Note: This following review of AOTW and E3W Productions‘ Arcana contains spoilers.
“Jade?” Hadley calls out, climbing into Jade’s junk-filled attic, filming through a cell phone she found on a lower floor. An ominous shade of red lights the attic’s interior. “Jade?” Hadley tries again, “It’s Hadley, it’s…” she trails off as a sudden noise catches her attention. The camera pans sharply to a hunched form with her back to us, grunting and busily chewing… something. It’s Jade. “Oh god,” Hadley gasps. That catches Jade’s attention. She turns to Hadley, startled, mouth bloody and eyes completely white apart from her pupils. Jade drops the white dove carcass she’s been gnawing on. She scrambles toward the camera on all fours, snarling, her expression one of manic fury. Hadley ditches the phone and bolts. I can’t blame her. But I can blame myself – after all, this is kind of my fault.
Arcana was a free-to-play ARG created by AOTW (Eva Anderson, Mali Elfman, Eric Hoff, Tommy Honton, and E3W Productions) which ran through May and into early June, 2020. Primarily unfolding through Instagram posts, but also incorporating direct messages, emails, video clips, audio files, and even non-fictional elements, Arcana offered participants a puzzle-driven horror mystery centered around the fictional character Jade and her struggles with a demonic presence called Providence which had singled her out as its next vessel. Players were tasked with helping Jade (portrayed by Nerea Duhart), and eventually other characters, make sense of what was going on by finding clues hidden in the various posts or synthesized from real-world history and lore, culminating in a choice participants had to collectively vote on through video submissions to determine Jade’s ultimate fate.
The word “Arcana” can refer to tarot cards, magic, and to obscure knowledge in general, and Arcana the ARG touched upon all three at various points. But the broader themes that defined the story revolved around guilt, isolation, the occult, secrets, betrayal, and murder.
Murder popped up in a couple places in Arcana. Serial killers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in particular William Edward Hickman, were a key part of Arcana’s world-building and the central antagonist’s character. Providence is positioned as a body-jumping entity that possessed several real-world murderers in turn and drove them to commit their gruesome acts, then moved onto its next vessel following their death by execution. While only Hickman was required to be researched in order to further the story, Easter eggs hidden in audio files – which had to be uncovered by converting the audio into a spectrograph – pointed Arcana’s participants toward other former hosts of the demon. And of course, Providence’s end goal was more killing, and thwarting it was the main challenge for those taking part.
Guilt, secrets, and betrayal, meanwhile, defined the narrative arcs for Jade and her twin Robin (also played by Duhart). Each were initially positioned as sympathetic, relatable characters to ensure that when their misdeeds came to light it represented a huge plot twist that had fundamentally changed who they were in participants’ eyes. Another character, the demonologist Gareth Fitzpatrick (played by Eric Hoff), had a dark secret of his own, and while it was never fully explored it clearly weighed heavily on the character and served as a source of tension between him and Hadley Meares. In fact Hadley, a fictionalized version of a real-world crime journalist (played by the real Hadley Meares), was the only main character not perpetrating or plagued by deceit.
As for the occult angle, that came primarily through the use of tarot cards in several puzzles and in the creation of the Providence entity (its name, in turn, drawn from actual testimony from Hickman). In order to determine Providence’s nature, participants at one point became amateur demonologists themselves, researching spirits from different religious and cultural traditions based on guidance from Gareth to help determine the demon’s vulnerabilities. More than one puzzle also strayed into the realm of sorcery by having participants piece together clues to devise spells intended to combat Providence’s growing influence on Jade.
But one factor in particular complicated the efforts of Arcana’s participants to help Jade: the unreliable narrator. Jade and Robin both misrepresented themselves and their past actions, with devastating consequences. But arguably it was the participants themselves who proved the most egregious example. Deceived throughout by Providence’s trickery, players inexorably (albeit unwittingly) became the prime architects of Jade’s downfall. Each clue they uncovered, each puzzle they solved, only served to worsen Jade’s mental state and further Providence’s horrific, blood-soaked goals. Faced with the enormity of their failure, Arcana’s climax was a desperate attempt to undo their mistakes with the help of Gareth, Hadley, and Robin.
Speaking of the characters, Arcana’s cast deserves kudos for the quality of their performances. Duhart in particular did a fantastic job. Jade and Robin had distinct, convincing personalities, and Duhart was delightfully unsettling after Jade’s possession. Hoff’s depiction of Gareth, meanwhile, turned the character into an instant favorite among participants with his bumbling earnestness and involuntary (but utterly welcome) comic relief. Behind the scenes, the team collectively handled written correspondence with the participants and did an admirable job of keeping each character’s voice consistent, regardless of who was doing the typing.
From a technical standpoint, Arcana’s execution was mostly spot-on as well. The production values of the video and audio elements were well beyond expectations for a free experience, and the sound design in particular was top-notch. AOTW also made great use of the house that served as the experience’s primary set, along with an endless array of well-made props. The puzzles, too, were diverse and clever, requiring a mix of different types of reasoning and methods to solve. Some were cryptographic, some involved hidden visual clues, and others involved synthesizing real-world information to solve in-game riddles.
That said, there were a couple of hiccups and design elements that do bear mentioning. Some of the earlier puzzles were harder than they needed to be due to Instagram’s heavy image compression, which made finding small fiddly details a chore. To the team’s credit, they did adapt once the problem was identified and began including zoomed-in images where said clues were buried. Companies looking to use social media platforms for presenting image-based puzzles in the future would do well to take compression into account.
Another mild issue was not so much an accidental flaw as an occasionally frustrating-to-some result of conscious design choices. Arcana was very linear in its flow, tightly scripted with relatively low character interaction and limited audience agency to ensure that every participant got the full experience. And while this worked on the whole, it did come with some baked-in tradeoffs. Players who favor more character-driven experiences may have been disappointed with the level of communication they were able to have with Arcana’s characters, and particularly astute players who managed to guess solutions to future puzzles or planned narrative developments early got no acknowledgement for doing so. Again, this was understandable given the realities of the situation: A specific amount of information was meant to be revealed each day, and given the very active player-made Discord and Slack communities, anything given out to one player early was all but guaranteed to turn into a spoiler for everyone else.
This was not really a problem so much as the result of Arcana’s design. But ARG designers may want to consider managing a few expectations at the start of the experience in terms of how linear, structured, and self-directed things are likely to be.
AOTW’s Arcana was an all-around excellent, multilayered, puzzle-driven horror ARG that took great steps to ensure that both active and passive participants got to experience the full story. Solid performances, high-quality audio, images, and videos, and clever weaving of fictional and real-world elements resulted in an intricate and rich story that took participants on a gripping journey into darkness that let the community choose the final result. Hopefully we’ll see more like this from AOTW and others in the future.
Those who wish to explore Arcana for themselves can access nearly all of the game’s content (minus the interaction with characters, obviously) via the game’s website here. You can also follow or contact AOTW on Facebook.