“There is no once upon a time at the beginning of a game,” says Bill Hutchison.
The fairy tale reference flows easily from his lips, and it should: he has spent the last month acting as the Grand Ort in an elaborate alternate reality game, “The Project.” His tone and attire are now free of his retired character’s sputtering absurdity, a pointed cap and a coat decorated with beanie babies traded for a buttondown shirt. And the bespectacled graduate student is right. The Project didn’t have a single beginning, much less a once upon a time. For the player, the story began the first days of spring quarter; clues and teasers cropped up across campus, ranging from human marionettes to notes scrawled in bathroom stalls. For The Project’s creators, it began fall quarter in Transmedia Games: Theory and Design, a class taught by Assistant Professor of English Patrick Jagoda and Sha Xin Wei, Director of Montreal’s Topological Media Lab. For the fictional characters at the heart of the game’s narrative, the story tore open two years ago with the discovery of a portal to another world, The Sandbox, a realm where very little was impossible.
Blending video, audio, and real life gameplay into an ever-evolving narrative, The Project experience stretched across online forums and transformed campus spaces.
The players, student participants in the game, first met the cast of more than 20 characters in early April. Directed by promotional posters and garbled audio messages, players participated in one of three “initiation” events, during which they were introduced to three conspiracy groups; Ilinx, the army; Ortgeist, materialist bureaucrats; and SONOS, a shadowy cult of sound-worshippers. In transmedia games like this one, these entry points are known as “rabbit holes.” Each group had its own cast of characters, acted by the game’s undergraduate and graduate student designers, who explained and distorted the game’s narrative in equal doses via scripted and improvised interaction with players. Outside of formal events, the Facebook presence of “The Maroon Rabbit,” further directed players in and out of the game’s elaborate narrative through imperious posts. Referring to himself as the players’ “monarch,” The Maroon Rabbit would prove to be the game’s most artful manipulator: navigating, directing, and deceiving players in a single stroke.
If the game sounds confusing, it was.The Project’s mythology and gameplay shifted and multiplied, until no one figure knew everything. That complexity, and the effort required to craft or understand it, spurs nagging questions: Why do people make a game like this? Why do people play?
One set of “players” had a different motivation than most: The Documentarians, three budding filmmakers who had ostensibly stumbled upon The Project and decided to follow its course. If the team seemed a step ahead, their equipment a touch too nice for rogue recordists, their Twitter feed a bit too quick on the uptake, it was because they were in fact double agents. Pulled from across the game’s design teams, The Documentarians served dual functions, that of leaders among the players and recordists employed by The Project’s sponsor, UChicago’s Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry. Their finished work, a month-long chronicle of the game’s evolution, distinguishes The Project from all other transmedia games to date; the volume of such a record is unprecedented, facilitating study of the game’s dynamics for academics like Jagoda.
The game’s narrative revolved around The Portal, which was occasionally set in Taft House room 301 and linked our world and another, The Sandbox. Between March 28, when the first concrete clues appeared online, and April 25, the final event, players were led through a gamut of challenges and online puzzles, charged with opening The Portal for ends unknown. As the game marched on, players would themselves become characters; some would become heroes. But before heroes can be heroes, there have to be trials.
Throughout April, trials played out partly on online forums, hosted by theproject.uchicago.edu, a glitched collage of a Web page whose garbled text pointed the way toward challenges and events. A Web site “The Fable” hosted the fiction behind the game in soothsayer’s prose, which was offered piecemeal. Daily clues pointed to puzzles, and each revealed password unlocked another link of narrative. But the heart of the game was in its offline presence.
Real time events ranged from the absurd to the ominous, a move designed to keep players off-balance. The “initiation” for conspiracy group SONOS led players through a series of rooms in the basement of The Logan Center for the Arts. The event was advertised as an “interactive game concert,” a framing which fourth-year Documentarian and designer Rahul Roy said the creators hoped would attract both gamers and the musically inclined. Roy’s roommates performed as the advertised headliner, noise band “Fugue State,” whose sound Roy described as “really grating and dissonant.” In a online debrief longer than this article, fourth-year player Madeline Barnicle described the experience as “serious headache time.”
The designers behind SONOS crafted a mythology which crowned sound as the supreme human sense, and rejected touch, taste, and sight, as empirically flawed ways of knowing. The rooms in Logan were as dark as they were loud. A blindfolded character led players out in foursomes to partake in a series of carefully orchestrated challenges. In the first room, four players had to find the four places in the room that would make four string musicians play a unified chord. A different room featured a sensory deprivation hood that led unseeing players through a perilous imagined obstacle course, and another an EEG monitor which raised and lowered the room’s noise level based on an player’s brain wave activity.
In a challenge for the materialist bureaucracy Ortgeist, players were offered a transformed Bartlett Hall, theirs for a Saturday night second week of spring quarter. Circles of light illuminated a scene from an I Spy spread, the near pitch-black dining hall dotted with patchwork blanket forts full of mundane, household objects: cassette tapes, scissors, a lighter, toy cars, a broom head and handle, an action figure hanging by a thread. Patrolling the revamped cafeteria were human marionettes, faces painted and strings dangling from their arms. Players were charged with disabling the rogue marionettes who, expressionless and garbed in frills, projected menace through the shadows. Sent through a blanket tunnel to scurry around the arena, players attempted to disable the marionettes using the objects scattered around them. After a trying hour, shouts of victory erupted from the hall’s sidelines as the last marionette fell, limp as a doll.
Over the course of three weeks, the game brought players together in real life 13 times. Between trials, student players were directed to Taft House, the site of The Portal to that magical world, The Sandbox. Those trips offered the players their clearest mandate for the game. The three conspiracy groups shared a desire to open The Portal. In Taft 301, lived Lamona the sleeping medium, the only one with the power to open The Portal, enabled by totems that the players collected.
As the final event approached, scraps of narrative gleaned from challenges, Facebook, and the online “Fable” were pieced together in online and offline forums; the story was growing into its own. Large, glossy posters tacked around campus advertised an “installation” while The Maroon Rabbit promised an “ascension”, purposely disparate messages meant to lure both players and newcomers for what designers hoped would be a powerful finale.
Across the board, the players’ efforts to overcome the trials paled in comparison to the work it took to construct them. The students who designed The Project wore self-effacing smiles when they admitted the amount of time they had dedicated since winter quarter. By late April, the game’s script stretched to 103 pages. Meanwhile, across national borders, another group was also moulding and welding the game: a team, led by Wei, of artist-experimenters from Montreal. Less than a week before the game’s culmination, the group arrived on campus. By the eve of the finale, Logan 014 was the workshop of madmen.
While “Once upon a time” was too trite, for The Project, the idea of a land far far away, or “worldbuilding”, was integral. “To envision a compelling world in imagination, alone, is difficult enough, but to create a fictional space in which 70 other people can immerse themselves enough to play together presents a different kind of challenge,” Jagoda said. The world of The Project was informed by the campus spaces it occupied. The design leader of SONOS, Northwestern graduate student Chris Russell, held up the UChicago landscape as a force that shaped both the tone and the form of the challenges, citing specifically the University’s gothic architecture and Logan basement space. Russell, who had enrolled in Jagoda’s fall class and continued to commute to campus for the game’s duration, pointed out another uniquely UChicago asset that helped facilitate the game. “The culture here is far more,” he paused, as if to choose a more tactful phrase, “nerdy.”
Third-year Eric Thurm, a former Jagoda student and eager player, reflected on the tension between that nerdiness and the fear of being the most involved player. “There’s a sense in which it’s kind of embarrassing to be the person most into the game, calling all these ridiculous characters ‘Sir’ and engaging wholly with the puzzles. It’s sad, because being into the game is fun.” There was another concern behind the sometimes sheepish restraint exhibited by players and designers alike. “The process of creating a world is different than the process of discovering a world,” reflected second-year Documentarian Bea Malsky. There was a fear of peering behind the curtain, pushing hard enough that some panel of the imagined set would give, to reveal an actor where there had been a character.
But if second-year Maeghan Fry and first-year Isabel Jensen had those inhibitions, they didn’t show them. Fry pledged her loyalty to the Ilinx group, but Facebook-messaged The Maroon Rabbit in secret, hoping to learn more about the game’s narrative, and shared the correspondence with Jensen. Through a virtual message exchange, Fry professed her closeted loyalty to The Maroon Rabbit even as the Rabbit publicly revealed his true identity as the game’s villain: Aaron Pophis, a scientist who, trapped in The Sandbox, had become a despot. Pophis disclosed that the players’ challenges to date were his own design, a means to open The Portal and extend his sand kingdom across our world. “So you’re the one everyone is searching for,” wrote Fry. “It’s an honor to know you’re the one I’ve been talking with this whole time.”
With that pledge of loyalty came an idea for the final event, a way to take down the villain that would feel definitive for players. Jagoda explained that the concept drew on ages of mythology: “Speaking the demon’s name dispels that demon. It’s a kind of Brothers Grimm Rumplestiltskin moment.”
And so The Maroon Rabbit, manned by Jagoda and third-year designer Philip Ehrenberg, sent Fry a Facebook message on the day of the The Project’s finale: “[My] true name is PONOS, the PARIAH. Do not share this truth with anyone.” The stakes were high. “In a sense,” Jagoda said, “the entire finale rested on this one person [Fry] showing up, and knowing the name when the time came for knowing the name.”
Pophis’ downfall came in the basement of Logan during the finale, an event structured to allow players to cap the narrative as the event transitioned into an exhibition of The Project to the public. More than 70 people clustered in Logan courtyard for the event. Taken from Taft, the medium, Lamona, who had by now been revealed as Pophis’ captive daughter, stood above the courtyard on Logan’s third floor patio. Her white dress, an enormous cloth parachute, flowed three stories down to the stone square. Distressed, she directed the players to Logan 014, where Pophis would appear through The Portal. Appear he did, through a video projected in stark contrasts on the wall. He froze and blinked away when the crowd of players, led by Fry and Jensen, called out the villain’s true name. A sigh of relief trembled through the room.
The moment could have gone differently; Jensen had been lobbying Fry to do an experiment of their own. “What if there was a way for the bad guy to win?” Jensen reflected, “Because the bad guy never wins. I figured it would be interesting to see how the rest of the story would fall out.” The pair didn’t want to break the game, but unbeknownst to them, they could have held their peace. “We did have a backup plan,” Jagoda said, “but it would not have been nearly as exciting.”
For all The Project’s intricate pathways, most roads led to Jagoda. “There is a lot to be said for the cult of Jagoda,” Malsky said. “No one’s doing what Patrick’s doing,” added Roy. “It’s unique. He’s carved out something of his own.” Jagoda kept a quiet presence at events: he twice played the unseen Controller character, hunched over a computer screen in Taft House. He dropped in on Ortgeist’s marionette challenge and appeared as an eager audience member when the Documentarians presented their findings mid-game, in character, at the April 12 iteration of Logan Center’s “The Cabinet,” an arts and science discussion series. At the finale’s climactic moment in the basement, a player looking toward the door would have seen him leaning across the frame peering into the darkened room, smiling.
It was Jagoda who wrote the fanciful “Fable” that players uncovered a puzzle at a time. Jagoda also wrote the overarching script, but other storytellers emerged. The Documentarian Twitter feed read as a play-by-play of the game. First-year Lucy Fish started a blog to reflect on the clues and challenges online and off. And in the end moment of the game, everyone—players, voyeurs, characters, and Documentarians alike—became a storyteller.
With Pophis vanquished, the crowd returned to Logan courtyard to find the game unfinished. Lamona, the medium, was still three floors above, paralyzed by a force greater than Pophis: her own nightmares, made powerful by her time in The Sandbox. The characters began to offer up their own fears, in an attempt to ease Lamona’s. While confessing, they faced the players, urging them to unload their own trepidations. The mood shifted. Amid the largest crowd yet, designers demanded a new dimension of participation: non-fiction. For a palpable moment, it didn’t seem like players would make the leap. “I was like, ‘Patrick, you’re so brilliant, but you’re wrong. This is not gonna work,’” Malsky said. “And then it happened, and I was like, Oh. Yeah. He’s right. He gets it.”
Urged on by the characters around them, players shed their armor of the fictional. They began to shout out confessions: “I’m afraid I’m never going to have enough time,” “I’m running out of money,” “I don’t know what to do after college.” After each, the crowd chanted: “You are not alone!”
The nightmares, projected as video clips across the giant skirt that flowed from Lamona to the courtyard, faded with each fear and affirmation, until they were vanquished all together. “We wanted there to be a moment of not simply saving Lamona, but of vulnerability and intimacy among players. We wanted to mark the game’s collective dimension at the climax,” Jagoda said.
Not everyone was so enthralled by the final moments. In her online write-up, player Barnicle called it “tacky,” writing, “After three weeks of glorious fun for its own sake, UChicago eccentricity at its finest, we have to be all moralizing about how we’re here for each other?” An avid follower of the game, Barnicle also wrestled with leaving the narrative behind, without an explicit epilogue for some characters. “I like having my loose ends wrapped up,” she wrote. “But maybe we get to dream our own endings.”
Narrative aside, some questions do remain. Designers poured work toward an ultimately transient staging that rarely drew a crowd larger than the team that had created it. Players ran through the darkened midway, wrestled with codes, and willfully suspended disbelief to partake in the world presented to them. But why? Why build The Project? Why choose to believe it?
Everyone has their own answer. “Part of the reason we build worlds, I think, is to escape this one, because it’s so limiting,” said Hutchison, even as he described the overwhelming nerves he felt playing the Grand Ort.
“It’s almost, why not?” said fourth-year Anna Dozor, a designer and Jagoda student. “There are a million and a half ways [that] stories can be told and experienced, and for the most part we’ve decided to limit ourselves to these pre-existing genres and forms.” The game’s draw, for Dozor, was an exploratory and artistic one, divorced from the larger arguments about the form’s greater potential for impact that drove some of her co-creators.
“Being involved in this project just pulled me in and gave me this community,” Fry said, the player who had become such a narrative linchpin. Prior to the game, she had been considering transferring out of the University. “It made me remember why I really love this school.”
As Jagoda answers, sprawled across an office chair two weeks after the game’s finale, he parses the idea of play itself. “Leisure is merely restorative and temporary; play, on the other hand, is imaginative and transformative,” he said. “Actual play…It’s difficult. Play is not the opposite of work. Play is not the opposite of seriousness. Play is both of those things.”
The game continues. There is a documentary in the works from the material collected by the Documentarians, funded still by the Gray Center. Designers are crafting a media-enabled version of the online fable, with hyperlinks to events and puzzles and video clips. There is a Tumblr dedicated to the sky blue kitchenaid blender that was featured in several challenges, and Jensen hopes to write her version of The Project in fairytale form. There are rumors of another game next year. The act of creating spurs creation. The Project becomes many.
Editor’s Note: Bea Malsky was recruited to design the pages for the print version of this article due to the intricate nature of The Project.