A new approach to online games as stories

I’m guessing I’ve probably lost about half of you with the headline but I’ve been giving some thought to a different way to do online games as a storytelling medium.

Before you look at me and say something that offensive and probably mostly true, hear me out. You see I’m not talking about what you might think of as a game. The closest concept I could come up with to match my idea is some sort of augmented reality or alternate reality game.

Rather than having a game client, you start the game with a youtube video. If you solve the clue in the video, that will lead you to one or more websites depending on your google-fu.

From there, you’d find an email address with a very strange out of office message. That leads to a series of FTP sites. The files you collect would be a mix of character profiles, locked zips, and audio-visual clips.

As you dive into the story you discover that there has been a murder and solving that murder will help you uncover clues to a real-life hidden treasure. You get the thrill of feeling like a hacker, with the infuriating puzzles of a good escape the room mystery.

Massive worldbuilding

Now, something like this has been done before and to varying degrees of success. What I’m thinking about is the opportunity for gifted storytellers to world build on a truly massive scale. If one of the characters had a daughter, then you could craft not only her blog but her Facebook profile too. If you really wanted to go deep, you could create the email exchanges between her and her equally fictional friends which, if the players happen to get good at guessing (or happen to actually be amazing hackers) they might (but probably will not) end up reading.

I can imagine that the main plot would be the conflict between an uptight by-the-book investigative agency and a shady anarchistic hacker group. As well as solving the puzzles you could use your detective skills to let yourself into a lot of background files, as well as browsing some well crafted angsty teenage poetry. If you have money to put behind the project you could even hire actors and actresses to run the online life of these fictional people.

Players would have the scope to go off book pretty far and explore the story the way that makes sense to them. Twists and turns would come in the shape of assumptions that the players make about the characters and the revelations that might come out in the course of their investigation.

With something like Tumblr and a lot of time, you could set the blogs of different characters. These handcrafted blogs would unfold the story over the space of a year or more. That’s a lot of space for clues, hints, and a tonne of red-herrings.

How would this game pay for itself?

I have no idea how you would monetize a game like this. After all literally, anyone with a computer and a functional web browser could play. If you made the entire treasure hunt the prelude to the first novel in a series, that would probably count as the best guerrilla marketing campaign of all time.

What fascinates me though, is the possibility for storytelling.

I think it would probably cheapen it to sell real-world products that contain additional clues. I mean, yes, that would pay for things but would you really want to do that?

Slap too many adverts on the sites and you are going to ruin the illusion (even if it does earn you money).

I’m kind of stuck on this part.

What would the game cost?

At a minimum, you’d want a couple of odd dot net domains to use for the two factions. You could probably host them on the same server although with separate IP addresses.

The social media accounts would be free, assuming that they don’t get shut down.

The character’s email addresses could also be free on Gmail or Yahoo (or whatever). The problem is that the first person to break in by guessing the password could kind of ruin things for everyone else. The way around that would be another domain for “free email” that is somehow write protected and so not truly an email account. Another way around that would be to have one or both factions download copies of emails that you would access via FTP. You’d not actually be hacking but it might feel like it.

The biggest cost would be the prize.

As only one person can win the prize, it might be fair to say that investing in making the journey itself fun would matter.

The characters themselves could get expensive if you invest in models or actors to fill out the social media profile images.

Wow, that’s actually quite expensive.

Who would play the game?

Given the interest in escape the room style puzzles and the blurred lines between real life and fantasy, I can imagine that a lot of people would be interested.

I know that I would play. Assuming, of course, I’m not writing the game.

 

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