First of all, my concerns regarding Last Hours of Laura K were largely unfounded – as the mystery has continued to unfold, the organisers have gradually released more information to guide players towards a solution. Something which I alluded to but didn’t go into much detail with in that previous post, was the fascinating world of meta-story and player interaction created in ARGs. In both Cr0n and Laura K, I noticed fellow players obsessing over small details that may or may not turn out to be relevant, the situations in the game spilling over into their manner of playing. For example, in Cr0n, the player took on the role of a spy posing as a member of MoP and feeding information back to Cr0n. This seemed to lead to a sense of paranoia amongst players regarding identity and motive. New players joining mid-game were often questioned relentlessly, suspected as Cr0n or MoP plants. Why else would they turn up now? What was their angle?
This attitude was positively encouraged by Cr0n’s organisers (I believe the ARG lingo calls them PMs or Pupper Masters) and with good reason. (- I mentioned in passing to a ‘senior spy’ that I’d found a useful forum of fellow Cr0n spies and he responded: “How can you be sure they aren’t MoP?”) It helps with the authenticity of their game for players to suspect everyone and question the goals of everyone around them – isn’t that the kind of atmosphere being a spy would inspire?
In the case of Laura K, players don’t know what aspects of Laura’s life are relevant, so everything becomes relevant. They comb the lyrics of songs she listened to, study the synopses of books and films she expressed an interest in, searching for clues anywhere. I laughed at this, and then found myself convinced for an hour that a picture of a Bounty (yes, the chocolate bar) one of the NPCs tweeted was somehow relevant because it had the energy values on the front, and the bars on Bounty’s website didn’t. I later realised this was because the sites pictures hadn’t been updated in some time and showed an older wrapper design.
There’s also what I’m now pretty sure is a red herring of a character calling themselves James Howlett (Wolverine’s real name) and one dressed as Wolverine at a fancy dress party, the idea being to convince you they’re the same person, when actually they aren’t. However, players are also speculating on the fact that there’s a reference to a Laura K in some Wolverine comics. Whether this is very clever writing or a weird coincidence, we may never know, but it really reiterates my point in the previous post. The writers’ intentions are almost completely irrelevant – it’s what the players are getting out of it is important. That doesn’t mean poor, vague writing is ok (actually the opposite) but it means that if there’s enough quality hints, allusions etc elsewhere in the writing, players will begin to find them everywhere and fill in the gaps themselves. It’s about building trust more that it’s about filling every blank.
All ARGs remind me of The Crying of Lot 49 for that reason, but I believe they are generally better executed. (One of the rare occasions where games writing wins out over a literary counterpart, although I’ll forever admire Pynchon for attempting something so audaciously ambitious.)
Another really fascinating point about Laura K that I particularly appreciate is that it’s turned out to be a science fiction story of sorts, but is so carefully and realistically presented, it’s utterly convincing. I think this is an area novelists could really learn from ARGs as it happens in them a lot – one world is presented and then another is gradually revealed, but this is a technique rarely seen in more conventional literature (in terms of the novel ‘changing genre’, or revealing itself to be a different genre, at least) and as Pynchon demonstrated, would probably be fiendishly difficult to realise in novel form. Horror gets away with doing this more often, but still only within the constraints of its own genre. For example, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In starts you off with a conventional serial killer and slides into a vampire story. Similarly his more recent Harbour starts out as a family tragedy and becomes something else. I suppose there’s always the risk of turning your readers off from thinking they’re getting one thing and being delivered another, but I think it’s a risk worth taking more frequently.