Game Design Analysis - The Lemniscate A-set ARG

- Game Design, Video Games

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Alternate reality games (ARGs) are interesting to review. Half marketing, half entertainment, and 100% live, their very nature makes them hard to experience if you miss them. In the case of the Lemniscate A-set ARG however, almost all of the content is still available today. As I took part in it from the very beginning, and as it has been extremely overlooked, I wanted to shed some light on it and see this ARG's strengths and weaknesses, while allowing you to experience it, if you so desire.

The events of the ARG were meticulously documented to a fault in the AI: The Somnium Files Wiki, for those curious. I'll be summarizing the major events below, along with my analysis.

As ARGs are designed to be played live, I think a chronological approach is necessary to properly analyze them.

Context

It's impossible to talk about the Lemniscate A-set ARG without talking about the mastermind behind it, Kotaro Uchikoshi. With humble beginnings in the video game industry working on art assets for the infamous yet surprisingly entertaining Pepsiman, and writing for niche visual novels such as Ever 17: The Out of Infinity, his first major breakthrough was his work as the game director of Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, which became the first entry in the Zero Escape franchise. This puzzle-thriller game telling the deadly story of kidnapped people in a sinking ship marked the imagination of players thanks to a heavy dose of science and pseudo-science mixed in together, smart puzzles, a surprisingly deep plot full of twists and turns, playing around with video game tropes to surprise players, and a subtle yet powerful integration of its gameplay and story through the Nintendo DS hardware.

Uchikoshi completed three Zero Escape games in total, the third being almost canceled due to the lack of sales for the franchise in Japan despite international success, and saved thanks to fan support. During that period, he also worked on one scenario for the game Steins;Gate: Linear Bounded Phenogram, and on the extremely silly Punch Line anime and video game adaptation.

After his initial success, Uchikoshi started to attend the Games Developer Conference (GDC) in the United States of America, both to discuss his designs and to tease new projects. His trips were accompagnied by the loss of his cell phone twice, and their unexpected recovery.

Immediately before the ARG started, Uchikoshi was busy working on two projects. The first was the recently-announced Spike Chunsoft game AI: The Somnium Files, a modern-day noir detective game featuring a protagonist using his prosthetic eye to investigate suspects' dreams for clues. The second was the creation of a new venture called Too Kyo Games along with the creator of Danganrompa and two other Spike Chunsoft ex-employees. Despite the apparent conflict of interest, Uchikoshi made it clear to fans on Twitter that he was working full-time on both projects, and that it was his way to work around Japanese labor laws to enable him to do so.

The hook

Uchikoshi suddenly announced on Twitter a new project he was working on, in collaboration with Spike Chunsoft. With fans pondering how that was even possible, he revealed the following week that said project would by producing a new Internet idol called Iris Sagan, with a link to her YouTube channel for which she would release new videos weekly, and promoting her Twitter account.

It quickly became apparent to fans that Iris Sagan was an animatronic virtual idol, and a character in AI: The Somnium Files. What fans didn't expect was that she was an enthusiastic happy-go-lucky girl calling herself Tesa and A-set simultaneously, singing J-pop for several minutes in a music video called Invincible Rainbow Arrow while wearing fake cat ears.

In my opinion, this hook was the biggest issue with the ARG. The atmosphere generated by A-set threw off many fans used to the dark atmosphere of Uchikoshi's previously-popular works, and going in a completely different direction than the rest of the marketing material published for AI: The Somnium files so far. This caused many people to dismiss the ARG completely before it started proper, which is a shame, especially considering the dark plot twists to come that those people would have appreciated.

It's worth noting at this point that this is for the English version of the ARG. The Japanese version of the ARG had a separate YouTube channel and Twitter account, while the Chinese version of the ARG shared the Japanese YouTube channel with Chinese subtitles, but used a Weibo account to interact with fans instead of Twitter. I will in general not be covering them due to the language barrier.

The brand new star of the net world

The first few videos published showcased A-set presenting her relatives, friends and neighborhood, while talking about her hobbies, with a heavy focus on Egyptian mythology and conspiracy theories. The videos also contained references to previous Spike Chunsoft titles.

One important element introduced during those early videos is A-set's perverted friend Ota. Fans realized that Ota also had a Twitter account constantly praising her as a goddess.

It's also worth noting that Uchikoshi claimed that A-set was a real woman in multiple comments and interviews, despite the obvious to the contrary. To emphasize this point, GameSpot even published an interview featuring A-set.

This introduction successfully put the seeds of the events to come, and make A-set a likable character, while introducing some of the concepts and locations of AI: The Somnium Files. The references to previous games was certainly nice to Spike Chunsoft fans, but would probably cause others to just be wondering what the fuzz is all about and lose interest. Then again, the ARG hook was mainly promoted to Uchikoshi and Spike Chunsoft fans, so that might not have been considered an issue.

At some point, A-set introduces a conspiracy called Naixatloz, a group of wealthy and powerful individuals involved in satanic rituals. Every time she talks about them, the video starts to glitch out, gets edited to twist her words, and show nonsensical camera shots. This is also when hidden messages started appearing in the videos. Meanwhile, on Twitter, A-set claimed that she couldn't see any issues with her videos, despite an agitated Ota. This introduction of a "barrier" for A-set would turn out to be a wise move, both to move the narrative forward, and for later plot twists.

One bizarre aspect that happened during this period though was fans finding a Japanese website for a consulting firm called NAIXATLOZ. The website itself was polished, but was also extremely basic and lacked focus, which made a lot of people suspect that it was fake and connected to the ARG. This was eventually debunked by Uchikoshi himself.

She gets abducted or something

Immediately after announcing that she would do a special GDC report, A-set's video abruptly ended after mentioning Naixatloz again. The video released on the following week was a still shot of A-set's apartment, with the video skipping only to show a picture that moved in the background. Then, the following week, A-set was shown unconscious with her left eye missing, attached to a giant machine equipped with a saw blade, followed by a man in a polar bear costume activating said machine, apparently sawing her in half.

During that period, Ota and Uchikoshi's Twitter accounts showed signs of panic of her disappearance, seemingly attempting to locate the crime scene location, and posting photos/videos of their progress, only to find no trace of the crime beyond the existence of the machine at a cold storage warehouse. The latter was the first obvious sign of interactivity between fans and characters, since they had to solve a puzzle in the cryptic videos to help Ota.

The following video was A-set showcasing her GDC report after coming back from San Francisco, with video footage as evidence. Meanwhile, Uchikoshi claimed that the footage where he is seen losing his cell phone again was not him, and Ota claimed that A-set was back home in one piece as if nothing strange happened.

This video and the following videos contained a few smart and subtle abnormalities to help fans determine that something fishy was up. First, the intro and outro subtly changed. Second, the color of the subtitles slightly differed. Third, the themes of her videos seemed to focus on different topics altogether, with grainy footage whenever she is showcasing new characters. Even the Twitter account started to behave differently, posting ASCII-based emojis instead of Unicode, and posting lyrics of various progressive metal songs only to delete them minutes later. This eventually ended with A-set revealing a nightmarish vision of her subconscious and her true nature, calling the whole thing "pathetic".

And then, A-set announced on Twitter that she came back from GDC! And she seemed to behave normally again. And Ota was very confused.

Around this point, another Twitter account emerged claiming to be the fake A-set, although it was quickly determined to be a troll account. Funnily enough, the reason they stopped their charade was, according to them, because they were unable to predict the plot twists accurately enough, a testament of the quality of the ARG's writing.

This was in my opinion the strongest point of the ARG. Genuine confusion about what is going on, conspiracy theories abound, and a bit of player interactivity. The only obvious issue was the deleted messages, since they excluded most fans except the most hardcore ones due to their ephemeral nature.

Worlds collide

A-set did a few filler videos at that point. Interestingly, one of them was a Let's Play with different regional content. The Japanese version of A-set played Crypt of the NecroDancer, while the English version played Zanki Zero: Last Beginning, to promote these games in the corresponding regions.

In a strange twist of user interaction, I believe it's around that point where fan art of cross-dressing Ota started being sent around on Twitter by jokesters, and being acknowledged by him. I believe this happened because his character was so perverted that it became a joke in itself, but the fact that it was embraced by the people running the ARG is a bold move that appears to have paid off.

Eventually, A-set did another Let's Play, this time of AI: The Somnium Files - the very game the ARG was promoting. While playing the game, A-set was seemingly unaware of the connection with her, being constantly surprised whenever a location or person she knows was featured. The Let's Play ended with a bang, with the game's protagonist rushing to the crime scene - the same location that Ota investigated in the "real" world a month prior, only to find A-set dead, the man in the polar bear costume cut in half by the infamous saw blade machine, and the revelation that the man in the costume is Ota. While this was a strong point in the ARG, this plot point was barely mentioned afterwards, which was a disappointment.

That said, this lead to interesting discussions on Twitter, with voice actors joining in the gossip, talking to their own characters. A-set also started talking to what appeared to be the fake A-set from the first GDC report, answering to the aforementioned troll account in a FAQ video, commenting on the cross-dressing Ota fan art, and eventually having a phone conversation with her own Japanese counterpart, where they even mention the difference in the number of YouTube subscribers.

With fans having more and more trouble trying to determine what is ARG canon, and characters asking them what they mean by that in the first place, A-set suddenly posted on Twitter that she found a Discord server about her and included a link - the very Discord server where fans were monitoring and discussing the ARG. A-set and Ota soon joined the server to have a casual discussion with fans. Needless to say, chaos ensued.

The saga ended soon afterwards, with A-set mentioning that her time was almost up for some mysterious reason. A fitting conclusion that complements very well the events of the still-unreleased AI: The Somnium Files. It was probably the right move by the developers, given that the ARG story was in a standstill, and given the relatively low audience despite running for months.

Aftermath

In total, 24 English YouTube videos were produced, including a hidden one, prior to the release of AI: The Somnium Files. In my opinion, they did their job to hype the release of the game, although I can't help but wonder if the hype reached the correct demographic, given that there were less than 5000 subscribers to both YouTube channels combined prior to the end of the ARG, and that those people would have probably bought the game regardless. YouTube's discovery algorithms definitely did not help on this regard, as watching an A-set video would cause YouTube to recommend videos intended for very young children - definitely the wrong target audience.

It is also disappointing that the game does not even acknowledge the existence of the YouTube channels, as the videos are, in my opinion, superior to the game it promoted. Indeed, most major plot points in the ARG turned out to be minor or insignificant details in the main game if at all, while major plot points in the main game were easily predictable, at least to me, despite the ARG not spoiling anything on this regard. As such, the integration between the two is lacking at best, despite showcasing the same characters and locations, making it feel more like two completely independent products instead of making them greater than the sum of their parts.

Also, the fact that most of the locations and characters were introduced in the ARG caused the main game to feel shallow in content on this regard. Playing a detective game in which you're not interested in investigating anything because everything is already familiar to you is kind of a problem. This could have been a great opportunity to lull the player into a false sense of security in order to betray their expectations, but that barely occurred.

This makes me wonder what was Spike Chunsoft's goal with this ARG, as it appeared to lack focus. From a marketing point of view, the only thing the ARG appears to have been successful at is to band a group of hardcore fans together. I personally highly doubt this helped create a significant number of sales for the game, although this is always hard to quantify, and there is still future opportunities to use said group as ambassadors for future marketing efforts.

I can only go into speculation at this point, but I believe that the marketing team was only given the mandate of creating weekly videos and maintaining a social media presence until the game's originally-planned release date in order to create hype. The team probably had as a secondary goal to see if they could make the YouTube channel viable by itself. It appears that the team decided to mostly improvise instead of following some kind of loose direction, which caused it to be successful at surprising their audience by doing so, but by causing the story to become a spin-off that does not add any value to the main game, or vice-versa.

Two post-release YouTube videos were also published promoting AI: The Somnium Files, which unfortunately don't feel cohesive in the context of the ARG. The last one is extremely painful to listen to, due to dialog lines not fitting properly between A-set and Ota, most likely due to localization issues. Unfortunately, while the number of subscribers raised, it was not by a significant amount, which probably killed the channel again.

Still, the fact remains that the main part of the ARG, the YouTube videos, are likely to be up for a really long time, allowing people late to the party to still join the fun as they are self-contained. Even though there has never been a big reward for the ARG beyond the self-satisfaction of finding and decoding the few cryptic messages hidden throughout the series, the experience itself is, in my opinion, worth the journey.

As of this writing, A-set and Ota still lives on through their Twitter accounts, which are still active with new posts added regularly.

Post image: © 2019 Spike Chunsoft