Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Harry Styles Punked the Entire ARG Community

Image result for eroda

ARGs are the webcomics of the 2010s, and potentially the 2020s: they've been around for longer than people realize, they gained notoriety via a handful of prestigious titles, and now anyone who knows the term wants to make one. (Including me, really; I'm not above such things.) There are entire communities, messageboards, subreddits, Discords, and YouTube channels built around deciphering them. Some have run for years, some for weeks, and others are simply a well-meaning flash in the pan.

They're also (whether you like it or not) very effective marketing.

For those not in the know, "ARG" is short for Alternate-Reality Game: interactive fiction that encourages (and occasionally requires) audience interaction, either to move the story forward or to understand it fully. The YouTube channel everymanHYBRID, one of the Slenderman Big Three, is a good example. To get the whole story, fans had to decode messages and follow multiple social media accounts, and participants out in the real world received clues that they then had to feed back into the narrative. Nick Nocturne's search for Jack Torrance is a good example of an ARG ticking over with rarely-seen efficiency.

ARGs also work best when approached with a heaping helping of suspension of disbelief. We all know it's fictional (either by admission or because we're familiar with the creators' other projects), but we play along for the fun of it. It's understood (usually, at least) to avoid "game-jacking" — that is, jumping in and pretending to be part of the core narrative without the creators' consent — or breaking immersion by telling people to "calm down, it's just a game" or the like.

Image result for eroda

Recently, a new potential ARG floated to the surface, centering around an island called Eroda. It was picked up quickly by the usual suspects (including the aforementioned Night Mind), and the ARG community was on top of it immediately. It had all the earmarks of a good mystery: a tourism website about an as-yet-unknown island with strange legends around it. Their tourism videos featured voice-overs that hovered between calming and Slightly Weird. There was a YouTube account, an Instagram, and a Twitter. And it looked like there would be some sort of strange story to piece apart.

A lot of theories flew. Was it completely original? Was it tied to a new video game? A new land in Dungeons & Dragons? Heck, was there a real Eroda trying to gain notoriety by presenting itself as strange and unearthly?

Then, suddenly, a lead from an unexpected quarter: the Harry Styles fandom.

As a not-Harry-Styles-fan (nothing against him, I'm just more into alternative and J-rock), I'm not sure what tipped them toward the realization. But someone pointed out that "Eroda" backwards is "Adore," and Styles's new single "Adore You" had an impending release. There were a few awkward moments in the ARG community as the possibility was weighed. Like. How would we all feel if we'd busted out our magnifying glasses for a guy from One Direction?

And then. Yep. It happened. The entire Eroda ARG was a lead-up to a short film-style music video for the song in question.

And, look. It was pretty good, y'all.


The video tells the story of a boy with a bright (literally) smile on Eroda, a tiny isle off the coast of England where everything is always gloomy and sad. One day, the boy meets a fish separated from its school, takes it in to look after... and things get weird for everyone.

All that said, this was a really well-run campaign. Billboard talked to the team behind the stunt, and the lengths they went to were impressive. They used broken links and awkward wording to make the tiny world of Eroda (where social media would likely not be well understood) as realistic as possible. They frequented ARG hotspots online to gather and react to theories. They responded to engaged followers more and more frequently in the time leading up to the video's release — more personal replies and retweets than I had time to go through. This team was all-in.

Like I mentioned, ARGs as advertising are fairly common and can often be good. 2001's A.I. Artificial Intelligence was an early example, with Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines 2 rolling out the "Tender" app more recently to bust its game world open. Thomas Dolby played with the idea in 2011 with what I guess you'd call an MMOARG(?) for his album A Map of the Floating City. And so on.

Image result for eroda

Eroda may not have been a slow-burn YouTube series or a mixed media juggernaut involving half a dozen social media accounts sending each other cryptic messages, but damned if it didn't work. The music video it led up to contained a complete story, it looked good, and heck, the song was kind of a bop. It's also encouraging to see that the team building it has taken cues from successful ARG creators, delving into their spaces online to interact with them.

That's the main thing about this, the thing that earns a "fine, Harry Styles, ya got me" out of this whole thing: they cared. They decided to use the Internet's love of alternate reality and weird fiction to draw eyes to the new single, but then they actually went and did it well. As long as the mystery is compelling and engaging, and everything is handled with care and thought, it shouldn't — and probably won't — matter that the end game is a product rather than a finale video.

It also probably makes a difference whether the product actually is something that would warrant an ARG. A music video that takes place on a strange island? Warrants it. One last mystery for Gravity Falls? Warrants it. A new cheesesteak sub or a facial serum? Probably does not warrant it. I'm sure we'll see attempts made, though.

So yeah. You get me this time, Eroda team. Well played.

If you're interested in finding more ARGs to follow, check out the Night Mind YouTube channel. Some of my faves of late are Echo Rose and the recently wrapped CatGhost, both by indie creators.


Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Want to help me create content more regularly? Click the donation button above to drop some money in my Ko-fi! I'll be working toward one goal at a time. Every time a new level is unlocked, I'll add a new piece of weekly content to my schedule. Thank you in advance!