Given that the game is built upon so many areas of knowledge, it probably seems overwhelming for one person to handle everything on their own. Indeed, it would be highly unlikely for a single player to know all the information – or even be able to perform enough individual research – necessary to complete the game. This is by design, and highlights an important distinction between The Black Watchmen and other ARGventures like In Memoriam: collaboration between players is essential in this game. To that end, an ever-present button on the client screen links directly to the game’s forums as the basis (though not the only means) of multiplayer communication.
Some puzzles draw their solutions from specific engineering or scientific disciplines, such as optical physics. While other games might present clues in such a way that all players (whether familiar with that topic or not) would eventually figure out what they need, The Black Watchmen often provides clues like graphs or illustrations entirely devoid of context, meaning that prior familiarity with the subject matter is vital to understand how to connect the dots between what you are looking at and what you need to know to solve the puzzle. Most puzzles are more general in nature than this one, but typically the more knowledge and skills you have available, the better you will be able to figure out possible areas of research to investigate. This is where cooperation with other players factors in, as many minds are better than one.
Though players are encouraged to actively engage in the collaborative puzzle-solving process, those who do not wish to participate directly can simply browse the forums for other players’ discussions and hints to the solution of a given puzzle, though the developers do not allow full answers to be given there. IRC chat channels, where players have worked together to complete a mission, are also logged for later perusal, and of course walkthroughs from various sites around the web will eventually be available if you’re looking for the entire solution.
Collaboration is ostensibly possible from within the client too. Accessible from a button that calls up a world map showing the approximate location of other “Agents” currently playing the game, a “Call for Help” feature is supposed to allow you to request assistance from other players for the puzzle you are currently working on. You can either ask for someone who has already solved the puzzle or allow other players currently working on that puzzle to collaborate with you to solve it. While I tried this feature a few times (and even tried to help others by clicking their associated map beacons), I was never able to figure out exactly how it worked, so I simply gave up and used the forums, IRC logs, and YouTube walkthroughs in order to figure out the puzzles, which worked well enough.
One aspect of The Black Watchmen I was not able to test involved the optional “live” ARG elements, as the window of opportunity had closed by the time I began playing. There are three standard levels of participation, accessible from an icon in the client and color-coded based on how deeply you want to be immersed in this world. Red requires only an email address and is the initial level at which all players begin. (Apparently it is possible to unsubscribe from even this basic level of communication, though doing so means that you will not be kept informed of the results of live events over the course of a season.) Orange is unlocked if you provide your phone number. At this level, phone calls from characters in the game as well as certain time-sensitive live missions will become available. Yellow is activated by providing your address information as well, with which it is possible to interact first-hand with the gameworld. A green level will also be theoretically available, accessible only at certain times and for certain players willing to undergo and submit a medical exam to ensure their health to participate. This level has not yet been made active, so I have no idea what kinds of things those who opt for it would be subjected to.
The kinds of tasks that players engaged in during the first season’s live events included such things as texting pictures of cell-phone towers to the Black Watchmen (part of a mission to extract an asset from a location and transport them safely elsewhere), and receiving packages containing “cursed” artifacts whose effects needed to be nullified; this was essentially an elaborate address-confirmation event, as players needed to send proof that they had completed the ritual designed to remove the curse. There were even opportunities for the more ambitious players to meet up with characters (portrayed by actors) from the game in real life at a previously agreed-upon location to, for example, give them an item received in a prior live mission.
It bears repeating that these levels of involvement are only for players who wish to participate, intended to make the game seem more “real,” as well as provide opportunities to influence the direction of the story. The latter aspect involves some drawbacks for anyone who decides not to join in, however, as new missions in the client reference characters and plot points previously introduced during live missions. The official forums provide information about live events that have taken place, so it is possible to fill in any plot holes, though I still felt out of the loop and confused about certain aspects of the story after the fact.
The characters involved in the story are one of the weaker aspects of The Black Watchmen, which is a shame since this aspect is where ARGs have a lot of potential to shine. Save for a few distinct moments, I never really felt like the characters were anything but fictional, since emails were obviously answered by an automated system. The atmosphere of the game is spot on, however. With conspiracies involving corporations tied to occult practices, characters performing disturbing experiments, and various paranormal phenomena, there were moments when I felt like I really was part of a clandestine force trying to stop supernatural evil from being unleashed on the planet. The exact reasons for a particular investigation or how a certain mission fit into the overall plot were sometimes unclear, but the overarching purpose of each mission gained more focus as the game progressed toward the finale.
My initial fears that the game would lack value for players at the lowest participation level were almost entirely unfounded. Taking me more than 25 hours to complete, the 25-mission first season has more than enough content to justify the full price, even without live event involvement. For players willing to trade their personal information for access to the higher levels of immersion, it is a fantastic value, considering all the added benefits that affords. Of course, this depends on making your purchase prior to a season starting (or very soon after) in order to take part, as once a live event is over it won’t happen again.
There are even bonus puzzles to solve in the form of secret answers for each mission, though I didn’t really have the time or the inclination to figure them out, opting instead to simply search the forums for the answers. When you enter all of them into the client, a further five “secret” missions unlock. And if all this still isn't enough to sate your puzzle-solving desires, between seasons the developers are allowing players to come up with their own missions, and a voting process will see the highest rated fan-missions uploaded to the client for all players to partake. The price of admission includes these user levels, at least the ones released up to the start of the next season.
Regardless of when you begin playing, you will continue to have access to most older content even after a season is over. Since the game relies on real-world websites, I have concerns about the practical time limits for elements like the websites of fictional corporations whose domains could expire at some point, but for now the developers are promising that you will be able to access the content you paid for even well afterwards. One exception to this rule involves the “situation room.” Accessible from the mission hub are a bank of TV monitors. While a season is ongoing, they display various communications from the Black Watchmen agency as well as other characters, but now that the season is over they are inactive, showing only pulsing static.
It should be noted that, because the game is heavily based on paranormal and occult elements and melds both real historical and fictional events and characters, there are a few situations where it is required to research actual texts from figures like British occultist Aleister Crowley, as well as topics like demonology and Goetic magic (the latter being a system for summoning demons that appeared during the Renaissance). While the great majority of puzzles do not require delving into such topics, the few times it is required may be an impediment for those with a religious or personal objection to such exposure. I found some of these elements problematic myself, but the ability to consult hints and walkthroughs for answers allowed me to continue the game without too much concern in this regard.
Overall, I found The Black Watchmen to be an incredibly unique and enjoyable experience, and a great first attempt by Alice & Smith at creating a self-sustaining ARG. Although not perfect by any means, the melding of real and fictional elements makes for an often thrilling experience, and the diverse array of knowledge and activities required to advance through each mission is a welcome change of pace from the self-contained obstacles that traditional games have to offer. The paranormal plot could have benefited from more clarity at times, but this doesn’t seriously hinder the overall experience or the engaging atmosphere. For gamers looking to immerse themselves in a world of paranormal conspiracies and shadowy corporations while flexing their problem-solving and research skills on puzzles that only an alternate reality game can provide, The Black Watchmen may be just the game you’re looking for. And if the developers follow through on their plans, there is plenty more to come.