The coolest thing I’ve been involved with of late is Last Call Poker.
If you look at the site, you’ll find that it seems to be a place to play online poker. When you register to play, you’ll be asked to provide the day of your death.
You’ve got to be dead to play Last Call Poker. That’s sort of creepy, but that’s just the beginning.
Once you start poking around the site, you’ll find that the man who founded the site is dead, and that his son was murdered. Other murders seem to be connected to the first. Clearly there’s something going on here.
Last Call Poker is an example of a new type of online game called an Alternate Reality Game, or ARG.
For the player, the Alternate Reality Game has no boundaries. Federal Express may deliver you jars of honey that contain opaque messages from aliens. The phone may ring, and a character caught in a burning building may demand your help. Players— total strangers— may be called to graveyards throughout North America, or to Regent’s Park, or to Times Square, for the purpose of aiding each other in the solution of mysteries, the breaking of codes, or the confrontation of enemies.
Occult information is encrypted on thousands of innocent-looking web pages. The home page of a beekeeper may decode to warnings of an interplanetary invasion. Source code can hide secret instructions, or a radio frequency over which you can communicate with the dead.
You can be standing in a parking lot, or a shopping center. A pay phone near you will ring, and on the other end will be someone demanding information.
ARGs combine video, text adventure, radio plays, audio, animation, improvisational theater, graphics, and story into an immersive experience. The game doesn’t just happen online: players are sent out into the real world to meet one another and complete tasks. Players have traveled thousands of miles to follow clues to their source.
Unlike many video games, where players are encouraged to use cutthroat tactics against one another in search of victory, ARGs encourage cooperative play and the formation of ad hoc ommunities. No one player can possibly have all the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in the game, and players are required to combine their talents and share information. The ARG is all about the creation of community through a shared experience. The games attract a somewhat older audience than video games, more or less evenly divided between men and women, and with better social skills.
The games are dedicated to the proposition that there is a secret truth hidden behind the structure of reality, and that with the proper expertise, a certain elan, and minute attention to detail, that truth can be found.
And in the case of Last Call Poker, you not only got all the goodies mentioned above, but a really cool, state-of-the-art poker site as well. In fact a good many people came (and still come) to the site to play poker, and never paid attention to the elaborate mystery that was being enacted around them.
Though you can still play poker on the site, Last Call Poker, the ARG, is no longer active. If you check the site you can reconstruct much of the experience through the mass of archived video, audio files, text, and graphics.
I was a member of the writing team for Last Call Poker. I had been wanting to be a part of one of these adventures ever since I got to watch all the fun that Maureen McHugh was having writing the seminal ARG ilovebees. (She may tell you that it wasn’t fun. I can only report that this wasn’t what I saw.)
Maureen wrangled the Last Call Poker writing team, which also included writer and game designer Jim Cambias, Floating far overhead, like an angel bearing the ominous token of a flaming sword, was Sean Stewart, who wrote some and revised a lot and cajoled a great deal and sent out cryptic warnings that (because I generally had no idea what he was talking about) tended to fall on deaf (or at least bemused) ears and otherwise flew about the planet on many mysterious errands far beyond the ken of mortal men.. We were all working for 4orty 2wo Entertainment, the company that defines the state of the art in Alternate Reality Games.
One of the challenging aspects of Last Call Poker was that it was intended as a viral marketing campaign for an entirely different game, Activision’s GUN. Since ARGs are state-of-the-art 21st Century multimedia artifacts, and GUN is a game of the old West wherein the most advanced technology available to the player is the Smith & Wesson Model 3, there was an inherent tension between the subject matter and the technology available to present it to the viewer.
So, before I was ever involved with the project, the decision was made that Last Call Poker would involve a mystery that stretched back in time. I suspect this is why I was brought into the project. In addition to being a science fiction writer, I happen to know a lot about history. (To anyone who know SF writers, this is for the most part a redundant description.)
Another important decision that was taken early on was that there would be a poker site, and that players would be able to play poker with characters from the game. (Why poker? Because poker is cool. Cool, in the ARG context, is an absolute good.)
I have absolutely no idea who came up with this inspired idea, I just know it wasn’t me.
As well as a story line taking part in the present day, the game would flash back to five periods in the past, each of which would involve a separate but related adventure or mystery. I believe I was the person suggested that the story involve six (or eight or nine or some other convenient number) identical 1851 Navy Colts, which together held the secret to a great fortune, which I suggested should be the missing Treasury of the Confederate States. (Why Navy Colts? Cuz they’re the coolest. Why the Confederate Treasury? Cuz it really went missing, at least according to some.)
We played with the idea of multiple pistols for a while, but sanity eventually intervened, and the number of Navy Colts was reduced to one.
We decided that the historical settings would be 1945 Germany (after the surrender), 1929 Chicago (with Al Capone’s mob), 1898 (with Theodore Roosevelt recruiting Rough Riders in Western border towns), 1876 (featuring both Billy the Kid and George Custer), and 1865 (with the origin of the mystery). Jim Cambias was assigned to write 1945 and 1929, and I the other historical scenarios. Maureen wrote most of the contemporary story. Sean wrote stuff here and there, pitching in as deadlines approached. He also wrote most of Lucky Brown’s wonderful dialogue, save that written by Maureen imitating Sean.
I was having trouble generating a story line for 1899 and the Rough Riders, and then I had an inspired thought. “How cool,” I asked Maureen, “would it be for participants to play poker with Pancho Villa?”
“It would be very cool,” said Maureen.
So 1898 was changed to 1914, and the Mexican Revolution. Which was wonderful, because in addition to Villa and George Patton it allowed me to introduce Ambrose Bierce as a character.
The first outline to be constructed was 1914, a collaboration between me and Jim Cambias, supervised by Maureen, so that we could learn the form. I then wrote most of the scenario, with Jim writing some sections while I was off teaching at Clarion. At the end there was over 20,000 words of material, making the scenario novella-length.
I next worked on the 1876 scenario, which I envisioned as a Western epic film, from the first crimes of Billy the Kid in New Mexico, to the Battle of Little Big Horn, to the death of Wild Bill Hickok. One figure would unite all these disparate elements, that of the historical Indian scout Frank Grouard.
If you google Grouard, you’ll find a web site that claims he was black, another that insists he was Hawaiian, others asserting he was part Indian, and others which claims that he was the half-Tahitian offspring of a Mormon missionary. The latter is probably true, but the essential point is that even Grouard’s own contemporaries didn’t know how to place him. There’s enough ambiguity in Grouard’s background to make him the ideal point-of-view character for a Walter Jon Williams epic.
What is known about Grouard is that he lived for six or seven years with the Indians, where he was variously known as Standing Bear or One-Who-Catches or The Grabber, that he was the adopted brother of Sitting Bull, and that after leaving the Sioux he scouted for the Army forces that were fighting the very Sioux with whom he’d been living.
At least one other scout claimed he was secretly working on behalf of the Sioux all along.
When I’d finished the 1876 scenario, it was a 25,000-word document that would have required text and documents spread across 23 different “cards” (LCP slang for web pages). There would have been photographs, music files, documents, circus posters, a radio play, a magic-lantern show, and maps. There were the battles of the Rosebud and the Little Big Horn. There was Billy the Kid’s first jailbreak at the age of 16, followed by a pursuit across the Black Range in New Mexico, a pursuit that ended in a blazing battle with Apaches. There were Western madams and lawmen and bad guys. There were sections from the point of view of Calamity Jane. (And let me assure you that, from the writer’s perspective, it’s hard to go wrong with Calamity Jane.)
I was particularly proud of the way I used music files, and I included a music puzzle in each scenario. In order to learn valuable information, players would have had to decode historical tunes like “Garryowen,” “Bonnie Blue Flag,” and the revolutionary corrido “Adelita.” They would have had to known that “Aura Lee” is a different song from “Love Me Tender,” even though they have the same melody.
It would have been cool.
It was also impossible. Not because the story wasn’t great, but because my scenario placed totally insane demands on the technical staff. There was no way they could get that many web pages, with all the accompanying documents, into the game with the lead time involved. Not even after I did a rewrite and cut the number of cards to 16.
By the time I wrote the 1865 scenario, I’d learned a lot. I resisted the temptation to tell stories from the point of view of Jeb Stuart or Jefferson Davis, and created only eight cards. Even so much of my story disappeared between the time it left my computer and the time it appeared on the site.
I’m not used to having large chunks of perfectly good writing sliced away like that— perhaps it would be different if I wrote more for Hollywood, where all the good stuff is almost automatically tossed away.
Nor am I used to having 1200 extremely well-chosen words— from the point of view of Pancho Villa, no less, the fruits of hours and hours of research— replaced by the flash animation found on this page. (Click on “A Parade”) Although in this case, I have to admit that the animation gets the point across better than my original.
I don’t particularly resent so much of my work never seeing the light of day. (Well. Not much.) This is a brand-new medium, and a collaborative one, and I didn’t understand enough about how things worked when I walked into it. In these sorts of situations, with deadlines putting everyone’s backs against the wall, decisions have to be made and things happen.
Still, the project inspired some of my best writing ever, and it saddens me that no one will ever see some of those scenes. The poignant scene where Rosita waits in her hotel room for her lover. Letters written by George Patton to his father, absolutely dead-on pastiches his prose style. Patton’s meeting with the Western lawman Dave Allison. Janet Seeley’s diaries, written in the simpering style of a proper Victorian lady but filled with the unexpressed anguish of a born codependent for the tragedy of her alcoholic father. Grouard at the Battle of the Rosebud (where, historically, he saved Crook’s army). Grouard’s complex, antagonistic relationship with Crazy Horse. Grouard at the Little Big Horn— which, objectively speaking, is an absolutely fucking brilliant piece of writing.
I’ve thought about writing a novel about Grouard, just to get some of this material out. But of course I’m not a Western writer, am I?
And though I’d like to post some of these scenes on my web page, I can’t because I don’t own them. According to my contract, I don’t even own the thoughts I had while I was working on LCP. (Let me assure any lawyers reading this that any thoughts contained in this essay were generated after my contract expired.)
I’m consoled by the amount of good stuff that made it into the game. All my pastiches of Ambrose Bierce survived, including the utterly cool section in which I riffed on “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” complete with flash animation courtesy of Maureen. The remaining Grouard sections are pretty good, and the arc of his love affair with Snow Falling retains a tragic poignance much enhanced by Maureen’s final animation, for which she also wrote the text. I’ve got Hickok’s voice down, which should console anyone who knows Hickok’s voice. And of course you can’t go wrong with Martha Jane Canary. You just can’t.
Perhaps another reason that I’m not wearing mourning for my missing text is that I became a part of the Last Call Poker community. The game itself ran for eight weeks, and created its own devoted community of players, but I was a part of LCP for a lot longer than that. For months we dealt every day with the creation of this immense project, and it was a continual high.
When you write fiction for a living, you come up with the ideas by yourself, and you write it by yourself, and when you’re done you send it to an editor. Even if you’ve sold the piece, the editor may not get back to you for months, even years. And then it’s many more months, often years, before the piece sees print, and maybe you see some reviews, and you see it in stores for a while, and then you don’t. And that’s pretty much it.
With Last Call Poker I was surrounded by this huge community that gave me instant feedback and instant support. Whenever I was stuck, I could call Sean or Maureen, or they could call me if they had a problem or a question, or needed to work on some knotty piece of plot.
Like all positive feedback loops, this became highly addictive. It was an almost continual high. When I’d delivered my last piece of the game, I went into a withdrawal that lasted for weeks. I’d forgotten how solitary writing normally is.
I got my last fix on November 19th, when I attended the game’s last live event, held in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. LCP should go down in history for two totally brilliant ideas, neither of which was mine. One was the poker site, which enabled players to stay in touch with each other and the game when nothing else was happening, and which also enabled players to meet characters from the game, or at least those who happened to be dead.
The other was Tombstone Poker, a variation of Texas Hold ‘Em that can be played in graveyards, with tombstones as cards. During the course of the game the LCP player community was invited to play Tombstone Poker at cemeteries throughout the country, after which there was a treasure hunt that would result vital clues being released.
I’d been lurking online with many of the players during the game, and on November 19th I got to lurk with them in person. I won’t be able to do this ever again: now they know what I look like.
There was genuine emotion here. People had been living in this world for eight weeks, hanging out in chat rooms, meeting for events in graveyards, working desperately to read triple-ciphered messages in Russian, receiving pleas for help on their cell phones, and playing poker with dead people.
They played Tombstone Poker. They read poetry. They burst into a spontaneous rendition of “I Wanna Be Sedated” at the grave site of Joey Ramone. They built a memorial to a game character who had been murdered in the first week of the game. They met Lucy Brown, the young chauffeur whose life they had helped to preserve by playing the game, and watched her drive off in her pink Mustang. And they received a last, long, eloquent message from the dead, which featured the following:
“When you’re playing cards with the Devil, you’ve got to go all-in.”
While it’s unclear at this point whether I was playing with His Satanic Majesty or not, it’s clear to me that, while Last Call Poker lasted, I was all-in.
I miss Last Call Poker.
I miss it a lot.
Alternate Reality Game resources:
Alternate Reality Game Network