When they tell you that you are gorgeous and amazing, you wonder if it’s not you at all but the butterfly effect. Maybe they have fallen in love with the synergy of a Zeitgeist moment and you are merely the object of misplaced affections. So you do something that looks backwards, something that tries to clone that superstar attention. We are all human.
The Aspiration remains one of the best pieces of writing you will find on Electron Dance. It is a detailed journal of my struggles in a game of Neptune’s Pride, covering not just strategy but alien role-play and flirtation with a game-induced nervous breakdown. But once the series was done in 2011, the traffic did not stick around and for the rest of that year I could not shake off the feeling that I had slipped silently from internet wannabe to internet has-been.
I had some ideas for essays that extended The Aspiration and decided in 2011 Q4 to run a spin-off series. During the original series, The Aspiration had revealed they were heading for Earth so for the spin-off The Aspiration would finally reach Earth then hack Electron Dance. Also running it over Christmas might be a win in terms of traffic because most sites stop updates during the holidays. Thus The Xmaspiration was born. It sounded awesome, almost as awesome as alien vampires.
I attempted to hype it up before the series launched except… I created something monstrous. Something I lost control of. What I envisioned as a harmless bit of fun mutated into a full-blown ARG, an alternate reality game.
This is the story of that accidental ARG and how it destroyed Christmas.
Dec 06: The Facebook Post Nobody Saw
The Xmaspiration was going to launch with an epic video that covered the fall of The Aspiration, their arrival on Earth and the new series schedule. I got to work on the video early December and executed the campaign of hype at the same time.
As less than ten people liked Electron Dance’s new Facebook page, I thought it was a good place to kick things off. I hoped someone would look back and see the first footprint of the campaign once things were in motion. I didn’t expect the Xmaspiration campaign to go viral but I did anticipate excitement, possibly soiled jeans.
Dec 07: The First Communication
Using a Hotmail account called “inboundobject” I sent a mail reminiscent of 42 Entertainment’s I Love Bees ARG to a select list of Electron Dance followers. It was sent December 7 although I extended the mailing list the following day and the additional recipients got a slightly different version.
Subject: authority assert / broadcast prime in eleven
connect / authority assert / assertive / YES
nitially we interpreted the shadow as a chunky asteroid. We filed it, forgot it. But when the James Webb image stream came through, there was no d
culture extract / traction / YES
The year is 1987, and NASA launches the last of America’s deep space probes. In a freak mishap, Ranger 3 and its pilot, Captain William “Buck” Rogers, are blown out of their trajectory into an orbit which freezes his life support systems, and returns Buck Rogers to Earth… 500 years later.
prelim in one
broadcast prime in eleven
desert / disconnect
This was The Aspiration hacking Earth systems and the “broadcast prime in eleven” indicates that the series was to commence in eleven days. The asteroid snippet conveyed that something was to coming to Earth and the Buck Rogers opening narration was thrown in there because… because the Buck Rogers theme tune was in the launch video. I also liked to think it was because The Aspiration liked Earth culture. They loved Summertime from Porgy & Bess, after all. The word “alone” was also hidden in there in white text which was how The Aspiration felt after their race was almost wiped out.
“Prelim in one” referred to the Electron Dance preview the following day or, as I would have it, The Aspiration testing if they could assert their authority over Electron Dance prior to arrival. The mail would initially confuse the recipients but the preview post would allow them to make the connection with Electron Dance.
It should now be clear that I was just making things up as I went along. There was no response to the mail. This should not come as a shock.
Dec 08: authority assert prelim
The preview post called authority assert prelim extended the story of an “inbound object” from the e-mail but also cited the landing co-ordinates of The Aspiration – Green Park in London, to be precise.
The background was a frame taken from the work-in-progress Broadcast Prime video, the scene where The Aspiration land in Green Park. Why Green Park? Well it was because I worked near there and could take video footage at lunchtime. I assumed no-one would question the green shape at the stop of the picture, which was part of a Neptune’s Pride fleet icon descending on the park. This was all about the readers telling me how clever I was after everything was out in the open. The co-ordinate image also sported an alt-text of “vacate area vacate area”.
In another foolish decision, I cited the lyrics of Air’s “Run” because it would feature in the video. No hidden meaning, just forecasting actual content. The lyrics also carried a link to a video of the Buck Rogers title sequence. I hoped someone would notice I’d hidden some more white-coloured text in there: “what remains to be told?”
Reaction was sluggish, although Veret – my nemesis from Neptune’s Pride – seemed to figure something out. A day later, Shaun of Arcadian Rhythms said he’d deleted a spam mail that looked just like this the other day. Two days later, Adam Wells commented: “arg time eh”. I wanted to respond “not really” but I wasn’t going to be drawn into a conversation on what was going on.
In a major blow to my writing pride, it hadn’t occurred to me that my crazy e-mail might be interpreted as spam. I had to fix this. People were supposed to sit up and take notice not delete my spam.
Dec 11: The Second Communication
This was when the campaign, which was supposed to be finished already, spun out of control.
Subject: authority assert/ warning
connect / authority assert / assertive
The most pressing matter is the increase in numbers at Green Park, with its proximity to Buckingham Palace. While “D18” is not a protest, malign elements could exploit the gathering and makes the encampment a security risk through location alone. There is also the impact on local tourism and business to consider, with businesses on Piccadilly as well as many Mayfair hedge funds making their voices heard on this matter.
For reference, here is the YouTube video that D18 reports as being “of alien origin”. It is through this and e-mails regarding an “authority assert” that the individuals are compelled to camp out at Green Park. The aliens are apparently “peaceable” and only wish to bring “virtue” although they have hacked several web sites (example: Electron Dance). The hacks are suspected to be the handiwork of D18 members themselves, although investigation is still in-progress.
There is no public support for D18 unlike the politically-sensitive Occupy, therefore Met Command has decided that the park should be cleared as soon as possible.
Two teams will sweep the park on Tuesday and we will maintain an aggressive presence for the remainder of the week until December 18 has passed, to prevent a second encampment from being established in the meantime.
broadcast prime in seven
desert / disconnect
I injected a link to Electron Dance just to make it obvious who was sending the mail and deter those who would delete the mail out of hand. But my main problem is that I’d run out of road already and wasn’t trying hard to make the story compelling. I had no material to put in these mails and the idea of people congregating in Green Park to meet the aliens was invented on the fly. There was also a link to this video:
This re-used footage and music from the launch video so was relatively cheap to churn out. Like the previous Green Park image, it also shows The Aspiration fleet descending into Green Park if you pay close attention to the final seconds before it goes black.
There were two blatant hints that we were discussing The Aspiration: the reference to “virtue” which is classic Aspiration-speak and the presence of an Aspiration transmission number below the video on the YouTube page. In truth, I didn’t really want anyone to work it out because the plan was to generate excitement and buzz and then reveal that it was all about The Aspiration at the end. I was indulging in a fantasy of the author as god, treating the readers as pawns who would be thankful for divine gifts of revelation.
I think the Aspiration are here.
Then he followed up on the Green Park coordinates and started discussing their meaning with a couple of other commenters, Phlebas and pKp.
Now think about this. I had supplied a date. A set of co-ordinates. I’d e-mailed everyone that people were congregating in Green Park to meet aliens. What does it look like I’m telling people to do?
In the comments, pKp wrote:
“Could be worth a gander if any Londonite is interested (not in London myself, though).”
Hold the fucking front page, people. The idea that someone would travel to Green Park on December 18 filled my loins with dread. My reaction was NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! WHAT THE FUCKETH HATH THY DONE?
I had to hurdle over the fourth wall for a moment and put a stop to this. I posted in the comments:
From what I can ascertain, I don’t think the aliens actually want anyone going to Green Park. I mean, it could cost them a rail fare and valuable time they could spend playing Skyrim. I doubt any extra-terrestrials would wish that on anyone, plus the police will probably move loiterers along. Or have them salt-sprayed or put in a kettle – whatever passes for law and order these days.
And I am actually going to be away on holiday for a few days. I couldn’t be there if I wanted! Man, if only I could’ve been proper hacked like that I Love Bees site with phone calls and all that shit.
pKp went on to wonder whether the number on the video was a phone number. My loins remained gummed up with dread. Readers were participating as they had been invited to and now digging for a lot more than I had buried.
I felt it was my responsibility to respond and keep it alive, even though the treasure had been found. I had to give their investigations some purpose.
I was running an ARG.
Dec 11: Facebook again
I dropped another entry on Facebook, wondering if the ARG participants were investigating all areas. I posted a cropped screenshot from an Atari BASIC program I’d written to speak for The Aspiration. I was using a twenty-year old speech synthesizer (S.A.M.) which needed distorted spellings to get the right pronunciation. I thought an extract of the code would look mysterious. Oooooh. Mystery.
So far, no one had noticed the Facebook updates.
Dec 12: The Third Communication, Doubled
The next day, I developed a smidgen of ARG cunning. I sent out two mails, one to each half of the mailing list, and wanted to see if the participants could put the two parts together. Not only was the text different, but each mail contained half of The Aspiration’s Neptune’s Pride avatar; it would confirm their suspicions that this was all about The Aspiration. I assumed they would figure this out because pKp had set up a public pastebin page to share information.
Here’s the first mail.
Subject: authority assert / extension
connect / authority assert / assertive
pect it to arrive sometime during the weekend of Dec 17/18. Compass hasn’t been any attempts to communicate with us so far although we’ve learnt of claims of crude “extra-terrestrial” web site hacks as well as e-mails from an “inbound object”. All of which has to be treated with extreme scepticism.
There is something else we should bring to the group’s attention. There are some new reports of a second object. What we find alarming is that while Compass is courting our attention, “Object Two” is staying out of sight. We’re definitely getting pings that something else is out there too, but so far no one has been able to get a look at it.
broadcast prime in six
desert / disconnect
I had come up with the idea that Veret’s Neptune’s Pride fleet was tailing The Aspiration to Earth and was in the process of adding this detail to the final minute of the Broadcast Prime video; I decided to drop it into the ARG as the mysterious “Object Two”.
I also embedded a link to the Electron Dance Facebook page to trigger investigations there. I wanted the Facebook page to be an alternative channel of ARG communication.
What about the second mail? Unfortunately, I was all out of ideas yet again, so I made up a chat between a group of D18 activists.
Subject: authority assert / progress
connect / authority assert / assertive
siphon / active
linguistic thruline / learning
broadcast prime in six
desert / disconnect
The whole mail was daubed with a hyperlink to a YouTube video of “Oh Tannenbaum” which was supposed to nudge the ARG participants towards… Christmas trees.
Yeah. Bear with me, here.
The banner for Electron Dance at this time was a snow scene from Proteus’ winter and I had quietly added some Christmas trees. Christmas trees that were no ordinary Christmas trees. Christmas trees that were Neptune’s Pride fleets in disguise. And they had stars on top of them that looked suspiciously like the numbers “1” and “8”.
No one had picked up on the Christmas trees thus far so I hoped a link to a video about a song about Christmas trees would do the trick.
Look, I was very tired, okay?
Dec 14: communication prelim
The good news was the ARG team figured out they had different images and put them together. The bad news was they didn’t share their text on the pastebin page and did not realise they only had half of the information available.
Okay, there was badder news. Chris Spann had taken notice of the Facebook page and he’d replied directly to The Aspiration with the single phrase: “I am listening.” That’s not the bad bit. He’d noticed the code fragment and got hung up on the meaning of the phrase “Cou Adiss” which was just my way of convincing the S.A.M. synthesizer to say “Cowardice”.
Wary that he would get lost in a wild goose chase through a dark forest full of knife-spiders, I made the executive decision to create a video very quickly to address this. The result is the video “communication prelim” posted on both Twitter and Facebook. I wanted to stop sending mails because I wasn’t sure if I was just spamming people who never wanted to be part of some bizarre ARG: Patricia Hernandez, part of the spam group, tweeted that she found these kind of things frustrating.
The video depicted The Aspiration learning to speak English and this was how I tried to explain the real meaning of “Cou Adiss”. I also threw in a direct reference to Chris Spann saying that he “listens” as a subtle way of acknowledging his e-mail. I sprinkled in a few random video scenes from Mayfair and flashes of The Aspiration homeworld, Azelfafage, before, during and after its destruction. There was another blatant connection to The Aspiration, too, as the video cites part of the “requiem message” that I sent to fallen empires.
But you might be surprised to learn this was the end of the game. Aside from being called mad on Twitter by Jonas Kyratzes, there was no response to the video. The trail went dead.
No one was playing any more.
Dec 15: authority assert prelim final
I made a last-ditch attempt to drum up business. I posted the “broadcast prime imminent” video directly onto Electron Dance with another piece of fictional news. I wanted to make absolutely certain that everyone knew something was happening on Sunday 18 December, just after midnight. This was the whole point. Stay tuned to this channel because something is gonna happen.
I would draw your attention to one particular section from this post:
But there’s nothing to support Remford’s claims other than a handful of anonymous e-mails and hacked web sites. Perhaps it is just a bored hacker up to mischief? Or an “alternate reality game” that’s spiralled out of control?
Soon after, with no-one responding, I made the decision to officially close the game. The “inbound object” responded directly in the comments, declaring a “comm blackout” in case anyone came back to the ARG expecting more to happen.
I needed closure at his point. I had had enough of spending every lunchtime and evening figuring out how to run the ARG that wasn’t. It wasn’t quite as exhausting as playing Neptune’s Pride, but not far off.
Dec 18: Broadcast Prime
I was away when Broadcast Prime went live but YouTube was able to tell me that within eight hours of the launch video going live, one person had viewed it. One day later, seven views.
It felt somewhat like a failure.
The hype had not worked and The Xmaspiration was a damp squib in terms of traffic. It turned out people were not actually hungry for a continuation of The Aspiration, especially as the spin-off assumed good working knowledge of the original series. In addition, long videos are a hard sell and surprise, surprise, Christmas wasn’t a great time to post a major series.
It backfired in a big way because all the time I had allocated for writing had been sucked into running an ARG, meaning I had to write like crazy over the Christmas period – remember I had also been editing a video during the run-up. Let me rephrase that. I spent my Christmas holidays desperately writing articles that few people were reading. It made for a dismal December and I entered 2012 feeling jaded, good and proper.
Although I still had one idea at the back of my head for re-using The Aspiration in future, I decided I’d had enough of them and wiped out their species. I sent them into battle with Veret at Mars, a battle from which they would never return. Behold, the final image of The Xmaspiration:
There’s a happy twist at the end, though. The final well-researched post Survivorship Bias was popular and made it onto the Rock Paper Shotgun Sunday Papers. Hundreds of visitors came to Electron Dance discovering the original series for the first time as well as The Xmaspiration. The ARG had been useless – but the spinoff series was thoroughly read regardless. As a direct consequence of this new popularity, The Aspiration made another unexpected appearance – as a sculpture I commissioned from Jonas Kyratzes.
I asked Chris Spann, who also writes for Arcadian Rhythms, what happened to him towards the end of the ARG and he told me:
I thought we were up to date on everything, and so when it was announced that the blackout would come on the 18th, I thought we were done. Proof that I obviously didn’t try hard enough. In the last ARG I took part in a giant radioactive dinosaur destroyed Manhattan and then the world; I’m starting to think I might be doing more harm than good.
This is why I never planned to run an ARG because the wisdom of crowds is their lifeblood. The game designer needs numbers to ensure every clue is scooped up and analysed. But there’s a fine line between fiction-based marketing and an ARG so I was left with a choice when readers started getting involved: come clean and stop or push on, preserve the mystery and embrace the ARG.
Was persisting the wrong choice for the players themselves? I squandered their time on a silly little unplanned game that lead, ultimately, nowhere.
But play does not need a purpose, it just needs to be fun. An ARG develops a live conversation between designer and player and is strongly dialogical. Was this conversation, the act of play, enough to justify the time the players spent on it? The time I invest in a game stuffed with clichéd story, repetitive gameplay and vacuous achievements is time I could have spent on something more fulfilling.
Ex-Dishonored developer Joe Huston said it best:
Simply take any estimate of time the player will spend in frustration and multiply it by a million. You may find your moral compass reoriented when you realize a cut-corner decision costs the human race two full years of angry, angry feelings.
This is the responsibility that every game designer carries.