Videogame (2001). Electronic Arts. Designed by Neil Young. Platforms: Win.
Majestic was one of the first Alternate Reality Games, and to date the only one to be launched through conventional game distribution channels. Promoted as "The Game That Plays You", it was intended to blur the line between fiction and reality by intruding into players' daily lives, an idea apparently inspired by the film The Game (1997). As part of playing the game, Majestic's subscribers would receive phone calls and email, visit websites, and talk with game characters via instant messaging services. The plot revolved around UFO conspiracy theory; the title refers to the "Majestic 12" group supposedly formed by President Truman to investigate and secretly cover up alien activity on Earth following a flying saucer crash at Roswell in 1947. As soon as players started the game, they would receive a message indicating that the computers belonging to the purported developer, Anim-X, were out of action, after which they would learn that the Anim-X studios had suffered an "accident" and the game was shut down. From then on the players would be drawn into helping the Anim-X employees, who were apparently in hiding after realizing that their game had come too close to the truth about a government conspiracy involving mind control technology. Soon players would find themselves cooperatively solving puzzles online to help the fugitive developers, while receiving threatening phone messages from shadowy forces.
In reality, Majestic was developed by Electronic Arts, and Anim-X did not exist; its apparent destruction was the first event in the game. The intention was to draw players into a tangled web of conspiracy theories within which, despite having bought the game, they could not be entirely sure what was fact and what was fiction. In order to reduce costs, however, software was used to simulate game characters in online messaging services, and telephone calls to players were prerecorded, eliminating any possibility of engaging in a dialogue with callers. These technical constraints, combined with the administrative machinery surrounding the game (which was required to gain players' permission for the work's intrusions into their everyday lives), significantly reduced most participants' sense of immersion (see Game Design). An additional problem was that the players' roles were unavoidably passive; they took the parts of backroom researchers to the Anim-X developers' heroes. Many participants also felt frustrated by the pace of plot development, which was too slow for some and too quick for others. In any event, Majestic proved to be a commercial failure, and was shut down after nine months. While the game remains a fascinating experiment, it seems likely that the future of Alternate Reality Games lies with more subtle, non-profit-making, works such as I Love Bees (2004) (see Halo: Combat Evolved). [NT]
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