Staring at a wall of paper for close to 70 hours is some of the most fun I have ever experienced in a game. Religions were formed, friendships made and memes spawned at a rate quicker than certain other sites can repost them. It was the Secret World's ARG and it made a lot of promises for the games future that we hope are lived up to.
So what is an ARG? No it has nothing to do with pirates, although I did spent the better part of an hour researching Bluebeard but that is a story for another day. ARG stands for Alternative Reality Game. Basically you are jacked into the extended universe of the game and generally set the task of solving increasingly difficult puzzles. The Secret World took the 'increasingly difficult' part to heart.
Let's start at the beginning. The Secret War was a somewhat underwhelming Facebook game that scored the people taking part access to the beta weekends and some pretty cool in-game items. However as it drew to a close we received a link to a strange console like interface. From this humble beginning that took all of twenty minutes or so to solve we started an odyssey that would see puzzles spanning days and therapist bills in the thousands.
As the puzzles steadily increased in difficulty so did the page counts on the official forums. This was our first indication that things were going to get a little crazy. Peppered throughout the experience we received creepy phone calls (who knew that you could actually talk to people on an iPhone), played email tag with suspected serial killers and had fights over if the clue was an Orange or a lemon – It was an Orange. The seals are too complex to go into in just one article but Amelia and the team over at CGN (http://crygaia.com/wiki/Main_Page) have done a great job of keeping us on the right side of sanity.
We managed to peel away at the seals of the rather ominous gate one by one until seal six. This is where things went from a challenge to the kind of twisted logic that is generally reserved for serial killers and the writers of pop songs. A couple of hours into the first day, after cracking an encrypted code, we received a LiveStream link run by the shadowy group that has been plucking at our strings during the ARG. Here we got the first look at the wall, or as some have taken to calling it The Church of Paper.
There were seven keys needed for this particular seal which all had something to do with the seven deadly sins and sewn together with the Divine Comedy by Ante Alighieri. Sitting on this live stream was “Michael casts out rebel angels” by Gustave Doré. A rather nice illustration I grant you but I can now offer into casual conversation the fact that I have now looked at it continuously for at least 52 hours. Yep. 52 hours. That is how long the stream lasted and some of us sat there and watched nearly minute.
There was something quite curious that happened during these maddening hours. From the chaos of 3 AM chat it shifted from a group of people united by an infuriatingly maddening puzzle and became the first seeds of a what is now a burgeoning community. TSW had a well established community before this of course but as the cast and crew at Human Equation tantalisingly started to eke out clues we started to connect with these characters and through them each other.
A/Girl, Slow moving girl, Lollipop and SpiderGun. I think it is quite possible that they managed to achieve a form of virtual Stockholm syndrome as every time one of these ladies appeared on screen the forums and chat exploded in a sheer torrent of excitement as their arrival triggered our next rung on the ladder, descending ever deeper into the ever pits of memes and wild theories.
The final seal took on a slightly more sedate tone, more in line with the previous elements of the ARG, but more difficult by half. The connection to the answers here became so vague and disconnected that it left me and many others considering whether I was just stupid for not seeing the connection or if I simply had overlooked something blindingly obvious.
Funcom have been running these ARGs for sometime now, and plan to continue to do so going forwards, but it is in this one they had to set the tone of the kind of game they want to be. It was their PR face with thousands watching. Are they willing to stump their audience? Are they willing to guide us down a path that leads to researching child murder and playing top trumps with serial killers? During this experience a definite tone has been struck and it is one that promises to live up to the lineage of games that have come before from FunCom. This is not a game where you can sit back and skip blindly over your quest dialogue. It is one where the team behind it are willing to make you translate another language or find the connection between Pearl Harbour and the Rothschild Family.
FunCom and Human Equation (the company running the ARG for FunCom) have done something special here that is so rare in our community. They have treated us like adults and even more importantly let us think that we are stupid because of it. One of the greatest downfalls of recent MMOs has been a lack of accomplishment. I enjoyed my journey to become 'Grand Champion of the Great Hunt' in Star Wars: The Old Republic but when you notice another twenty people wearing the same title in the next hub you visit it takes away some of the mystique.
Can you imagine 'Ready Player One' style races to the finish as community wide puzzles are ran? A mad rush to the finish as you try and twist your mind in the hope that something will just click so you can get some sleep. Culminating in being to say, without fear of the next person you bump into saying the same thing, that you were there and you were the first to solve it. This is the Secret World and what is a secret world without its namesake. Secrets. I for one look forward to exploring this world and discovering a few.
The game is not without its flaws but what I have seen over the past thirteen weeks has been a commitment by the Devs that they are here for the long haul. They are willing to go that extra mile to allow the community to flourish and that their plans, their sick twisted headache inducing plans, are already in place and all we have to do is discover them.