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.