Genuinely thoughtful commentary on video games doesn’t come by all the time, and how much the rarer is the emergence of a truly worthy and unique voice. So when Rachael Webster, an aspiring writer stagnating at a menial job at a small and mostly unknown city newspaper, first took up the pen for her blog in the fall of last year, she quickly found herself amongst enthusiastic supporters and a welcoming community. PixelVixen707, as she called herself, brought a sharp-tongued but winsome pluck to the conversation about games, along with unusual, sometimes genuinely surprising, insights. Rounding out the program was an occasional note about her personal life— and that is where things fell off the rails a little bit.
It happened that something wasn’t quite right with the way Rachael had written about going to visit her boyfriend, who she described as working as a therapist at a mental institution. Her description of the place sounded a little more potboiler than snarky blogger, and the trip read like she might have confused for reality a recent session with Silent Hill (she interprets the entire encounter through the lens of a survival horror game). Amid an outpouring of earnest sympathy from her readers, someone followed up on the places she mentioned and linked to occasionally, and found out: there was no such paper as the New York Journal-Ledger, where she ostensibly worked. There was no Brinkvale Psychiatric Hospital, the spooky building that had given her such a chill. It was all fiction.
Depending on the context in which you think about a certain thing, the difference between real and fake might be as simple as a bit, flipping into one state or the other, never in between, or both, or neither. So it was either completely, unequivocally true, or it was a dirty trick— a promotional stunt, it turned out, for an upcoming thriller called Personal Effects: Dark Art, by the writer J.C. Hutchins and savvy entertainment entrepreneur Jordan Weisman, in which “Rachael Webster” is a secondary character (the aforementioned boyfriend, Zach Taylor, takes the lead). Many former admirers expressed a not insignificant disgust at having been played.
“I hate marketing— but I love a fake marketing campaign,” Rachael happened to write, just a few weeks before this all went down.
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“ARG” stands for Alternate Reality Game, but as Elan Lee, one of the other pioneers of the medium, said recently, “the things we build are not alternate, they’re not reality, and they’re not games.” Instead, the metaphor that came up was a rock concert: real-time entertainment experienced by the people who were there and who dissipate once it’s over. The traditional ARG, as exemplified by the totemic I Love Bees, created primarily by Weisman, Lee and Sean Stewart to promote Halo 2, takes a group of players on a roller coaster ride through a tightly scripted series of events, occurring both online and off, that spreads to any medium it can to realize itself (“transmedia”) and blurs the strict definition of fiction.
One of the codified design principles of the ARG is a “this is not a game” aesthetic combined with subtle cues that prevent the fiction from turning into a wholesale hoax. So the architects of PixelVixen707 explain that, true to those principles, they never set out to deceive anyone, and express deep contrition over the confusion that occurred. “While we were desperately trying to get the Internet to realize that Rachael wasn’t real, we managed to fool it for way longer than I would ever have imagined possible,” says Jessica Price, transmedia producer and designer at Smith & Tinker, a company that Weisman founded and that Rachael likes to refer to as “her friends”.
It turned out that many of the cues that experienced ARG players knew to look for— a sentence in an e-mail signature, fictional websites that were “obviously fake”— sailed by most of the traditional game bloggers without as much as a glance. It didn’t help that Rachael wasn’t from the future, or targeted by a dark transnational conspiracy; for most intents and purposes she existed in our mundane reality, playing our games, reading our blogs. On top of it all, she was fundamentally appealing. In a recent interview with ARG Netcast, Hutchins (who says he does not write PixelVixen707) sheepishly copped to a certain bit of wish fulfillment going on when he originally created her character. In a way, she made people want to believe.
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Although people with ARG roots created PixelVixen707, the project also breaks from ARG tradition in a few important ways. There is no specific end date, for one, and there is no archaeology of story: there are no big mysteries to uncover or puzzles to solve that will lead us to any sort of monolithic, predetermined conclusion. Instead, Rachael’s purpose is— well, what is it, exactly? She’s traveled far beyond the point required to sell more copies of Personal Effects and seems to be on a road to some unspecified destiny of her own.
“I can’t really explain why we do it, aside from the fact that it’s a really interesting thing to be part of,” says one contributor, who has been involved with the project from the start and who did not wish to be named. This author was keen to stress that Rachael is not an alter ego of some “real” writer, or team of writers, who will one day be revealed. Instead, the identity of anyone who has actually worked on PixelVixen707 is meant to remain secret forever so that Rachael’s words will always be her own.
“Rachael is real in a way that is kind of brain-bending,” Hutchins said in his podcast interview. “It’s this weird, nebulous shade of gray that’s really exciting from a fiction standpoint, from a storytelling standpoint. If you’re willing to run with it and suspend your disbelief and ‘un-remember’ that Rachael was a character in a book, you can be completely swept up in the insights she’s making in her blog.”
The anonymous contributor deepens that sentiment even further. “People who have interacted with Rachael obviously treat her as real in some way, and some of them also seem to find it special to have been contacted by her. That’s the feeling we want to engender— that she’s one of the gang, but also special in some interesting way.”
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Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rachael herself has a lot on her mind about the relationship between fiction and reality.
“Where do fictional characters ‘live’?” she asked once, in the blog. “That is, when you’re not reading them on the page or watching them on the screen? Do they go back to a design document? Are they stuck in a sketchbook? Do they lumber around your subconscious? When nobody’s thinking about them, do they vanish, until a trade paperback or a lost film reel brings them back to mind?”
Despite a bit of a rocky start, we may be on our way to finding the answer.