by Joe Skrebels
I don’t know about you, but I sure love an ARG. Hoo boy, yes – concealing information about the latest and greatest multimedia franchise in website source code, releasing digital static that can be spectrographically descrambled into an image, or just plain hiding USB sticks on buses. Suddenly, every man and his laptop becomes a beleaguered Thomas Pynchon character, seeing conspiracy in every misspelled corporate tweet, ready to believe whatever they can.
I guess companies see it as a nifty, cost-effective way to leverage a soon-to-be-paying audience – the deeper the mystery goes, the more free advertising you get. Every new Reddit post frees up a budget that unscrupulous business types can then lavish on honking great ziggurats of meow-meow (I don’t really know what rich people do with drugs).
I guess my cynicism stems mainly from that term, ARG – “alternate reality game”. While the fiction is that some sliver of your favourite series – be that Half-Life, or the tortured mind of Trent Reznor, or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – has somehow slipped into our world, the beige truth is that some dude in San Francisco wearing boat shoes has been given a list of cryptic clues to write into a Wordpress template.
Which is probably why I’m enjoying the Halo 5: Guardians ARG quite so much.
Well, just one bit of it, really. There are the requisite hidden star charts, and an interactive trailer, and I’m sure time will tell that 343 Industries has paid to rename the Moon or something – but this is not what I’m enjoying. I’m enjoying Hunt the Truth, a weekly podcast series presented, bafflingly, by Keegan-Michael Key (of Key & Peele fame), in character as a journalist whose only other appearance was in a nondescript short story from The Halo Graphic Novel. It concerns an investigation into Master Chief’s origins, from his pre-super soldier childhood on a galactically remote colony world, right up until the unspecified betrayal that seems to be taking shape as the catalyst for the new game’s storyline.
It’s pure fan-service, something I’m not personally interested in – Halo, for me, is an exercise in shooting things while I leap slowly over them, like a furious astronaut. What draws me in is that it’s clearly, explicitly, brashly a rip-off of Serial. The hyper-successful true crime podcast became last year’s pop cultural dynamite, blowing open the doors to a new artistic medium while simultaneously making everyone a bit confused as to whether they should be enjoying the aftermath of a teenager’s death quite so much.
It also came with a very particular style, a mix of rigorous journalism and over-familiar chatter, as if you were listening to a hardboiled P.I. who also happened to be your favourite auntie. Hunt the Truth nabs this wholesale – Key’s Benjamin Giraud is deeply concerned with discovering the ‘real’ Master Chief, but he’s never too serious not to chuckle away disarmingly at his interviewees’ jokes.
It’s faintly incredible how deep the homage goes. Little details - a sparse piano theme tune, carefully placed cliffhanger endings, or the way Serial’s host, Sarah Koenig would introduce an interviewee over the sound of their voice - are replicated perfectly. I might be slipping into my own kind of conspiracy theory here, but I’m positive Key has practiced hesitating audibly and theatrically before important sentences in the way Koenig does. It’s occasionally too odd for its own good – hearing someone talk about the emotional impact of having their planet glassed by the Covenant is weirdly funny – but it’s impressive, too. You can feel that it’s a labour of love. In some freakish way, it’s Serial fan-fic.
I’m not sure it will contribute all that much to Halo 5’s wider ARG. I’m sure time-laden geniuses will piece together some hints as to what might come out of Guardians’ campaign mode, but it’s a little too straightforward a prospect for truly deep reading. Judging by the muted response to the campaign so far, it seems those geniuses aren’t that keen, either – Halo 2 got a better response by sending unsolicited jars of honey to people’s houses, for god’s sake, and I’m not entirely sure that isn’t a crime in some places.
But it’s a better ARG than anything we’ve seen in recent years. It isn’t pretending that we believe Soundcloud has obtained a broadcast from 500-odd years hence, it’s transplanting something many, many people know and love into somewhere it has no right being. The alternate reality here isn’t that Halo has fallen into our world – it’s that ours has somehow permeated Halo’s.
I don’t care about the complex politics of a religion comprising multiple races, or the biotechnological implications of making a man with biceps the size of Labradors – but, for some reason, the familiarity of Serial’s troublingly personal reportage is making me empathise with the plight of a wise old teacher notionally born many generations after my crushingly inevitable death. It's an alternate reality I can get involved with.