by Zach Sexton and Daley Wilhelm
“¿Quién es ‘Sombra’?”
Who is Sombra?
Well, now we finally know. She’s a sassy hacker with a fabulous manicure and nerve enough to manipulate Reaper and to “boop” world leaders on the nose. She was finally announced yesterday at BlizzCon via a stunning cinematic short, after a not so stunning ARG that’s been confusing fans since July.
To preface, an alternate reality game (ARG) is an interactive experience that takes place in the “real world” for informational exploration of a fictional one. The users, the players or those who participate, are the center of the overall experience design. ARGs are meant to connect players on a more personal level to the world and story of a game. This also creates a new form of guerilla marketing that goes beyond teaser trailers.
The ARG of discovering the identity of the shadowy character known as Sombra seemed fitting, one of the only things players knew was that she was a hacker of sorts. So it followed that tracking her down would involve code breaking and familiarity with hexadecimal numbers. This however, follows a list of “boring premises” set out by Dan Hon, an award-winning storyteller and game designer, in his Ted Talk on ARGs.
This question as to Sombra’s identity had been posed to Overwatch fans at the very launch of the game. Blizzard’s Sombra ARG dragged on, and fans had turned from frustrated to apathetic. After leaked photos and the rumor that the character would be revealed at this weekend’s BlizzCon, the consensus is that ARG players were ready for this game to be over.
Initially, the Sombra ARG had a promising start this July, despite the name “Sombra” being revealed with the game’s launch. The mysterious Sombra was established as the focus of the ARG with the release of Ana. In the new hero video for Ana, a series of barcodes were shown, which when scanned, gave players a series of hexadecimal numbers. When those were converted into a QR code, players were treated to the message,
“Was that easy? Well, now that I have your attention, allow me to make things much more difficult.”
And so the game began, for those who knew what hexadecimal numbers were anyway.The game then immediately came to a grinding halt. With the release trailer for the Summer Games event, players were treated to a cipher text that has still yet to be solved. The ARG was indeed made “much more difficult” as Sombra teased.
The ARG did a good job at setting the theme and tone of the character the game was ultimately meant to reveal. However, as it went on, it left it’s humble and accessible beginnings and become borderline convoluted, yielding little results. The puzzles were nonstop and sometimes uninteresting and only led to yet more puzzles. ARGs usually have some sort of narrative or goal, but there wasn’t any existence of it in this experience. There was also no form of incentive for this ARG. Sombra would have been released if people did or did not participate.
For those who did participate, average players felt alienated. Average players cannot invest time or resources into decrypting hexcode day and night, as some purported “Game Detectives” did. Even those who had invested all their time were often found frustrated on places like Reddit because Blizzard kept changing the experience, involving more and more puzzles. It felt as if someone at Blizzard was trying to show off how clever they are, actively working to stump players rather than help them along. It felt as though the game was working against people, when it really should have been an experience of progression with them.
In the mechanics of the ARG, it involved a series of nonstop decoding and analyzing of datamosh screenshots, code, and script. Most ARGs use elements like these at some point, but this experience has been reliant on this mechanics for most of its tenure. It’s essentially just busy-work. The biggest issue was the constant design of having player’s wait for the next step. Countdowns are simply, boring, and not worth it.
There also seemed to be a lack of care for the eventual release of the character. Essentially, everyone already assumed that Sombra would have been released at BlizzCon, the culmination of decoding and analyzing. All the effort was essentially for nought. With most ARGs, there is a sense of the game being “never fully complete” and an immersion into a world that generates communities and even life-long friendships and relationships (Dan Hon while playing in arguably the best ARG experience The Beast met his wife).
Maybe it’s outside changes and development of communities that have changed how ARGs are viewed. The anonymity of Reddit and other forums has created a lack of mutual respect within discussions with others and almost a lack of respect for their findings. Previous ARG experiences used communities within the game as a valuable resource that took time and effort to maintain, and the players really got to know one another and learn together through one experience.
In the end, the Sombra ARG left people clueless and without much satisfaction. Yes, the Internet received Sombra with excited and open arms yesterday, but the ARG never got a conclusive ending, or rather, a lingering one as a good ARG should. The whole experience lacked structure and accessibility, the Sombra ARG was heavily focused on self-credited “game detectives” to solve everything and let the common player just watch.
Overwatch fans seem to be happy for Sombra’s release, but maybe even happier for the end of the convoluted Sombra ARG.