A.L.T.: An Alternate Reality Game

Project Type: Film & Video, Game Design, Storytelling

I combined my final project for Giant Stories/Tiny Screens (a course that focused on narrative in the age of online video) with my final project for Big Games (which focused on games featuring large numbers of players, large playspaces, and prolonged stretches of time) and, together with Eric Hagan, Mike Cohen, and Suzanne Kirkpatrick, I designed and constructed an alternate reality game that we codenamed “A.L.T.” (the initials of the main character, and also a sneaky reference to the word “alt” as a synonym for “persona” or “online identity”).

Our game was loosely inspired by William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. I enjoyed thinking about the way “the footage” in the novel was distributed and how it captured its audience, even though almost every one of them was drawn in by a different scene and was then likely exposed to the rest of “the footage” in a different order. I was intrigued by this concept of a narrative that may have been linear in its conception and execution, but not in its distribution and the way it is viewed by others, yet still manage to entice them. I wanted to experiment with that concept of telling a narrative in snippets but not distributing them in order, and then also building up a game around it. However, in discussing with my group members about the needs of the project to turn this into a true game much moreso than it was for “the followers of the footage”, we decided that the video should NOT be the core of the project — it was NOT intended to be just a scavenger hunt for snippets of video.

We decided instead that the videos would just be entry points into the interactive narrative, providing the backstory, so that a certain amount of the narrative was already set, but once players entered the game, they would be able to influence the story from the point that the videos left off. We also decided that we did not think it was reasonable to expect players to find all of the videos before starting to play, and that it would probably be prohibitive to them doing so. So we needed to make sure that each video on its own had enough information so that someone could play the game, while finding all of the videos and deducing their order would be its own reward, because it provided the most coherent view of the story thus far.

Finally, we decided that we wanted the game and the story to be fundamentally character-driven, and from the game designers’ perspective, the project actually turned into creating a fictional persona (Amy L. Toloni, A.L.T.) and propagating her identity online in as many ways as we could think possible. We created a Facebook profile, Twitter, WordPress blog, Tumblr, LinkedIn profile… you name it. We even made business cards. And this character-driven approach also affected the videos, because it meant that the snippets should not just be plot-driven but also provide a good amount of characterization.

Once players entered the game, they encountered a series of puzzles and challenges, solving riddles, figuring out passwords, and finding hidden phone numbers. Since we relied mainly on existing social media, it was easy for players to find each other and collaborate, which was our intent. The game did have a pre-planned conclusion, but the way players interacted with Amy colored and influence the ending in several ways.