This was unlike other games in one particularly interesting regard: it did not have a beginning or, apparently, an end.
It began when we noticed that scattered around the Spirit Level in the Southbank Centre were cards with a simple warning written on them: “Watch out for the Whistling Postman”. A while later, when we found ourselves between games, we noticed a strange man whistling ostentatiously and clutching a set of envelopes – and when approached, he looked through these envelopes, and found one apparently addressed to each of us. (Mine was addressed “You Here Now SBC”).
These envelopes contained cryptic messages, which eventually led us to another strange fellow sitting outside, who in turn directed us to search for ribbons in a certain place, where no ribbons could be found, but there were a handful of other people looking for red ribbons.
Such was the nature of the game. Strange clues and apparently broken mechanisms, which nonetheless led to gradually larger groups of people teaming up to work together on whatever it was that we were doing, without having any idea what that was. This strange process reached a fantastically surreal climax when our group (now numbering ten, and each with a red ribbon) converged on a phone box just as another group of ten (with white ribbons!) did the same, and then the phone rang.
There was then a brief period of sanity as a recognisable structure had emerged: two teams, following clues and interacting with strange characters to progress towards the unknown end – which a short time later we appeared to reach, in the form of a website: FruitsOfTheHeart.co.uk, which had only a countdown timer to a point some 7 days hence.
I was fascinated, but the other players seemed disappointed. They followed the last stooge we had interacted with to see if anything else would happen. It didn’t seem to.
As far as I can tell, it seems it was all part of a larger Alternate Reality Game, some part of which it appears was being played out at the subsequent Edinburgh Fringe festival, but other parts seem (at the time of writing) to be ongoing, possibly making much of today’s aesthetically pleasing date. (I particularly liked a comment on the website from ‘A Critic’ that simply read “This isn’t really theatre any more”. I hope they take that as a compliment).
I like that this kind of thing goes on, even if I don’t feel driven to fully engage with it; crucially, dabbling was still fun. However, in the context of an evening of games, there’s no doubt some people found the open-ended nature of the thing frustrating, and the actors/stooges didn’t seem quite prepared for the barrage of questions put to them by the players. There’s often a barrier to entry of ARG’s in terms of catching up with back-story, so I would be interested to see someone tackle the challenge of creating a similar experience that was firmly bounded within a single evening.
Free London’s Monsters
Having played and indeed designed mobile GPS games before, we knew more than most others when we stepped up to deposit a credit card and pick up a smartphone in order to play Free London’s Monsters, by (?) Fish Are People Too.
“It uses GPS, right?” we asked; yes, it did.
“Does it work?”
They smiled. “Clearly you are familiar with this sort of thing.”
The game, it turns out, was smartly simple. (Much like early video games, this is generally the best recipe for success in a new medium). Given a piece of paper with photos of scenery from around the Southbank area, the task is to locate the locations from which the images were taken. Through the miracle of GPS, upon reaching one of these locations the smartphone would emit a wonderfully laid-back warning: “Monster. Monster. Monster. Monster”, and indeed if you held the phone up, the screen showed the scenery around you (through the phone’s camera) and some surreal kind of monster lurking on top of it (actually just a floating 2D image). To prove your successful finding of the monster it was necessary to answer a question about it on the sheet of paper, such as “How many teeth does it have” or “what colour are its dogs”.
This happily transformed what seemed to be a flaw in the design into a fun feature. Given the current accuracy of GPS, hotspots must necessarily be large (the Mscape Experience Design Guidelines [pdf] recommend a diameter of 20 meters), and this meant we would often bump into a monster before we expected to, or even one we weren’t expecting to see at all. We would then use a combination of the pictures on the paper and the context of the question to work out which monster we were actually looking at.
The problems alluded to in our opening conversation seemed to hinge on the time it takes for the GPS navigational signals to be received before the device can understand and begin to track its location. I have found myself that GPS devices sometimes need several minutes with a clear view of the sky before this modern equivalent of the modem handshake can be completed, and given these devices were being handed out from an indoor location it came as little surprise that many would-be monster hunters had trouble getting enough ‘Captoplasm’ (a nice in-game analogue of the satellite signal level) in order to play successfully.
Returning with a goodly haul of monsters, we discussed the game with the creators, who evidently have an excellent grasp of the technical and gameplay mechanics they are wrestling with. In particular, I think it’s very sensible to combine a pen-and-paper mechanic with the location-based technology, combining the strengths of each.
There will be an opportunity to Free Bristol’s Monsters at the imminent Igfest, which starts tomorrow and is highly recommended. The Sandpit concept itself is currently on tour until 12th November 2009, with forthcoming visits to Bristol, Liverpool, Southend, Stratford-Upon-Avon, Nottingham, Sheffield and Newcastle Upon Tyne planned, so be sure to check it out if you find yourself in the vicinity.