Alternate Reality Games
Lost experimented with alternate reality games in between seasons, offering participants the chance to gain further insights on Lost’s mythology. The first alternate reality game for Lost was also the most ambitious. ABC launched a five-month interactive marketing campaign called The Lost Experience (TLE) that simultaneously allowed the Lost producers to present parts of the mythology unaddressed by the television show.[1] As Darlton (fan name for Carleton Cuse and Damon Lindelof) explained:

We sort of felt like the Internet Experience was a way for us to get out mythologies that we would never get to in the show. I mean, because this is mythology that doesn’t have an effect on the character’s lives or existence on the island. We created it for purposes of understanding the world of the show but it was something that was always going to be sort of below the water, sort of the iceberg metaphor, and the Internet Experience sort of gave us a chance to reveal it.[2]

Uncovering the clues and piecing together the narrative would take the talents of a collectively intelligent community, a challenge participants were more than willing to accept. Participants assisted Rachel Blake, a hacker/blogger, as she investigated the Hanso Foundation, the corporation financing the Dharma Initiative, and their crimes against humanity. The first stage involved exploring the Hanso Website and following hidden clues embedded by Blake. Blake then launched a video blog where she introduced her mission to stop the Hanso foundation and its top mastermind Thomas Mittelwork.

Soon after, Blake informed players that she had obtained incriminating evidence of Mittelwork’s crimes when she filmed him at a Hanso meeting in Sri Lanka. To hide the evidence, she had dispersed pieces of the video across the Internet and asked players to ‘unlock’ each fragment by gathering hieroglyphic symbols or ‘glyphs’ located online and in physical locations. These were planted everywhere from Lostpedia to Lost Magazine to Damon Lindelof’s Comic Con bracelet.[3] When the glyph hunt was complete, players could finally see the full Sri Lankan video where major narrative revelations were revealed.

The Lost Experience consistently blended the real world with the fictional world. On Jimmy Kimmel Live, Hugh McIntryre, the communications director for Hanso, claimed “the writers and producers of Lost have decided to attach themselves to our foundation.”[4]  Jimmy Kimmel treated McIntyre as a “real” guest, allowing him to denounce the Lost TV Show and Bad Twin for misrepresenting the Hanso Foundation. Furthermore, at Comic Con, while Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse responded to questions, Rachel Blake suddenly accused the producers of fictionalizing the Dharma-Hanso agenda and not revealing “the truth.” Both live events brought theatrical drama to a real life space, claiming that Lost was portraying real characters and organizations.

The Lost Experience featured a new set of characters; yet this time, the characters were not passengers on Flight 815. As I mentioned in 3.3.2, it is likely that participants felt more comfortable interacting with a storyline that was not within the same narrative space as the Losties. As Derek Johnson notes:

It would nearly be impossible for The Lost Experience to construct any kind of meaningful interactive narrative in which all participants could be friends with Jack, Sawyer, and Kate without sacrificing the agency of those participants in the story world. By shifting the focus away from characters and towards institutions, the ARG sidestepped these obstacles, generating larger infrastructures that could be effectively shared by a wider range of participants.[5]

Johnson rightly points out the importance of institutions in TLE. Viewer-players can suspend their disbelief when they are positioned in the same universe as Lost (which in this case blends into everyday life), but in a uniquely separate narrative space of that universe.

As a reward for their efforts, participants of TLE were given answers to endlessly deferred mysteries such as the significance of the numbers 4 8 15 16 23 42 and the original intentions of the Dharma Initiative on the island.[6] In doing so, TLE effectively became a requirement for fully understanding Lost. Television viewers who wondered about the recurring mysterious numerical sequence might expect to have an answer in the television show, though as of now, the answer remains unique to The Lost Experience. At the same time, Lost essentially treated endlessly deferred mysteries as if they were implied ones. That is, TLE made it seem like the answers to the numbers and the Dharma Initiative were a trivial side story, not crucial parts of the Lost mythology, upsetting hard-core fans who expected the new learned narrative information to be validated. At the time of this writing, Lost has failed to address the answers from TLE, though the producers have stated that the significance of the numbers and Dharma are in fact canon.[7]

Nevertheless, many Lost fans have indicated that participating in a community and tackling the challenges of TLE were far more rewarding than the narrative pay-off. As one fan put it:

Working on the TLE was one the most satisfying experiences of my entire life, as well as the most consuming. Over the course of the five-month span, an amazing community came together, most which still stands strong today. While the actual game play components were great, it was definitely the fan base and community that made the event. Most of all, I loved leading a community based around one of my passions and making many, many, new friends that I still keep close contact today.[8]

Difficult yet solvable challenges brought together a community and allowed fans to form social connections with one another. In Deconstructing the Lost Experience, Askwith suggests that ARGs should “build communities, not audiences,” highlighting how TLE provided the foundation for a community to collaborate, combine talents, and form friendships.[9] According to Askwith, “To get the greatest possible value of ARGs, [an ARG creator should] design challenges and game mechanics that acknowledge these communities, and give them compelling reasons to work together.”[10] It is the power of social connections from an alternate reality game that outlast any possible narrative revelation.

As popular as TLE was amongst Lost fans, ARG players unfamiliar with the show were less impressed. Jason Mittell points out that ARGs are not traditionally tied to a pre-existing narrative, nor are they supposed to generate mainstream buzz and press.[11] Loyal Lost fans expected insights into the show and ARG fans expected a traditional ARG experience. This suggests that transmedia storytelling is not at a point where non-fans can enter a transmedia narrative from any extension, as Jenkins’ definition for transmedia storytelling might suggest. Instead, extensions like TLE are best suited for enhancing the television show for hard-core fans and enriching their viewing experience. TLE may have accomplished its goal of strengthening a community, but as Mittell points out, the narrative capabilities of ARGs and serial television shows remain, as of now,  incongruent with one another.[12]

After The Lost Experience, Lost launched Find 815 in the months leading up to season 4. The game involved alternate reality elements and presumably served as a means to get people talking about the show again. Find 815’s story line revolved around a technician named Sam Thomas, who embarks on journey to find Sonya, the love of his life and a flight attendant on Oceanic 815. Unlike TLE, Find 815’s goal was not to answer endlessly deferred mysteries, but to foreshadow the mysteries of Season 4. The conclusion showed a salvage ship known as the Christiane 1 discovering the wreckage of Oceanic 815 in the Sunda Trench of the Indian Ocean.

Rather than handing fans a packaged answer to a large scale mystery like TLE, the ending to Find 815 gave fans enough clues to discover the answer to a lingering mystery on their own, albeit in theory form. In other words, the game did not explicitly say that Widmore faked the plane crash, but fans were able to deduct such a hypothesis from the clues of the game and previous episodes. One blogger posted his/her train of thought in arriving at this conclusion:

First, from an earlier stage, we learned that The Maxwell Group is a subsidiary of Widmore Industries. Second, we know that whatever ship Naomi came from is not Penny's boat. Also, Naomi was in possession of the picture of Desmond and Penny. Using these pieces of evidence, I am capable of coming to only one conclusion. Charles Widmore, the only other person in the world other than Penny or Desmond capable of possessing that photo, staged the fake plane in the bottom of the ocean for the purpose of ending Sam Thomas' and any other concerned party's search for Oceanic 815…There is only one Oceanic 815. This is all just a result of a conspiracy. That seems plainly evident to me, thanks to the knowledge that Sam was practically forced to go to those coordinates by The Maxwell Group.[13] (my emphasis)

It is unclear whether the game designers intended for fans to discover the Widmore conspiracy on their own. But many fans were able to use their collective intelligence to solve a lingering question from season 3. Specifically, fans who played Find 815 could hypothesize why Naomi, a women who landed on the island from the outside world, knew that the 815 plane wreckage and passenger bodies were already found. The answer—that Widmore faked the plane crash—was not explained on the television show until well into season 4. Yet the hard-core fans who had played Find 815 were not surprised by this twist.

The first scene of season 4 picked up where Find 815 left off as viewers saw the Christiane 1 hover over the wreckage of Oceanic Flight 815. Many implied mysteries were raised in this scene: What was the ship doing in this area? Where and how did they find the wreckage? Why didn’t the Christiane 1 try to recover the bodies? All of these mysteries, though probably not a major to concern to casual fans, were answered in Find 815. Furthermore, a news story explicitly mentions the Christiane 1 on television. Fans seemed to be happy with the validation:

I don't know about anyone else, but I thought it was really cool having played this whole game, hearing them mention the Christiane I in tonight's episode, and then seeing these clues pop up in the show. It really makes the whole thing worth it, even if it was a little tangential.[14]

This suggests that even an unsatisfactory extension can be deemed valuable if it is validated in some way. Fans want to feel like their actions matter, not like their being duped into a marketing scheme. This was important because Find 815 had serious game play problems. Many of Find 815’s clues were too easy and involved simple tasks. As one fan posted on Unfiction.com:

So far there hasn't been anything more complicated than a pictorial scavenger hunt with a flashlight- I'm kind of thinking we're due though. The last TLE game involved ASCII decryptions and stenography and all kinds of cool code breaking challenges- I'm looking for something more complex in the billboards as well and even if the phone message turns out to be nothing, I sure hope the organizers didn't "dumb down" the game since the last TLE experiment!!![15]

Unfortunately, after the precedent set by TLE, many fans were dissatisfied with Find 815’s linear game play and underwhelming challenges. Rather than piecing together videos through activities like ‘the glyph hunt,’ much of Find 815 involved clicking on random objects to unlock additional videos. In addition, Find 815 used far less threshold crossing than The Lost Experience. One fan posted at Unfiction.com:

There is no "alternate" in this reality - at no point in the game is the player made to wonder whether any of this is real, or caused to suspend his disbelief. Much to the contrary - a player is able to check his progress in the game. Sam either stays on the boat or doesn't based on the player's completing a flash puzzle. That does not happen in real life, and there is nothing "alternate" about it…You click, get a green square in the progress bar, and are notified as to how many hours are left until the next clue release.[16]

For many fans, the game play of Find 815 felt too linear and constricted. Yet I would argue the major lesson to take away from Find 815 is how it framed its narrative pay-off. The game gave hard-core fans the necessary information to construct the theory that Widmore faked the plane crash. This caused massive debate, as fans attempted to weigh the evidence in support of or against this theory.  Facilitating ‘informed guesses’ in a transmedia extension effectively does two things. First, it enables hard-core fans to use their collective intelligence not just to find the answers, but also to theorize and debate the answers. This engages a community and adds a game-like quality to seeing who was right and who was wrong when the television show airs. Also, because the conspiracy theory was still a theory, hard-core fans could not spoil the information to casual fans with any merit.  Thus, the revelation from Find 815 was essentially an “unconfirmed spoiler.”

There may be an additional pleasure for hard-core fans in discovering a narrative pay-off without knowing exactly how it relates to the core narrative, and then watching the show to see how it is validated. Validations call attention to the process of narration, as they deliberately bring the transmedia story’s constructedness to the forefront. It is what Jason Mittell calls the “operational aesthetic” in which viewers take pleasure in the question “How did the writer’s do that?” in addition to “What will happen next?”[17] If a transmedia extension is canon (and that is a big ‘if’), then hard-core fans can wonder not whether the narrative pay-off will be validated, but how it will be validated. They can enjoy observing how the transmedia “machine” operates, how the producers tie together plot lines from a range of media and form a unified whole, all while casual fans focus solely on the television show’s core narrative. Validations have potential to be admired as an innovative technique that allow producers to quietly embrace hard-core fans.

In the most recent ARG, between season 4 and 5 of Lost, an unknown source attempted to re-launch the Dharma Initiative in what was simply known as “The Project. The game began with a commercial advertisement for “Octagon Global Recruiting,” a volunteer recruiting organization for the Dharma Initiative. Participants logged into the website and took a series of tests. At the conclusion of the game, players were given a job from the Dharma Initiative based on their score.

The Project combined poor game play and little narrative pay-off. In one of the few implied mysteries addressed, a video at Comic Con revealed that Pierre Chang, the Dharma scientist who hosts ‘Orientation films,’ was “a professor of theoretical astrophysics” and that he was brought to the island to study the Kerr Metric solutions to Einstein's Field Equations.[18] In the video, Chang explains that he is speaking 30 years in the past and that the Dharma initiative must continue its work in the present time. This mystery was never fleshed out however. After the financial crisis, an e-mail explained that the Dharma Initiative had been sold to Lost. One fan vented on Lostpedia’s forum:

If it is the end of the ARG, and I think it is, that email was just a huge slap in the face to all of us…we spent the whole summer pouring over everything for nothing, nothing was revealed, we didn't get any new knowledge from the ARG about LOST, and we've all just pretty much wasted our time for it to be ended in an email so uncharacteristic of the rest of the game. It's a bunch of bullpoop![19]

This lack of narrative pay-off was only one of the problems plaguing the Project. Fans complained there were technical issues, uninteresting game play, and a lack of a storyline:[20]

The 'no storyline' is the biggest problem, I mean, I haven't the slightest idea about what I could have learned about Lost or the [Dharma Initiative.] (the only thing I've learned so far is how to solve a tangram very quickly and I don't thing that's the intention of this ARG).[21]

Whereas The Lost Experience offered a compelling, community building experience, and Find 815 successfully provided a valuable yet non-required narrative pay-off, The Dharma Project achieved neither. Ultimately, the game seemed to be more like something-to-do for casual fans who went on the Internet rather than a distinct addition to the Lost universe. Damon Lindelof told Lostpedia:
Essentially the whole idea was to…strongly imply that our characters were going to appear in Dharma times. So that would be something that would be sort of set up in the Internet experience…These events are sort of partially canon but more promotional than they are canon. Giving the audience a sneak peak as to what the season is about.[22]

The Project had similar goals as Find 815—to foreshadow future events in the show—but because the game ended early, it is impossible to evaluate as a complete transmedia extension. Nevertheless, after The Lost Experience provided answers to crucial mysteries, it seemed the producers were hesitant to provide any significant narrative information that might upset traditional television viewer.[23] Their solution, like most of television, was to frame all narrative content outside the television show as non-canonical. Yet I have argued that a better solution to balancing hard-core and casual fans is not to write off transmedia extensions as promotional, but to focus on how they can be original and optional at the same time.

[1] Carlton Cuse explained that “there were certain stories that [we] were interested in telling that don’t exactly fit into the televisions show.” In Miller, Lia.  “To Counter the Doldrums During Summer Reruns, ‘Lost’ Fans Can Get Lost in a Game Online.” The New York Times.

[2] Lachonis, Jon. “BuddyTV Interviews LOST's Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse - and gets Answers!” BuddyTV.com. 7 March 2007. <http://www.buddytv.com/articles/lost/buddytv-interviews-losts-damon-4766.aspx>
[3] “The Lost Experience.” Lostpedia. <http://lostpedia.wikia.com/wiki/The_Lost_Experience>
[4] “The Lost Experience Clues: Clue #42 – Jimmy Kimmel Interview with Hugh McIntyre.” Lost Experience Clues Blog. 25 May 2006. <http://thelostexperienceclues.blogspot.com/2006/05/clue-42-jimmy-kimmel-interview-with.html>
[5] “The Fictional Institutions of Lost.” Reading Lost.
[6] Blake’s video revealed that the mysterious recurring number sequence was a series of variables in the Valenzetti Equation, an equation that calculated the time remaining until the human race destroys itself. The purpose of the Dharma Initiative was to somehow change one of those variables and save the world from destruction.
[7] Lostpedia. <http://lostpedia.wikia.com/wiki/Canon>
[8] Johnston, Amy and Lachonis, Jon. Lost Ate My Life: The Inside Story of a Fandom Like No Other. Toronto: ECW Press, 2008.
[9] Askwith, Ivan. Deconstructing the Lost Experience. Cambridge, MA: Convergence Culture Consortium, 2006.
[10] Ibid., 24.
[11] Mittell, Jason. “Lost in an Alternate Reality.” Flow TV 4.7 (2006) <http://flowtv.org/?p=165>
[12] Ibid.
[13] Post by HipsterDoofus. Dark UFO. 31 January 2008. <http://find815.blogspot.com/>
[14] Post by Clue Hunt. Dark UFO. 8 February 2008. <http://find815.blogspot.com/>
[15] Post by Nelbot. Unfiction. 3 January 2008. <http://forums.unfiction.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=22925&start=315>
[16] Post by yanka. Unfiction. 9 January 2008. <http://forums.unfiction.com/forums/viewtopic.php?p=455936#455936>
[17] Mittell, Jason. “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television." The Velvet Light Trap. 58 (2006): 29-39
[18] “Pierre Chang.” Lostpedia. <http://lostpedia.wikia.com/wiki/Chang>
[19] Post by YouAreEverybody21. Lostpedia Forums. 19 November 2008. < http://forum.lostpedia.com/so-arg-nothing-t20486p2.html?t=20486&page=2>
[20] Ibid.
[21] Post by Ms. O’s. Dark UFO. 9 October 2008. <http://lostoctagonglobalrecruiting.blogspot.com/2008/10/whats-biggest-problem-you-have-with-arg.html#comments>
[22] Interview with TheAma1. Lostpedia. 17 April 2009.
<http://lostpedia.wikia.com/wiki/The_Lostpedia_Interview:Carlton_Cuse_%26_Damon_Lindelof>
[23] Askwith, Ivan. TV 2.0: Reconceptualizing Television.

Posted by Aaron Smith on July 5, 2009
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