The modern era of media is a fractured landscape. Where once 70 million Americans could watch The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, today networks must fight for viewer attention with TiVo, cable, video games and of course, the internet. Simply making a great show is no longer enough. In order to succeed, advertisers must move beyond their actual programming and create something unique and specific in order to instill a deeper emotional connection with consumers.
Perhaps the master of this approach is J.J. Abrams. Between Lost, Cloverfield and Super 8, Abrams has a proven track record of producing Triple-A content matched with innovative and singular marketing. His newest show, Alcatraz, is taking the Brechtian Meta-Reality antics to a whole other level. We’re only three weeks in to the show’s run and already the producer have pulled off one of the best Alternate Reality Game pieces ever. Last Friday, Fox invited the first 312 fans who lined up at San Fransisco’s Dock 33 a chance to participate in a large-scale scavenger hunt on the real Alcatraz. Collider was on the scene and played the game. Hit the jump for a video summary of the action and a detailed breakdown of the ARG madness.
Here’s my video recap with the written report below.
A nervous energy filled the air on Dock 33 as hundreds of fans, some of whom had been lined up for almost four hours, waited to board a ferry to the Rock. No one knew much of what to expect. Not even the invited journalists knew much more than that the event would be some type of scavenger hunt.
Once everyone boarded, a video of Doc Soto (Jorge Garcia) flashed onto the boat’s video screens and explained the game’s context. In the show’s timeline Soto is a world-renowned Alcatraz expert and author of several books on the prison. Tonight, the lucky fans would be acting as research assistants for his newest work, a tome focusing on the rumors and legends of Alcatraz (www.legendsofalcatraz.com.) The game would be a hunt for the case file of Percival B. Stelardson, an inmate who is rumored to have escaped the prison in the early 1960s.
Upon arrival to the island, players were given guidebooks and MP3 players preloaded with narration from Soto that offered clues and color commentary on the game’s four puzzles.
THE FIRST PUZZLE
CLUE: A blank version of the Prison’s ‘Welcome’ sign with several spaces blacked out.
Puzzle #1 was a fairly simple warm up that focused on prison’s ‘welcome’ sign. Players had to look up at the list of rules and regulations and match blacked out boxes to a fill-in-the-blank on their guidebooks. Once solved, the blanks spelled out, “Outlaws.”
THE SECOND PUZZLE
CLUE #1: A map of the cellblocks filled with random letters and a list of nine cells to inspect and “The Jailbird won’t sing without a … Bring one to Cell 145.”
ANSWER #1: “Paperclip”
CLUE #2: A translucent map of the San Francisco skyline with letters lined up to the heights of certain buildings.
ANSWER #2: “Inquiry”
Puzzle #2 was a lot more difficult than the warm up round. The guidebook lead players to the prison’s main cellblock where an overhead map of the area was matched to a series of seemingly random letters. Players had to walk through the cellblock and match the location of certain cells to letters on the map in order to figure out what item they needed to, “Make the jailbird sing.”
After solving the puzzle, which spelled out, “Paperclip,” players had to find the item (bowls full of paperclips were strewn throughout the prison) and bring it to the actor locked up in cell 145.
The actor, who spoke in a snarling southern accent, would trade the paper clip for a translucent map that lead players to the warden’s house where they lined the plastic sheet up to the San Francisco skyline. When placed properly – which was exceedingly difficult in the dark – the plastic sheet spelled out the word, “Inquiry,” which lead back to the control room for the next puzzle.
THE THIRD PUZZLE
ANSWER: The mess hall / “Coffee”
Puzzle #3 was probably the best of the bunch because it was a deceptively simple logic game. The clue was a bullet point list of the prisoners’ daily routine and the question, “Where are the inmates now? Go there and find the missing F.”
Players with sharp eyes quickly noticed a broken clock in the back of the control room that read 7:40. A glance at the schedule then directed them to the prison dining room.
The dining room itself was empty, except for bowls of paperclips. There was nothing added or taken away. Again, this game relied on attention to detail. The solution could be found in the back of the room on the list of available foodstuffs. “Coffee” had a missing F.
THE FOURTH PUZZLE
CLUE: “Who wrote the book that Percy checked out on May 21, 1960?”
ANSWER: “Walt Whitman”
The final puzzle was actually a bit underwhelming. As with the first puzzle, this one was basically a gimmie. The clue was “Who wrote the book that Percy checked out on May 21, 1960.” A quick trip to the library held the answer. The book was, “Leaves of Grass and other Poems,” a very famous collection by Walt Whitman.
THE GRAND FINALE
ANSWER: “Yellow Hammer Case File Requst”
After finishing the four puzzles, players lined up letters from each answer for a final fill-in-the-blank, spelling out “Yellow Hammer Case File Request.” This request was taken back to the control room where the ‘Head of Security’ examined the guidebook, then give players a stamp reading, “Clearance Approved Report to Infirmary.
Once players arrived at the infirmary, they were hassled by still another ‘Guard’ before walking up the stairs to a legitimately creepy room where a delightfully hammy ‘Doctor’ gave them a brief once over and a copy of Percy’s missing file.
The Alcatraz Scavenger Hunt was a near-perfect example of an Alternate Reality Game. Whereas many ARGs focus entirely on fiction, this game cleverly overlaid reality and make-believe, meshing them together to draw the player into the larger mystery. Actual elements of history were retconned into clues. The age and weight of the prison blurred the lines as players examined real pieces of American history as part of the fictional puzzle. Lesser games have added to the physical world in order to create clues, this one never betrayed the premise and thus felt more real.
The Hyper-Reality was further aided by the various actors playing prisoners, guards and doctors. Players were meeting prisoners face-to-face on opposite sides of cell bars and engaging in faux-prison commerce… In the middle of a real prison. The actors never broke character, but remained friendly enough so as to keep things fun instead of legitimately intimidating. And while it was probably unintentional, the presence of actual security guards and officials further complicated the space between truth and fiction.
The game itself was well designed and exceedingly complex. While the fourth puzzle was a bit too simple and the skyline puzzle was nearly impossible to decipher in the dark, the whole felt like a journey worth taking. I half-expected a game on the level of a restaurant children’s menu, but instead found an immersive experience that combined word games, deductive reasoning, attention to detail, words as symbols and physical exploration. Each puzzle employed a different skill set and a different type of challenge. Someone put in some serious man hours on this and it really shows.
As with most Abrams’ ARG’s, I’m not totally sure how it will fit into the world of the show. The story of a prisoner who stole parts of the Alcatraz prison sign in order to make a sail and escape the island back in 1960 isn’t exactly pertinent to Alcatraz’s supernatural procedural hook, but it is intriguing and it makes me want to know more.
This event was the first of several high profile ARG games that will be held throughout the rest of Alcatraz’s first season. If the others match the ambition and scope of the first, fans are in for a real treat.