Gaming has become a very popular pastime in our modern society. Whether you play MMOs on a regular basis, or occasionally play a Call of Duty game as stress relief, or perhaps even play games for a living via YouTube or Twitch, gaming is a very universal medium. Games can bring us together in ways no other media can. But one thing that is pretty much the case for all games, is that the content of the game does not spill over into real life. What if a horror game’s story and gameplay started to go beyond the boundaries of the screen and come into real life? That is exactly what the developers at Night School Studio did with their popular horror game, Oxenfree.
Oxenfree is a game about a few teenagers going on a trip to an abandoned island. As they soon figure out, the island is haunted, and the main character Alex makes use of a portable radio to communicate with spirits and figure out the island’s many mysteries. So far it sounds like a fairly standard horror game affair. Where things become interesting though, is when you interact with one of the hidden cairns in the game. If you tune your radio into the right frequency, a weird message will play, preceded by a number and a letter. This is where the game’s ARG, its Alternate Reality Game, starts.
The Hunt Begins
You see, some clever people online posted on Reddit and similar forums that they suspected those messages might have a deeper meaning. After a bit of experimentation, it was revealed that the numbers preceding the messages formed a phone number when put together correctly. Calling this number resulted in an automated message playing in morse code that told players “GOOD WORK DL BB LISTEN CLOSE”. This moment kicked off the ARG in earnest. Oxenfree’s Twitter account started tweeting out a lot of cryptic and weird tweets. More and more players caught on to the ongoing treasure hunt and started looking into the tweets. It was determined that the account always tweeted at three different times of the day, each corresponding to a different entity from the game.
MILNER IS WARD
Skipping ahead a bit towards the end, it was eventually made clear that the object of the ARG was to retrieve a hidden object somewhere in the real world. Through solving the developers’ many puzzles, using many encoding techniques from Octal to Substitution Cyphers, players were presented with the message “MILNER IS WARD”. This told people to go to Fort Milner on Bainbridge Island in Washington, America. Players had previously been told by the Oxenfree Twitter account that “You will know when it’s time to go”. Soon after the players figured out the location of the object, the developers tweeted out the message “It is (almost) time to go. Select a date and gather your party.” Players selected June 11th 2016 as their exploration date, and this was communicated to the developers.
June 11th came and a party of players took a ferry to Bainbridge Island and started their search of the island. With some more clues from the developers’ own website, the crew was lead to Battery Thornburgh. Here they discovered the treasure, a small music box with music from Oxenfree’s official sounds track, and a bunch of letters written by the main character Alex. Videos were uploaded on Reddit and YouTube so players that couldn’t attend the search could see what the group had uncovered. And thus ended the massive treasure hunt of Oxenfree.
Smells Like Team Spirit
Now, why did I choose to talk about this? Because, while I hadn’t heard of any of this until I discovered the game more recently, I found reading about this entire experience absolutely fascinating. It’s so incredibly inspiring and amazing to read about the meticulous care and effort on both the developers’ part for making the ARG and managing it and the players’ part for coming together and solving it. Not to mention it was fascinating to see this puzzle jump out from the game, onto Twitter, Discord, Bandcamp and a bunch of other platforms. It was beautiful to see such a massive community of diverse people come together and help each other to solve this big mystery. It has inspired me to one day make something like this myself with a few friends. If and when I do, you’ll all be most welcome to play along!
If you want to read about the entire ARG of Oxenfree and perhaps even try to solve some of the puzzles yourself, you can find the game in the link at the top of the article, and an article detailing the entire ARG right here!