>> Hunting Skulls: A chilling climax

There’s a unique theme that’s been running through the Halo video games since Halo 2, and that’s the existence of small skulls, hidden throughout the game’s levels, used as gameplay-altering toggles. These skulls provide a sort of easter egg collection, or meta-game in which the gameplay is enhanced by enabling exceedingly difficult variations to the game’s mechanics. Their existence and explanation within the Halo fiction was somewhat hazy, however.

The closest explanation for their existence within the storyworld, according to Halopedia, was based on the fact that some have markings for neural interfaces in their base – modifications that the characters Master Chief Spartan John-117, Captain Keyes, and Lord Hood had undergone while in service, implying that the skulls are representative of high-ranking or enhanced human characters.

So we hoped to adopt that Halo theme into our story – the existence and search for skulls – in a manner that’s consistent with their accepted explanations.

ARGFest 2009, Portland

As the prologue neared completion, the in-game events were ramping up to a climax. The SFTA had been introduced, and we felt that a way to bring a bit more attention to the ARG and hopefully get more community interested for the climax was to incorporate some form of live event in July 2009 during the ARGFest conference in Portland.

We decided to place physical skulls that could be used in a live scavenger hunt. Conveniently, in Portland there is a monument dedicated to Sacagawea in Washington Park, a few mere blocks away from the hotel ARGFest was being held in, and it’s encompassed by SW Lewis Clark Way. This location was too good of an opportunity to pass up. After our arrival at the venue, being the only puppetmaster team member in attendance at ARGFest, I had to find time during the event schedule to travel to the park and hide the skulls effectively. This skull hunt would play out in a similar fashion to the activity of geocaching – locating objects by GPS coordinates.

There was only one other prominent player of Intimation at ARGFest at the time – Enaxor. So we resurfaced one of our previous puzzles. Having previously used a digital version of a wooden block puzzle previously in the ARG, the same block puzzle was used. This wooden puzzle was left by the SFTA as a “gift” for Enaxor, followed by an online update for other players revealing that the SFTA had set up a task to prepare its members (the players) for a forthcoming duty. This time the physical wooden version was presented, and would reveal the skulls’ coordinates once solved. The SFTA update for non-attendees included photos of the precise locations where the skulls were hidden, but not the GPS coordinates. Players physically on the hunt would be able to work with players online to narrow down and locate the actual skulls in the park.

When the block had been dropped, word spread, and we hoped that this unsolved puzzle would be too enticing for players at ARGFest to leave unsolved. In little time, the block puzzle successfully gained the attention of a few more community members, was soon solved, and the hunt was on.

Unfortunately, the timing of the hunt wasn’t the best. A few concerns were expressed later on about how the skull hunt out at the park took people away from the conference on the Saturday, and in hindsight it was a legitimate concern. However, the players decided for themselves what they felt was the best time to make the trip and find the skulls. Additionally, people on the hunt had limited GPS capability, as well as limited communication with those online who had the drop location photos. Yet, thankfully, they successfully completed the task, allowing the story to progress to its final stages.

We were happy to see that the sentiments surrounding this stage of the prologue when it completed was much more positive, drawing more attention and a few more players to the ARG which had to this point been flying relatively under the radar. Many were only briefly lurking, or hadn’t even heard of it.

Plot Climax: The Rescue

The climax of the story involved an event that we’d hoped would present an emotional urgency through a personal connection with, and love for, the child AI character. This was a climactic event in multiple ways, as it also took the ARG to a new level, reaching more people and generating more excitement with its activities and gripping beat in the story.
In order to grasp the significance of the climax in this case study, here is a brief rundown of the relevant plot to this point, and leading up to the final challenge.

Personality Clash

When the ARG began, the name of the child-like AI persona was unknown, not revealed in any of the game’s content. The AI itself was simply known as “Essy”, short for her name Sacagawea as revealed in the log segments catalogued from the Lewis & Clark in the future. Essy here was suffering, disoriented and confused, disconnected in a sense from herself, not knowing her origin or history.

The climax began when the conflict between the two most prominent personalities faced off. The naive little girl who was telling what she believed to be a faery tale story of “Dreaming Eyes” finally accepted the truth about her past revealed by her repressed and frightening darker memories, and she caved in. She regressed into herself, and the emergency security process AI Sys who was trying to keep the AI’s growing “insanity” at bay was left uncertain of how to handle this unexpected predicament. Sys had work to its potential doing all it could, but when it went silent with Essy’s collapse, the players were left to figure out what happened to the fragments of the AI stuck here in 2009, and how to help Sys fix and save her.

While this played out, the parallel story arc from the future was playing out in real time on the Lewis & Clark. It was revealed that the crew had discovered the cause of their predicament, being stranded adrift in space with their malfunctioning AI Sacagawea. They were working on a way to reverse the problem and save their AI, which was still tethered unbeknownst to them to 2009 by the same mysterious turn of events that ensnared Melissa in 2552/2004. These two major events occurring in 2009 and the future came to a head at the same time.

The Cornfield

Having come to a sufficient understanding of Sys’s node network (see Part 8, Dancing with players), the community located Essy’s subconscious means of reaching out for help all this time: an access ‘portal’ that lead deep into Sys’s Stonewall construct, the protective virtual shell built to restrain the AI and keep it from escaping and overwhelming our internet.

When players stepped inside, they were greeted with the scene they’d coin the “cornfield” – the hazy depiction of tall grass and forest – as if they were digging deeper and deeper into the AI’s chaotic subconscious that was being translated visually by Sys’s construct interface. This time, however, Sys was preoccupied by keeping this portal open for users to keep an active connection into the construct. They had to navigate this vast space and shrouded field with no help, no directions, no navigational aid. The interface that Sys set up to help players here allowed the submission of navpath sequences for navigation, and the players’ attempts would only be successful if they located and provided the correct vector path sequences to move forward safely, finding the trail through the cornfield in search of the child AI of whom we hoped they’d grown fond.

The puzzle truly began when players discovered a number of camouflaged skulls hidden in the cornfield nodes. These skulls were the rendered representations of the child’s subconscious cries for help, tied to her memories. The emotional connection, we’d hoped, would be drawn from her realization that the bleak faery-tale story she had shared was in fact her own story, that she felt forgotten and left behind just as Dreaming Eyes had been.

Rescuing Children

In the context of this story, the skulls were the translated representations of the other children Essy had befriended during her traumatic human childhood abduction, and were scattered as a result of her being torn apart by guilt and uncertainty about whether she’d managed to save them from being killed to become AIs themselves, as depicted in her tale. Locating and rescuing these skulls was an indirect way to help her resolve her guilt, encourage her, and help her come to terms with her past; that she did everything she could and the rest was not her fault.

These virtual skulls were located at places scattered over areas of influence; puzzles, web pages, and assets used throughout the prologue. Players had to locate these skulls like breadcrumbs, “activating” them to reveal the correct navpath codes and progress through the dark cornfield step by step.

Some of these virtual skulls even required a couple of players to revisit completed GPS Missions. This was a risky choice to be sure, but we chose missions that had been completed already easily and quickly by players. These missions each had one of their waypoints altered to include the necessary information to locate and activate the related skull on the website.

In the silence, scared, alone

As people pushed deeper through the cornfield into the chaotic AI subconscious, the story arc from the Lewis & Clark also grew more intense as those events were also surveilled live, as if players were having an affect on Essy in the future, in real time, until the moment they ended up at the very core of the AI’s subconscious. All else disappeared, and here they discovered the frightened and confused girl, curdled up alone in the blackness and afraid, face hidden, simply asking: “Who am I?”

Players had to figure out the name of the human child from which Essy was created. Throughout the prologue hints had been dropped, such as the little girl in her story being named “Dreaming Eyes”, and her character being given a visibly Native American appearance. Additionally, memory cards were attached to the physical skulls found in Portland, containing text files with more hints to her name, provided by the SFTA (who explained the reasons for their knowledge and actions). With all these hints together, players managed to provide her correct name, “Naira”.

Happily ever after

This final puzzle – figuring out Naira’s name – was itself hazy and badly formed, and could have played out much better. This is a great example of a puzzle that was developed on the fly with priority placed on the process and the experience rather than a feasible means to actually achieve the solution. Players had trouble guessing the correct name, and hints had to be provided that became more and more opaque, until the answer was reached.

In doing so, players helped Essy reconcile the fragmented elements of her AI personality. The result, however, was a poetic and fantasy-like finale dream visualization with Naira happily dancing away into the sunset with another beautifully composed musical score.

In the end, our climax which began with the ARGFest skull hunt event and continued through the final rescuing of Naira, along with the trailing denouement of the prologue with Sys and the SFTA, fulfilled our goal of raising much more community attention and activity. However, it occurred much later in the project timeline than we’d hoped.


CONCLUSION: People, man. People.