Down The Rabbit Hole

1st August 2005

The first message was simple:

LOST: the Cube.

Reward: £100,000.

Naturally intrigued, I followed the link. A man named Sente needed my help: a precious artifact, the Receda Cube, had been stolen. Could I help retrieve it? From here, more links: a newspaper, and a blog. Like all good puzzles, it left me with more questions than answers. Was this a game? What was the Cube? Why was it worth so much? And where the hell was Perplex City?

Nowhere on Earth, it turns out. Perplex City is the latest entry in the growing field of Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs. These are basically massive interactive treasure hunts; detective stories which start online but soon spill over into the "real world". ARG players hunt for clues hidden not just in websites but in newspaper ads, postcards, text messages, and more. By following hints and solving puzzles, players are drawn into the game's fictional world. It's nothing if not addictive.

Perplex City is important in that it's the first truly mainstream ARG that's not a marketing exercise. The first and biggest, known as The Beast, was run by Dreamworks to inculcate hype surrounding the release of the film A.I. Since then the most popular has been I Love Bees, a Microsoft invention centred on the Xbox game Halo 2. Both involved countless fictional websites, correspondence with in-game characters via email and occasionally telephone, and real-world meet-ups.

With no product to advertise, Mind Candy (the company behind Perplex City) are funding their game by selling puzzle cards – £2.50 for a pack of six. The cards, as well as being fun little brainteasers by themselves, often reveal clues which can be ploughed back into the grander puzzle of Perplex City: who stole the Cube, and where is it now?

It's a neat system which allows players to feel truly involved in furthering the story. With each cipher they unscramble, with each GPS coordinate they plot, with each public phonebox they stake out (waiting for pre-arranged calls from in-game characters, natch) they could be uncovering the next big piece of the puzzle.

It may all sound a bit obsessive, but Mind Candy's Executive Producer Adrian Hon believes ARGs will soon be a serious contender for our leisure time: "It's a new kind of entertainment that's only become possible with today's level of internet and mobile phone penetration," Hon says, "that lets you tell a different type of story that ultimately involves hundreds of thousands of people." He's compared the current state of the genre with cinema at the turn of the century: a burgeoning new medium, set to explode in popularity.

Having been suckered myself, I was all set to join the hunt for the Cube when I ordered my Perplex City puzzle cards from Firebox two weeks ago. But rumoured printing delays have meant the cards have rolled out slower than expected. It seems it's not just the game affecting reality: sometimes reality gets in the way of the game.