The Frame of the Game

TwinKomplex is marketed as a free-to-play, immersive, multiplayer, browser-based “living novel” which can be experienced across multiple devices. This immersive alternate reality game (ARG) weaves a story whose images and communication bleed into the actual reality of the player and may cause moments of paranoid play – especially if living in or around Berlin, Germany.

Although considered a living novel, for the purposes of this blog post we will examine TwinKomplex as a game including a brief review of the rules, gameplay and narrative. Further support for examining TwinKomplex as a game (aside from not knowing what constitutes such an existential concept like a living novel) can be found on the developer’s site which states:

“TwinKomplex is a game that bounces between fiction and reality like a ping-pong ball. A living novel, unfolded in real time…” which “invents meaning and causes paranoia, a game that plays with reality, a dive into the deep world of emotions, an adventure for modern times….”

The magic circle of TwinKomplex is most certainly blurry (but there) as the experience detailed below will show. This magic circle must have different nuances if played among a group of friends located in Germany but is still effective when played thousands of miles away from the locations filmed in the game’s videos. TwinKomplex can also be thought of as having a portable magic circle. In this portable magic circle, the player’s individual and situated experience is considered so long as one is prone to suspending disbelief and has access to the internet.

The touted portability of the game was an interesting marketing pull as tablet devices and smart phones continue to climb the technology ladder and this portability is also useful as a reality bending immersion tool. In order to achieve portability, the designers had to ensure that TwinKomplex could be experienced on multiple platforms and in multiple browsers. This is likely the reason why the game is primarily (and impressively) made with HTML5, Javascript and Flash (used only for YouTube videos). A few browser tricks are incorporated in the login/signup webpage as the potential player’s mouse glides across the screen to unveil a picture of a young woman. As intriguing as the picture may appear <spoiler alert> it is just the start of a psychological test that the participant must take before entering the world of the “living novel.”</spoiler alert>

The Psychological Test
(paging Dr. Freud)

The psychological test is eerie and unnerving. My first run through of the psychological test involved more pausing than the developers would have preferred; this forced a re-take of the test. I had paused intentionally in order to read and re-read the questions. As you can see from the image, the correlation between the two choices is nonsensical but, supposedly, meaningful. As Zainzinger (2012) from The Next Web states, “I was assured the test is meant to be serious.” Make sure you have your speakers up because throughout the test there are odd sounds and a perpetually ticking clock which adds an air of suspense and encourages the player to speed through the test to avoid the inevitable alarm. At the end, the player is told that the results will be available once the analysis is complete. This is just the start of the paranoia and the “WTH was that?!” feeling which players might find themselves asking throughout the game.

Who is the man behind the curtain?


It is appropriate that a company which goes by the name Ludic Philosophy developed a game that is built on bending the reality of play. As Huizinga (2006) states, “if we find that play is based on the manipulation of certain images, on a certain ‘imagination’ of reality…then our main concern will be to grasp the value and significance of these images and their ‘imagination’.” This may just be what the developers and the creator, Dr. Martin Burckhardt, are counting on. That is, manipulating the images in the game world to mimic the images in the player’s shared reality. This type of alternate reality play can effectively induce uncomfortable feelings and possible paranoia in players.   It is play which forces the player to grasp the value of what they are seeing and question the reality of what they know to be true. According to Salen and Zimmerman (2003), “these blurred boundaries surrounding the ARG magic circle can work as “an effective way to mount a powerful cultural critique.” In this postmodern, post world-war era one has to wonder how and for what philosophical purpose TwinKomplex was made. If there is a comment on society to be found in the game it might best be found in the choice of filler videos and websites which the player is directed to view. These are found as “clues” in the game map. We’ll get to more about the game map and those videos later.

The imagination which the game uses to progress the main narrative of the story is realistically shot through professionally edited video with legitimate actors and actresses using a range of webcam, hand-held and studio shots. No avatars were hurt during the production of the story as there are no avatars in the game. It would seem that in a game of blended reality, an avatar would only get in the way of the player finding meaning in the alternate reality. The player profile pictures would be considered the only “avatars” in-game. These profile picture are part of a larger social network for players to use in interacting beyond (and within?) the month-long game periods.

Playing the game…

The experience that hours of gameplay has offered will not be able to answer all questions that are bound to be asked of this esoteric mystery thriller. For one thing, as of the writing of this blog, the game is not yet over. Also, the gameplay which I was able to experience did not involve the three other players. The other players dropped out of the game after the first hour but one could imagine how much faster the game would unfold if they were actively playing. However, the developers thought of ways around this possibility by forcing progress in the game through free in-game email hints and through the purchase of in-game goods. Email hints can come from your first in-game contact or other incognito sources and always arrive with an announcement while the player is in-game as opposed to email or another circle bending communication form. Much like the virtual goods which the major social gaming developers (e.g. Zynga) use to justify their existence, the TwinKomplex store allows the player to purchase additional energy points and other objects in order to advance faster in the game. These virtual goods come with interesting quotes and/or creative item descriptions. This idea of “play money” is intriguing and was further discussed by Dr. Martin Burckhardt, the game’s creator, in a March 2011 blog and later at a Games Culture Circle event in April 2011. In both cases, the discussion worked to address the blurred reality which paying with grounded reality euros and dollars means when purchasing virtual goods.

What happens after the psychological test

During the first few hours of the game the player becomes acquainted with the interface, rules and objectives. After completing the psychological test, the player is presented with a series of videos which serve to introduce the player to the secret organization (DIA or Decentral Intelligence Agency) and the world in which they will “play.” The first mission is provided and the player is introduced the various items which can be used to find missing persons, shadowy conspirators and other apparent criminals across the globe. Prior to starting the game, the player is asked to choose the game language (i.e. German or American English). Although the language is chosen, most videos are voiced in German and subtitled in American English which may lower immersion in some cases or serve to heighten the feeling of not knowing what is going on and possibly increase immersion into a paranoid reality. The rules are relatively simple (i.e. use your available energy efficiently, solve the mystery with the resources given and find clues) but the objectives are obfuscating and cryptic. Each month the story-line changes so any actual detail of the narrative may not be useful. In general the player is given objectives which require them to investigate clue X or location X in order to find some missing person(s) or important figure. Along the way, the player learns more about the game world through the investigation of the Google map to find clues and scientific examination of those clues. This scientific examination is conducted in a pseudo-lab where the player can order tests which use up energy and take time (from 1 minute up to 30 minutes). There is an in-game database which the player can use by calling up a command prompt and typing search or some other known operand. This database is useful in finding the last location or any known information about a subject under investigation.

The images, communication and apparent reaction of the game to your actions can raise the hair on your arm or make you cock your head in wonder.

^^Warning: Example of scary clown video found as in-game vanity “clue”

At one point I was asked to find someone on Skype and I only had to open Skype before an announcement appeared on my screen stating that I had a new clue. To test the waters, I then messaged the Skype username and to my surprise I was contacted a few days later by e-mail with a response. It should be noted that this was likely a bot responding to my Skype message but it was a believable bot to be sure and kept up lively communication through at least three email conversations.     

Hardcore or casual?

If, as Ventrice 2010 argues, the distinction between hardcore and casual is accessibility then TwinKomplex is a surely a hardcore social game. TwinKomplex has some of the hallmarks of a social game. In-game objectives may be accomplished with the help of your friends (if they didn’t quit after the first day). The game is asynchronous allowing the player to leave the game and still have the reality continue without them with a little help from their fellow agents. The players are rewarded for returning each time with additional energy and updates. <sarcasm>And penultimate of all,</sarcasm> the game allows players to send updates to Facebook. The controls are difficult and vague. They go beyond the game and require mental facilitates to sort through the clues in order to understand when to use which controls in order to solve the mystery.Keeping in mind that it is not only everything that is happening in-game but also things which are happening out of the game (such as the email mentioned above). The options are overwhelming with multiple HUDs allowing for a variety of analysis, a large game map with a myriad of searchable areas and searchable sub areas through Google streetview as well. There is also the stylistically simple, icon driven menu system which allows the player to interact with clues and actively search for the next clue. Prerequisite knowledge of how to read and how to use the internet is required and knowledge of German or Germany is helpful. Abstract memorization occurs as the player attempts to map out and remember the clues which have been provided or examined in order to piece together the larger puzzle. Unclear goals and unclear solutions are also common in TwinKomplex as the player is never sure which lab tests to run, which agents to trust or where the next clue may take them. Mission after mission, the story comes into focus and then fades back as “love turns into treason and trusted allies become suspects.”

Is it a living novel?

It may be philosophically sexy to consider the game a living novel but TwinKomplex is surely a game if nothing else. The cinematic camera angles and realistic acting add  layers to the narrative but they are all part of the larger artistic statement. Without the knowledge of a film critic one could argue that the game might be considered a compilation of short films interrupted by gaps in the story-line which the player must find and fill-in. In this sense it may also be considered a living novel in which the player takes action and finds meaning on their (in its) own terms. What an interesting rhetorical creation. It’s a living novel, game, story, narrative…whatever you want…but you must play it to understand it your own terms. Why add scary dancing clowns? Who knows, but one may have found a critique of society in it.  I don’t mean to be mystical or cerebral here but that may be the goal in making this game and part of Dr. Burckhardt’s ludic philosophy. Let me know if you try it out…meet you on the other side. 

-DIA Agent HallowsHunter

Post-script: I was originally interested in this game because I thought it was going to be similar but fancier version of a non-flash browser-based riddle game like “NotPron” but it obviously was not so my reaction to the eeriness of the game may be a result of my not knowing what I was getting into. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the game and will continue to play…I’ll make a brief update to this blog once the game is over.