The Fathom Society ARG

THE FATHOM SOCIETY was an alternate reality game (ARG) that I ran in secret as the final project of my Experimental Game Design class. No one else in class, including the professor, knew who was running the game. I worked as the game’s solo designer, completing all of the design and writing for it, as well as executing it in secret.

My goal for The Fathom Society was to invite players to examine all the places in their daily lives where they could experience wonder. Throughout the game, players were encouraged to see the world a little differently, whether it was by viewing odd instruments in a local museum as extraterrestrial oddities, or by searching for “impossibilities” to document for one test. While I do not believe in the pseudoscience that formed the basis of The Fathom Society’s story, I believe that there is value in looking for inconsistencies and mysteries in one’s life, or “Little Cold Spots” and “holes in reality” as the game called them. An ARG, which blurs the line between reality and fiction, seemed like the perfect medium for exploration of these themes. When designing lore materials for the game, I worked hard to incorporate real world elements (Tom Shanks’ Cold Spot research study, and the spiritualist Adam Apollo’s pseudoscientific web database), while flavoring them with enough game connections that players could never be certain of their reality.

My primary influence when designing The Fathom Society was a similar (though far longer) ARG called “The Jejune Institute,” which my Experimental Game Design class studied prior to this project. The structure of The Fathom Society was modeled closely on The Jejune Institute, as both incorporate secret societies, pseudoscience, enigmatic characters, and figures that blur the line between real and fictional (Adam Apollo in The Fathom Society, and Eva in The Jejune Institute).

I hope that the players of The Fathom Society had as much fun playing it as I had running it, because it was a complete blast to write.



In the middle of Experimental Game Design class on a dreary November afternoon, a Bluetooth speaker hidden behind the projector interrupted a playtest with a cryptic message:

Are you listening?

Hello, friends.

You have been selected. Whether for your technological acumen, or your creative brilliance, or your belief in a higher power, you are all here together because you ought to be. In a world without magic, there can be no coincidences. If you believe in nothing, believe in yourself.

If you think you can fathom the truth, stay tuned. You will be notified shortly about next steps.

Keep this speaker safe. Keep it charged. Keep it on during class.

Let’s break the world together.

Thus began the Fathom Society alternate-reality game, my secret final project for the class. No one else in the class, including the professor, would know who designed the ARG until its end.

Within minutes, every student in class (and the professor) received an email from an anonymous address. The email contained a PDF of enciphered text entitled “YLUQ MDQRS SORS,” as well as the following image:


Students quickly decoded the ciphered PDF, which contained the following message:


Hello, friends. I am glad that you have made it here.

My name is Miriam.

I represent the Fathom Society, an underground network of scholars and spiritualists dedicated to shattering the chains that bind humankind to one reality and one way of being. We are the ones who see the light shining from under the door. We are the ones looking for a key that fits in the lock. We are the ones who shatter mirrors to reach the other side.

Allow me to explain. This is your world:

YOUR SECOND TEST: Print out this map, one for everyone. Scribble on it. Rename it. Sketch a new kingdom over that flat and fragile sheet. Draw yourself on it. Walk around. Or burn the map, but only your own. You must do at least one of these things to understand.

That, then, is our goal; to release unto mankind an ultimate creative power. To make us once again the masters of our reality, just as we were when we dreamed demons and heroes into creation.

All of you are candidates for initiation. If you wish to, you may step down from this revelation at any time. Be wary, though: those who doff the seeker’s mantel might never don it again.

If you do desire to peer beyond, meet me at (fifty six – thirty five) x (forty one – twenty nine). Come as a group. Bring the speaker.

A thousand futures await.

When students drew lines across the map from the number 56 to the number thirty-five, and from the number forty-one to the number twenty-nine, they almost immediately received another email from “Miriam:”

When you find the meeting point, send me the name of the Sentinel there.

When students travelled to the point where the lines intersected, they found a sculpture entitled “Pharah,” and when this name was emailed to Miriam, the students received an email detailing the next test:

Hello, friends.

Congratulations on making it here. Many would have despaired at simple ciphers; many more would have dismissed the holes in the world outright. But here you are, as I knew you would be. You, too, seek the Little Cold Spots.

Then, with deduction and belief quantified, let us begin YOUR THIRD TEST.

I need you each to find something impossible. Find it, document it in whatever way is fitting to its form, and send that documentation to me. You have three days to complete this test.

Only the worthiest shall proceed. I look forward to your discoveries with the greatest of anticipation.

The Universe is alive.

In addition, the email contained a PDF copy of a web page discussing the debunked scientific theory of luminiferous aether. Research into this article and its author (a spiritualist named Adam Apollo) revealed a deep, interconnected database of pseudoscience and mysticism.

Over the next two days, students emailed Miriam a wide array of “impossibilities,” from attempts to replicate urban legends to videos supposedly demonstrating alchemical transmutations. At their next class after completing this task, the speaker delivered another message:

Very good, my friends. You have discovered wonders already. Each of your impossibilities is a hole, a logical fallacy, a Little Cold Spot where another universe of possibilities touches our own.

For your next test, visit your library and search the science section for unity, mentality, and then emotionality. Once again, that is unity, mentality, and then emotionality. Apollo’s sacred knowledge will guide your way.

At about this time, a user named “Miriam” appeared in the class Discord server and began dropping cryptic hints about the puzzles ahead.

Intrepid students soon located Adam Apollo’s aforementioned website, and the “Sacred Knowledge Database” there. In the numerology section of the website, they discovered numbers that supposedly corresponded to unity, mentality, and emotionality: 1, 7, and 6. At catalog number 176 in the science section of the campus library, they discovered a folder containing a paper copy of Apollo’s luminiferous aether article, a magnifying glass on a chain taped into a pentagram, and a flash drive:

The flash drive contained links to two “SCP Foundation” articles about anomalous musical instruments (SCP- 926 and SCP- 2458), as well as a PDF containing the following text:

Consider me impressed, my friends. That last puzzle was a tricky one.

I have left you a box in a locker in your Ryder Hall. The box contains the deepest secrets of the Fathom Society. You have nearly earned them. You have met Tom Shanks, the scientist, and Adam Apollo, the believer. You have broken ciphers and sought real truth. However, one final test remains before you may open the box.

It has recently come to our attention that a local museum is currently displaying several extraterrestrial and extradimensional instruments, erroneously labeled as Earth artifacts. These relics include a rare Bulbous Clarinet, a Gurunsian end-blown flute from a parallel universe, and a priceless ophicleide from Aldebaran. This presents a marvelous opportunity for you to view miracles yourself.

I especially urge you to closely examine:

  • The trumpets of horn and bone

And then:

  • The slide trumpet and the union pipes
  • The twisted cornet and the silvershells
  • The ophicleide

The fractures widen, my friends.

Students journeyed to the nearby Museum of Fine art, where they found the listed instrument in an exhibit. When the reference numbers for these instruments were pieced together, they created the following string of numbers:

22 17 23 5

In locker 22 (combination 17-23-5) in Ryder Hall on campus, students discovered a small metal box and the instructions:

Open only during class. Have the speaker ready.

The next day, during class, the students cracked open the box to reveal print-outs of the impossibilities they submitted, a collection of items from their final projects that had been surreptitiously spirited away, and a collection of game pieces, tarot cards, and small crystals. The speaker played the following message:

You have done well, my friends. You have done so very well. You have witnessed the cracks in the world, and you have come out stronger. You have believed me, and you have questioned me, and both of those things are good.

But now, my friends, I have a confession to make.

I am not real. I am only a voice on the radio waves. Adam Apollo is not real. Neither is Tom Shanks. Perhaps we were real once, but we are gone now, my friends. We have fallen away through the cracks in the world. Through the Little Cold Spots.

There is no Fathom Society.

Or, at least, there wasn’t until now.

Look in the box, friends. Look at the things you have made. Fragments of wonder and truth and new realities. Each of your games and each of your stories is a Cold Spot in miniature, a place where another world touches our own. These scraps of paper are hammers, my friends, and you are the masons, chipping away at this old dusty world, fracturing it, and rebuilding it better.

You, my dear, dear friends, are the founding members of the Fathom Society.

Go break the world for me.

And so the Fathom Society was born.

Show & Tell: “Genderwrecked”

For my Indie Game Show & Tell, I’d like to present a visual novel called Genderwrecked, by Ryan Rose Aceae, because I think it’s a fantastic example of what indie games can do that bigger games currently can’t.

Genderwrecked is a small experience. It’s arguably not even a game: the player sometimes chooses dialogue options, but all the options eventually end in the same place. There’s no strategy. No real decisions. No fancy graphics (it’s all cartoons and ascii art).

Despite all this, though, Genderwrecked feels ridiculously real. Over the course of the game, the player speaks with eight or so vaguely monstrous characters, while on a quest to discover the meaning of gender. And every one of these characters, whether they’re a robot dad or a pretentious tree or a pile of gay worms, feels like a real person. Furthermore, many of the odd creatures in Genderwrecked remind me viscerally of genderqueer people I personally know. It’s unusual to play a game and not only grow to like the characters, but grow to realize that the characters are actually just the people you see every day.

In succeeding so utterly at creating recognizable genderqueer characters, Genderwrecked illuminates a flaw in the commercial game industry: any game designed for profit must inherently cater to the largest audience possible, which leaves some people left behind. Indie games, often made to deliver a specific message rather than make a specific sum (Genderwrecked retails for the flippant price of $6.66), can better tell the stories of more marginalized groups. In addition, with smaller teams, indie studios can focus on a single person’s story and perspective more easily than a huge development firm.

In summary, I really believe that everyone should play this game. Gender is a frickin’ confusing thing, and a frickin’ important thing, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a better meditation on it than Genderwrecked.

Get it here:

Intervention: Googmeisters


  • Each player receives ~20 colored googly eyes, with adhesive on the back.
  • Players designate a public space as the play area. This space should be open and crowded.
  • Each player must attempt to stick a pair of googly eyes onto as many targets in the play area as possible before being noticed.
  • Only items that specifically belong to another person are valid targets. The goal is to make people think, “Wait a second… when did my umbrella get googlified?”
  • Invalid targets include:
    • The wall
    • Posters
    • Yourself
    • Products on shelves
  • Once a player is noticed, they are out.
  • The winner is the player to googlify the most targets before getting out, or else the first player to use up all of their googly eyes.
  • If every player gets out, they must all move to a new play area before continuing.


I wish I could say that this game had some deep and world-shaking meaning behind it. And, I mean, I guess it does: everything is better with googly eyes. That’s a law of nature, as immutable as gravity or the inexorable march of time. Everything looks better when it has a little goofy face. EVERYTHING.

So, given that law, I guess this project makes the world a better place. Not in a huge way, sure. Secretly googlifying things doesn’t solve the many crises our society faces right now. But I hope that it makes people happy, and brightens their day a bit. Maybe discovering that someone has left them a googly surprise gives them the little push that they needed to turn their day around, or to keep on fighting their own battles. Even in a world as wracked with awfulness as ours, simple acts of whimsy are a form of charity.

I think my biggest influence for this project was the comedy troupe Improv Everywhere, which works to create elaborate happenings that bring a sense of wonder to the lives of random strangers. I was also strongly influenced by the stealth aspects of tactical media, such as the subterfuge required to sneak doctored Barbies back onto shelves, even though my project lacks the activist focus of tactical media endeavors.


Googmeisters was fun, and nerve-wracking, and difficult. I played two rounds in the Curry Indoor Quad, one of which I won and another I lost. Some notes from this experience:

  • Prime targets for googlification include water bottles in the back pockets of backpacks, stuffed huskies, litter, backpacks with unzipped mouths, umbrellas.
  • Most people, upon noticing me, wouldn’t call me out. They’d just smile and go about their day. I think they appreciated what I was doing.
  • The most fun part of the game was spotting a prime target, moving in to googlify it, and then discovering that my opponent had already got it.
  • Despite the core whimsy of the game, some parts of it were deeply uncomfortable. Once, a student put her phone back into her pocket after she spotted me eyeing it. Multiple times, I found myself thinking, “Aha! There’s someone walking alone who doesn’t see me! Now I just have to wait until no one else can see us, and I can strike!” While my intentions were entirely benign, it would have been hard to miss the other contexts in which such a train of thought would apply. I’m not sure entirely what this discomfort means for the art piece.

The Only Human Defense Force

My current design for this game has deviated a bit from my proposal, so here’s what I’m currently working with:

NOTE: It may enhance your experience to play The Only Human Defense Force before reading about it.

The player finds themself partaking in a game that appears, for all intents and purposes, to be Space Invaders. They are given basic controls (move left, move right, fire) and told to earn points. Aliens advance down from the top of the screen, firing regularly, while the player shoots them down. There are no barriers to hide behind (mostly because I didn’t have the time to program them). The player has three lives.

The first indication that something is off is the score: the player earns no points for killing an alien. By itself, this might seem like just a glitch.

When the player dies or kills all aliens, they are taken to a GAME OVER screen, with a tally of LIVES LEFT and LIVES LOST. However, these tallies display seemingly impossible numbers: 2 lives left, 55 lives lost, for instance. After a moment of thinking, the player may realize that each dead alien is tallied as a lost life.

In addition, the GAME OVER screen displays a message for the player. In order, depending on how many times the player has reached this screen, these messages are:





These messages prompt several realizations. The aliens will try to flee after enough of their number are gunned down, for instance. They only fire as many shots as the player fires, never more. And if the player waits and refuses to kill them, one will eventually fly down to make peaceful contact. After this event, the player earns a single point and  is taken to a victory screen that reminds them not to worry too much about earlier failures. After all, they are only human.

It is my hope that this game will inspire players to think about their reasons for responding to situations with aggression and the biases they hold that cause them to do so. Why did they interpret the aliens as aggressive before they had fired a single shot? Why did they not notice that the aliens were only firing in response to their actions? By examining questions such as these, we may be able to break out of real-world cycles of violence with other humans.

Influences  include art games like Mike Builds a Shelter, which inspired an exploration of unusual win/loss states, as well as the Extra Credits episode on Missile Command ( and every movie ever where humans overreact to peaceful aliens (Avatar, Arrival, etc.), which always make me angrier than they have any right to. Pretty sure Undertale’s use of traditional gaming motifs in a pacifist narrative has gotta be mixed up in there somewhere, too.

I was really challenged in making this game to find the balance between adding enough explicit Meaning™ that the audience would catch on, while not beating them over the head with a preachy hammer of pacifism. I’m not sure yet if I’ve succeeded.

Download the game here: The Only Human Defense Force

Scott Pilgrim and Trope Appropriation (Attropriation?)

I decided to talk about Scott Pilgrim because it represents one of my favorite forms of appropriation: use of fantasy elements as stand-ins for real-world issues.

None of us have actually engaged in an epic combo-punching video-game fistfight (though, if you have, I want to hear all about it). However, most of us have ended up in positions similar to Scott’s in this clip, in which our competition with a rival devolves into a no-holds-barred duel, at least in a metaphorical sense. Although the “rivals’ duel” trope does not actually apply to any of us, in its appropriated sense, as metaphor for interpersonal conflict, it applies to all of us.

Fantasy stories are often (and often correctly) accused of escapism. However, fantasy can also tell real stories, and in subtler ways than nonfiction. Scott Pilgrim is mostly fluff (though very stylish fluff), but  this sort of trope appropriation can be turned to more noble ends. Through the use of trope as metaphor, we can discuss issues that could be too difficult to address outright. The video game Celeste excellently uses the “evil twin” trope to discuss mental illness, for instance. I’ve even made a video game myself that puts the “chosen one” trope to work in an examination of anxiety. These narrative ideas have power, especially when their meanings are appropriated, examined, and, often, inverted.

Score for Public Posting

ARTIST’S STATEMENT: In creating Score for Public Posting, I decided to explore the power of language to act upon itself. The score, a simple sheet of paper reading (boldly), “When you read this, please obscure one letter with paper, ink, hole, etc.,” contains its own destruction within itself. When left for long enough in a public place, the score grows gradually less and less legible, until its original meaning is impossible to discern.

Now, it is surprisingly easy to create a self-destructive public posting. Were I to print any number of curse words in bold and tape them up, they would surely come down quick. The essence of this piece, then, is not only to self-destruct, but to self-destruct slowly, and in a way that interacts with its audience.

The art object itself is a simple 8.5″ x 11″ sheet of printer paper, printed in bold 64pt Copperplate font. I chose a simple presentation because I wanted a viewer’s attention to be focussed on the words themselves, not their medium. The paper and ink serve only a tangential role in the score’s self-destruction. The power is in the words. Copperplate font is a simple, legible font with enough spacing between letters to allow for precise elimination of a single character.

I believe that this piece fits well within the framework of Fluxus for several reasons. First, it is playful: the piece invites interaction from its audience. Second, it possesses musicality: the “art” eventually produced is the mangled sentence that results after a dozen or so observers have acted upon the piece.  Finally, it is easily mass-producible and distributable: anyone with access to a printer could perform this piece; it does not involve an elitist barrier to entry.

In creating this piece, I was particularly inspired by the self-destructive machines of Fluxus and Yoko Ono’s ability to harness the power of language and words to enact change upon a reader.

In the future, I am interested in exploring the opposite of this piece: works of language that theoretically self-propagate. Consider, for instance, a score consisting of the words: “Repeat this sentence to the next friend you see.”



Piece 1: Curry Cafeteria:

Original materials: printed paper, hole

Final materials: printed paper, hole

This piece has acquired a few extra holes in the days since I posted it, but no other modifications. Coincidentally, this is the only piece still posted.


Piece 2: Ryder Common Space

Original materials: printed paper, fire

Transitional materials: printed paper, fire, hole, ink, graphite, paper

Final materials: hole

I consider this piece to be my most successful. It stayed posted for almost two days and acquired a good half-dozen modifications of various types. It vanished last night, unfortunately.


Piece 3: Park Drive

Original materials: printed paper, ink

Unfortunately, this piece disappeared overnight before I was able to document any changes.


Piece 4: Centennial Common

Original materials: printed paper, leaf, tape

Transitional materials: printed paper, leaf, tape, hole, graphite, fire

Final materials: printed paper, leaf, tape, hole, graphite, fire, wind

This piece acquired a few traditional modifications, as well as one unorthodox one: the lower left corner appears to have been set on fire! Perhaps someone meant to burn away a letter and missed horrendously.

On a windy morning, I found the piece gone. I like to think that it’s still blowing from place to place and gathering modifications.