Posted by: Montola | February 10, 2010

Holter on Cathy’s Books

Today’s guest blogger is Matthijs Holter, a Norwegian tabletop role-playing game designer who has already created a few pervasive larps and edited two anthologies on Nordic role-playing: Larp, The Universe and Everything and Nørwegian Style. He reviewed Pervasive Games earlier, this time he writes on his experiences with the ARG books, as a follow-up to Jaakko’s January post.

The Cathy’s Book series is possibly the first attempt to create an entry-level ARG – one that aims at people who aren’t hardcore, internet-savvy gamers. The story, which is well-crafted and a fun read, follows a well-known formula for teen romances aimed at girls: Single girl Cathy Vickers meets mysterious dark guy Victor; is repelled at first, then attracted; finds out about his dark past with help of smart friend Emma; gets entangled in his tragic past; gets boy in the end; …but dark shadows loom over their relationship: can it last?

Being a 37-year-old family guy, a father of three, I’m not really in the target audience. Still, I loved playing through the first two books. They come packed with “evidence”: Cards, coins, drawings… what old tabletop gamers will recognize as high-budget player handout», like those received in (for instance) Call of Cthulhu. And this evidence is used, of course, to uncover the Secret Plots.

Because these books, while readable as novels, contain hidden bonus narratives. By solving clues, visiting web sites, adding up facts, you can find out secrets.

Warning: Spoilers below.

For instance, you will find out (way before it’s explicitly described in  the book) that the boyfriend, Victor, is an immortal. And that Cathy’s dad, who we thought was dead… isn’t.

It’s clear that most of the puzzles have been designed to be easy enough for a «mainstream» audience, although some of them had me stumped for a while. Still, from reading the forums for the book, it’s also clear that many readers struggle with the concept: Some aren’t sure what to do with the book at all, others don’t understand most of the puzzles.

Which is a major design issue for this sort of book: How hard do you make the game? Too easy, and it will seem childish; too hard, and nobody gets it. It seems from the forums that very few readers actually solve every puzzle; at the same time, they don’t seem to mind, because they find the books fascinating anyway. Being frustrated about a puzzle doesn’t mean you don’t want to solve it, after all – quite the contrary.

Not every clue is meant to be solved, however. In one secret document, we find Cathy’s dad’s post address. I sent a letter there; it was returned stamped “recipient unknown”. Slightly disappointing, but it was still fun waiting for an answer.

The books are well-supported. There are the aforementioned forums, and probably around 20 different web sites in total for the different books. But parts of the game seem a bit tacked-on; Cathy has a LiveSpace page, but it’s very bare-bones, and nothing happens there.

In addition, there are the phone messages – an integral part of the game: Not only do you get the numbers for several characters, you even get the code to some of their answering machines so you can listen to messages others have left for them. There’s no true interaction – you can’t talk to anyone directly, and all e-mails you send get autoreplies with clues – but hearing someone’s voice still adds a lot of flavor. Each book explicitly instructs players to dial the phone number on the front, which is a great lead-in and lets players understand right from the start that they’re actually supposed to do stuff. (And for those who don’t like dialing long-distance, it’s possible to hear all the messages at the Double Talk Wireless pages).

What I especially like about these books is that the ARG part isn’t just a marketing campaign for the Real Product – it’s the product in itself, and playing the ARG is something you do just for fun, to get deeper into the fiction.

I probably spent around three days on each book — reading, solving puzzles, checking out the web sites, chatting on the forums etc. The experience was quite engrossing; it’s fun to be stimulated on many levels at once, although to be fair, the puzzle-solving did trump the narrative for me. It was hard to see the books as anything else than an excuse for the game – a starting point for my own explorations.

However, that’s obviously due to the fact that I’m an adult game designer, not a teen book reader. It’s quite possible that this form is compatible with a deeper, more adult/sophisticated reading experience – although perhaps books like “House of Leaves” point more in that direction.

For some reason the third book didn’t come with much evidence at all – a poster and a cheap plastic ring. I assumed the publisher had dropped the interactive part and gone for a straight novel format to finish the trilogy; it seems that isn’t true, although there does seem to be more focus on finishing the plot and not so much on web pages and puzzles.

Cathy’s Book is also available for iPhone

I’ve co-designed a similar ARG book, Mørkeboka (2009), with author Sigbjørn Mostue. This book is based on his popular youth fantasy trilogy Alvetegnet, and has received some media attention for bringing this innovation to the Norwegian book market. Reader feedback from the target audience is very positive; some adults, though, complain about lacking realism and an over-explicit environmentalist message.

In the trailer for Mørkeboka (below) the author Sigbjørn Mostue goes crazy at a press conference, claiming that everything he’s written as fiction so far is, in fact, truth. And judging from the mails he receives, and the messages sent to us via an in-game web page, some of the readers aren’t entirely sure what to think: Is this real or not?

Earlier guest bloggers: Päivi Kymäläinen on Akayism, Troels Barkholt-Spangsbo on SecretCPH, Illuminatum on problems of pervasive larp, Steve Payette on accessibility, Bjarke Pedersen on Chernobyl, Neil Dansey on apophenia and David Fono on Come Out and Play 2009.


  1. “Cathy’s Book is also available for iPhone”

    Not in sweden.

  2. […] guest bloggers: Matthijs Holter on Cathy’s books, Päivi Kymäläinen on Akayism, Troels Barkholt-Spangsbo on SecretCPH, Illuminatum on problems of […]

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