"With Zoetrap, the more you put into the game, the more you got out of it. And that is quite rare in the ARG world." — Rowan Lambelle, player and ARG veteran

"I was really impressed by the production design and it communicated reassurance that my time invested in this world would be well spent. Establishing the character on Twitter and engaging me ahead of the live action part — the hotel murder scene — gave me a sense of ownership or closeness to the project that resulted in me advocating to others in the hotel lobby to go check out the room." — Robert Pratten, Founder and Director of Transmedia Storyteller Ltd

Zoetrap is an alternate reality game that took place at the Storyworld Conference + Expo in San Francisco in 2011 and was funded by Indiegogo and sponsorship from Calvium Ltd. It combined environmental storytelling, a mobile app, digital interaction, puzzles and physical assets in a Halloween horror game. The mystery unfolded over three days as players in San Francisco and online collaborated to uncover the truth of the Zoetrap. 

A Spooky Story

Occult Transmedia Producer and delegate at Storyworld, Oliver Drew, disappeared on arrival at the conference, leaving a murder scene in his hotel room. This followed a series of paranormal occurrences including Twitter seances and Drew’s claims that he could communicate with the spirit world via a battered Victorian zoetrope. He had been set to prove his claims at the conference and open up the spirit world as a storytelling platform. 

Players assumed the roles of paranormal investigators and gained access to Drew’s haunted phone via a bespoke mobile app. Armed with evidence found in his hotel room murder scene, and communicating online with Drew’s worried girlfriend, they set out on a mission to find out what happened to him. 

The iOS mobile app that simulated Drew’s mobile phone provided the spine of the experience as the fictional and real world blurred and players uncovered clues via calls, emails, texts, blogs, character websites, newspaper articles, videos, Tarot cards, Tweets and Facebook messages. 

On their journey, players discovered a dark history to the Victorian zoetrope, which belonged to 19th century occultist, Arthur Warburton Lytton (Prisoner L), who was locked in Alcatraz for murdering people according to the major arcana of the Tarot. He believed that if he trapped the 22 souls of the major arcana inside his zoetrope he would gain immortality.

The stories of Oliver Drew and Prisoner L entwined as players discovered that Drew had become ‘The Hanged Man’ and was trapped inside the zoetrope. After further shocking revelations about Drew, players were asked to take a decision on his fate and choose from one of the alternate endings. 

International Gameplay

The game began on social media engaging its target audience of Storyworld Conference + Expo delegates and international ARG fans. It then played out live over the three days of the conference, with designed content and improvisation in response to player interaction. There was then a creepy, post-game postcard sent to players from the game’s villain, Prisoner L. 

The first person to complete the game was a veteran ARG player in New York. Rowan Lambelle was collaborating with players in San Francisco to obtain the physical clues that would unlock content on the mobile app. She wrote a walkthrough of the game on her ARG-focused blog. You can read a Q&A about her experience.

Zoetrap was funded by Indiegogo and produced by Spirit Level Productions, a team of multiplatform writers and digital professionals. The mobile app was made possible through sponsorship and collaboration with App Furnace by Calvium Ltd.

I was the game’s creative director, co-writer, narrative designer and project manager.

You can read the more detailed case study at spiritlevelproductions.com along with these blogs I wrote on the creative process and lessons learnt from the experience:

1. Zoetrap story and gameplay walkthrough

2. Player Q&A

3. Top 10 lessons learnt

4. Game metrics

5. Puppetmaster's experience

Analytics

65 pre-conference downloads of the Zoetrap app.

400 delegates at the conference who came into contact with the game. 50 who visited the hotel murder scene.

870 Tweets related to Zoetrap from September 5 to December 5 and 58 regular Tweeters.

159 downloads of the app before Dec 2011.

10 – 15 conference delegates attended the final event, along with about 10 other people who were already in The Cellar Bar and joined in to make a decision on Oliver’s fate.

25,000 engaged with zoetrap.com over the duration of the game.