Diving Down the Rabbit Hole of an ARG
It’s really fun to jump into a community actively plumbing the depths of a game’s secrets.
All images courtesy Nilo
The following contains some spoilers for Asemblance: Oversight.
When I first loaded up Asemblance: Oversight, I figured I was going to like it. It is, after all, a exploration/puzzle game based on mindfuck sci-fi concepts: You explore 3D recreations of memories to piece together a wild tale about space travel and possible extraterrestrial contact. Exactly my shit.
What I didn’t anticipate was feverishly scanning old NASA photos for coordinates at 2 AM on a Friday night, searching for secrets that would get me those hidden endings in the game. I didn’t picture myself sitting in a rapidly-shifting discord server with other Asemblance fans, and glancing at a public Google doc for hints when I got stuck: I knew the sequence of events I needed to do to trigger a “shift,” a sort of global change in the game’s world, because I had done it once before. But I needed help on the precise timing.
So there I was, late at night, five tabs open devoted to NASA photos, planetary coordinates, the discord open with three channels rapidly updating, my mind keenly focused on the game in front of me, searching for any hidden variable in each room.
Here's where I'm going to spoil the game a little bit, and show you my fledgling detective work.
In two of the "shifts," there's an old-school tape reel in the back of the office memory. It contains a clue about "resetting" the whole system, which causes the gamma shift (the wild black-and-white-and bloom color scheme I started the above stream on). In it, the character describes "recursively overloading" a memory, and I knew that it had something to do with going through a portal in the "installation" scene's red shift.
I did it for hours, trying all kinds of other variables. Looking at the computer terminal first. Not looking. Scanning through the portal while entering. Eventually, I looked to the discord for a hint—it was in the timing, after all! You have to wait until you see a ghostly reflection of the room you're currently standing in, coming out of the fog itself. So I messed with that, looking through the fog of the portal until I had things lined up. And I ran through the first portal. And the next. The world became black and white. Psychadelic effects ran through the screen. And Viola! I had gamma-shifted again, and I was now free to explore the effects of the new shift in all the memories.
You don’t need to do any of this to enjoy Oversight. The first couple of hours of the game—and the first few endings—are marked by straightforward progression and puzzle solving. An AI guides you, gently, through the first few scenarios: you load up a “memory” into the chamber, and start exploring it. Interacting with objects of interest: computer terminals, doors, radios, etc. all lend tangible clues and new interactions that allow you to progress. You learn to trigger “shifts” that change variables in the scenarios (and the color scheme of the whole world).
Then, after a couple of hours, you’re on your own. You can easily decide to be done with the game, and enjoy what the story and puzzles offered you. Or, you can be tantalized by the possibility of going a level or two (or twenty) deeper, to plumb the depths of this wildly evocative scenario. Should you decide to do so, you will be in for hours of messing around and probably banging your head on obtuse clues. But you will be rewarded richly for doing so.
And, naturally, you can take a lot of the sting out of going it alone by jumping in the fan discord and working through the knowledge the community has gathered. That’s certainly where I ended up on Friday night, after messing around in the red shift for hours. I had triggered the semi-elusive gamma shift once, but I didn’t know exactly how I did it, and I spent the better part of an hour “resetting” the simulation attempting to recreate the conditions again.
That’s when I realized that the game had just come out, and I wouldn’t be going to look at FAQs of a “solved” game, but instead wading into an active community as secrets were discovered in real time. This is something I’ve rarely experienced firsthand—there was an element of this for me in Fez, which I played during launch week, and learned about the “translation” aspect in something close to realtime.
But that was six years ago, and it was definitely the last time I’d done anything like this. It’s a rare treat: games like Oversight really do benefit from active information communities, because it is explicitly a game about secrets, puzzles, and experimentation. It’s the sort of thing that directly benefits from many people trying many things, the way that speedrunners find glitches and routes, because many brains hammering out many variables will yield impressive results much faster than any one brain working on its own.
It’s a pretty great example of the idea of information community—a bunch of folks with varying types of information and expertise who come together and well, figure shit out. And throughout this, I couldn’t stop thinking of speedrunning communities and what our own Cameron Kunzelman described as the “cosmic horror” of speedrunning, the sheer enormity of the work done by a community to break down a game and find its every imaginable seam:
“Speedrunning is puppetry in real-time, and the puppet master is a squidly, bonded entity of minds and maneuvers that have connected over the internet and managed to transport everything they learned into a capable human who can execute it all in sequence while monologuing.”
“...While we’re watching the runner do their magic, that many-tentacled thing that lives on the internet is still churning away in the background. The people that make it up are all still discovering, analyzing, and thinking about the game at hand. This creature wants to make new gains before this game appears on a marathon again. More shortcuts need to be discovered. Minutes, not seconds, need to come off the world record time. This game must be compressed even further into an efficient machine.”
I’ll probably never be a speedrunner, but just dipping my toe into this aspect of Oversight has given me some idea of the immense, wonderful, possibly terrifying aspect of human labor. That the text itself—that the game is specifically about a group of scientists plumbing the unknown and potentially unknowable—only makes it more delicious.
I’m going to stay in that fan discord, at least for a few more days, or, lets be honest, weeks. I know there are secrets that the community hasn’t completely sussed out yet. And even if I’m not the one who finds them personally, it’ll be a high to feel somehow included on the effort.
The scenario I described above, for the gamma shift, would end up being only a sort of "mid game" find, for those who were determined to see the rabbithole all the way through. Another, much more mind-blowing scenario was just ahead of me, after I found the green shift and the new ability to enter codes into a keypad in the gamma installation.
And what I found there positively blew my mind with psychedelic possibility. But that one, you'll have to find on your own. (Or, of course, step into the looking glass/fan discord if you need a hint).