Lauren of the Pastry Alternate Reality Game discusses the various ARGs she has created
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Interviewer: I’m here at the ARG Fest and with me today is a special guest. How about you introduce yourself?
Lauren: Hi, I go by IneffaBelle or Belle on UnFiction. My real name is Lauren Soffer.
Interviewer: What ARGs have you done before?
Well, I’ve played a lot of them, but I’ve been a puppet master on a couple now. My very first one was a mini ARG referred to as the Pastry ARG. It was a comical, personal ARG based on an inside joke around the unFiction community over our obsession with pastries. It was about Cookie Town and a murder, a sort of Mafia pastry mystery that had to be solved with pastry related crimes and sprinkle corruption. So, I did the story on that.
I also worked on an educational ARG called Reviews for Class. I was hired to do that one. It was about caretaking in healthcare, and it was basically about how we need to improve caretaking for disabled and elderly and people with mental illness and any kind of people who need caretaking in the future. I played a character, very much like myself. I have multiple chronic illnesses, and I’m in a wheelchair, and I have a care giver. I play a character similar to myself who is in a similar situation but needed a care giver for the first time and was hunting for one throughout the course of the game.
Interviewer: Let’s talk about the Pastry ARG first. So, you wrote the story for that. How long was the ARG, and can you talk about designing in ARG and some of the challenges, or what you had to do to design it?
Lauren: That one was kind of touch and go. It was a mini ARG. We put it together over a weekend and launched it that same coming week. When we threw this thing together, it was personally and funny, not so much a hard puzzle for an ARG. I just sort of came up with the story. We wanted to do something with pastries. I thought pastry Mafia would be really funny, and so we said, “What if the health inspector found out about pastry corruption?” And there was sprinkles. We just came up with this funny story about Broccoli and his girlfriend, Cauliflower, and they are trying to fix the pastry corruption in town, and the players had to help them out. So, we just wrote a funny story.
Interviewer: How did the players then interact with the ARG in this case?
Lauren: In this situation they basically were introduced by email from the mayor but accidentally sent to the players, about this new health inspector in town who might be causing some problems for their sprinkle ban. They then were led to Broccoli, our main character, the health inspector’s blog and then they started helping him. And then his secretary who became his girlfriend, Cauliflower. From there they discovered the other pastry town sites and had to email back and forth and get on Instant Messenger with them, hack into the Mafia website et cetera.
Interviewer: Instant Messenger then, so players would actually IM someone in the game, or how did that work?
Lauren: Some of my fellow PMs played the different characters on Instant Messenger and said, “Oh, we’re getting on their blog right now” and then the players would get on right then, and they would interact to get some clues to how to proceed with the game. And then find out some crucial information by talking in real time with the characters.
Interviewer: What were the challenges of being a puppet master for that, because that’s the first time you were a puppet master, right?
Lauren: It was. The biggest challenge on that one was the time frame. We threw it together really, really fast so we were working against the clock. We had a tiny window during a break of another game to throw this together as an amusement for the players who were waiting on a break during this break. This was like a time factor plus it was our first time. We didn’t know what we were doing, so we were just doing what we would like as players, and we were coming from the perspective of what would be fun if we were playing this game. And that’s kind of how we approached it.
Interviewer: Based on experience, what would you have done differently when you designed the ARG or changed the story or anything like that?
Lauren: You know, everyone just had a really, really good time. It wasn’t a serious ARG, obviously. Really, the only thing I wish we’d had more time and that we could have done a much longer one; however, I am planning a sequel. It’s going to be a second Pastry ARG called Casabroca about our main character, Broccoli, in a new situation. It’s going to be a Pastry noir, so I’m going to eventually, when I am done with other projects I’m working on at the moment. Eventually, we’ll get to Pastry ARG II, so I’ll get to do the full blown, longer like a four to six week run version of this same funny concept.
Interviewer: What was the players response to the ARG and any suggestions that they’d give you after the ARG was completed?
Lauren: In this case, they just laughed a lot and thought it was-just tickled their funny bone and amused them so much. We just really got nothing but positive feedback and desire for more. Pastries are such an in joke within the community. People try to outdo each other with pictures of ridiculous pastries, so it was just a completely positive experience in this case.
The other project that I worked on, if you want me to segue…
Interviewer: Yeah. If you could talk about the care giving ARG, and what the specific role was and some of the integration points that you used to convey that reality.
Lauren: This one was called Ruby’s Bequest. The basic premise of the ARG was a woman died and left a fortune to this small town of Deepwell if they could correct their lack of care giving that they had in the community. Basically, they were accused of being a town that doesn’t care about their elderly and their sick and disabled people. So, that was the stipulation.
I play the character, Hannah Silver. She was a young woman who had multiple illnesses and was looking for a care giver because she couldn’t take care of herself anymore. I video blogged as her, and I wrote blog entries, and in addition I helped manage the community. In this case the community interacted by submitting stories, their own care giving experience stories, for good or bad and their own suggestions, programs and solutions.
And we helped facilitate the players to come up with solutions because this was an educational type thing. It was a cerebral palsy organization that was co-sponsor of the game.
Interviewer: Did any of the players then try to offer the characters in the game care giving? I mean, was that part of it, or was it just mainly about the solutions?
Lauren: They tried to help facilitate matching players up with possible solutions, like my character didn’t have a way to get to a funeral of somebody who died from exposure because they didn’t have a care giver in the community. That was the point, and the players helped facilitate me having one of the other characters give me a ride and how they had a big van that my wheelchair could fit in and that kind of thing.
But, mostly they submitted their own stories and started brainstorming with each other, ideas for how we could do care giving better as a little micro model for the whole country.
Interviewer: What was your perspective then of these types of serious ARGs? Was there anything or any different kind of design perspective that you came away after going through that experience?
Lauren: Well, I came in later. I was hired to do this specific role after the game had been pretty fully developed. Beside my personal character, I got to do my whole story ARG. The main challenge on the serious ARGs is, especially with care giving, it’s a very, very intense and sensitive and personal subject.
It’s hard for people to want to role play and pretend about something that sometimes can be very, very painful for them. They have very personal often really sad stories about loved ones or themselves they’ve gone through with problems of care giving and sad things that have happened.
And so, we had a hard time keeping player interaction going, and we also had an accelerated time line on this which made it very difficult for the players to feel engaged. There’s a lot of things that as a team we decided we would have done differently.
Interviewer: Anything specific that, maybe, future ARG designers could keep in mind?
Lauren: Definitely accelerated time lines are a bad idea. Like, basically, every week was like several years. So, it was like, by the time if you didn’t respond to somebody’s blog entry it was several years later when you were giving them advice, and so it was no longer applicable.
The idea was to see what would happen really far down the line if you kept doing these programs and how they would integrate. At the sam time it seemed almost impossible for the players to feel engaged and connected to the characters as full fledged and emotional as they were.
Interviewer: So, now you’re working on some other ARGs. Can you talk a little about that?
Lauren: I’m also Vice President of a company called Darklight Interactive. We do sort of grassroots, and we have a few other projects that I can’t actually talk about at all. Our big project coming up is called Rachel’s Walk. It’s going to be really interesting and kind of divergent from a typical ARG in that it’s going to have some sort of old school, interactive fiction/RPG elements through a specialized interface where you get to enter a world.
So, there’s going to be all the traditional elements of an ARG, but there’s also going to be a text-based RPG part of the game which is going to be very graphic and interactive in a unique way. I’m very excited. I’ve been working on this since almost the beginning with my partner, and I’ve helped developed the whole story. I’m doing a lot of 3-D graphic rendering for it and all different stuff.
Interviewer: Have you encountered any design challenges while you were working on this?
Lauren: The hardest thing about working without much budget and with a very small team is that you are doing everything, and it’s very time intensive and it can take up your whole life. I haven’t had to even play an ARG myself in months because I’ve been working sometimes 12 hours a day trying to get this ARG ready as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, we keep having to move back our start date because we want it to be perfect. We want it to be the ARG we want it to be, and we’d rather make the players wait and make it worth the wait. But it’s sad and we know the players are getting impatient, and that’s one of the hardest things is when you just can’t make it go any faster than you can make it go when you are working. We recently brought on some extra help.
Interviewer: Is there, maybe, borrow a page from the Pastry ARG and try to release it quickly? Is that a viable option, or do you think that it has to be perfect before it comes out?
Lauren: It doesn