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Pervasive adventure games

In Memoriam, a low-profile but highly popular game from Ubi Soft, might be signaling the emergence of a new adventure game sub-genre. Game academics have coined the term “pervasive games” to describe games that pervade into reality through e-mail correspondence, fake websites or location-based activities. Considering the high levels of hype surrounding pervasive and mobile gaming, we can expect many games to follow In Memoriam's footsteps, and they will no doubt further explore the concept. As per introduction, I'm going to take a brief look at four pervasive adventure games, ranging from the fairly traditional to the wild and experimental. Although I believe these games contain all the characteristics of adventure games, I wouldn't be surprised if the last game in this article will be deemed too deviating to be covered on this site. However, this is a very different article from the one I posted before, so don't worry about genre definitions too much.

As far as I can tell, Majestic was the first pervasive adventure game. Its publisher EA advertised it as being The Game: the game – it would essentially "take over your life" for ten dollars a month (the reference is to the David Fincher movie). By blurring the lines between fact and fiction, Majestic was designed to induce high levels of paranoia. Players had to take clues from mysterious midnight phone calls, anonymous e-mails and faxes, and fake websites. However, it turned out few people were actually interested in paying for that. EA pulled the plug not long after its launch. The reason for its failure may have been that gamers were uncomfortable with allowing a game to intrude their daily lives. On the other hand, most players reported that the game didn't deliver on its prime selling point -- the mysterious phone calls and e-mails were quite obviously part of the game. Regardless of whatever the reason was for Majestic's quick demise, it was an adventure game, although not recognized as one at the time. The gameplay focused completely on research and clue gathering. Majestic was much like an X-Files mystery, where players could peel off layer upon layer of a big conspiracy. Although Majestic was a little self-obsessed so to say with its focus on technology angst, it was the first commercial experiment in pervasive gaming.

In Memoriam combines full motion

video and traditional puzzles with

web-based gameplay.

In Memoriam is another pervasive adventure, but it's very different from Majestic both in its commercial success and its contents. Whereas Majestic's story dealt with UFOs and an all-encompassing government conspiracy, In Memoriam casts you in the role of a simple investigator, tasked with finding a serial killer. The game combines full motion video clips and in-game puzzles with web research and e-mail. In Memoriam's marketing campaign was decidedly more successful than that of Majestic. Instead of claiming that its pervasive gameplay would 'spook you out', it said it would draw you in and compel you to solve the puzzles.

In his review of In Memoriam, Jim Saighman explains that there's no apparent exploration or character interaction in the game, which leaves many in doubt whether In Memoriam is a true adventure game. Jim says that it is an adventure game -- and I agree. In Memoriam is founded upon puzzle solving and story development, two essential components of adventure games. While there is no exploration in the sense of moving an avatar on the screen, the player is sent on a trail hunt through various websites (both fake and real ones). Although the browsing of a website may appear to be unrelated to adventure gaming, I wouldn't say it's very different on a conceptual level. The pervasive elements of In Memoriam are an integral part of the game world which players have to explore. You could even consider the e-mail correspondence of In Memoriam as an equivalent of character interaction in a traditional adventure game.

There is more pervasive gaming to be found outside of the game industry. As part of a guerrilla marketing campaign for the movie A.I., Microsoft and Dreamworks designed and operated a web-based game in 2001, known by its players as “The Beast” or “the A.I. Game”. The game was never officially announced, nor did it require any form of subscription. Instead, the movie's trailer contained a hint leading to the game, causing curious viewers to stumble upon the game by accident. Although no one told the players they were playing a game, everyone knew the events were orchestrated by an anonymous team of developers -- the “Puppet Masters” -- who updated the game every Tuesday.

A.I. was different from In Memoriam and Majestic in that it was inherently collaborative. Most puzzles in A.I. were so difficult that they required the involvement of the entire player community to be solved. Puzzles had players reading Göedel, Escher, Bach, translating from German, Japanese, and an obscure language called Kannada, decrypting Morse and Enigma code, and performing a range of operations on sound and image files downloaded and swapped between players. A.I. was, essentially, a collaborative multiplayer adventure game -- perhaps even the first one. (E-mail me if you know of an earlier example.)

However, pervasive games can be taken one step further. Uncle Roy Is All Around You is an experimental location-based game that was funded by Microsoft Research and a number of academic sponsors, such as the University of Nottingham. During May and June 2003, street players -- working alone, equipped with PDAs and wireless connections -- explored the city of London in search for clues that would get them closer to the location of a mysterious Uncle Roy. Meanwhile, internet players could either collaborate or interfere with the street player's effort through an online 3D modeled map of the city. Street players had to make their location known at certain intervals in exchange for hints -- dots on the 3D city map represented the positions of the various street players.

In Uncle Roy, players equipped with PDAs roamed the streets of London, while online players could navigate a 3D map of the city and assist or sabotage the street players' efforts.

In order to participate in the location-based part of the game, players had to purchase a ticket for a specific hour long slot. Upon arrival, they had to hand over all their personal belongings such as mobile phones, money, keys, and so on, in exchange for the PDA with an interactive electronic map. The first part of the hour-long game was pretty much a detective game, with individual players walking around the city in search for Uncle Roy's office. Street players could communicate with online players, who in turn could offer help in finding the location. Once found, the street player had to enter a door leading to an empty office, where they had to scribble the answer to a certain question on the back of a postcard. After this, they were told to leave the office and wait outside, where a limo would drive up. Players could either accept a ride to an unknown destination, or abort the game there. Those who stepped inside would engage in a conversation with the driver (an actor), which led to the conclusion of the story. A team of fifteen operators and actors were present at any time to make sure everything went according to the script.

Players who participated in Uncle Roy Is All Around You reported a strong emotional involvement with the game. Some of the clues were deliberately deceiving. For example, a player might be asked to look for a tourist approaching his position, even though there was no actor playing the tourist. This red herring had players questioning who was part of the game and who wasn't.

I sadly haven't been able to play Uncle Roy, but I'm going to try and participate in Uncle Roy 2, which will playable in Manchester next year. I have recently developed a strong interest in location-based games, stimulated in part by participating in two so-called flash mobs in Amsterdam this summer. A flash mob is a seemingly spontaneous gathering of people in the middle of a crowded location, who do something silly or surprising. This silly activity lasts for a couple of minutes, after which the group dissipates as quickly as it emerged. Although mobs are pre-coordinated on the internet, no one knows what the mission is until the final instructions are handed out at a certain location. I felt that the activities themselves (for example, posing as paparazzi and photographing random passers-by) were only one part of the fun. A lot of the excitement came from the ambiguity of the mob – who was in and who was not? I was continuously observing strangers, guessing whether they were players or not. There was also an air of mystery around the briefing for the event. Participants were to look for a person fitting a certain description, who would hand out an instructions flyer once you approached him. You were not to communicate with this person, nor with any other players, until the mob had actually commenced. In the climax of the mob, total strangers emerged from the city crowds and took part in the street performance. This invoked a bizarre but powerful feeling of 'being in it together'.

While flash mobs aren't games (more something like improvised street performance), some of the feelings they invoke are no doubt similar to Uncle Roy or other location-based games. Imagine playing a location-based detective game in which you are part of a team of investigators. You go around town interviewing suspects (played by actors), share information with other investigators whom you meet on the streets for the first time, and ultimately engage in a wild goose hunt to catch the suspects. Or, you could be in your own spy thriller, in which an ordinary park bench or a table at a Chinese restaurant could suddenly become as exciting as being on a movie set.

Pervasive games are not quite as 'scary' as they may sound in advertising. No one who's played In Memoriam or Majestic can claim they were greatly confused about what was real and what was not. The marketing claims of extreme realism are just hyperbole -- there is a strong overruling sense of playing a game. Pervasive games also don't have to take place persistently at 24 hours a day, like Majestic or MMOGs do. Uncle Roy Is All Around You managed to provide a satisfying game experience is just one hour.

Pervasive gaming is going to be a huge buzzword during the coming years, so be sure to trap on those hype-filtering goggles. On the other hand, it will be interesting to see what sort of adventure games come out of the experiments that are currently being done. There is going to be a huge demand for these sort of pervasive games in the coming years, especially considering the expected rise of mobile gaming. There are currently dozens of experiments ongoing that use GPS or mobile equipment to play games in real-life locations, and a lot of investors that are willing to put money in such projects. Internet-based pervasive games are potent marketing tools with mass-market appeal, as evidenced by A.I. and the online game used to promote the TV show Alias.

There's a wealth of potential for episodic online content and new, highly immersive types of adventure games. Whether it involves scouring the web with your friends in an attempts to solve a larger-than-life puzzle, or roaming around an urban setting in search for a mysterious man, pervasive games have a tremendous power to engage and immerse.


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