The Society For The Ancients
/ November 27, 2009 /
  Welcome to the community Q&A article for what we like to call "This Was The Way Their World Ended: Prologue". TWTWTWE began at the end of 2008, and we're happy to finally be able to speak candidly about this project.
  We hope you understand our continued anonymity due to the fact that only the prologue has completed. Answering questions here, we have the team members:
  WillWriter (project lead), Cimorene (writer), Aria (musician), Naptha (arg enthusiast), Cruzinha (puzzles/consulting), Pomona (puzzles/consulting), Yayap (Halo lore), and TinyMug (artist). Thanks also to community member Darksider13 for volunteering to collect and submit questions from the player community.
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This Was The Way Their World Ended: Prologue
// Post-game Community Questions & Answers

On the game:

Were you surprised to have a smaller number of players at first and then a massive wave coming in from Unfiction?

WillWriter: Rather the opposite, actually. It was hoped that UF would solidify, with both veterans and new players, while trying to gather other Halo fans and establish communities at other locations. The hope was for a wave of new players from the gaming community, but it ended up being a trickle, plus only the (relatively speaking) small UF community. Even then, very few veterans hopped on board, if any. There was an enormous burst of activity at one point though - When the website was first posted at Bungie.net, an immediate burst of unique visitors hit. But the general feedback we found was that those who believed it wasn't official called it "fake" or "a hoax", and it was hard to encourage the majority there to keep following with it being consistently denounced by many. That was a tough barrier to push through. So we eventually changed our focus from finding ways to increase playership to paying more valuable attention to the players and community that had already formed.

Just how frustrating was it to have to sit on your hands in hibernation periods?

Naphtha: There was very little hand-sitting - The end of each week's activity marked the beginning of intense discussions about the next week, and we were constantly finding ways to refine and improve on the next week.

WillWriter: Yeah, actually we needed those hibernation periods. Partially to plan, partially to create. The general story was developed, but assets were quite often created on a weekly basis. When it got to the point where the story began breaking out of the weekly updates, there was very little hand-sitting.

Cimorene: I was actually wondering if the next week would arrive and we'd learn that everyone had gotten bored and left!

Why did you choose to only be active once a week?

WillWriter: The project was initially a story intended to be released on a weekly basis as the prologue, but we made things more interactive and dynamic as the weeks rolled on, becoming far more community oriented and interactive - we never imagined it would become what it ultimately ended up being.

Why did you start with twitter, and who/what is "PNT"?

WillWriter: This was when Twitter was gaining popularity as a news/blog deployment tool in addition to personal micro-blogging, and a number of ARGs began using it for characters. There was the outstanding question as to whether Facebook would be appropriate for characters since some accounts for other ARGs had been shut down for being fictional individuals. So a Twitter was created as Sys's method to 'reach out' to the world, a two-way communication tentacle which it slowly adapted to using, whereas the website - its Primary Network Tentacle - was more of a presence, an archive of sorts.

On the puzzles:

Did you have bigger plans for the Amber page that got ditched when we couldn't get the password for two months?

Naphtha: I don't know that we had major plans for it, but we were very, very surprised at how long it took to figure it out. WillWriter and I had many conversations speculating if/when it would get figured out.

WillWriter: Eridanos was encrypting pages for a couple of reasons. He didn't want his ideas and research stolen, but he put some things online in case he'd want to collaborate. These findings were public knowledge, but sometimes he got carried away with his analyses. Also, the information when first posted was more helpful/revealing for the community than when finally found, and player information didn't yet exist outside of Unfiction. So initially the contents, in Amber clad, were intended to be a bit of a nudge to understanding the network while Eridanos explored it, much as the community did.

How did Eridanos get Anaerin's "tool"? Anaerin had not even posted it on unFiction!

Naphtha: Anaerin actually tweeted about it with Essyfan, and Eridanos was keeping a wary eye on Essyfan.

WillWriter: Yep, right here: http://twitter.com/Anaerin/status/1950080388 and the next couple of tweets. Erik asked if anyone had a map, and Anaerin answered publicly, linking to the latest results. Eridanos, in following and observing Erik, found the link and utilized the tool. Sneaky.

Did Anaerin's tool surprise you, or were you counting on someone doing something similar to find all the pieces hidden in the maze?

Naphtha: We actually expected someone to map the Stonewall, and surprised how long it took for someone to start. Anaerin's tool was an unexpected development, however.

Did you have a physical structure in mind (for the network), or was it all simply a mathematical graph?

WillWriter: In theory, the network could be visualized as a sort of sphere, but technically it was laid out as a grid. The hope for this was to see how the community would visualize the network after playing around with and exploring it. It was complex and obfuscated enough technically that it wouldn't be recreated precisely as it was programmed, but it would be interesting to see how it might be visualized. Anaerin's tool - that was a piece of work. We were constantly looking at the mapping methodology, watching how it worked, and I had tried to make modifications that would throw twists into his script - not to make things tedious, but to nudge towards a simpler approach to the network, while also making it more challenging to simply brute force the network and find all the new items. The network was based on nodes with unique path codes from node to node. Anaerin's tool viewed each path - each path combination between series of nodes - as unique iterations. In essence, each node could have any number of unique paths to it, yet produce the same results - but each would be logged anyway. So we'd hoped that there'd be a 'eureka' moment and (for the sake of bandwidth and deterring brute force) the algorithm would be adjusted to map nodes and exit paths, and eventually adjusted to easily locate the unique navpaths, instead of trying to log every single possible path combination around the network. Maps from Nyst and Catherwood were great to see! At one point I had even considered attempting to apply the node map to a sphere to see if it were possible, but on hearing Catherwood consider trying that same approach, I held off anxious to see her result. So that was a lot of engaging, back-and-forth player meta-interaction that kept us on our toes weekly once the network was revealed.

Were you surprised for us to find most of the skulls before we even had the first navpath?

WillWriter: Partly. They were placed with a range of difficulties. We expected those visible in page source code to be found right away. Some were found only through playing around with other pages. We expected those embedded in past puzzles would found shortly afterwards. The GPS Missions - we didn't expect those to take weeks! Especially New York City. The trail was initially intended to launch the week after the Portland skulls. Development stalled then partly due to extreme busy-ness of the team, so we resorted to increased interaction to stall for the next stage.

Were you surprised to have the GPS missions fail at first?

WillWriter: Quite. After a bit of target demo analysis though, the technical requirements became a significant limitation. By comparison, anyone (in the area, or willing to travel) could answer a payphone. A GPS Mission requires a capable mobile and GPS-enabled device. Without a large, spread out community to pull from and help spread word, finding people in cities who could complete them proved difficult. So they were initially placed in cities we knew players were located, so that even if they didn't have a capable device, they'd hopefully be able to find a friend or ask someone else for help.

Naphtha: I was very concerned from the start about the equipment requirements to use the tool, and was worried it excluded many people who had different GPS tools or different kinds of phones. I still think it is a great tool with a lot of potential, but right now caters to too small of a subset of devices.

WillWriter: Right. It was an experimental attempt, hoping for success in this ARG community, but in the end it didn't pan out as well as we'd hoped. So we ended up working with the GPS Mission team to provide rewards for those who did manage to go and complete the necessary missions. It took time, but the GPS Mission team was gracious enough to take the time to custom code unique rewards. Their gaming system was still very fledgling at the time, and has undergone many improvements since then.

Cruzinha: Originally I had considered developing an application from scratch, which would afford a much more focused feature set, and a lot more control. Unfortunately a lack of both time and resources prevented me from attempting it on a single platform, much less the many that would allow us to reach the most people (iPhone, Blackberry, etc.). Additionally, while GPS coordinates are not a new idea for games, using an integrated GPS application was a relatively new concept. GPS Missions seemed functional enough to allow us to try it out without a financial investment. If no one attempted the missions at all, we would find other ways to tell the story--we thought at the worst case the missions would sit out there until someone stumbled upon them accidentally. We did run into issues, and tried to tweak our approach. So not so much surprised as frustrated that they didn't work out right away; I'm sure it was frustrating for some players as well. The GPS Missions team loved the idea of tying into a game, and tried to work with us, but were very slow. I think we learned quite a bit from the whole experience, but I'd want to try to develop our own tools in the future, if we went that route and had the resources.

On the music:

Who composed and performed the beautiful piece of music on the PNT?

Aria: Im a singer-songwriter in my free time. I have been playing the piano for many years and performing my own songs locally for the last four years, during which time Ive independently released two CDs. Having been first exposed to ARGs/Chaotic Fiction during another recent game, I was intrigued by the idea of being involved with this project where Id be composing music entirely unlike my other songwriting. It was especially exciting to release music anonymously online and see it be a topic of discussion. Thank you to all for the compliments on the music!

Was Marty an inspiration for the music?

Aria: When I was asked for my involvement in this project, I was introduced to the plot and asked that what I write be reminiscent of Halo soundtracks, if possible. Besides having brothers play Halo in my house continuously, I really had not spent much time listening to Halo music. In preparation, I listened to arrangements of the main Halo theme, Unforgotten, and Siege of Madrigal. I read a little bit about the Halo music and Marty, but was mostly immersing myself in the various compositions used in the Halo game. It was my steady musical diet for at least a week!

What is the origin behind the music we have heard during this "game"?

Aria: I began by sitting down at my piano and composing four short thematic ideas (two minutes long each) and submitted them for feedback to our team and project coordinator. I fleshed out the best idea into a longer composition which was used as the Foreboding Dream track. As I wrote this piece, I thought a lot about dreams, space, travel, questions, and childishness. I attempted to begin with a beautiful melody, simple, with a touch of introspection and somberness. I switched time signatures from 4/4 to 6/8 to add movement and a sense of foreboding. (This piece would sound so much better with a symphony and Gregorian chant, but I work within my budget, heh.) One of my other original musical ideas was later incorporated as Nairas Dream. I am very pleased with all the positive feedback from the community. As a songwriter, this has been a greatly rewarding experience!

On the story:

When Sys "made mistakes" in playing along with Essy, (e.g., 2 pieces got released late), was that on purpose to show Sys' breaking down, or was it PM/technical error?

WillWriter: Yes. ;)

How did you come up with :@) being this game's "symbol"?

Cimorene: We were looking for something playful, childlike, and simple, sort of a symbol of Naira/Essy. :@) kind of resembles a pignose, where a child pulls their nose upward, and it suited her mischievous ways.

Naphtha: As Cimorene said, it was a fun and playful symbol. Beyond that, though, we kept finding more and more places where it just seemed to "fit". There were several "You know, this would be a great place for a pignose!" conversations.

WillWriter: Partially, it was an homage to Melissa's smiley, and it holds meaning on multiple levels. It's hard not to smile when pulling a pignose. It's not often seen publicly so it's fairly recognizable to those in the know. It was also the subconscious expression of Naira's memory of the sympathetic "flat-faced man" who felt sorry for her, attempting to cheer her up a bit with a pignose a couple of times. Who knows - whatever became of him?

How did did you make Essy/Naira seem like she was real?

Cimorene: Credit goes to the twitter account. That was really well done. In the story, I really wanted to make her seem like a normal little rambunctious girl, a mix of adventurousness and timidity. I know kids like that-- in fact, I've had the dubious pleasure of babysitting a cousin very much like that. Quite a bit of writing Naira's story was recalling that experience. I was also trying to make it seem like a child's recollection, much like a fairytale, much the way she might tell you the story if you were to sit down and talk to her face-to-face. ILB was a major inspiration for that, as well as real children I've met.

TinyMug: Naira was a both challenging and fun to draw. Challenging in the sense of having to draw out her story many times on a short deadline, but fun in the sense that the more I drew her, the more "real" she became. In the end, I was just a "transcriber" of her story, so to speak, since after a little while she had taken a life and personality of her own. Were I ever to meet her, I imagine her being a very talkative kid, with lots of cheer, imagination and never ending energy.

WillWriter: That's a big question. In short, Sys and Essy became the central characters for interaction. Sys was there from the beginning, but direct interaction with Essy was continuously held off, just barely, until Sys finally saw fit in allowing it. At that point, for us at least, Naira became 'real'. A huge memory for me personally was the day that the players came together and interacted with Essy directly for her final chapter - moments before she was taken captive. It was heart-wrenching, bittersweet. I would have to say that was by far my favorite period in this project.

Pomona: Pomona - I think the drawings and audio also helped with that. Even though they were cartoons, seeing Dreaming Eyes being scolded by her mother or playing with Bushy Tail made her seem more like a real little girl to me. Which made it even more (to steal WillWriter's word) heart-wrenching, when the horrors she went through were revealed. Even though she was no longer that little girl, those horrors left their mark on the AI and its actions.

Meta:

Are you (or is one of you) really going to be the father to a little girl (congrats, if so)?

WillWriter: Unfortunately, no.

Did your wife really have to go to the doctor like Eridanos said in that tweet (hope everything is OK!)?

WillWriter: Mu.

Was there anything you wanted us to find that we failed to?

WillWriter: Amber. :) And in a way, Eridanos also wanted it to be found. One might say there were some subtle homages hidden in the story as well; some were noticed, some not. To name a few: "Princess Yumyum" was pretty clear and noticed right away; Worcestershire sauce (in mission log 21); 1008 hours in mission log 29 = 42 days; Essy's log numbers began 343###.

Any final thoughts?

Yayap: I'm actually fairly surprised that people weren't as interested in the Halo aspects of the Prologue, like where the previous ARG research notes were leading, or other bits from the Halo Universe. It didn't seem to be a focal point for many players beyond whether the story was officially tied to Microsoft or Bungie. Granted, the meat of the Prologue wasn't very much focused on existing Halo lore, but I suppose I'm more surprised that people weren't really wondering where it all fit in.

Pomona: I had a great time working with the team and learning that I didn't really know as much about the Halo world as I previously thought I did. We tried some new things in this ARG, some which worked well and others that did not, but overall I think we accomplished what we set out to do. Dreaming Eyes will always have her own little special place in my heart. <3

Naptha: There have been some moments during the prologue that really made my heart sing, and other times when I laughed out loud at the computer. Watching the reactions from the community made all the hours of discussion and development well worth it, and I think we've had as much fun creating this prologue as the community has had in experiencing it. As for what's to come? To quote Cortana, "Hang on to your helmet!"

WillWriter99: Creating this grassroots ARG was, simply, challenging. I'm very proud of our team, who stuck together during dry spells through to very productive periods. Drawing this story on for months based on a weekly schedule and zero budget wasn't easy. It was filled with frustrations and good fortunes, disappointments and encouragements. Ultimately though, we were dead set on seeing the project through, and it was well worth the effort. It was fun and a very rewarding experience to be able to work with an amazing writer, artist, and musician, as well as the rest of our team, all collaborating together to create this story. And no, this isn't the end, it was the prologue. Suffice to say, there is more out there, and more to come... when the time is right (when development is complete). The epic adventure has only just begun!

Our thanks to Bungie for creating an amazing universe with the Halo franchise.

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