Thursday, 24 December 2009

I Remember: In Memoriam Retrospective

Several years ago there were reports of a couple of French documentary journalists who disappeared in mysterious circumstances, you might remember it. Jack Lorski and Karen Gijman, star reports for the SKL Network, had been travelling all over Europe and across the Middle East when they dropped out of contact with their friends and head office. A few weeks after that, the network received a package which included a video and a CD from someone calling themselves Phoenix.

The CD contained a complex encrypted series of puzzles and excerpts from Lorski and Gijman's latest investigation documentary. The French police and Interpol didn't have the time or available expertise to solve the kidnapper's puzzles so they opened it up to the general public. People across the world were soon working together to solve word puzzles, tricks of language, problems of esoteric philosophy and gnosticism in a race to find the kidnapped reporters and Phoenix him (or her) self.

I was one of these people. The internet was of phenomenal use in my own investigations: personal travel photo journals, tourist advice pages, museum websites, the young Wikipedia, the were all sources of information on locations and people crucial to solving Phoenix's puzzles and remotely following Lorski and Gijman from half the world away. Email, too, was crucial as I was soon contacted by other volunteers and others I communicated with on forums.

These things to me are real. At least as real as anything I see on the news or read in the papers. But no, they were fabricated. There was never a Phoenix, a Jack Lorski or a Karen Gijman. The places they visited - the Hagia Sophia stands out in my memory because of one fiendish puzzle involving it - are real as were many of the websites, though others were fabricated. The people I spoke with on forums dedicated to solving the CD's puzzles were real, but those who emailed me were not. Because the search for Phoenix and his victims was in fact a game.

In Memoriam, for some reason known as 'Missing' in the US, was created by Lexis Numérique and released in 2003. It was one of the earliest attempts at monetising the new phenomenon of the ARG (Alternate Reality Game). The player would register their email address so could start receiving pre-prepared emails from NPCs, for flavour and hints. The game would secretly keep track of the player's progress and update the server when they complete a level. If the player hadn't completed the next level in a day or so, they would start receiving emails subtly pointing them in the right direction.

The game was broken into a prologue, teaching the player the basics of how to play, and four chapters themed around each of the classical elements. In turn, the chapters contained several levels, each a different puzzle. The range of puzzles included was phenomenal. An extensive and difficult one involved cutting, rearranging and correctly timing a 16mm video camera recording. Another required the player to correctly arrange eight similar 'medallions' around a floor plan of the Hagia Sophia.

With every few solved puzzles, the player was rewarded... or, rather, taunted... with a snippet of video by Lorski or the Phoenix. Each time a new step on the journey was revealed, another crumb on the trail followed and you came to better know Jack and Karen even as they marched to their inevitable fate.

The most disturbing thing about In Memoriam today is that, had it not been for the continued existence of websites that could have been taken down long ago, there may not have been any evidence that these events were anything but the work of my own imagination. Some time ago I lost the CD, threw the empty case away. The emails I received have for some reason disappeared too - did I delete them? The issue of PC Gamer in which I first read about In Memoriam is lost at the bottom of a great tower somewhere in my house. And no-one I know has even heard of the game. Without solid evidence, it might as well have been a dream, or something I read in a book long ago.

But that is the way of these passing experiences and especially those which exist in the umbral edges of reality. The entire idea is to allow us to fool ourselves into thinking we are taking place in a real adventure, and we do so gladly. I only worry that such things as In Memoriam will rarely come again. Many ARGs exist but few of the quality and clarity of vision that I experienced those years ago.

At least I have my memories.


  1. I don't know how things were made for US version, but for the sequel of In Memoriam in France, Lexis Numérique paid a guy who played the role of the Phoenix. He had to answer to a cellphone number you found during the game... it was a very real and creepy passage ! (There was also an alternative way without the need to give a real call just in case you didn't want to do so). Eric Viennot, one of the funder of Lexis Numérique who worked on these games write a lot of interesting things about ARG, but unfortunately, most of these articles are in french.

    You did mention that many ARGs exist, and as far as I know here in Europe, we don't have so many ARGs. I'm very curious about some titles you know (and played) in this genre.

  2. Yes, I considered mentioning the sequel but all I'd have to say about it is that I didn't know it existed until yesterday, sadly.

    Well, I tried getting involved with the Heroes-related ARG but came to that several years too late to get involved. I also spent quite some time with the early Perplex City buzz but dropped it pretty much as soon as it became clear it was leading up to having to buy random packs of 'puzzle cards' for lots and lots of money. There's also some advertising campaigns that start off looking like ARGs then just turn in to a single website or something - boring.

    It's almost certainly true that most ARGs focus around the US but most will have some element occur in, say, London and back with Perplex City people from across Western Europe flew in for that. In any case, you can become involved with a lot of the elements of a good internet ARG in the forms and vicariously through live-tweeting and on-the-scene forum postings from those lucky enough to visit the real world locations.