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.