When I first experienced an ARG (Alternative Reality Game), I was young and had never even heard the term, yet I was fascinated by experiencing a story across multiple forms of media. This first ARG of mine, was the series of children’s books known as “The 39 Clues.”
The 39 Clues is the story of two twins, Amy and Dan, who discover that their family, the Cahills, is not only one of the largest connected families in the world, but also part of one of the world’s greatest mysteries. After their grandmother’s death, the two set off on a quest to uncover this mystery by solving puzzles and discovering the titular 39 clues.
Each book came with a package of trading cards that, when entered on the books’ website, would unlock games and clues for anyone with an account. Everyone who had an account on the website was considered a part of the greater Cahill family and played the website’s games and read the books to uncover the clues in their own race to uncover the mystery.
Though relatively simplistic, the whole collective adventure was great fun, even if I lost interest before I could finish the series. The main problem was that I would always hit an artificial roadblock that usually required me to buy more of the books before I could progress. This was a problem because I would finish the books and complete all the puzzles I could well before the next in the series came out. Additionally, I have no idea what the final prize would have been for collecting all the clues.
If they had made it clearer what might be won for completing the mystery and removed the artificial roadblocks, the experience would have felt far more organic. We would have felt so much more connected to the world as we could attempt to be one step ahead of the characters in the story. We would have really felt like Cahills.
As a digital narrative, it was supposed to make you feel like you were part of the Cahills and the mystery surrounding them. For a while it did, and the illusion is helped by the emails and website always addressing you as a member of the Cahill family, but the illusion is always lost when you can’t get any further in the digital story because the physical hasn’t caught up. It might have been smarter to release several of the books at once along with the cards and then release them one-by-one. On the whole, the digital story works, but only after the physical one has caught up.
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However, despite the problems, the experience has stuck with me all these years and has me wondering how I might incorporate similar elements into my books. So overall, I’d say my time with the 39 clues was positive. I suggest you all check the books out some time.
Remember fellow Cahills to Keep it Reel!