A Murderer Has Your Email Address

I was excited to play the survival horror game Amy, recently released on PSN and XBLA, because the story looked intriguing and I’m a fan of the genre in general, but also because I was a huge fan of two previous efforts from its developer, Lexis Numerique. Neither Missing: Since January and Evidence: The Last Ritual was a  huge success, but the way they tried to break the fourth wall to add some real-world fright to their horror-themed gameplay impressed me.  Playing through Amy (which is, sadly, nowhere near as inspired) reminded me how much I enjoyed Missing and Evidence, and has me wishing that a developer with more resources would take a crack at updating their take on horror.

I wrote about Evidence a few years ago, but if you’d rather not slog through my admittedly overwritten intro, the shtick of the game is that a serial killer has delivered a CD of words and images to the police, who find themselves at a loss to decipher it. They pass it along to you, hoping that you’re clever enough to decode the puzzles and find the killer. When you begin the game, you provide a valid email address and cell phone number, then “join” the ICPA, a group of people working on the CD. As you work out puzzles, you’ll receive emails from your comrades that cheer you on, suggest possible avenues of investigation (some of which are dead ends, naturally), or just say hi. You’ll also occasionally receive emails from the killer, taunting you, praising you, and just generally creeping you out. I suppose you’d get similar stuff via text message on your phone, but I didn’t have a service that the game supported, so I didn’t get any, myself.

I love the idea of a game world encroaching on your real world via the everyday technology we take for granted. Evidence came out in 2006; it seems reasonable that the kind of spookiness it was going for would be even easier to achieve now. You could receive bizarre PMs over Xbox live or AIM. You could join a chat room to compare notes with investigators, only to realize that not everyone in the room is who they claim to be. Maybe the killer could send a picture or video to your cell phone, or post something on YouTube (I must admit, I’d love to see what kind of comments the community would post).  The possibilities are vast, but the implementation is incredibly problematic.

The real world has a tendency to push back. Missing: Since January wanted you do some research to solve its puzzles, but one quick to Google was all it took to have the game’s secrets spoiled for you. Evidence skirted this issue by including an in-game search engine, but it’s not hard to see that the more ways you try to sneak game content into the real world, the more opportunities people have to ruin the fun, on purpose or not.

Even if they’re not actively trying to spoil the experience, people might simply not understand the game’s intent – if they didn’t realize that the menacing PM they got over Xbox Live was tied to the game, they’d likely report the offending sender in the hopes of getting them banned. Even assuming that Microsoft was in on the joke – which they might not be – they’d then have to explain why they weren’t banning the offender, which would pretty much kill the impact of getting the spooky PM in the first place.

It’s also difficult to gauge just how scared people are really willing to be. They might happily check that box that gives the game permission to send material to their phone, but that might not matter to them when they receive a picture of a severed finger on their iPhone. And what if one person wants to play, but the person sharing their account doesn’t? That would sure be an interesting page in the divorce proceedings: “My client was exposed to emails from a faux serial killer against her will, your honor.”

The concept of a game contacting you in the real world is fertile ground for disaster (and lawsuits), but it’s also fertile ground for new forms of play. It’s just a question of if people really want that kind of intrusion.

Do you?

11 thoughts on “A Murderer Has Your Email Address

  1. I have fond (albeit slightly creepy) memories of Missing. Even though it feels almost snicker-inducingly Flash-driven today, I too liked how it added a sense of faux community with its emails. It was actually welcoming to receive messages containing helpful hints or simple support, but then you had to wonder whether they were who they said. They were like direct-to-brain NPCs.

    This “immersive” stuff has tried to gain a foothold in the past, though, and just hasn’t panned out. Was it EA who had something called “Majestic” planned, that would involve phone calls, faxes and other real-world intrusions? Maybe people chose to stay away from this stuff after seeing The Game.

    • Poor Majestic fell victim to 9/11. Nobody wanted to be getting mysterious emails right after a terrorist attack. And, admittedly, any new game that tried to break the fourth wall would confront the same kinds of fears and suspicions. I think ultimately the logistics of trying to keep players from freaking out (or suing the devs) are simply too ungainly to make a game like this really viable. Sad. I think there’s tons of potential here.

  2. To me, it’s something like the spork: sounds fantastic in theory, but in practice unsatisfying (Great. I have a fork too small to stab anything, and a spoon that pokes me in the tongue.)

    My earliest experience with games trying to do this was in the early days of The Matrix Online. The monthly “chapter events” would have you going to various websites or reading the in-game newspaper for secret codes, solving puzzles, etc. It was a blast, but it wasn’t sustainable in an MMO, unfortunately. Eventually, the puzzles weren’t about using skills, but simply about finding information. And that’s a job for Google and Ctrl-V. Or spoilers in global chat.

    Outside of an MMO context, a lot of those problems are instantly fixed. The remaining problem is that puzzles need a lot of TLC to work well, and that can be a bit more work than seems worthwhile for a bit of flavorful novelty.

    The ARG elements that focus on information are the weakest, of course. Elements that have you searching a website for hidden links, or decoding an e-mail for clues… that’s a bit better. Make the player feel they are contributing something through their own mental agility, and they’ll be less likely to cheat. Or just use little messages to keep the game in the player’s mind throughout the day…

    Of course, I still don’t know how willing I would be to receive e-mails, text messages, or PMs from games — I’d be constantly dreading the day I see, “Thanks for your help on that last case. When we meet next, I’ll owe you a Nice, Refreshing Gurk™ Cola. They’re buy one, get one this week! — Your (Former) Favorite NPC”

    • You’re absolutely right about the amount of attention to detail something like this would require in order to really work properly. Everything from griefers to people simply wanting to consume the content on their own time schedule…so many plates to keep spinning.

      • One of the sad truths of the world. There are a lot of products that are hard (or expensive) to make, can be very impressive in their own way, but are in very low demand… so most of the time, it’s not worthwhile in any standard cost-benefit analysis.

        So far, where have most ARGs thrived? Marketing. Big companies pouring money into the game as an advertisement and hype-engine, in hopes of making that money back on the ACTUAL product.

        It could be that’s the only way to really make it work. And it may also be that people are so used to ARG-as-commercial that they’ll largely be skeptical of any ARG as a marketing ploy.

  3. I really like the idea of a game transferring a part of itself to you in real life, it could make for a very interesting shift in interface. Especially if you could send information back and have it effect your game.

    It would be a nice touch to send texts to the game, Catherine in real life using my phone. It wouldn’t be too hard to rig up an inbox app that functions the same way as the in-game one. By ‘answering’ Catherine/Katherine’s texts via the app, I could enjoy a little bit of gaming progress during my lunchbreak, although the level of immersion this could give is kinda questionable.
    I can also see how much the game having IRL effects would benefit the developer – as it would be reminding you frequently that you have a murder to solve and a game to play.

    I can see what you mean by a legal problem though, the difference between my example and Missing is that a Catherine app would have no bearing on other programs you use. People could access Xbox Live and email for other purposes and be surprised.
    Wouldn’t having a terms & conditions check solve the legal fear? I’m not sure how much bearing the law puts on the ‘Giant Wall of Unread’ these days…
    At the very least I think it would have to be opt-in, wholly explained and have an easily accessible opt-out feature that the player can access at any point.

    With email usage there is also the problem that people could send emails to players pretending to be the game. Either giving false information to troll them, or sending viral links while pretending to be an NPC with good intentions.
    This would be a mass emailing thing though for a very specific group of people – not entirely sure how well it would work.

    • Oh, lord, I didn’t even think of other people pretending to be the game. And yes, you could certainly have people agree to the terms and conditions, but that wouldn’t quell the outrage. Also, let’s say my husband agrees to the terms and conditions, but we share an email address and I end up seeing emails that freak me out – and that I never agreed to. Or someone with kids…the legal ramifications are kind of horrifying.

  4. As a gamer I would say this is an extremely exciting prospect. I’m always looking for a game that would raise the bar and push the envelope. This would certainly do that. As a person though I’m not sure I want to open panadora’s box just yet.

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