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Smokescreen Day#1: Peeking in the Rabbithole

My first real stab at an ARG by checking another jayisgames reference: Smokescreen. It’s by SixtoStart, which means it was designed by Adrian Hon — one of the great living game designers IMHO and an all-around nice guy. Anyway, don’t have a hardcore game right now (curse you, Steam, for not letting me play what I bought), so here’s a take on a very light ARG. Overall, it’s an interesting narrative piece, a little confusing, but worth checking out because it is actually trying to make an ARG casual, and working to a decent degree. Spoilers within.

So, Steam is not letting me launch my next hardcore excursion, so I decided to try Smokescreen. I don’t normally do ARGs. They are very demanding hardcore games, and I’m not a big fan of beating my head against impossible puzzles that you need to solve fast enough to keep up with the religious players. But when jayisgames mentions an ARG, it can’t be all that hardcore, so I decided to give it a try.

The premise is that there’s this fake social networking site called White Smoke in which a story takes place. You arrive on a home page where you can see a number of characters, including one who’s in a coma, and lots of potential missions. The missions are numbered; they were up to 6 when I last checked. I did the first mission: The Rumour Mill.

I did a lot of research into social networking sites at my last company, and I have to say that Sixtostart did a good job creating good looking and teen-appropriate social sites. I’m a little surprised that they didn’t leverage currently existing sites like Hi-5, but then again I can imagine a designer would want more control over the content than you can get on a real social networking site.  On the other hand, it is a bit more dissonant for me to accept a fake site, but then again, I’m not a teenager. Maybe they would be more used to seeing a random new site.

The game begins by dropping you on to your fake profile page. You’re immediately into an “IM” conversation with some in-game “friends” who push me to install a new application on my page. I have no real information on who these people are and thus no connection, but I’m going with the narrative here.  I install the app and it’s a not-very-good game in which you post rumors that you procedurally assemble from three drop boxes (subject-action-object). The post goes up and then people can vote on it, while you can vote on other people’s rumors. The person with the most votes wins. The game doesn’t really make sense (for what reason would you vote for someone’s rumor?) but it’s actually a trick. The game is just a narrative device; there are no other players. It fooled me, and I forgive it everything as a good story twist.

The IM is also fake. You don’t get to choose your input; you just get to click to advance text. Anyway, your friends reveal some narrative as you “play” the game together, mostly around romances between the characters and the fact that one of the characters (Cal) is in a coma. The Rumor Mill game ends and it asks me to fill in some information to get a rock star name. I immediately start to fill it out, but then I get suspicious and stop. The IM conversation continues and my friends start to get concerned that the form is a phishing trick. I cancel the form, kind of proud that I stopped my first instinct, and I get an achievement for not falling for the scam. That is one of the most rewarding achievements I have earned in a long time.

My friends decide that we should trace the application back to the first person who posted it to see if it’s a scam. I volunteer (not really — the dialogue forces me to) and my friends suggest that I follow the posts about the Rumor Mill application to see who the first installer was. I look at my post board and see a link to the user that sent it to me. I click the link and am taken to a different profile. From here, I click through a series of profiles looking for the first user. This is kind of neat — it feels like FB surfing, although I wish it was a little more challenging to find the links. I am sure I should slow down and read these profiles, as I am positive there’s useful narrative here, but I’m in a groove and so I keep zipping along.

I eventually end up at the first installer. I chat with him (my friends are there with the helpful suggestion to do so) and he tells me that another person (whose name I didn’t write down) built the app. I go to that person’s webpage, and then get into an IM conversation with him to see if he’ll admit to creating the app and why. But for this IM conversation, I get some dialog choices and do a little conversation tree. This is actually fun. I feel like I have to be careful not to spook him, and I feel clever navigating this conversation well. Anyway, I succeed in getting him to admit he made the app, and one of  my other friends — who I discover are also the site admins for White Smoke — talks to him in IM.  The admin asks the coder why he did this; he says it was because he wanted to join White Smoke. The admin tells the coder that he needs to get a vote from the other admins.

I join that conversation and the group debates the point. Some want to keep him out because he hacks; others want to let him in afraid that he’ll hack us. The group decides to put it up to a vote in the Rumor Mill. They post that rumor, and it immediately starts getting dozens of votes. I’m very suspicious though — I feel like I remember the coder saying he was making fake accounts from the data he stole, and he built Rumor Mill. Why couldn’t he be faking the votes? But the interface doesn’t let me explore that yet, and my friends take this as a sign the coder should get in, so they tell him the good news. He’s happy about it. The scene ends back in the IM with my friends where one of them reveals that Cal is out of his coma. That ends the mission.

I got all of the achievements for the mission except two through basically oblivious play. I guess you could keep track of this through a narrative-breaking persistent interface at the bottom of the screen that tells you your current quest and progress, but it was narrative-breaking enough that I kept it minimized the whole time. Anyway, one of the achievements I missed was for getting your rock star name, so maybe my choice in that challenge wasn’t as important as I thought.

Overall, it’s a really interesting stab. The puzzles are too easy even for my taste at this point, but I like the way the social networking metaphor is being used, and the dialog tree I played through is a promise for better gameplay to come. I think I’ll come back to this one, assuming Steam continues to hate me.

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  1. Mink says

    I believe this is accidentally tagged Scribblenauts.

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