The key thing you need to understand about the 100 gecs ARG is that there is no 100 gecs ARG, at least not in a traditional sense.
The pop duo had been teasing the companion remix LP, 1000 gecs and the Tree of Clues, to their debut album, 1000 gecs, for several months. Four singles had been released, most recently a remix of gec 2 Ü featuring Dorian Electra. Also upcoming was Square Garden, a Minecraft festival organized by Open Pit in collaboration with Laura & Dylan.
On April 21st, a few days before Square Garden, Laura tweeted this:
Within the evening, a Discord server had been created dedicated to the ARG.
Two evenings of false leads and incomplete data led us to the conclusion that we’d have to wait for Square Garden to solve the puzzle entirely.
Square Garden then came and went. The server was allowed to stay up for a few days after the festival ended, and even then, no proper clues were found. A few days later, ARG allum Murder Club @’ed everyone in the Discord server and said there was no ARG. Nothing has surfaced that could function as even a red herring in relation to the ARG since then. The server is now used to discuss the exact extent to which there is no 100 gecs ARG. This is the form it has existed in for a sixth of a year now. A few days ago, pre-orders went up for Tree of Clues.
Included on the storepage was a bundle for a new shirt based around the ARG, featuring a few images ripped directly from the Discord server that served as the ARG’s main hub.
But, like, why?
What are we buying a shirt of? What the fuck???
The main way that information was relayed to the players was barbaric. The same evening the server was created, Laura, Dorian Electra, a bunch of organizers from Open Pit, Nat from Left at London for some reason, etc., joined. Most of them never posted anything. Laura posted twice total throughout the duration of the game. One of those posts was a warning to not give away any of our personal information for the sake of the game. This plea came in the wake of the fake phone number used in both the song and video of the gec 2 Ü remix incidentally directing to a real ass sex hotline without anybody realizing it.
Now you’d think that the most obvious piece of ARG-esque information in the most recent piece of major gec-related media leading to a possible liability for the band members involved would be a good enough clue that there might be less to this ARG than we suspected. This is because you have the privilege of hindsight.
Instead, we focused on the inclusion of the eponymous rat from the video “rat fucker,” an alternative score Dylan and/or Laura composed to 3DRenderForce’s 2010 tour de force film “Dancing Rat,” as our next jumping off point.
The rat appears in the thumbnail of the gec 2 Ü remix video, but nowhere in the video itself.
The same night the game began, a couple dozen mostly strangers then piled into a voice call at 3AM EST, watching rat fucker over and over again, looking for deviations from the original video. Spectrograms were run and overlays were composited to no avail. One member of the call quickly assembled a version of rat fucker that was increased in contrast and slowed down by 80%.
We watched this five minute visual paulstretch probably three times that evening, taking turns focusing on different parts of the screen, laughing. This file is still on my computer.
This is the meat of the Tree of Clues ARG.
Another big red flag was the simultaneous assertion that all of the components needed to solve the ARG were already available on the internet and the constant rollout of new media by members of Open Pit within the Discord server. The notion of an “ARG” is very nebulous at this point. The artform has a long history of associations with advertising campaigns, as it is one of the few mediums that necessitated substantial coordination/funding for a work to be “successful” on a massive scale, at least in the medium’s infancy. Some of the most widespread ARGs on the cusp of the internets’ growth were supplementary experiences for the releases of major properties, such as the Nolan Batman films or Halo 2.
Once it became feasible for mass audiences to participate in grassroots AR gaming experiences, their reputation as a supplementary art seemed to stick. While pure ARG experiences have persisted from the medium’s conception up until now, most of its most popular examples take the form of linear narrative pieces with secondary ARG elements, such as Marble Hornets or the works of Wham City Comedy. ARGs are now on the agendas of a good chunk of press releases for pop stars, such as last years’ Visit Eroda game in support of the Harry Styles record Fine Line.
The end of this game of telephone results in any abstract art project being immediately branded as a physical object needing to be solved, and any string of emojis tweeted out by anybody with more than 10k followers going into an evidence folder.
Throughout this definition’s collapse, along the full breadth of this medium’s abuse, I have never in my life seen a model of distributing information as ramshackle as the model the Tree of Clues ARG went with. It was kinda incredible.
Every ten minutes or so, one of the gecs’ friends or a member of Open Pit or some rando on Twitter would upload some kind of file to the Discord server. These files ranged in complexity from snare hits from pre existing sample packs to original, fully functional, frogger-style mini games packaged in .exe files.
We would then spend the next few minutes deciding if the new information was worth looking into or not. The gamemasters would then usually respond with silence. A new file would then be uploaded, and so on.
Sometimes it wasn’t just files being dumped into the Discord server, but it was to the same effect. The official gecs tree website would occasionally update, adding or subtracting invisible text you could highlight. Sometimes we’d be directed by a staffer to shit like Laura’s twitter header, which we’d source back to the Theo Angelopoulos film Landscape in the Mist and then immediately drop forever, never be connected to any other of the game’s thousand moving parts. It was a nightmare.
There were two conditions that would generally provoke a response from the gamemasters. One condition was if we were in danger of causing any serious harm to individuals either directly involved or unaffiliated with the game. These situations included (but were not limited to):
-The Dorian sex hotline mixup mentioned earlier.
-A word association leading an angry mob suggesting that the next clue must be buried somewhere underneath the gec tree. This was likely dismissed due to fears of property damage and the spread of Covid.
-Multiple incidents of people subscribing to OnlyFans accounts thinking they were associated with the game for some reason.
-One suspicious member of the Discord trying to redirect people to a specific SoulSeek upload, probably a slight legal liability.
-A gay furry porn themed AMV set to the 100 gecs song “toothless” (later to be confirmed as part of Tree of Clues’ final tracklist) being retweeted by Dylan Brady. The 7Core web art collective, claiming responsibility for the work, was quickly marked as unaffiliated with the ARG by Open Pit staff, likely due to the prominence of minors amongst the participants in the game, as well as the likelihood of players to pester the definitely unaffiliated artists included in the video.
The other condition which would provoke a response is if we made a connection deemed particularly compelling by the staff. For example: the aforementioned Murder Club, deemed “connected to Laura” by the Open Pit high council, uploaded the same picture of Pinkie Pie several times in a short period of time. I’ll let the official community Google doc explain from here:
This was considered one of the most compelling pieces of information acquired from the ARG at the time. The full credits list would later reveal that SOPHIE does not in fact appear on Tree of Clues.
Even up to and after Square Garden, where we were promised to be provided more of the clues that we already had, the furthest we got was a chain of emails and URLs that lead to another dead end, instructing us to dig. We still do not know what we were supposed to be digging up. There was nothing underneath the Square Garden server map, nor was there anything substantial at the end of the parkour map built inside a gigantic rat fucker.
A while later, Murder Club announced that everything they had sent up to that point was a meme, and that the ARG was fake. The album is now set to release without any additional input from the ARG.
That doesn’t really sit right with me on its own, though. If you can forgive a brief foray into metaphysical bullshit, I’d like to interrogate what the notion of a “fake ARG” would entail, especially when that same fake ARG is now permanently commemorated within very real 100 gecs merchandise that has been partially purchased by the fake ARG’s real players.
Is the ARG fake because it is incomplete? That hardly seems right. I can think of a number of works more horribly incomplete than the Tree of Clues game that are still firmly considered to be real ARGs, if a bit bad. Is the ARG fake because no fixed end point was in mind when the ARG began? That on its own is also not very compelling. The creators of the previously mentioned work Marble Hornets have talked in the past about both the narrative and gameplay components of the work being developed partially or entirely as they went along. Despite this, Marble Hornets is commonly discussed as an ur-ARG, or at least a prominent work of web art with the elements of an ARG.
Even the game’s unfinished and unplanned qualities in conjunction with each other is hardly compelling enough to declare the 100 gecs ARG to be “fake.” A game does not need to have a winstate to be “real.”
Besides, the Tree of Clues ARG looked like an ARG. It played kinda like an ARG. We were using Audacity and cyphers and stuff. It formed a centralized hub of information, as well as a close knit community willing to tackle the clues at hand (I shudder to think of the fringe Subreddits and Twitter group chats which never found their way to the Discord mainland, the Great War for them still ongoing). If it looks like a rat, and smells like a rat, it could very well be a rat.
However, if I am to argue that the Tree of Clues ARG was a perfectly real gaming experience, I must at least come up with a point for it. Every game has a point, even if it’s the participation in an intrinsic pleasure. A game of leapfrog, for example, thrives in the intrinsic appeal and spectacle of cooperation. So too does the Nolan Batman ARG thrive on the intrinsic appeal of the Joker being your real life friend.
A critical element of the game I have not yet discussed are the temporal circumstances of its release. Most participants in the game had been self quarantined for several weeks at the time the ARG was announced. The gecs had cancelled all of their shows for the foreseeable future. On top of this, many were beginning to finish up online classes, or enter into steady routines for their work. Square Garden itself was the next in a series of shows Open Pit had been organizing to give the people at home something to do.
I am fortunate enough to have already had groups of friends who I could’ve gone to Square Garden with, but that’s partially the result of me being terminally online. The Minecraft element of the festival allows for some form of mass roleplay emersion, but I really probably wouldn’t have had as good of a time at the festival as I did if I was the only person there that I knew.
What is left in the wake of the Tree of Clues ARG, what we could consider the meat of the gameplay, is the Discord server itself, an entity fittingly designed by the player base as opposed to the gamemasters. It takes a very specific kind of person to dedicate a week of their lives to something like this at a time like this. Lord knows I could’ve finished my final papers days earlier than I did if not for this game.
Every element of this game motivated communication. The crux of the game was not to connect clues, but to talk about them, to get into a voice call with people you’ve never met and watch rat fucker at one fifth speed. There were times during the main period of play (the few days leading up to Square Garden) where there were no clues. We stayed in the server for these times.
By the time Square Garden rolled around, everybody who wanted to be in a voice call with people they had talked to before during the event could do that. We were still hunting for clues, listening to music we’d never heard before that we’d probably be listening to for years to come, trying to finish the parkour map before the server crashed again. We were beating the Tree of Clues ARG.
That server is still up, bearing every mark of the game that came before, but now used as a general hub for discussion regarding ourselves and the things that we like.
To return to the ARG shirt one final time, would it be any more unreasonable to purchase merchandise for a “fake” ARG than to purchase merch for Square Garden itself? Both have no relation to any physical objects. Even though some did attempt to visit the gec tree/call phone numbers for clues, the only things that progressed the narrative any further came entirely from the world wide web.
This is not to invalidate the hard work that the performers/organizers for Square Garden put into the event. The labor put in seems to be equitable to a standard live event. There is an obvious sensory difference between a live show and a Minecraft event, though. We can discuss cyborgic communications as parallel extensions of speech all we wish, but I intensely miss being surrounded by people, and no Andrew Goes to Hell CDJ set is going to fill that void.
That’s a temporary issue, though. In a few years, we might be left with no physical evidence of the ARG’s existence. There might be no Discord server, maybe no Discord at all. We’ll be left with a (probably) very cool remix album, and a shirt. It’ll be like we might has well have been there in person.
My self modded end point for the game will come when I am no longer in the ARG server. When I leave, the server gets deleted, or we merge into the larger gecs server, I’ll say that I’ve lost the Tree of Clues ARG. Others might pick the endpoint of the album’s release, coming this Friday, July 10th. That date might be the conclusion of my game as well. We’ll see.
It’s bittersweet. Tree of Clues may very well be the last we hear of many things. The duo of Black Dresses have disbanded in the time between the completion of their remix of 745 sticky and the albums’ release. More tragic was the recent sudden passing of Stepa J. Groggs of Injury Reserve. Their remix for the album, coincidentally also of 745 sticky, was released way back in November of last year as the second single off the album. The future of that group is uncertain, though it will surely never be as it was before.
Some minor things will be lost too. The unofficial Youtube uploads I have worn out so completely will be made obsolete. The rips of came to my show and toothless that helped me walk to the cafeteria some nights when I would’ve otherwise stayed in my room will soon be orphaned, ditto for the bootleg version of the Fall Out Boy hand crushed by a mallet remix.
The server itself has been slowing down a lot, too.
The remixed version of ringtone has long usurped the rotation of the original song at this point. Will we ever be able to pinpoint an original form of these songs again? What will constitute the debut album of 100 gecs in, say, a decade? If the goal of the game was truly just a marketing push, I can say it’s worked. I beat the ARG. 1000 gecs & The Tree of Clues is out this Friday on all major streaming platforms.
Link to the Google doc mentioned in the article, notable for how you can watch linear progress atrophy in real time near the end of it: Here