Way back in 2001, Microsoft released a tie-in game to promote Steven Spielberg’s upcoming film AI: Artificial Intelligence, and its gameplay mechanics were highly unusual. It played out across a variety of media, including websites, email, and telephone, rather than within the confines of a video game. Players could interact with characters from the game over the phone in real conversations with live actors, and over a three-month period participants solved a murder mystery from the year 2140. The game came to be called The Beast, and it set down the basic formula for a new genre of interactive fiction: the Alternate Reality Game.
Though usually created as similar free-to-play viral marketing promotions, there have been attempts to combine the real-world aspects of ARGs with the more traditional video game experience, perhaps the most notable of which is Lexis Numérique’s In Memoriam (aka: MISSING: Since January). Other projects have attempted to create self-sustaining “permanent” alternate reality games, based on an evolving storyline that requires players to pay for the ongoing adventure. The latest incarnation of this genre is Alice & Smith’s The Black Watchmen, an ambitious mashup of the puzzle and alternate reality genres that attempts to bring the concepts and real-world immersion of ARGs to a wider audience. It’s presented in an episodic format that tells one story per "season", and can continue as long as players are willing to pay for new installments.
The eponymous Black Watchmen are a global, clandestine task force whose job is to protect the public from dangerous occult phenomena. Recovering ancient artifacts imbued with dark powers, investigating illegal human experimentation by secret societies, and nullifying diabolical rituals designed to open portals to other planes of existence are all in a day’s work for the men and women employed by the group, and it takes all of them working together to fight the dangers often lurking in plain sight. Players take on the role of an agent within the organization, and are tasked with following leads, uncovering information, and providing support to other branches of the Black Watchmen as they thwart paranormal dangers around the world.
Each season is designed to unfold over a set period of time. According to the developers, the average time will be three months, but may vary somewhat season to season. With one season released so far, the bulk of the player’s time is focused on completing a number of “missions” delivered via the Steam-based client. Each mission contains one or more puzzles pertaining to some aspect of the investigation, such as identifying persons of interest, facilitating infiltration of a suspect group or organization, or sifting through evidence for clues to the whereabouts of an artifact or suspect. At the start of any given season, only a few missions will be available, but more will unlock every few weeks until the season is over. These missions can be completed at the player’s own pace as they debut, or even after the season is complete.
The first step is to set up an account for the game, though the only personal detail it requires is a valid email address. Once that’s done, unlike almost every other game you might have played, there is no player avatar and no digital 3D world to explore through The Black Watchmen’s client, only a user interface that, among other things, shows which missions have been unlocked for the season and which ones (if any) still await activation. Referred to appropriately as the “mission hub,” this is where players access all of the main assignments, including tutorial missions which detail the basics of play, such as codebreaking and image manipulation (yes, those are in fact considered mere basic skills in this game). The client design is pleasingly minimalistic, with the majority of visual elements bearing a futuristic black-and-white tonality. However, elements such as the mission marker bars and agent map are accented with green and blue hues for emphasis.
The client also includes sound effects for things such as clicking buttons and completing missions, and music is available to listen to while you play as well. Both of these aspects are well done, but do not really impact gameplay that much either way. The soundtrack varies between ethereal vocal tracks and some upbeat guitar and electronica tunes, but overall I found these to be distracting and eventually turned them off. Voice-overs are also featured at various points throughout the game, and while there’s occasionally an over-the-top performance, most contribute an appropriate mood to the scenario, whatever that might be at the time.
Anyone unfamiliar with ARGs will discover right in the opening moments how different this game is from traditional titles. The vast majority of your time is actually spent outside the client. But rather than taking place within a digitally created world, you’ll interact with a multitude of real-world websites and social media pages, including some created specifically for the game and many that are not, such as Wikipedia, Google Maps, and other websites that contain the information necessary to continue your investigation.
Each mission begins with a video briefing that details the parameters of the task and what you must do to solve it, but these communications are concealed within another video. In one instance, a disturbing corporate training video (whose company is currently under investigation by your organization) shows footage of a loving family playing in a field as a voice-over assures employees that the company will protect them and their families by torturing and killing anyone who threatens their safety. Suddenly, the video is abruptly interrupted by a disembodied voice from your handler at the Agency, who details what your upcoming mission will be. Though not all of them are as macabre as this one, the often surreal nature of these videos, combined with their slick production values, make for a deliciously unsettling aesthetic that I found highly enjoyable.
Once you have been introduced to the objective at hand, the mission page in the client will reiterate succinctly what you need to accomplish, as well as fill you in on any assistance the Black Watchmen can give you. To access this information, the game will lead you to the Black Watchmen Archive, a webpage where you enter the pertinent archive number. Once on the correct page, a collection of clues and evidence will appear, leading in one way or another to the solution, such as a word or phrase that must be entered into a waiting text box in the client.
Tasks you must perform are vastly different from other games also. The Black Watchmen tries to recreate the feeling of being an actual desk-jockey for a clandestine task force, so research is an enormous part of each puzzle. For example, one requires that you attempt to decode a letter in order to discover who wrote it, while another demands that you examine the blueprints of an enemy stronghold and the patrol times of guards to determine the best time for an assault team to strike. Still others have you research real-world topics as diverse as geology, religion, mathematics, and codebreaking, to name but a few. One investigation involves deducing the material that a particular item was made from based only on its chemical composition and physical attributes, while another puzzle asks you to research the history of a secret society and its founders.
Another puzzle illustrates the ARG-like elements of The Black Watchmen, in which gaining access to a corporate server is the goal. After uncovering the email address of an employee inside the company with access to that server, you must use Facebook to uncover various personal details about the person (fictional, of course). Using knowledge gleaned from your digging, you will email the character (via real email) using an agency-recommended form letter. Assuming you are able to convince the recipient that you also work for the company in question but happened to lose your password, you will be given the information needed to advance your investigation.
For me this aspect was nothing short of thrilling, but it's possible that for some players this kind of reality-bending gameplay may simply be too unsettling, as there are times a website can be so convincing it seems it could be for a real entity rather than a fictional one. A clinic featured in the game, for instance, supposedly has its offices in a real Montreal hospital, and it took me a few moments (and a Google search or two), to make sure that an email I was planning to send them wasn’t going to a real doctor’s clinic.
One source of frustration when entering solutions into the client is that occasionally the spelling must identically match the format expected. There were times when I knew what the answer was, but the game wanted a specific term or spelling of the word or phrase rather than accepting multiple variations, as was the case most of the time. Luckily, for some puzzles the format is indicated by the text box, such as when a phrase must be separated by dashes or some other punctuation. This feature is not applied consistently, however, and the issue cropped up enough times to make it more a relief than a triumph to solve some of the affected puzzles.
As you progress, you may notice a pop-up mentioning that a “class” has been unlocked, along with one of four associated icons becoming active in a panel near the bottom of the mission hub. Bearing the names “Soldier,” “Scientist,” “Spy,” and “Cybertech,” these classes roughly conform to the theme of each set of missions. For instance, the set involving infiltration of a hostile organization unlocks the Spy class, and the set of missions that feature more martial activities unlocks the Soldier class. Players start out assigned as a generic Agent, and choosing one of the other icons has no effect on the course of the game so far, though it’s possible that future seasons may see these classes given more relevance than is currently implemented.Continued on the next page...