Fans of Lost - their fragile minds addled with conspiracy theories about a bunch of models (and one fat bloke) stranded on a tropical beach - recently arrived at the brink of orgasm over a Channel 4 advert. "The Hanso Foundation. Reaching out to a better tomorrow," droned the voiceover. Because of its tenuous connection to the hit TV show, thousands logged on to Hanso's website and phoned a corresponding telephone number. In doing so, they walked straight into the arms of alternate reality gaming.
Crossing the boundaries of fiction into, ahem, the desert of the real, alternate reality games - ARGs - such as The Lost Experience incorporate coded websites, newspaper ads, real-world treasure hunts and bothersome 4am phone calls from in-game characters. What's more, they're infecting PC gamers like a medieval pox plague.
"People compare alternate reality gaming and its passionate online communities to MMOGs like World Of Warcraft or Second Life," says Michael Smith, svengali behind the greatest mind-scrambler of them all, Perplex City. At the heart of Smith's fictional metropolis, hidden via clues on collectable cards, is a very real prize: a cube worth 100,000 quid, stashed somewhere on the globe.
Smith continues: "We've created dozens of different websites and podcasts. We've used mobile phone technology, hidden stuff in cinema adverts, geocashes (GPS treasure hunts), trailed banners behind airplanes flying over cities... There's a massive amount of different ways in which we can disseminate information."
WHAT'S UP DOC?
For a medium that carries the tagline 'This Is Not A Game', ARG might appear as relevant to PC gamers as Bavarian folk music. Not so, explains Dave Szulborski, creator of games (Chasing The Wish) and books on the subject (Through The Rabbit Hole). "ARGs are the next step beyond traditional videogames - a way of providing a more realistic and engaging experience without relying on artificial 3D graphics, artificial intelligence or automated (and therefore artificial) interaction. That's why many videogamers find ARGs so attractive."
The attraction began in 2000 when EA began planning a flagship online FPS called Majestic. However, the head of the project, Neil Young, had other ideas: he wanted to create a rich in-game world with a Matrix-esque backstory. "Developing a FPS to tell a story is like driving a car into your living room just to listen to the radio," says former Majestic developer Greg Gibson.
"Neil found a better way. He created an alternate reality game, although we didn't use that expression at the time. We thought of it more as the logical evolution of the commercial adventure game. We wanted it to infiltrate your life, like a version of the David Fincher movie, The Game."
UP IN SMOKE
This 'massively single-player' online game brewed a cauldron of conspiracy and science fiction, as players scoured the Web for clues, watched videos, sent emails and communicated with in-game characters. Majestic's dark plot was so convincing that the FBI launched an investigation into one of the game's 'top secret' documents. Then a run-in between planes and skyscrapers ruined everything.
"The unofficial company line is that 9/11 doomed Majestic," sighs Gibson. "Not only did we take the game offline for a while, but in the following weeks and months, people weren't keen to play a government conspiracy game that threatened to wake you up in the middle of the night with frantic phone calls. Ultimately though, we just didn't create an experience that appealed to a large number of people."