There is a sensation I get from ARGs – alternate reality games – that I’m sure the Germans no doubt have a word for. I suppose the closest English word would be “unsettling,” but that’s not quite right. We could have “disturbing,” as well, but that doesn’t cover it either. “Weird.” “Intrusive.”
I get it from lateral thinking puzzles. From Unknown Armies. From any time a film flashes up important-looking white text on a black background almost faster than I can read.
It is the spur of investigative lust that you feel when something obviously unreal overlaps with the mundane world. The warning bells that ring in your head. The uncanny valley of culture.
With The Institute, I got it off this picture:
Look at that picture. It’s not real. There are things on there that I don’t understand. Who misses her? Who, or what, is Thaddeus Bless? The tower in the background – important in Eva’s story, later on – has significance because it’s been put in there as a photocopier shop-job. Her makeup is too strong, the resolution of the image slightly too clear. The presentation of the image is in the sort of shrine where you’d expect to see the Mother of God, but it’s a girl with a cheeky look on her face.
Something about it upsets me, but I can’t stop looking at it. It’s the same draw that leaves you reading scary stories hunched over your computer at half one in the morning, knowing that you’ll be freaked out by what you read but unable to stop.
That, I think, is what I love most about pervasive games. The ability to position yourself in an almost-real space and play with the pieces to see how they fit together.
I saw The Institute on Friday night. It’s a short film about an ARG, although that’s perhaps not the word that the makers would want to use to describe it. Unlike other expensive ARGs – I’ve heard that the Institute cost around a million dollars, all told, to run – it wasn’t a marketing endeavour but instead a tremendously expensive piece of privately-funded art.
The story is batshit in a charming, approachable sort of way – an intentionally jangled mess of counter-culture as religion with certain individuals able to tap into a peculiar otherworld called Elsewhere through the medium of Divine Nonchalance. It’s an excuse to act weird and look closely at unusual things in the city. It’s easy to understand and hard to predict.
There’s a game called De Profundis which does the same thing but for letter-writing and Cthulhu; you write letters to other players and you attribute occult significance to mundane events. (Doing this is one of my favourite things.) Establishing a semi-permeable magic circle is an audacious measure. You need to make your lines so blurred that people can stay on the knife-edge point of not knowing, for sure, whether it’s a game or not. Or at least being able to suspend their disbelief for long enough to take part.
The Institute did some incredibly clever things with play. It trusted its players in a way that’s rarely seen; trusted not only with, say, valuable items or access to locations but also in allowing them freedom to play without visible rules in place. Without GMs or crew. It sums up a lot about the story as a whole, I think, to give a divine importance to loosely-defined play.
But, infuriatingly: the film is part of the game. This is not an expose, a tell-all, a way for the viewer to look behind the curtain and see the workings of this grand undertaking of a game, which is what I would have been interested in seeing. Perhaps that’s because I make game myself and I wanted to try to understand the mechanics behind the story, the unexciting logistics, the difficulties of making these experiences feel bespoke when they are anything but.
Rather, the film carries on the story. Some of the “Participants” interviewed in the film are actors and some are genuine players, and the stooges spin out tales of mysterious accidents and housebreaking and getting lost in storm drains and illicitly obtaining police recordings and with each of them there’s a sucker-punch to the gut when you piece it together and realise that they aren’t discussing actual events, that these are not the result of emergent play but instead plotlines concocted and dropped into the game.
And then – the game creator himself states that Eva was real, that the disturbed and broken dimension-hopping girl at the centre of all this really existed in the 80’s. That this game is a tribute to her. Taking him on face value leaves us with some footage of Eva which is fairly obviously shot recently, not back in 1988 when she disappeared, so we have to assume that it’s a retelling of her story.
It’s all part of the game, obviously. This is not an experience which shows its hand. But it has a knowing feel to it, at the edges, a smug refusal to tell the truth. A false show of openness that’s propped up by what have to I assume is another lie. It left me feeling weird.
It’s a hard emotion to describe, but; remember, perhaps, when you were at school. And someone older, or cooler, or smarter, or more popular than you says something that’s clearly a lie. Something ridiculous. And you know that it’s false and you say “No, come on, that’s nonsense” and they don’t defend themselves, they don’t change their story, they simply keep insisting in a vaguely mocking tone that their statement is entirely true. They take pleasure in controlling the power in the interaction. That’s how it feels, I think, to walk out at the end of The Institute.
I wanted the story of a live-game, a breakdown of this tremendous, beautiful thing, and that’s not what I got. I suppose I wouldn’t be writing about it, though, if I had. It wouldn’t have stuck, left me with something to poke at like a loose tooth.
THE GOD OF BUSKERS
The Institute is pretty remarkable, all told, as a film about a game. We don’t really have those. No-one’s mocked for taking part, and cutting out the more esoteric parts of the story leaves the viewer with a fairly crisp narrative to latch onto. It looks good. It sounds good. It’s engaging. It has you investigating the film as you watch it on multiple levels.
And while it’s not educational – I didn’t learn anything from watching it – it is as inspirational as all fuck. (If the makers are reading this, that’s a poster quote you can have for free.) The unreal nature of it is a game in itself. It left me wanting to make… something. To build on the concept of people doing strange things for no apparent reason.
We walked out of the cinema at the film festival, and one of us says – how hard would it be to do that in Sydney? And I say, well, not that hard, but it would be expensive. And a third says, fuck that, let’s do it.
So I am. I am pulling together a game where the spirits of Sydney wear masks and walk amongst men; where strange men in the park ask you for a lock of your hair to save the world; where the God of buskers needs you to join in with him to sing the night closed; where you step carefully, for a night, into another world.
That’s all thanks to The Institute. I think it’s what the game-makers would have wanted.
If you want to learn more about the game or the film it’s based on, this interview with the film-maker is great. Also, you know, try and watch it if you can.