Masque of the Red Death – almost an Adventure Game

Over the course of history, scientists and philosophers (who, until recently, were essentially the same thing) tended to interpret the universe – and, interestingly, the human brain – through the lens of their era’s technology. During the Renaissance, the universe was thought to operate like a clock, mechanistically and predictably. Later, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, more complex machinery was brought to mind. In recent decades, we see the universe and the brain as a kind of computer.*

Should it be surprising, then, that a game designer would interpret a theatrical production as a game?

On Wednesday, I went to see Punchdrunk‘s latest production, Masque of the Red Death, at the Battersea Arts Centre. Punchdrunk has made a name for itself by creating plays which take place across many rooms, involving many different, concurrent performers. In these plays, the audience don masks and walk between the rooms at will, occasionally being seen and addressed by performers, but usually ignored. This is not a completely original style of production, but it’s one that Punchdrunk is particularly good at.

I had deliberately not read any reviews of Masque before going to see it, in order to remain unspoiled. And while I should point out that I got a free ticket from the director, Felix Barrett, I’d intended to buy one myself anyway. The point is, I had no idea what to expect other than what I’ve said above.

What I found, after putting on a mask and entering the production, was an immense, sprawling and breathtakingly atmospheric set of corridors, tunnels, cupboards, rooms, halls and courtyards. I am not talking about a few rooms, or even several rooms – I’m talking about three floors and dozens of rooms. Every single surface had been carefully disguised from its true, mundane origins, and made up as part of an decaying, unsettling, elegant Victorian manor. Eerie sounds and music echoed from odd places, and I often found myself disoriented and lost.

Among these rooms were perhaps two dozen actors who engaged in brief conversations and encounters with one and other, occasionally deigning to notice the audience members and pull them into rooms for various private confidences. At certain times, groups of actors would come together and perform a highly scripted set piece, such as a dining room conversation and dance, or a heated argument in a bedroom. This was all very impressive and intriguing, but I was most struck by the feel of the place.

As I paced the corridors, trying every door and looking in every cupboard with a real sense of exploration and fear, I thought to myself: this is just like being inside a graphical adventure game. Here I was, in a beautiful fictional environment, opening all the doors and sifting for clues in every conceivable place – I might as well have been playing The Longest Journey and clicking on every hotspot in sight. This was wonderful! Continue reading “Masque of the Red Death – almost an Adventure Game”

Let’s Change the Game – First Round

The first round of Let’s Change the Game closed last Friday, and we received nine entries that I thought were worth sending to the judges. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but we’re all very happy with the number. The competition deliberately set a high bar for entrants, requiring not merely a game description, but a concise game description. Given the emails I received from teams asking whether they could write more than 500 words, I’m certain that a lot of effort was spent on figuring out what their core idea was, and how to express it best.

I haven’t looked through the entries yet in detail, but from what I’ve seen so far, they’re all well thought out and some have some genuinely original and interesting ideas. The wide variety of team members, from all professions and all over the world, is also heartening, and I think that quite a few of the nine will be shortlisted.

The worst thing that could’ve happened with the competition is if we received no entries, or at least no good entries. It’s clear that we’re going to have a very different problem: deciding which of several good entries should be the winner.

A Game by any other Name…

The term ‘Alternate Reality Game’ has been used to describe a vast variety of different games. These include traditional ARGs such as The Beast, to single-player games such as Jamie Kane, to immersive theatre productions such as Faust by Punchdrunk, to collaborative games without central narratives such as World Without Oil. I’ve also seen urban games such as PacManhattan and Cruel 2 B Kind being called ARGs. Lately, I have even seen an artwork consisting of carved stone gargoyles, left in English villages with riddles on them, described as an ARG, even though the artwork went no further.

What do all of these experiences have in common? Absolutely nothing.

They are not all multiplayer – if they can be described to have ‘players’ at all. They do not all have puzzles, or even challenges of any sort. They do not all have a story, or if they do, the story may be written by the players. They may not be live – sometimes they can be replayable, like Majestic. Many of them exist only on one form of media, so they’re not cross-media either.

In common use, the term ‘Alternate Reality Game’ has ceased to describe any particular type of game. Having spoken about ARGs at more conferences and formal gatherings than I can number, I have always been struck by the way in which people appropriate ‘ARG’ to describe any sort of work that they cannot describe in another way, whether that be a Flash-based website that accompanies a TV show to a social gaming Facebook application.

In fact, ARGs are not defined by what they are, but what they are not. ARGs are not videogames or computer games. They are not casual games. They are not traditional sports games, or board games, or playground games. But they are essentially everything else that involves some sort of game-like experience or play, and that is why we are seeing such a confusing collection of things being called ARGs.

I don’t think that this has happened simply because people are abusing the term. While I might not call carved stone gargoyles an ARG, I would call Perplex City, I Love Bees, World Without Oil and Jamie Kane ARGs. I have also described Orson Welles’ radio production of War of the Worlds as an ARG-like experience. And so I actually have a hard time seeing the link between all of them.

It was suggested to me that the link is that the games ‘play with reality’. This is true, but it’s rather too broad and not exclusive at all, since games such as Portal and particular text adventures also play with reality.

No, I think that the term ‘ARG’ is an umbrella term de facto used for the class of games that do not fall under traditional game definitions, and the reason why it is gaining such prominence and momentum is because of a blossoming of non-traditional games. It is testament to the commercial and cultural success of traditional videogames that they have assumed control over what people call ‘games’ today. If I tell someone that I am a game designer, one of the first questions they ask me is, “Oh, for the Playstation or for the PC?” They do not even think to ask that I might be making some sort of other game.

We shouldn’t forget that videogames didn’t even exist until thirty years ago, and there was nothing ‘traditional’ about them. If you said that you were a game designer, people would have assumed you made boardgames. What’s happening now is that large numbers of people are beginning to design things different to existing classes of games, but are still recognisably games or play, and they don’t have a word to describe them other than ‘alternate reality game’, however inaccurate the term might be.

I personally think that this watering down of ‘ARG’ is a good and realistic thing, on the whole. While it was useful to be able to know exactly what someone meant when they said they were making an ARG (this pleasant phase lasted all of 2001-2004), the fact is that ARG designers are now wanting to change their games drastically in order to progress, by removing the story or making them replayable or presenting them via a single medium.

And so we are presented with two options. We can stick with the classical definition of an ARG, as exemplified by early games such as The Beast. This has the advantage of actually being a definition rather than a bucket, but the disadvantage of the fact that very few people want to make these types of games any more. Or we can look at the wide variety of games that ‘ARG designers’ are now designing, and accept its usage has expanded to the point where it covers everything that is not already covered.

Does this make the term useless? I don’t think so. I recently helped to run an ARG design workshop in London for a group of (traditional) game designers, theatre directors, artists, programmers and writers. The games that came out of the workshop were wonderfully diverse, ranging from an epic urban game centred around travelling theatre productions to a collaborative art-making website. I wouldn’t have called a single one of these games an ARG if I had seen them in 2001, but here they were, products of an ARG workshop, and I don’t know what else to call them.

What I learned from the workshop is that there is, after all, one positive characteristic that links all of these ARGs, and that’s the skill and process that goes into making and designing them. Designing games that are not traditional games requires an open, adventurous and imaginative mind that embraces the huge range of possibilities out there and the ability to truly pioneer entirely new types of games.

In time, better sub-classifications will crystallise out of our experimentation, and genres of ARGs will emerge, just as the genres of videogames are now well-known. For now, though, we should recognise and savour the happy confusion that exists, and embrace the freedom that this wholly alternate class of games gives us.

Let’s Change the Game


One of the most startling things about alternate reality games is what their players can achieve. When you have tens of thousands of highly motivated and tightly-knit players who urgently want to get to the next scene, even the most obscure puzzle can be solved, no matter what language it’s written in, or what specialised field it relates to; one of the players, one one of their friends, will know the answer.

Faced with this, ARG designers have become engaged in a deeper and more subtle game with their players, always testing to see how much they can challenge them while keeping things fun. In Perplex City, I saw players come together to write and publish a book in a matter of weeks, and contribute millions of computer hours to crack a desperately complex code. In other games, players have formed cross-country networks to communicate and analyse information with incredible speed, and travelled thousands of miles to help each other.

Given the right game and the right challenges, there are few limits to what players can achieve. And if people will give so much for something that is ‘merely’ a game, what more might they give for a game that also has a serious purpose?

A Game to Cure Cancer

Today, together with Cancer Research UK, I’m launching a new project, Let’s Change the Game, that will develop an ARG whose aim is to raise money for cancer research. Like other serious games, the ARG will also educate people about cancer and raise awareness of it, but unlike other serious games, its success will be measured directly on how much real change it can cause, through fundraising. Cancer Research UK is the world’s leading independent organisation dedicated to cancer research. Last year, it spent over £250 million purely on scientific research, supporting over 3000 scientists, doctors and nurses. That research benefits everyone in the world, not just those in the UK. Yet even that sum is just not enough compared to the task it faces.

Cancer Research UK receives almost all of its fundings from donations from the public. Through its TV ads, mailings, billboards, races and stores, it manages to send its message to millions of people across the UK. However, that message isn’t reaching young people as well as it used to. It’s not just broadcasters and advertisers that are suffering from young people moving away from the TV and traditional media – it’s charities as well.

Alternate reality games are a solution that combine every form of media into a powerful, distributed game, something that can reach young people, and everyone else who is familiar with new media. That’s why we think an ARG can help Cancer Research UK raise its profile among the youth, and raise funds from them.

An Opportunity

I am not going to be designing this ARG.

A Catch-22 situation currently exists in the ARG genre. There are precious few opportunities for aspiring game designers to gain experience in creating ARGs, and the ARG companies out there all tend to require experience. That leaves grassroots games as one of the only avenues available. While there have been some excellent grassroots games developed in the past, they demand vast quantities of time for development – which their creators willingly give – but also at least some money – which their creators often cannot spare. We want to help change this situation.

Let’s Change the Game is a competition where teams from anywhere in the world can submit their own game designs. The team behind the winning design, as chosen by judges who include Sean Stewart, Rhianna Pratchett and James Wallis, will then be invited to develop the game. They’ll have guidance and advice from the judges, plus the full resources of Cancer Research UK; that’s over 600 stores, monthly TV ads, hundreds of races and live events, and mailings going out to over 20 million people. It could be the biggest ARG, ever – and we’re giving new designers the chance to create it.

As for funding, I’m donating £1000 ($2000) towards the development of the ARG. It may not be enough, and hopefully we’ll get in-kind donations from other sources, but it’s my belief that this £1000 will be multiplied many times by the ARG into a much larger donation for Cancer Research UK.

A Scientific Experiment

Let’s Change the Game is an experiment. We don’t know how it’ll turn out. Much will depend on the quality of the game designs we receive and the dedication of the winning team. But if it does work, if it does raise money for cancer research, then this experiment will prove that games aren’t just distractions for the young or just a popular new form of entertainment – they’re a way to truly and unequivocally change the world for the better.

Visit for more information. The deadline for the first round of 500-word game designs is November 16th.

Where’s Adrian? (The Return)

Over the next three months, I’m going to be travelling to six different countries.

Amsterdam (Sept 25th-29th): I’m speaking at the PICNIC Academy about ARGs on either Tuesday or Wednesday (pay no attention to their schedule, they’re moving things around). I’ll also be around for the rest of the conference, including Come Out and Play.

Brussels (Oct 16th-17th): Going to speak about ARGs at Should be fun to see what those guys are up to.

Zurich (Oct 19th-20th): Speaking about ARGs and marketing at GameHotel. Haven’t been to a games conference for a few months so I’m looking forward to having a go on all the new games.

New York (Oct 30th-Nov 4th): Speaking about ARGs at Embrace the Chaos, an ARG/marketing conference.

Vienna (Nov 16th-19th): Talking to the guys at Subotron about ARGs. Will I ever be able to talk about another subject? Time will tell.

Toronto (Dec 11th-21st): A holiday! No talking about ARGs, except to all those people who ask me what I do.

If you’re going to be at any of those places at the same time as me and want to meet up, just drop me an email. And if you’re wondering if I have anything new to say about ARGs, the answer is surprisingly ‘yes’. More on that in a week or two.

Emergency Management

There are some skills that ARG designers should quite obviously have: an understanding of stories, a good grasp of how online communities work and a very creative mind. One often gets overlooked – emergency management. No matter how well you plan your game, if any part of it is live, if any part of it can be influenced by the players, something will go wrong. It’s just going to happen, and you’d better be prepared for it.

Earlier this year, Perplex City took a brief foray into the world of Radio 1 with the ‘Frozen Indigo Angel’ arc. For this discussion, the specifics of that arc aren’t important; what matters is that in May, we had a rather large live event at Radio 1’s Big Weekend festival in Preston. At live events, you have to make sure that the challenges you pose at the live event are appropriate for the number and skill of players present. Since this festival wasn’t being run by us, this information inevitably wasn’t available to us. As it turned out, there were a few more players than we expected, and they worked an awful lot more quickly than we envisaged. This Telegraph article, written by a reporter who was shadowing us that day, describes the situation:

A team from Mind Candy, the game’s designers … are orchestrating events on a cluster of computers. “They’re solving the puzzles faster than we thought,” says Adrian Hon, head of play. “We’ll have to think up some new twists.” A colleague is swiftly dispatched to B&Q to buy combination padlocks for the transmitters.

(This ‘colleague’ was actually two people, Jey Biddulph and Hannah Boraster)

The players had just solved two days’ worth of puzzles in one day. This was no-one’s fault – making too many challenges or making them too difficult is just as bad as making too few. And while it would’ve been nice to have contingencies for everything, it’s simply impossible when you’re running an extended live game and don’t have unlimited resources.

What did we do? Well, we didn’t want to let the players down, but we were worried about whether we could come up with anything decent in time. Giving up wasn’t a possibility though, so after feeling sorry for ourselves for a few minutes, we argued our way through a plan, took a little time off to think about how it would fit together and got to work. The Mind Candy staff all performed admirably and I’m pretty sure that none of the players noticed anything amiss. In the end, we made an entirely new set of challenges for the next day (e.g. constructing the transmitters and the clues to figure out the combinations) and altered the story to match, in the space of a few hours.

Personally, I think it’s quite easy to come up with an okay ARG design, just as it’s fairly easy to come up with an idea for a movie or TV show or book. And yes, there is the question of execution, but even there, I don’t think that any special skills are required – ‘all’ you need are talented designers, writers and managers. But what a lot of people don’t appreciate is that no matter how well you plan, if you’re running a live game, crises – that’s plural – will emerge, and you’d better be prepared for them. So I think that I wouldn’t mind a stint in the new field of emergency management one of these days.

The Videogame Straitjacket

Like many others, when I was kid, two of the games I had the most fun with were Lego and Meccano. It would be trite to go into the reasons why, and it’s enough to say that construction kits like these offer kids a unique place to use their imagination to build anything they want, and the freedom to experiment. Plus they’re cheap and pretty much indestructible, which always helps.

So when I read a review* of Howard P. Chudacoff’s new book Children at Play: An American History, I was pleased to see that he argued that children’s play has become far too regulated and controlled by adults. In terms of playgrounds that have built-in areas for attendants and ‘facilitators’, Cindy Dell Clark, a historian at Penn State Delaware county says:

“Parents are thinking that they’re helping kids with play that has a goal. It’s not really play, because play is something that’s self-determined.”

Chudacoff also makes a good point when comparing old-fashioned toys to ‘entertainment products’ (including, sadly, Lego kits that can only be built into a single prescribed model)?:

Chudacoff led the way to a small, old-fashioned Providence toy store, Creatoyvity, which carries hardly any toys licensed from television and movies. Chudacoff looked over the figures of knights and kings, gorillas, giraffes, cows, monkeys, rhinos, chickens and dinosaurs, as well as the beads, blocks, paint, glitter, trucks, cranes, tractors and wooden toys imported from Germany.

“It’s a toy store rather than an entertainment center,” Chudacoff said, explaining that with so much commercial licensing, toys have become more of an offshoot of the television and film industries than elements of play.

One result is that a toy comes with a prepackaged back story and ready-made fantasy life, he said, meaning that “some of the freedom is lost, and unstructured play is limited.”

I found myself nodding vigorously at this page. It really is a shame that the most popular toys don’t aim to stimulate kids’ imaginations; instead, their goal is to capture their minds into a vast franchise that includes dolls, cartoons, toys, videogames, movies and books – no need for imagination here, we’ll spell it all out for you!

And then my nodding was abruptly terminated by the next paragraph:

Video games put more of a straitjacket on imagination, he complains. And online versions of traditional games like Monopoly don’t permit players to make up their own rules (like winning money when you land on Free Parking), to harvest the fake money and dice for an altogether different game or even to cheat.

Chudacoff has a good point here – at least when it comes to the games he’s thinking of. There are precious few videogames that allow for the same amount of freedom and play that, say, the outside world does, and a computer version of Monopoly is inferior to the physical version (although the less said about the credit card edition, the better). Continue reading “The Videogame Straitjacket”

Perplex City, aloha

It’s said that it takes 4000 hours of study and practice to become an expert, whether it’s for sport, music, dance or academia. 4000 hours works out to be about three years of full time study – the same length as an undergraduate degree.

For the past three years, I’ve worked at Mind Candy as Director of Play, which really means I was the lead designer of Perplex City. I’m pretty sure I worked more than 4000 hours during that time, but that doesn’t make me an expert; it just means I’ve figured out a lot of ways of how not to make ARGs. I know that I shouldn’t dangle random strings of numbers in front of people who are looking for secret messages everywhere. I know that I shouldn’t expect weary players to be able to decode a signal being flashed by torches across the River Thames – while being several hundred feet above the ground. And I know that I should never underestimate our players.

I’m sure you’ve heard the bad news. Perplex City Season 2 will not be launching in June, or in the near future. At the time, I was being honest when I promised that it would launch next month, but there are some circumstances that are out of control of even a puppetmaster. I know that this will hugely disappoint a lot of people, and it’s a real disappointment for me. We all worked very hard on making Season 2, but it just was not to be. And so, it’s time for me to move on.

I’ve had a wonderful three years at the Mind Candy. I’ve learned a whole range of valuable and bizarre skills, from organising an event on the other side of the world to researching how bees dance. I wouldn’t be able to list all the things we achieved with Perplex City – the rich story, the friendships made and the battles won are endless. I feel privileged to have worked with some of the most talented and hard-working people in the business who helped make Perplex City, and to have had the opportunity to make a game for such a dedicated and energetic group of players.

In particular at Mind Candy, there’s the Story Team: Andrea, David, Jey and Naomi, all of whom are also moving on to different places and projects. I’ll always remember the times when we ran live events together – not just because of the sense that we worked as a team, writing and improving each others dialogue in real time, synchronised to multimedia – but because we did it with our players, who added their own melodies to what we did. It was like jamming in a band, and it made a beautiful sound.

I also remember writing the first post by Kurt, feeling so excited about writing something that would be part of the Perplex City. Almost two years later, I remember writing his final post in Season 1 and reading the comments on the forums about it. More than a few people suggested that it was made by a different writer, which I took as an (inadvertent) backhanded compliment.

And then yesterday, I wrote his post that’s up on Violet’s site. It pretty much summarises how I feel.

I’m sure people will have a million questions, but here’s the thing: I’m in Hong Kong right now, and I’ll be out of touch for a week and a half. So if you have anything you want to ask or comment about anything, send me an email and I will get back to you.


It turns out that I’ve been using the term ‘epistolatory’ when what I really mean is ‘epistolary’. Think of all the precious seconds I’ve lost, typing out those two extra words. Think of those lost Google hits.

Epistolary literature refers to fiction where the story is told in the form of letters written by the protagonists; often the stories are passed off as being real, e.g. ‘I discovered this set of letters in a trunk given to me by my uncle…’ Given this reality-bending shtick, you can imagine that epistolary fiction is of interest to me.

How much interest? I’ve written about epistolary fiction before, at least tangentially, but I’ll admit that I didn’t really understand them very well. So when my favourite radio show, In Our Time, discussed the topic of Epistolary Literature a couple of months ago, I was quite excited. And then I left it there for weeks, unlistened.

This was partly because I was busy, but the real reason was that I was worried about what I might learn. Was epistolary fiction left to drift in a sea of colourful but niche books, abandoned after readers tired of all its silly tricks and contrivances? Or perhaps worse, would it have sailed on, transforming seamlessly into modern fiction – completely anticipating everything that will happen with ARGs? I didn’t think I wanted to know. Might the academics on the show know far more about my own job than I did? It was an unsettling thought.
In Our Time discussions are generally quite good, but lately they’ve been mixed. There have been a lot of inexperienced speakers and a lot of tedious arguments and misunderstandings. I’m always amazed and slightly in awe of the fact that despite these sometimes very serious problems, the producers never seem inclined to re-record the show, let alone edit it. Anyway, on the coach back from Oxford to London, I finally listened to the epistolary literature discussion.

It was wonderful. Not in sense of merely being good, or even great, but of inspiring wonder. The participants were all genuinely fascinated by epistolary literature and they managed exactly how revolutionary it was when it first emerged. Yes, epistolary fiction went over the same ground that ARGs are going over right now, and yes, epistolary fiction is nowhere near the powerhouse it used to be, but that’s because it got better. Who knew that Jane Austen was the person who really ushered in the changes? And seeing how it got better has given me ideas about how ARGs will improve as well. So I fully intend to follow up with the participants and find out more. I might even get around to reading Clarissa, all 1536 pages of it.

And I doubt I’ll ever misspell epistolary fiction again.