Review 2005

Adrian Hon

Designing puzzles is something I fell into, not quite by mistake, but certainly not intentionally. I can't say that I studied neuroscience and began a PhD on it thinking that it'd be useful for designing puzzles - although it has proved to be handy, on occasion. No, I became a puzzle designer, at least for a few months, because of a game.

It's an odd sort of a game; it's a game that follows you everywhere you go, and continues running even when you're not watching. The game doesn't reside on a DVD or on a piece of cardboard or on the internet - it's both more ephemeral and yet more substantial than that. It's an entire living and breathing alternate reality that is self-consistent and attempts to pervade every media channel in the world; it's what is called an Alternate Reality Game.

I stumbled across the first alternate reality game in 2001. It was a promotion for the movie A.I., and for this reason, I initially avoided it. After it was mentioned on Wired, I finally caved in and look at one of its websites. It so happened that the website I picked was for a fictional university set 150 years in the future. I'd seen similar things before - I'm a sucker for huge RPG universes, for example - but nothing on this scale.

The university website read and looked exactly like a real one, except it was based in the future. And all of the sites it linked to were also based in the future. And none of them admitted that they were fictional. And all of them were to do with a murder mystery that about 10,000 people around the world were collectively trying to solve, in real time, by hacking into these fake sites, taking part in 'real world' live events, solving fascinatingly obscure puzzles and falling in love with the characters. The next three months of my life suddenly became centered around this alternate reality, and arguably changed the rest of my future.

After the game ended, I felt like I had to do something to do with alternate reality games. I had a vague idea that it would be awfully fun to make alternate reality games, although I had no idea how I would manage to be paid to do such an enjoyable thing. It being 2001, my natural response was to set up a weblog about ARGs and hope that eventually someone might discover it and offer me a job.

About three years later, I left my PhD programme at Oxford and was hired to design an alternate reality game called Perplex City, so I would say that it worked out pretty well. That only brings me up to 2004 though, and this is supposed to be a review of 2005. Well, the rest of 2004 was taken up with designing the foundations of Perplex City. It was tough but satisfying work, and I have a lot of interesting stories from that time.

2005 saw the company, Mind Candy, begin to grow beyond the three person operation it began as. I continued to design more of the Perplex City universe, and as various deadlines approached, I would often find myself in the office (which at that point I actually lived in, as well as worked in) at 2am, staring at a computer screen and desperately trying to come up with one more puzzle or one more place name. The idea that the ARG would ever, in fact, begin, seemed totally remote. The idea that the puzzle cards we were selling in association with the ARG, both of which I'd poured countless hours into, would find their way into shops seemed like a fantasy. That's not to say that I doubted it would happen, but it always seemed to be at some indeterminate point in the future.

Gradually, there was less and less work to do. The puzzle card artwork was sent off to the printers, and eventualy it came back in the form of a rather large number of packs of cards. During this time we'd been 'trailing' Perplex City for several months, and we'd revealed that you would have to pay for the cards. We also revealed that there would be a £100,000 prize as part of the ARG. The response from the anarchic ARG community, long used to a free ride in return for being advertised to, was first of shock, then anger, then denial, and finally acceptance.

The cards went on sale in August. They did pretty well. We got a lot of press. The ARG kicked into gear and started attracting a lot of players.

(I am being deliberately vague here, because I've already gone on for too long, and besides, there isn't much I can say here.)

In October, our website that people could use to submit puzzle card solutions went online, and the number of players unsurprisingly started increasing. Then the cards went on sale in places like Harrods and Hamleys, as well as dozens of other shops around the country. Now, Harrods and Hamleys are both places I'd been to once or twice, but to me they're not places - they're mythical institutions. I didn't really believe that the cards were on sale there. It was only when I was wandering around Regent Street that I idly walked into Hamleys and struck upon the idea of looking for the cards - no doubt hiding in some dark corner, I thought.

They weren't in a dark corner - in fact, they were displayed rather prominently in a glass case. I stood there for a minute, savouring the moment and mentally shutting out the sounds of the kids running around. A couple of weeks later, I was in Harrods visiting the chocolate bar when I went to the toys department and discovered the cards on sale there as well. Not bad, I thought. Not bad. I picked up a pack of cards and looked at them. I've been involved in the design of every single part of Perplex City, from mocking up the artwork to getting the barcodes for the cards, and it was a strange feeling to see these things that I'd help design on sale in a place where people might actually buy them.

About a week ago, the second wave of Perplex City cards went on sale, and the ARG continues apace; last month, a helicopter took off from Battersea Heliport carrying spies working with a dangerous organisation from Perplex City. The spies were forced to run because they'd been discovered by a group of sixty people who'd come from all over the country to hunt them down. I'm told it was all rather impressive, although I don't know what the guys in Perplex City think of it.

Player numbers are well on their way to reaching 10,000 by the end of the year, and Perplex City puzzle cards are due to roll out in many more stores around the UK pretty soon. And despite all of this - despite seeing the cards in Harrods, despite being interviewed at a games conference about the future of the industry (as if I were a veteran games designer!) - I am still waiting for the moment when I spot someone on the bus or the tube trying to figure out one of our cards. When I do, I'll probably smile and laugh. Then I'll go over and try to help them out.

Adrian Hon writes mssv.net

For an introduction and list of contributors to Review 2005, follow this link.

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