Thoughts on Savage County

So a couple of weeks ago, I started seeing a bunch of tweets talking about a new ARG that was going to be launched after the premiere of Savage County on MTV2. It was being called Help Us Escape and was written by Nina Bargiel (@slackmistress). As I had heard good things about her work on Valmont, I decided to look into Help Us Escape.

When I first started looking at Help Us Escape (HUE), there wasn’t anything to do as the Savage County movie hadn’t aired yet. So instead I did some Google searches on Savage County to see if I could learn anything about it. That is led me to and how I found out about the Where Is Dorothy Kramer? campaign.

Where Is Dorothy Kramer? (WIDK) was the prequel to Savage County and focused on the disappearance and search for Dorothy Kramer, a high school student in Savage County. I was quite impressed that the story for WIDK went back over a month. This made me quite excited about playing HUE, because I figured if what I thought was the pre-game was over a month long, the ARG proper would be long and expansive.

With this in mind, I figured an ARG with so much potential material might require a guide, so I started writing up the WIDK storyline while waiting for the HUE game to start. It had been a while since I had done any guide writing so I was a little out of practice. That meant that it was taking me longer than normal to get stuff written down, but I didn’t feel rushed since I thought there would be a long timeline ahead of me. I think it took about a week, writing a couple of hours a day, to get about 90% of the guide to both WIDK and HUE written. I had noticed that there were very few updates for WIDK on weekends, so I had planned to finish the guide over the weekend and get the whole thing posted by the time new updates came in on Monday.

Then Help Us Escape ended. Well, crap.

When I got the ending video, my first thought was “That’s it?!” I was completely floored that the game would end in just a week. Nothing had happened! Even the ARGN article on the game had me completely confused. While it mentions that HUE would only be running for 7 to 10 days, the article was posted less than a day before the game ended, making me wonder what was the point of alerting players to a new game that would be ending in a few short hours. It’s not like there was some massive live event for them to partake in that could be enjoyed without having played the rest of the game. So I was left completely bewildered (and more than a bit upset) by the turn of events, wondering if it was possible that the game would continue. The final video did have a bit of an open ending, so it was possible, but I was not hopeful.

Luckily, or unluckily as the case may be, my confusion about the game ending was soon laid to rest as @slackmistress confirmed that the game had ended. So now I was left to ponder just why I was so upset at the whole thing.

Obviously my own preconceptions about what the HUE would be came into play. I figured the ARG would be at least a month long and it would have a nice fleshed out story. What I got was a week of skimpy blog posts that barely moved the storyline from the Savage County movie. It was like expecting a steak dinner at a nice restaurant and being taken to McDonald’s instead. So that upset me more than a bit.

The problem stems from the fact that my preconceptions come directly from the entire transmedia campaign of Savage County itself. While I’m sure that some of the assumptions I made came from the bias I have towards particular types of games and my knowledge that Nina Bargiel had also worked on Valmont, I do believe that most of my ideas about what HUE would be came directly from what I saw in WIDK. WIDK ran for about a month but the earliest assets went back two months. It had a fairly decent storyline that included a lot of nice little touches that made the world seem real (the Historical Society pictures and the random Help Wanted ads). You could interact with the characters on Twitter and Facebook. And trying to figure out what happened to Dorothy required some keen observation in order to find the various pieces of evidence that were scattered over the websites.

It’s a tale of two ARGs. I know that Nina Bargiel said that WIDK “had ARG elements but [it] wasn’t a traditional ARG” but I can’t help to think she is wrong about that. To me, the fact that WIDK had not only a stronger storyline but more weight in terms of content makes it more of an ARG than HUE. In my opinion, HUE was really nothing more than a story driven puzzle trail. You were given a ‘puzzle’ (find Noah, figure out a name, discover a location) which when ‘solved’ would give you a password that would unlock the next puzzle. Repeat as necessary until the end of the game. And while I do enjoy participating in puzzle trails (ask anyone in #unfiction), I do not find them enjoyable when employed in ARGs, let alone becoming the entire basis for one.

The more I’ve thought about HUE and the way it played out, the sadder I become about it. Not because I tricked myself into thinking it was one type of game when it was another, but because of how widely it missed the mark of being a decent, if not really good, ARG. At the end of the ARGN article, Nina Bargiel is quoted as saying that she opted for “something incredibly casual, because I knew that there would be new people coming in post-movie and I didn’t want to scare anyone off.” Personally, I don’t see HUE as being a casual ARG. Simple, yes, but not at all casual. I know if you asked 10 different people what a casual ARG would be, you would get 10 different responses, but in my opinion, a casual ARG would be one that didn’t require a lot of commitment, of time and/or effort, to follow along with the majority of the game. Or, in other words, a lurker-friendly ARG, where one could actively participate if they wanted to, but if not, the game would allow them to carry on.

Does HUE fit my personal definition of what a casual ARG would be? Certainly there wasn’t a huge time commitment. Checking in for five minutes a day would be sufficient to catch up on what had happened. But what about the effort the average player had to put in? In order to have access to all of the blog posts and the final video (without utilizing a site like Unfiction), a player would have to send 3 emails, check 2 Twitter accounts (following one of them), place a phone call, and solve two puzzles. I know that it doesn’t sound that much effort to expect a player to do. I’m sure most people do more than that in their first 30 minutes at work. But it’s not the physical exertion that makes those tasks into a large effort. It’s the idea that the player has to complete each task in order to move on vs allowing the player to skip any individual task and catching them up on what they had missed. I’ve heard plenty of anecdotal stories about how each time players encounter a gate in an ARG, X amount of them drop out. If any of those stories are true, it wouldn’t bode well for an ARG with nothing but a gate to pass at each stage. With that in mind, HUE would not be a casual ARG (under my definition), but WIDK would be since Caitlyn and Isabel walk players through everything on their blog.

Now here is the part I’m most sad about. We have an ARG that required players to care enough about the characters to continue to move themselves through the game and the reward they got was hardly worth it. A 17 second Youtube video that said ‘Thanks’ before the main character is possibly kidnapped again? What was the point? To advance the story of Savage County? In what way was it advanced beyond the movie? The end of the movie has Noah and Izzie escaped from the Hardells, although Izzie may be in trouble with the Sheriff’s Deputy riding in the ambulance with her. The end of this game has Noah and Izzie still escaped from the Hardells, although Izzie may be in trouble with the screaming at the end of the video. Okay, so the end of the game also has Holly escaped. But we barely knew who she was, let alone given the chance to care about her as a character. Her name appears on one page of the Gazette and she’s in three panels in the comic (one of which had me convinced that she had already been taken away from the Hardells unharmed) which makes her practically window dressing. So the HUE ARG was about rescuing window dressing. And for that I and other players had to email and call and tweet and various other things. So not worth it.

I think I would have been much happier about HUE had it rewarded the players with a proportional amount of content versus the amount of energy that they put into it. Send an email and get a photograph. Make a phone call and receive a video. Solve a puzzle and get a newspaper update. Work Harline Sue into a tizzy on Twitter and get her all mad at you. (Okay, so that one did happen). Successfully complete the game and get something, anything, more than what you started with. Because otherwise, what’s the point?

Way back towards the beginning of this tl;dr post, I stated that I wrote a guide for Where Is Dorothy Kramer? and Help Us Escape. I will be posting it over at in the next couple of days. I need to run it through a spellchecker and fix a couple formatting issues. I will post the link here and at my Twitter account (@rowan72) when it is available to view.

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One Response to “Thoughts on Savage County”

  1. Hey Rowan,

    Thank you for taking the time to write this out and post it – it’s these sort of critiques that can only help improve and inform my work.

    I understand your frustration – it’s similar to what I was going through when I was trying to get eyes on the WIDK part of the experience. While I floated it out there in ARGland, I didn’t push it because I didn’t want to be spammy. I also was concerned with the ARGnet article coming out so late, which is why I wanted to be clear that it was ending soon as my contract was up that Saturday (although I worked a couple of days over to make sure that everyone got to the end. This is not because I am a Fabulous Human Being but because I can’t stand having loose ends out there.)

    To be completely blunt, I much prefer creating the type of experience that preceded the screening. The post-game ARG was an experiment with some successes and failures. It would have been totally fun to have someone as involved as you in the beginning. Next time I’ll be a loudmouth. ;)

    Again, thank you for your comments. I hope if I see you at ArgFest next year you’ll let me buy you a cocktail!