It will take you about 11 minutes to read this review.
Indie developer Alice & Smith’s The Black Watchmen emerged on the scene last fall with lofty ambitions. Not only did it seek to merge the immersive real-world interaction of alternate reality games with more traditional puzzle-adventures, it represented just the first installment of an ongoing series. Remarkably for a freshman studio, the first season was a resounding success that exceeded all expectations.
The story cast players as an agent in the eponymous clandestine organization, tasking them with fighting paranormal phenomena together with other agents around the globe. A content-laden game of research- and collaboration-based puzzles was bolstered with the opportunity for real-world interaction with the game through optional phone calls, package deliveries, and live events in which players could meet face-to-face with characters from the story. Even with a few minor missteps, the result was a uniquely immersive experience that provided tremendous value even at the lowest level of interaction.
Season two, subtitled Enduring Conflict, is very much a “second verse (almost) same as the first” affair, refining rather than reinventing the wheel. All of the positive qualities that made its predecessor a standout title are still present in this second outing, such as a narrative filled with supernatural evil and cloak-and-dagger subterfuge, puzzles that require a diverse array of real-world knowledge to solve, and collaborative ARG elements that blur the line between the game world and real events. With several of the issues that held back the first season being alleviated or eliminated this time around, along with the addition of a few new puzzle types and a shocking end-of-season live event, the second season showcases the series’ fantastic potential for both veterans and newcomers alike.
The story still revolves around a global network of agents battling occult forces, but the first season’s adversary has given way to a new and seemingly more powerful foe. As with last time, new sets of missions were released every few weeks over the course of several months, but unlike the previous season, where each mission set was used to introduce a new puzzle type or gameplay mechanic, the missions here have a much more varied feel from the start. A few sets have a unique theme, as well, such as some early missions in which players battle demonic forces inspired by H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, which fans of the iconic horror writer will no doubt appreciate.
One complaint I had about season one was that I felt out of the loop at times regarding the story and the motivations behind certain plot points. Usually this was due to my playing the game after the season’s live events were over, each of which affected subsequent missions. Having been able to participate in several of the live events this time around, I found the story much easier to follow, but I can also report that the few times I was not able to participate didn’t hinder my experience as much as it did before. The game forums and other avenues for communicating with fellow players (such as IRC chat), as well as the structure of the story itself, have had time to mature, leading to better chronicling of events for those who need to catch up.
Interface-wise, not much has changed, which is a good thing considering the highly-polished setup already established. Incremental updates tweaked functionality or appearance occasionally throughout the season, but for the most part the client is almost identical to how it looked and performed last season. The slick, minimalist interface still acts as mission hub for your web-based research and puzzle-solving tasks, allowing you to select from various available missions in a campaign. At any time, players can switch between campaigns from either of the first two seasons and a few sandbox campaigns that feature player-created missions, although for now this is a largely under-utilized feature due to the rigorous approval process.
Music and sound effects appear unchanged as well, which is either a non-issue or a slight disappointment, depending on your point of view. For me, it doesn’t really matter; I turned the music off early last season and never turned it back on except to see whether something new had been added this season. The only sound-related item that has changed somewhat is the voice acting, primarily owing to the mission briefing videos featuring some new talent. While there are a few familiar voices in the cast, several new actors change things up, though as last time they are mostly functional in purpose.
Most puzzles take the same general forms too, asking you to gather information about some new aspect of an investigation by decoding Morse code-like patterns in a sound file, locating a building on Google Maps based on data provided by the agency, or investigating a real-world website created for the game in order to uncover details about an individual or organization under scrutiny, among various other tasks. Most of the puzzles require research into diverse topics including science, religion, languages, and history, but if you become truly stuck you always have the community, including the official game forums, to help guide you to the solution.
A frustrating issue encountered last season was that certain missions required extremely specific terms or formatting (hyphenated words, for instance) for puzzle answers to be accepted. That issue has been almost entirely eliminated this season, with more variations in terms being recognized and the format of the answer being provided when a specific term must be used. The downside to this approach is that the difficulty curve is, in some cases, massively reduced, though newcomers might find the smoother learning curve more enjoyable. For several puzzles I could simply guess the answer without any other information than the format of the term and a list of possible answers, like a list of stock exchanges or building names.
This ends up being a highly acceptable trade-off, however, given that it alleviates the problem of either knowing the answer and not being able to figure out how the parser expects you to format it, or unwittingly having the right answer and overlooking it because you didn’t format it properly the first time you tried. With this solution in place, the few very challenging puzzles I encountered were satisfying to solve because I didn’t have to worry about whether I’d know what the answer was when I arrived at it. In the end, this small change made each challenge feel surmountable, and I only needed to consult other players a handful of times.
There are a few new puzzle types that take advantage of the web-centric nature of the game, adding more traditional minigame-like activities into the otherwise research-heavy structure of Black Watchmen. Accessed via their own dedicated websites, the first such task you encounter consists of a game board-like grid representing a radar map of a cave into which a light-averse creature has fled. One square represents the agent you must move around the map, and then, based on the creature’s movement patterns and information provided by each round’s radar sweep, try to find and trap the entity. Although there are clues as to how to complete it, overall the game is a frustrating exercise in trial and error, ending more often than not with the agent being attacked and killed, resulting in having to start all over again. Luckily, this particular game is not representative of the new game types as a whole, which makes it all the more unfortunate that it is the first impression players have of the second season’s minigames.
The other two puzzle types introduced this season are much more intuitive than the first, consisting of STINGER, a Unix-inspired command line interface used to hack fictional computer systems, and CLAM, a data-collection and decryption game. STINGER is used when you are given tasks like gathering incriminating evidence from the computer system of a particular individual. While the text-based interface is likely a love-it-or-hate-it feature because you MUST type each command correctly in order to successfully complete a task, this feature enhances the realism, and at times I felt like I was actually snooping around someone’s computer.
CLAM (or Cluster Analysis Machine), on the other hand, is a fun but decidedly “arcadey” puzzle that has you set up letter-labeled nodes that accept or reject a stream of data packets based on the letter of those packets and the rock-paper-scissors-style rules. The objective is to process enough packets successfully that the CLAM system doesn’t enter a failure state, which necessitates starting over. While the rules took me a couple of tries to fully understand, it’s a fun game reminiscent of Tower of Hanoi-like puzzles that require you to plan ahead to place the nodes strategically so the stream can be properly decrypted.
While these new puzzles are used sparingly, their presence and overall success suggests that my main concern for the series as a whole – namely how long before it runs out of different things for players to do – is likely unfounded, given that the game isn’t really limited by the capabilities of the client or the conventions of the ARG or puzzle-adventure genres. I definitely look forward to seeing how new activities will be implemented in future seasons, especially if they remain as engaging as the selection this season.
Participating in several live missions over the course of the season, I got a first-hand look at the alternate reality game aspects. Occurring primarily on weekends, they were released between mission sets and involved players collaborating to solve a set of puzzles in real-time. Several of them began with me and other “agents” receiving actual phone calls from The Black Watchmen, requesting our assistance with a new mission. For instance, Operation RUBYDRAGON (each live mission receives a codename for easy reference) began with us being tasked to find out who was responsible for assassinating an executive of an organization under surveillance. This involved figuring out the encryption scheme the executive was using to communicate with an unknown third party, decrypting the last known message sent by the executive, then relaying this information via email back to The Black Watchmen HQ.
Once this was accomplished, we were then instructed to photograph Chinatown gates around our respective areas in order to understand the plans uncovered by the previous operation, which eventually led to a collaborative hunt for a Twitter-bot that was broadcasting encoded command and control instructions to the organization’s botnet. The mission ended with players who had submitted pictures of Chinatown gates being placed on the rogue organization’s target list, which came into play late in the season.
In the final live mission, two members of the community were “kidnapped” by the rogue organization during an attempt to infiltrate their organization, and it was up to players to find out where they were and attempt to get them back. While one puzzle was successfully solved, leading to the recovery of an agent, the other puzzle was not, and one of the most prominent members of the community (or rather, her in-game persona) was “killed” in the attempt to extract her from where she was being held. Of course, the two “captives” were never in any real danger; their permission having been secured by submitting green level applications in order to take part. The result of the mission did, however, have a real-life impact on the player who wasn’t rescued, in that she can no longer play the game under her previously-established username.
Due to unfortunate timing of the final live event, I was unable to directly participate in it, but with regular email updates provided to every player by the developers, I was able to follow along with the shocking conclusion to the season. It is impressive to me how, even when not participating, such emergent, reality-bending twists can make an already great game incredibly exciting, as well.
One thing you will immediately notice when you take part in a live mission is how fast-paced the action is. While there were several times I was able to get in on events immediately and thus stay current with the proceedings, there were numerous occasions when I would come in late and spend at least thirty minutes or so simply trying to get caught up with what had taken place prior to my joining in on the IRC (the main avenue of collaboration for live events).
It is also very easy to feel useless during a live mission when the knowledge needed to assist is beyond your area of expertise. For instance, cryptology is one of my weakest subjects, yet several sections of the live missions involved nothing but cracking cryptographic codes and ciphers to uncover information. This led to several instances of simply waiting for others to solve problems in the hope that I’d see something that I could contribute to. In addition, while the other players I encountered were generally a nice bunch and very helpful, friction does sometimes surface among the participants.
There’s no real way to mitigate these issues completely, which are inherent to the social nature of ARGs. While better organization of the “story so far” might help a player catch up more quickly, there’s only so much this can do to speed things along for those who have fallen behind. Also, while it is frustrating to be left idle as others solve the puzzles a live mission demands, the variety of things to do during the rest of a live mission, such as photographing items or places and sending a picture to the Agency as confirmation, ensures that there is usually something for everyone to participate in at some point.
Given the improvements made to the second season over the first, newcomers might want to start with the new campaigns first, then pick up the older ones if you want more challenges and story background. The mostly standalone nature of each season means familiarity with prior missions is a bonus, not a requirement. It’s not possible to avoid season one entirely, though, as Enduring Conflict is available only as DLC to the original. The second season offers just as much value for your money as the first, adding another 20-25 hours of gameplay depending on your puzzle-solving skill. And that’s without taking into account the expired live missions, which pushed my own actual time spent with the game even higher, perhaps another 10-15 hours or more.
For the most part, the second season of The Black Watchmen is simply an iterative improvement, but considering the high bar set by the first season, that’s all that was really possible. All the things that made the first season special are still here, including brainteasing puzzles that hinge on real-world knowledge across a vast array of subjects, a cloak-and-dagger story peppered with occult mystery and intrigue, and real-world missions that can actually mold the trajectory of the story and the shape of the community. While the fast-paced social aspects of the game has its unavoidable downsides, the new browser-based minigames introduced are largely successful, and improvements to the client’s answer input system iron out my one primary complaint from last season. Having now had the chance to experience the series as it was intended – played live and in collaboration with others – I can safely say this is ARGing at its finest, and if Alice & Smith are able to maintain this level of quality (and community engagement) going into the third season, both veterans and newcomers have a lot to look forward to.