In July of 2001 EA released a game called Majestic, one of the first attempts to create what has since been labeled an ARG (alternate reality game).
Majestic was designed to blur the line between reality and fantasy by actively pursuing the player in real time with phone calls, email, faxes, and instant messages - all intended to draw the player deeper into its sci-fi conspiracy-theory narrative.
The suspense thriller that infiltrates your life through the Internet, telephone and fax, then leaves you guessing where the game ends and reality begins. --EA promotion for Majestic
The game began brilliantly. Shortly after completing a tutorial and submitting your contact information, you are directed to the Majestic server to log in. You discover, however, that the server is down. This information is confirmed by an email message you receive directly from EA:
EA's website confirms they are working on the problem with apologies for the inconvenience. The "Portland Chronicle" reports that the building housing the developers has burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances. Soon you're receiving messages from two of the developers suggesting the fire was no accident, and before you know it the conspiracy chase is on, and you're plowing through real and fake websites gathering clues and solving puzzles.
Then, unfortunately, the wheels come off.
Bad voice acting, amateurish video sequences, and poor writing derail the experience, and what seemed like an inspired blend of adventure, role-playing, and puzzle game genres devolves into a B-movie only Art Bell could love. Perhaps if it had been sublimely bad - as in delightfully cheesy campy bad - it might have somehow worked; but one gets the distinct impression the folks at EA had other, more ambitious intentions for Majestic.
Majestic. It Plays You. --EA promotion for Majestic
Since Majestic, the ARG genre has evolved and produced other cross-media experiences designed to draw players into fictional worlds built to intersect with the real one. Sadly, many of the strongest and most coherent efforts in this direction have been purely promotional, e.g. I Love Bees (Halo 2) and The Art of the Heist (Audi). Taking nothing away from these experiences, I personally have a hard time sinking my teeth into a time-consuming suspension-of-disbelief game whose prime directive is to sell me something.
And at the risk of sounding like a big jerky elitist, I've peeked at some of the community-created ARGs, and, well, they have a long way to go.
I don't know about you, but I'm eager to immerse myself in a clever, well-designed ARG that leverages all the high bandwidth, social networked, persistently connected, frequently updated, downloadable content possibilities available today. Spielberg wants to design games? Put him on a project like this with a few MMOG geniuses from Blizzard or some wizards from Valve. Heck, why not give EA another swing at it? Throw Spielberg into a team of Sims or Spore veterans and see what happens. Better yet, team him up with Neil Young (head of EA's new Blueprint studio and one of the original creators of Majestic), and maybe the second time will be the charm. If Spielberg (or anyone else for that matter) can render a vivid, believable fictional world and game scenario, the whole notion of "alternate reality" becomes infinitely more interesting to me.
Very few people played Majestic. Maybe we weren't ready for it. Maybe it simply wasn't good enough. Maybe the government conspiracy theme coupled with the release date (2 months prior to 9/11) was enough to kill it. Whatever the reason, I think we're ready for it now. I'd like to think developers are ready to build it now. In my little anything-is-possible blogger world, I realize that's very easy for me to say, but it seems to me we have better interconnectivity tools now than we had in 2001, and I believe many gamers are hungry for new and varied role-playing experiences that don't necessarily mimic standard RPG conventions.
A new and better Majestic? I'm ready.