Exploring Alternate Reality Games

The new type of horror that is taking over the internet.

Have you ever been browsing the internet late at night, only to encounter something mysterious, cryptic, and more than a little creepy? Maybe it was a distorted clip of a mysterious entity, fuzzy audio bearing an ominous message, or eerie, nearly indecipherable text. Chances are, it was connected to an alternate reality game, or ARG.

An ARG is an interactive fictional story, usually horror and hosted online, that tells itself through a series of puzzles. The creator will scatter hints for viewers to find and interpret throughout the internet or even the real world. The thing that really sets an ARG apart from other storytelling is its setting: the real world. Each of these games promotes itself as a nonfictional anomaly, adding to the immersion, horror, and thus rising popularity of these stories.

Alternate reality games are a relatively new way to tell stories, only truly emerging in the early 2000’s, but their inspirations span back further. Similar to an ARG was the promotion of the 1999 film The Blair Witch Project. The film itself resembled an ARG, blurring the lines between fiction and reality with its use of virtually unknown actors and pretend found footage format. Even further back is the 1938 radio broadcast version of War of the Worlds, which left listeners in a panic after they believed the story to be a real news report. 

Alright, but when did real ARGs come into play? The first major ARG was called “The Beast”. It was created and hosted by Microsoft in 2001 to promote the movie A.I: Artificial Intelligence. The game involved clues scattered throughout hundreds of websites, implanted in fake ads, and even sprinkled into emails and voicemails. All of this added together to tell a story about a murder mystery.

Newer ARGs tend to be self-supporting; they do not exist to promote an event or product, but instead to just tell their story. These stories are often told by smaller teams of people or even a singular person. Just one person writing the story,creating every puzzle, every visual, every sound effect and musical track. It is an impressive thing, especially when you consider that larger ARGs often have hours worth of content to experience. It makes stand-out ARGs all the more fascinating.

Today, most popular alternate reality games are hosted primarily on popular social media platforms such as YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, and Tiktok. Anyone who frequently browses these sites may have come across one of the following games:

Local58 is somewhat old for an ARG, the first installment having been posted to a YouTube channel of the same name in October, 2015. The series consists of nine episodes, each presented as a recording of a TV broadcast from a small-time station. The game is not fully solved. For now, all that is known is that in the world of Local58, something is very wrong with the moon.

The Sun Vanished is hosted on Twitter among several accounts, the main one being @TheSunVanished. Viewers can scroll through hundreds of tweets dating back to April 30, 2018, and follow the story of Abdiel, a young person who has suddenly awoken in a world of complete darkness, occupied by chaos and mysterious creatures.

Though these examples are a few years old, more recent ARGs are still incredibly popular. The Mandela Catalogs, Kane Pixel’s take on “The Backrooms”, and GEMINI HOME ENTERTAINMENT are all popular and ongoing YouTube ARGs.

Some alternate reality games are hosted on their own websites. The Hypnagogic Archive and Mystery Flesh Pit National Park are two prime examples of this. Though not as easily laid out as a YouTube ARG, these games have greater flexibility to express their story however the creator sees fit, resulting in very unique and creative puzzles for players.

If a viewer is not interested in solving the puzzles for themselves, but instead just enjoying the elaborate stories, there are many well-made and enjoyable documentary-like videos on YouTube that walk through, explain, and discuss these stories. In fact, there are entire channels, such as Nexpo and Wendigoon, that are more-or-less dedicated to it.

Are horror movies getting old? Sit down, grab something to eat, and go find an intriguing ARG. One may discover something that quite delights them.