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Review: Alternate reality games think outside the box

By Marc Saltzman
Gannett News Service

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"Perplex City" is a trading card-based ARG that has recently become popular in the U.S. and Europe.

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The latest gaming craze doesn't require a joystick, console or even a television.

Instead, you embark on real-world scavenger hunts in search of clues; decipher cryptic puzzles buried on fictitious Web sites, or call phone numbers to hear pre-recorded messages.

Called "alternate reality games," or "ARGs," these multimedia adventures blur the lines between fiction and reality. Unlike traditional video games, ARGs let you experience a game that goes well beyond the four corners of a TV screen.

Many ARGs also encourage collaborative work between players -- online or in person -- in order to unravel a mystery and solve the game.

In May, "The Lost Experience" debuted from the makers of the hit ABC TV show "Lost." The ARG focused on a fictitious company referred to in the series, The Hanso Foundation. Some well-kept mysteries behind the show's plot were revealed for those who solved the game with the help of cryptic TV ads, telephone numbers to call, e-mail, video clips and Easter eggs hidden on Web sites.

The following are two other ARGs gamers are talking about:

'Perplex City'

More than two-and-a-half years in the making, "Perplex City" is a trading card-based ARG that has recently become popular in the U.S. and throughout parts of Europe.

The story involves a thriving alien civilization that attributes much of its success to an ancient artifact called the Receda Cube. But the Receda Cube is stolen from the Perplex City Academy and somehow smuggled to Earth. The master of the academy assembles a retrieval team on Earth to find it and solve the mystery of why it was taken and how it ended up here. This is where you come in.

To get going, you first purchase a pack of "Perplex City" cards sold in silver foil packs of six for $4.99 (or $29.99 for a starter kit, which includes a magazine, two packs of cards, a music CD and a card organizing binder).

The ARG includes 256 cards in total, each containing a point value and various types of puzzles that range from cryptograms and number challenges to pop culture trivia and 3-D mazes.

After scratching off the UID code on the cards, you can also log onto www.perplexcity.com to engage in the many Internet puzzles, clues, downloadable podcasts and community challenges.

Some events take place offline, too. The largest live ARG get-together is taking place August 12 in San Francisco with more than 1,000 "Perplex City" players.

The first person to unravel this intergalactic mystery and locate the hidden Receda Cube will win a prize of $200,000.

'Edoc Laundry'

"Edoc Laundry" is a clothes company that decided to create a murder mystery-based ARG of the same name.

The story revolves around the manager of the musical group, "Poor Richard," who has been murdered, and the female lead singer is the key suspect. She is hiding somewhere in the world and decides to communicate her innocence through clothes by giving you hints to evidence that can clear her name.

For example, a T-shirt may show an electric guitar with letters assigned to each string, such as I, D, I, U, O, T. But when you decipher this letter puzzle with information provided elsewhere on the shirt, it ends up spelling the word "facade."

Type this word into the www.edoclaundry.com Web site and a video will start playing that gives some information about the story. Collect all movie clips, rearrange them in correct order, and you'll learn even more about this mystery.

New "Edoc Laundry" clothes are introduced every season. The fall-winter line of clothing includes jackets, hoodies, sweatshirts, turtleneck sweaters, long-sleeve tees, polos and caps. Prices for the garments range from $5 to $55. The game itself is free to play.

Oh, in case you haven't figured it out, "edoc" is "code" spelled backward.

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