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To acquire wisdom, one must observe

A deep dive into alternate reality games

As I was observing the mind-numbing stream of mainstream pop culture insight that Twitter provides, I came across many posts detailing the ways that Taylor Swift was teasing her upcoming album, “The Tortured Poets Department”. One eagle eyed Twitter user had caught onto the fact that certain letters in the Genius lyrics box on Spotify were capitalized in the middle and end of words—and when put together, spelled out a message. They had seemed to be quite excited about that fact, praising Swift for her creativity in how she markets her work; treating “decoding Taylor” like a brand new, novel form of online interaction. 

Sorry to break it to you, Swifties, but that’s just an ARG. And they’ve been around for a WHILE. 

An ARG, or Alternate Reality Game, is a mostly online form of storytelling; where the plot is told and found through codes and puzzles hidden among various websites and in-person events. Sometimes ARGs exist as PR, and sometimes they just tell a story. Think of it like an online escape room: you work with a group of people to solve puzzles all revolving around the same central plot. 

I was fortunate enough to get to participate in one of these ARGs. Per my last article, you may know that I am super invested in the development of the British horror podcast, “The Magnus Protocol.” Well, this all started in September, five months before the premiere – the trailer was the “end prize” for a month-long ARG experience, written by the podcast’s writers with help from their parent company, Rusty Quill. It had clues hidden across the Internet and in-person events in two countries. 

The majority of the ARG’s plot followed a group of East German defectors in the late 90s and early 2000s, as they moved abroad and settled into a new life. A few of the expats who lived in London got tangled in discovering files from the ruins of the research institution known as the Magnus Institute, and got into enough danger that the forum had to be shut down. Other aspects involved the small civil service organization known as the Office of Institute Assessment and Response, the terrifying children’s mascot Mr. Bonzo, and the mysterious figure known as Lady M. All of these weaved together into a wonderful and slightly terrifying puzzle. 

Despite having just started my sophomore year, I participated in the online aspects of the game as best as I could. It was an incredible experience, and I wish I could have participated more.

In lieu of a boring anecdote of my own minor participation, I will be having a conversation with my fellow Magnus ARG participant, Tildrun Weber (ne/nem), one of the most active members of the Discord group. The main cataloguer of the game’s development and overarching story plot, Weber’s organizational and archival efforts have proven invaluable for progressing and preserving the game. 

Due to our time zone differences, I wasn’t able to have a full face-to-face conversation with nem, but I sent ne a list of questions, and ne answered! 

Interview as follows: 

Ceil: Was this your first experience with ARGs?

Tildrun: Yes and no. It was my first time as an active participant in a live ARG but I spent some time observing the flow so to speak of other ARGs before. I was first introduced to the concept of ARGs through Khanacademy’s Cryptography material. The Ancient Cryptography module takes you through several cryptographical techniques that are pretty commonly used in ARGs like a Caesar and Vigenere Cypher. Building on that material, there’s also a Cryptography Challenge 101 which is basically a contained and static ARG. When I checked the site earlier it stated that it has a beginner, intermediate and advanced level which I don’t think was stated in the description when I cut my teeth on it about 10 years ago. I never solved it but it’s great fun! …

Around 2015 I would come across the band Starset. Obviously I am a big fan of their music but one of the main aspects that set them apart is the elaborate lore. I won’t go too much into it here but since the beginning Starset has always used altered reality elements to expand on the narrative the concept albums set forth. … We all know that the lore is entirely fictional but with very few exceptions the band treats it as real. In other words kayfabe … is basically committing to the bit on a large scale. They usually run ARGs in the lead up to the release of a new album. I was around in a fanserver back when I think it was Divisions released and oh boy codebreaking was going quick and folks were bruteforcing using dedicated devices for literal days. The Khan Academy Cryptography Challenge did not prepare me for that. I’m a simple broke uni student, there’s more skilled people with better hardware to tackle the meat and bones of codebreaking.

In more Protocol ARG related things, I got a good idea of what niche of ARG player I would fall into after the previous ARG-like PR campaign Rusty Quill did in October 2022 leading up to the Kickstarter announcement for the Magnus Protocol. I affectionately refer to it as the ARGlet. … During the ARGlet I was just casually enjoying soaking in the information in a couple different servers including the original Statement Remains server. That server got its name from the fact that one of the earliest clues RQ released (besides just being cryptic eyes on social media) translated to “Statement Remains.” Besides that I found I also really enjoyed relaying information to different groups, mainly about the lore uncovered from each clue to the “Cheerleaders” and “Theory Crafters”.  

Ceil: What was your main ‘role’ in the game?

Tildrun: I enjoy some red-stringing [theorizing on the plot] as much as anyone else but I really thrive when I meet my own need to know everything going on and being able to share the knowledge. I always humorously describe my role as Head ARGhivist. 

Essentially, my (self-assigned) job was/is to document the ARG as well as curating the more practical codebreaking-focused documents, preserve the records and assets for future Protocol fans who are curious about it and keep the ARGhives accessible. It also has the perk of me being a living ARGhive. Ask me anything about it and I’m all but guaranteed to be able to rattle off an answer. 

Ceil: What did you spend your time doing?

Tildrun: On a more concrete level, my duties as Head ARGhivist fell into a pattern of waking up in the morning, going through the backlog of messages in the breakroom channel and picking out parts of convos that would make good memes or were otherwise valuable to give an impression of the overall mood and condition of the players who in all honesty needed to reset their brains with a bit of silliness between the code crunching and red stringing. It was pretty normal to sift through a backlog of over a thousand new messages each morning in the breakroom alone since my timezone is UTC+7. … After classes, I would usually sit in this really nice outdoor working space on campus and start transferring the messages I already [marked] throughout the day into the ARGhive. It’s fundamentally a Google document that I made that reads as a timestamped log documenting the events that happened on any given day. I also took care to link to player-generated documents like the Masterdoc of clues and solves, archival copies of game files, flowcharts, some relevant visual art, etc. Obviously this very quickly turned into a massive undertaking so I wound up with a few archival assistants working on this main ARGhive docs. Others were curating more specific files like the aforementioned masterdocs, codebreaking log of tried passwords, a narrative/lore summary docs and the like. After the ARG ended, I kind of went a bit unhinged grabbing archival copies of the websites, the usenet forum messages in the original German, backup offline copies of player-generated documents and more. I even contacted Sebastian Hutter (one of the IT staff/webmasters) about whether all the ARG codes will be publicly accessible while I was saving my own archival copies directly from the still-live sites. 

Ceil: What was the experience of the ARG like?

Tildrun: Since I wanted this more “ethnographic oral history anthology” feel to the ARGhive, it was important to me to not only document the clues and solutions but also … the experience of the players in various snapshots so people … could get an idea of what it was like to be there. It’s still not going to live up to the sheer determination, hilarity and very marked collective insanity of the players (we wandered into the backrooms of the ARG a couple of times there) as well as the occasional casual interaction with the Rusty Quill staff keeping a watchful eye on us. Arguably my own experience of the ARG is in a middle ground between how the RQ folks in the server saw us and the standard player experience since I would “Archive from the future” and get a feel for having foreknowledge when reading through the [marked] backlog. Later on, I would more or less get the full experience. … One unexpected twist was definitely the fact that one of our real-life clue locations was in a bookshop in Germany.

Ceil: Do you have any favorite memories of the game?

Tildrun: If I had to list out all my favorite bits I’d end up with the roughly 313 pages of the finished ARGhive. My favorite moments that aren’t in the ARGhive was definitely when a small group of us players decided to do a little ARG of our own for the RQ folks as thanks (and honestly, a tiny bit of good-natured payback). It leads to a password-locked gdrive filled with art and other fanworks from the Protocol ARG players as thanks for the month-long experience. We planned and put everything together in under a week and included highlights such as me as a Rogue Madchivist getting a (barely) staged Intervention … twice, making myself a custom mug about the Payback ARG (see image), waiting on an RQ mail, playtesting, an inside Agent, as well as A Certain Target Not *Sharing* The Clue (not going to name any names but it was both funny and frustrating). Because the people at the Rusty Tower are insanely busy folks they never really fully played the whole thing but we had a lot of fun in the process. We obviously still ended up handing over the drive with all the player gratitude goodies. …

Ceil: Do you have any specific opinions on how this one was structured?

Tildrun: It was very well planned and all around enjoyable, although we did need to get prodded to find certain elements like the @strangehauntsuk tumblr, tossed a few bones to make the connection between clues for timed in-person events and given some enrichment every now and then. To be honest the official ARG breakdown and summary at [Rusty Quill’s website] does a way better job at going into the structure of the ARG, behind-the-scenes insight as well as an idea of the RQ perspective of how the ARG progressed in general (although they are noticeably silent about the more chaotic, backroom moments that I documented in the ARGhive).

Ceil: What is your opinion on ARGs as a storytelling method? Do you think they’re better as PR or as a narrative?

Tildrun: They are effective as both a way of conveying narrative and as a PR strategy. It really comes down to planning and scope. This is not a hard-and-fast rule but generally the more lore is meant to be told, the more complex the game becomes. … Each has their place as long as they are reasonably well planned.

Ceil: Do you have any ideas as to why ARG methods have started to grow in popularity among celebrity advertising?

Tildrun: In advertising the main goal is to draw attention, which is even more important when it comes to celebrity advertising. In the current age of the internet we are basically getting shouted in the face as advertisers try to get us to give them the time of day. An ARG stands out amongst all the ads due to the interactive nature and also that element of mystery. Humans are curious, of course we can’t resist a good puzzle that gets rewarded with special knowledge. What I would like to see more of is small ARGs with a bit more lore to them as PR campaigns just to keep the format fresh and interesting instead of becoming yet another billboard.

“The Tortured Poets Department” is set to release the day this article comes out; and Taylor’s constant code-dropping will surely slow down. If you miss the feeling of sleuthing the internet for hints, or wish she implemented more stories, I would suggest looking for an ARG! There’s bound to be one somewhere on the Web, so get sleuthing, friends!

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