Down the Rabbit Hole

written by JOSH STERN


Faith Arella was a 17-year-old runaway in Seattle biding her time as a tattoo artist. Her customers loved the unique, runic symbols she individually created for them which were a result of visions Faith would have.

One day, a lawyer came to the tattoo parlour and gave Faith a cheque for $20,000 from a mysterious benefactor, along with a message written on what appeared to be an old piece of paper: “Follow your visions.”

Those three words were the start of an adventure that lasted a year. Starting with a tip leading her to a disc video jockey (DVJ) named Kriel in Florida, she then traveled to Australia to see a man named Mike Miles and his “Miracle Mile” bus, which was rumoured to have mystical powers.

He soon joined her on her quest and they continued on to meet a mysterious woman in India, followed by a final trip to Mount Ararat in Turkey. While in Turkey, however, Mike and Faith got separated.

When Mike finally reached Mount Ararat to reunite with Faith, she was nowhere to be found. She disappeared and was never seen or heard from again.

There were numerous photos, videos, blogs and the like chronicling her journey, where people could follow what was happening.
The catch? In real life, Faith does not exist.

The  line between fiction and reality blurred in a very profound way and that’s the way the folks at Xenophile Media planned it. Faith’s journey was all part of an elaborate, worldwide and interactive alternate reality game (ARG).

Xenophile Media, based out of Kensington Market in Toronto, specializes in integrating ARG’s into television programs. Faith’s journey, officially called The Ocular Effect, was designed in conjunction with the ABC Family movie Fallen, which told the tale of a half-human half-angel teen who helps redeem fallen angels.

The first segment aired in July 2006 followed by the entire trilogy in August of 2007.

An ARG “is a distributive narrative that’s told across multiple media platforms,” Crowe explains.

 “But how do you tell a story where different elements are on different platforms and where we literally guide a viewer from a clue on a TV show, to an email from a character to a website where you uncover a secret password that reveals a clue about a live event? [It] basically presupposes that the fictional world of the TV show is real and it’s all around you.”

Crowe and his colleagues had their start as filmmakers experimenting with engaging audiences with interactive entertainment that wasn’t traditional gaming.

After the dot-com company they originally worked for went under, they came together to create Xenophile Media. Building on what they previously learned, they set out to create their next generation content.
By the time they began work on the Ocular Effect, they already had a few hits under their belts, including an ARG in conjunction with the hit TV series ReGenesis.

However, with Fallen, they wanted to go the extra mile.

The DVJ that Faith met in Tampa was a real DVJ named DJ Kriel, one of several real-life personalities Xenophile licensed for the game.

According to Crowe, at the San Diego Comic-Con, an annual comic book convention, tattoo artists tattooed “runic symbols onto nerds,” which then served as a pass to get into a big dance night hosted by Kriel, giving players additional clues towards solving the puzzle.

As part of the game, Xenophile also commissioned real-world crop circles in Scotland, as well as graffiti in Brazil.

Websites such as YouTube and Google Earth were used, with everything being collected by players for mass dissemination on the Ocular Effect website.

According to Crowe, the game had more  than 2.5 million players from around the world – the same number that watched the Fallen TV movie.

It takes a lot to create a successful ARG. Jonathan Waite, senior editor at says it’s imperative that an ARG harnesses the power of the online gaming community as well as, “having a story that is captivating and interesting and not only piques your curiosity but also tugs at your heartstrings.”

Waite says the first really successful ARG was The Beast, created by 42 Entertainment, which tied into the film by Steven Spielberg, A.I..
While there were primitive ARGs before The Beast, including some from Crowe and his Xenophile team, Waite believes that it wasn’t until then that ARGs really struck a chord.

Susan Bonds, president of 42, explains a combination of luck and good storytelling led to The Beast’s success. 

“The social community that formed out of that, formed out of necessity because they were all trying to drive toward a common goal, [of solving the ARG]” Bonds says.

And it was that community or “hive mind” that enabled future ARGs to succeed.

In the meantime, the games recalled the old debate of art versus commerce. To date, all of 42’s ARGs have been in conjunction with a product  like the video game Halo 2, novel Cathy’s Book: If Found Call 650-266-8233.

Crowe, who thinks of himself as a filmmaker, is adamant that despite his company’s tendency to create TV-based content, he wouldn’t be involved in this field if he thought of it as mere marketing.

“It does play a marketing role too, but I don’t think that’s its ultimate role. ”

Bonds is unapologetically proud of the marketing strategies she helped oversee, especially when it came to shifting brand perception.

“You can communicate a lot about the core values of your brand without having to spell it out in a 30 second ad or on a billboard; you can communicate a lot about who you are as a company,” she says.

While Waite acknowledges the connection between ARGs and marketing, he also foresees a time when the games will stand on their own. There have been a few moderately successful examples such as Perplex City, from the London-based company Mind Candy, which sold collectible puzzle cards, but the issue of funding remains.

“It’s been tried for games to have their own revenue model,” Waite says.

“I would imagine that ad-based revenue could be employed somehow, [perhaps] donations but it’s not something that’s presented itself in such a clear cut successful way yet.”

The Ocular Effect won an Emmy award for outstanding Achievement in Interactive Television in September, and Xenophile is currently working on simpler, more children-friendly ARG’s for Teletoon and the BBC.

But Crowe eagerly awaits the day that ARGs will fully come of age in an industry that’s typically focused on the bottom line. Should anyone figure it out, it could be the Holy Grail of ARGs.

Until then, Crowe is actively watching, amazed at the emerging innovation and creativity.

“Its really interesting because to some degree, it’s like a test drive for technology that doesn’t exist yet, like the holodeck.”