Junko Junsui and Alfa-Arkiv: Behind the curtain of the insidious ARG

The ringleaders behind the ARG that started nearly 10 years ago with Junko Junsui step out from behind the curtain to tell CNET their story.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
8 min read

Screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET

This does not feel entirely kosher. I'm logging into the KGB website, sent here by an iPad app. According to what I can find out about the site, its URL is legit; yet here I am, logged in and looking at files written in a script I don't understand.

Another website. This time the support page for the developer, as linked from iTunes. It seems to be a military contractor's website. I can log in here, too.

There's more. A Wikileaks listing. A website to raise awareness for a jailed human rights activist, with entries dating back to 2011. A page on the Russian Ministry of Justice website. A 2012 Change.org petition calling to halt an execution. A Facebook page dating back to 2009.

And this is barely scratching the surface. I've only been using the main app for an hour or so. I've spent so much more time poking around the web peering at my findings, puzzling at the information and how I've ended up where I have.

This is ALFA-ARKIV, an alternate reality game that was finally released in July of this year. It's a strange experience: you take the role of a new operator at a mysterious organisation, sifting sifting through data files -- letters, journal entries, official documents, confession statements, videos -- uncovering the story of a freedom fighter who has been taken prisoner.

As you read through this documentation, the ALFA-ARKIV iPad app will ask you to put it down and start hunting around the web -- logging into, say, the Belarusian KGB website to access files locked therein.

The story starts in 2005.

"The project really starts with Patrick. He created the original story of the Junsui. Originally, the idea was to create a sort of digital magazine. I was working at a film studio at the time and Pat sent the pitch my way. I was more than a little intrigued. There was already a very dense symbology and plotline thought out."

That's Rob Auten. You may know his work as a writer on Gears of War: Judgment, or, more recently, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. The Patrick he refers to is Patrick Marckesano, the brains behind the operation. And the Junsui... well. The Junsui are the crux of the entire operation.

Alfa Tsentr

They were first launched onto the web in July 2009, but by that time, Auten and Marckesano had already been working on the project for a couple of years -- very clandestinely. Because at first, they didn't really know what the Junsui would become -- just that they wanted to find a new way to tell their story.

"We did not know we were doing an ARG," Marckesano said. "Sure we had seen The Beast and other ARGs, but we were less familiar with the community. We were trying to experiment back then a lot."

They had spent a great deal of time between embarking on the project and launching content simply researching the various media that they could leverage to tell their story -- websites, social networking, search engines, microsites.

And, at first, it was small, subtle, insidious -- a Twitter account, sending Tweets linking news articles -- real events occurring at the time -- then more social media presences, a website, YouTube videos, a spoofed Google search engine that took users to a specific video feed if they entered certain terms -- all now removed from the web, but at one point offering tantalising snippets of information about a group of women calling themselves the Sisterhood of the Pure.

"Originally," Auten said, "it was designed to be more of a teaser. We knew there was a new kind of entertainment experience here. People took what to us was a teaser and decided it was an ARG."

Then project came screeching to a hiatus at the end of 2009 -- at least publicly. The background the pair seeded had started to generate a lot of attention -- and not all of it good. Marckesano's email address had been linked to the project somehow and he started getting bombarded with messages. Enthusiasts from 4chan and other forums started doxxing and generating rumours.

And Auten and Marckesano were exhausted: they had been keeping long hours, living on Russian time, to try to keep the project realistic. They needed some time to regroup, think about what they were doing and formulate a plan for the future.

It was during this period that they developed the idea into a sort of interactive novel.

Screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET

"As we got behind 2009, we focused on a few media categories -- like the interactive novel," Marckesano said. "We took what we had learned, and approached content creators in different fields, like Shani Boianjiu, a well recognised author of the traditional novel. We approached each and said something like -- we have a way for you to contribute to a larger story. We have a framework."

In the end, the team consisted of over a hundred members globally, all under strict NDA, contributing to the many labyrinthine tendrils of ALFA-ARKIV. Boianjiu might, for example, write from Israel, sending it to Auten and Marckesano in New York, who would then send it on to someone in Canada to translate it into Russian -- from whence it would be sent to Odessa to be handwritten for the final version of the game, then back to New York for design elements to be added.

The roster of contributors is jaw-dropping. Synth designers in Berlin working with Native instruments. An illustrator from the Ukraine. A Czech NASA architect, whose job is designing space modules and planet colony concepts. North Korea's Special Delegate of the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, who penned proposals for the game -- small arms refurbishment, slave labour.

And there's the community aspect. The Junsui videos from 2009 sparked massive interest, particularly, the team said, in Chile.

"Chile has great Internet access, relative to rest of Latin America," Marckesano said, attempting to explain the Chilean resonance with the Junsui. "They have a natural anti-authoritarian streak, especially the young generation after Pinochet. Nobody outside of Japan is more obsessed with Otaku / Anime culture. They love the bizarre and novel... And there is surely some legacy of the Virgin Mary and Adoration there."

Screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET

In 2012, he and Auten travelled to Chile to shoot video with street artists and the student protest movement -- making, they said, the Chilean fans characters in the story. A sort of full-circle symbiosis, where story and audience feed each other to create something bigger than either alone. But that wasn't all.

"We encouraged players to propagate disinformation at one point," Auten said, "to fool the opposing faction. It worked, even to the point where I was looking at stuff that I thought Pat had made."

This consisted of content such as forum threads and social media profiles in 2009. In Chile at the same time, they were hiding physical messages in a particular reference book available in multiple copies in every library -- then planting false clues in the same book. This resulted in a rush on libraries for that particular book.

It took on a life of its own, beyond what Auten and Marckesano could control: student films, parodies, band-related propaganda. One character, Gwaschemasch'e Kadın Efendi, made an appearance on Wikipedia as a real-life figure from history. Another, Oksana Kareyeva, got put on a terrorist watch database.

"Basically, part of our story installment this time involves a smear against a character: Oksana Kareyeva, and her group," Marckesano said. "The Oligarch Russian faction claims she is the Black Widow. They bandy about the word terrorist and claim she is a jihadist. So as part of the media content, we created two edits of the same propaganda video. The original clearly states their purposes and intents -- to save their sisters, fight a patriarchy, etc. But the remix that their enemies create looks like a Jihadist video from Kazkan (Chechnya -- Dagestan region)."

Seeing this second video, a private security analyst added it to the database, which is used by the intelligence community -- failing to either check or understand sources.

It is this believability, this rich, vast world of information and discovery that is what makes the work so breathtaking -- and, simultaneously, so hard for users to comprehend, and therefore commit to. Comments scattered around the internet indicate fear. The Junko Junsui subreddit is littered with admonitions to be careful. And, in a world where experiences are casual and attention space short, many don't know how to deal with an app that asks you to put it down and go hunting elsewhere for clues.

"I think our strategy backfired a little bit," Auten said. "The internet is a different place than it was. In a way it's a magic trick, but it's a slow burn. The app feels complex to someone looking for a book, and it's not fast enough for casual gamers. Being anonymous makes it hard to set expectations, and thus we step from behind the curtain."

Gwaschemasch'e Kadın Efendi. Alfa Tsentr

They want, he said, to remind the world that there are other ways of experiencing a story -- that there are ways to use the technology we have available than just staying in one place. That's why they wrote their own chatbot, created their own software from the ground up to make players feel they are logging into the KGB website, created a Chrome extension that enables Easter eggs in strange places across the internet. So that players can feel as though they are now part of something so much bigger -- an illusion of limitless horizon.

"Why read an ebook on tablet when you could have this instead?" he said. With ALFA-ARKIV, he adds, you never quite know what's in or out of game. "Platforms make things more boring, as they are so siloed. People complain when they have to put down their tablets and pick up their laptops, but that's actually a cooler experience in the long run."

In fact, it's so sprawling, so massive, that it's hard to define. Marckesano believes that it can stand up proudly as a novel; Auten said that the interactive detective elements -- largely optional -- make it a fascinating experience for those who want to dig deeper.

"I don't know that it is a game exactly, or that it's successful as a game. I don't much care, truth be told. I do know it's entirely unique," Auten said.

He adds that that the pair aren't entirely done with the Junsui, either. "There is much much more to the story. We'd like to keep telling it someday. Probably in an entirely different manner, of course."

ALFA-ARKIV is free to download from the iTunes app store.