but nothing seems to cross over. Then I figure, heck, why not google them? And there it is, the Rosenberg Clinic website. There’s an address, phone number, Google Maps location. Details of the experimental treatments they carry out. And biographies of the doctors who work there. And inside these I find something – a gene all three of them have worked on at some point in their career. It’s not the answer, but it puts me on the trail of the answer.

The fiction is well maintained, the website convincing… to a point. (They couldn’t resist a little elbow, and wow it’s a specific reference that pleases me greatly – their banner pics on the site’s front page contain direct references to one of the most underrated sitcoms of all time, Better Off Ted.) I google the staff names some more, and their previous places of employment, and then I find it – somewhere some bad things happened. Real life bad things.

As you progress the game begins to move from something static to something living. Now, it’s important to make clear that the primary intended way to play is to experience the “seasons” alongside other players, at the time they’ve launched. Alice & Smith’s background in ARGs shows through here, as players can work together to solve mysteries, leave each other clues, call real phone numbers and report the results, and get contacted by characters in the game. But, crucially, you can also come along later and play the same game without feeling like you’re left behind – that’ll only become apparent if you start reading the forum threads from when the discussions were at their peak. And even in this way, as I’m experiencing it (at this point the game has run two seasons, and a couple of spin-offs, with a third season likely), there are moments that feel live. I’ve been asked to place bugs in an office complex, via a graphical terminal, but after not having time to do it last night, I went back to that section to do just now – and of course I can’t. It’s Canadian daytime, the office is in use, the team can’t enter the building now without getting caught.

Which is clever, but at the same time really bloody annoying, because the game offers me nothing else to do now. Were there a few other things to be getting on with, then brilliant. But instead I’m simply finding out that I can’t play it for many hours, until a time when it’s inconvenient for me – the early hours of the morning, or tomorrow.

Which, I think, captures both the joy and the pain of the ARG – they have always been tremendous fun for the very few, a dedicated band of enthusiasts willing to give up many hours to pursuing these fictions, with fantastic stories to tell when it’s all over. In assuming a lot of these features into what is otherwise a single-player puzzle game, The Black Watchman simultaneously gains and loses. It gains a fantastic sense of a world, a real mystery to sink into, a web of secrets on the web, a sense of being part of something bigger. But it also manages to maintain some of those alienating elements of the ARG, that constant sense that someone beat you to it, got here before you and made your time less meaningful.

There are a couple of other annoying issues that really make no sense. This is a game about grabbing pieces of information and searching for them, but there’s no way to highlight and copy/paste from the game! There’s a “copy to clipboard” button for one specific area of text, which is a far clunkier way of doing it, especially when it’s a URL. Indeed, you can’t click on URLs to have them load your browser! That’s beyond daft.

But then I’m onto the next mission, solving (very silly) puzzles to access phone call recordings, and finding extraordinary videos like this (warning – it’s pretty revolting):

Acting in the many video audio clips varies from great to average, but is always entertaining. And I’ve genuinely lost track of what’s actually true when I’m delving through the confusion of their faked sites and the real ones they link to. (Searching through a fictional receipt of a fictional person, I’ve found they go to a real coffee shop, use real betting sites. It makes them feel so much more real.) That’s what this is all about for me, so here the game brightly shines.

I suspect at some point it will get away from me, move beyond what I’m capable of, not least because of the warning messages you read when you start to play. Information that the hacking of sites, mucking around in source code, etc, will always be clearly flagged up when required, and is not to be attempted on sites not affiliated with the game, and so on. Goodness me, that’s part of this?! I can barely work the RPS FTP. But in the meantime, and assuming that’s something the average player can likely bypass via the results gathered by others (I’m genuinely unsure if the comments on various Watchmen forum threads about calling phone numbers (there’s no 555ing here) and receiving calls are written by the game creators, or things that have actually happened to players – those bleeding edges once more), there’s such a tremendous amount of intrigue and entertainment to be gained here. I mean, if you want a taste of it, just start googling this stuff and try to work out a pattern.

If you don’t find one, boy did you (and I) just learn a lot.

And there’s loads of it! Alice & Smith have recently released something called Ahnayro: The Dream World, a standalone spin-off of their own game, this time exploring the mystical, spiritual side of the Watchmen, focusing on historical storylines. That’s next then! And of course there’s the completed second season of the game. You can get both seasons and Ahnayro bundled if you wanted to go in head first.

I’ve been occasionally frustrated, but mostly completely intrigued, and learning a ridiculous amount as I go. Which is exactly what I want from this peculiar genre.

From this site

14 Comments

  1. Freud says:

    In 1997, people didn’t use Google. They used Altavista or Yahoo.

    I’m not a fan of altered reality games. I feel it unsettling. But then again I’m playing the biggest one with all those cookies and directed ads in my computer.

  2. Styxie says:

    Reminds me of those nut jobs who spend their entire Christmas break starting at Steam trading card JPEGs from the winter sale in the hopes of discovering whether Half-Life 3 still doesn’t exist.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Fallingbadgers says:

    How did I not know that this existed! It’s so far up my street that such ignorance appears on the face of it to be the result of a … conspiracy

    Great piece, this is why I love RPS

  4. King in Winter says:

    The Bleeding Edges are a series of articles on games that blur reality and fiction.
    So I guess you will cover Ingress too as it has a progressing metaplot (which you can ignore)?

  5. Scandalon says:

    There was once a wonderful thing on the internet: The Stone.

    I kept reading that as “Tim Stone”, had to re-read it like 3 times…

  6. HeartTrip says:

    Unbridled joy rocked me at the beginning of this article. I loved and continue to love The Stone so much. I wonder if you were able to finish the Final Six puzzles?

    • Rituro says:

      I don’t think I ever solved more than six puzzles, let alone the Final Six. I sure was happy to have a cool stone pendant, though. (Number of other real-life people encountered wearing another pendant: 0.)

    • John Walker says:

      No, I never reached the middle of the Immediate, but spent so many happy weekends playing through dozens of the puzzles. Have an article about the game coming up.

  7. Coren says:

    I haven’t really followed the Secret World ARGs since the game was released. I was however heavily invested in the pre-launch ARG (though I’m not sure it was already called The Black Watchmen back then). And really, that’s when I had some of the most thrilling game moments in my entire gaming life.

    There’s just something about ARGs. When you can invest the kind of time and energy they require for you to stay on the forefront of the investigation, they have the capacity to suck you in so much deeper than any other game genre can. It’s the crossover between the real and the fictional, the things you learn about the real world, and that feeling when you are the first to unlock a mystery… The stakes are “real”, things happen right now.

    I got a job, and kids, and ARGs went from being thrilling and exciting to frustrating and impossible. But if you have the time, patience, and energy, there’s nothing quite like sinking your teeth into an active ARG. Judging by my experience with the Secret World, The Black Watchmen is probably a very good place to start.

  8. Merus says:

    Perplex City had a strong ARG component, but I guess it wasn’t permanent. They had plans to build a permanent second season but decided that ARGs were too expensive for the potential audience.

    Considering their second game was Moshi Monsters, I still kind of hope they let Perplex City come back, even though the principles are mostly working on Zombies Run, an ARG with a different A.

    Conspiracies seem to be a popular topic for ARGs and honestly I’m not convinced they make for good games. As pointed out in the article, there’s something about a conspiracy that’s easily graspable by the average player that breaks suspension of disbelief the way no other genre really does. If you give the player the tools to poke and prod at the conspiracy, it either ends feeling like the game is cheating, or that the conspiracy kind of stupid.

  9. codex-13 says:

    Hey, I made an account just to comment on your article! I’m a player of this game, and honestly we’re all super stoked that it’s getting some attention ahead of a new DLC release which will tie up some loose ends from some older plot lines. One thing I want to clarify though: the phone calls are real. That’s orange-level clearance, you get phone calls from Dispatch (or sometimes other people). I’ve also personally called phone numbers to solve puzzles. With yellow clearance you can receive mail, and green clearance (one per season) completes a mission in person over the course of a day or so. I encourage you (and anyone else reading this who’s curious) to talk to some people in our community if you want to know more about the various ways this game can worm into your life ;)

  10. ModestlyInsane says:

    I must admit that I’m a little puzzled that TBW keeps getting good reviews.
    I’ll readily admit that it’s very ambitious, and it would presumably benefit greatly from playing it ‘live’ as opposed to replaying the season later on as I did.

    But be that as it may, there are IMO two major flaws in TBW.
    1) The puzzles themselves. They are very esoteric, and usually have very little to do with the real world.
    Taking two examples from the article, the whole bugging of the office is a mini-game where you have to place three bugs in such a way to minimize static and get the best reception in order to listen in on a phone-conversation.
    Okay….But if we’re breaking into the office, why not just bug the phone? Or indeed bug the trunk-line outside?
    The other example is the code-breaking bit (the list of dates and battles). Not only is this apparently a message encoded in the office by one guy on the fly, which stretches the plausibility of the encoding itself, but once you figure it out you get to see the reply…..which is in plain language, and happily gives away classified information.
    *sigh*
    And it just keeps going. You have fellow (scripted) agents who, as a joke, decide to encrypt a vital clue.
    They could’ve just as easily just given it to you, but apparently it was a slow day at the office.
    A bit further along you get a list of companies, one of which is your next clue. So you plug them into Google, and find that all but one doesn’t exist, the last one has a facebook page.
    There’s no deduction, and no real reason to suspect the company in question, it’s just what you’re left with after mindlessly feeding info into a search-engine.
    The very first puzzle in the training segment is exactly the same. Find the clue, plug it into a search engine, and then try to guess what the designers want you to type in as the answer.
    Hint: There’s absolutely no reason why you would suspect the organization in question. It’s just what you’re left with.

    2) The story-line.
    Something like TBW that is released in episodes will by default have a linear storyline. Which is fine.
    But if you’re going to have a linear story-line, it had better make some kind of sense.
    And unfortunately there is zero narrative flow in TBW.
    You jump from one episode to the next without any logical reason as to why.
    The Rosenberg bit in the article?
    The logic behind the Rosenberg Clinic being targeted in the first place is that one of the docs who work there, worked at another facility 30 years earlier as an intern. At this facility, human experimentation was being done.
    Therefore, according to the game, the Rosenberg Clinic and ALL the doctors who work there are now suspected of human experimentation.
    Wait, what?
    And from there it jumps to suspecting a body-farm, simply because one of the docs visited that website…..
    It makes absolutely no sense.
    At least not in my mind.
    And once I got to the point where I couldn’t progress without a facebook account, that’s when TBW was deleted for good from my hard-drive.