Something New, Something Cold

by Arthur B

A sinister entity emerges from the Something Awful forums to stalk YouTube users.
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Original content on YouTube is, like original content on the rest of the Internet, 99% complete idiocy and 1% genuinely interesting experiments with the format. One particularly interesting development in recent years has been the rise - on YouTube and on the internet as a whole - of Alternate Reality Games, inspired by “the Beast” - the viral marketing campaign for AI. ARGs are narratives that use the entire Internet as their canvas, sprinkling chunks of story all over the web rather than concentrating everything in one place; the gameplay mainly comes in deciphering where the next bit of story is hidden.

The thing that has stopped me getting into many ARGs previously has been the sheer difficulty that seemed to be pervasive in the genre. The Beast, for instance, included puzzles where you had to know lute tablature to solve it, and it’s not uncommon at all for ARGs to expect you to decrypt a bit of code hidden in the source code of an apparently empty page on a website that’s only online on Tuesdays. The difficulty comes about because ARGs from The Beast are usually written for collectives - rather than expecting one person to solve the story, they depend on groups of people getting together to work on stuff, and so the more obscure the clues are the more people need to pool their brainpower to solve it and therefore the more important it is for people to get involved with the game’s online community and the stronger that community will be. But the upshot of that is that many ARGs are simply punishingly difficult to progress in unless you are either a cryptographic genius or a regular on places like unfiction.com and other hubs of the ARG-playing community.

Recent months, however, have seen an emergence of what seems to be a far more story-oriented variety of ARG, with the rise of Marble Hornets and the thematically similar EverymanHYBRID and TribeTwelve. Although all three have included puzzles to varying extent, they haven’t been absolutely vital to following the story, which has progressed mainly on a small number of YouTube channels, with the odd Twitter account and tumblr blog providing inessential but fascinating side information. What the creators of all three ARGs have in common is that they are much more interested in storytelling than obfuscation through cryptography, which ultimately makes them very accessible - simply follow the relevant Twitter accounts and YouTube accounts and keep an eye out for interesting links thrown out in the comments and in response videos and you should be able to follow along. The unfiction forums file them under the “Chaotic fiction” section, which is a good term for it - rather than the narrative being told in a particular order and brought together in one single place, it’s fragmented and scattered all over the landscape for people to hunt down and collects scraps of it.

The other thing they have in common is that they’re based on the idea of the Slender Man.

Blame Something Awful


The Slender Man is a deliberately constructed urban myth (as opposed to the sort of urban myth that catches on organically through misunderstandings), invented on a Something Awful thread just like all the other Internet memes which don’t come from 4chan. To be honest, in his original form he’s not especially interesting. Ooh, it’s a spooky man who happens to be easy to photoshop into photos. Wooo, he has, like, no face or something, or maybe he does but it’s really ugly, and his limbs are all out of proportion. And he, like, stands around in the background and looks at people. And he’s got tentacles, but only sometimes. Oh no, look at me cowering at the inconsistently present tentacles.

What the guys behind Marble Hornets realised was that the Slender Man isn’t just easy to photoshop - he’s also easy enough to slip into a YouTube video, since all you need is someone with an appropriate costume. On top of that, a grainy low-quality video is going to be inherently more believable than a photoshop picture you can sit and look at for ages to find all of the photoshop defects in. Furthermore, the restraints of the format forced the YouTube guys to pare back the more outrageous details like the tentacles which push the Slender Man out of the Uncanny Valley and into goofyville in a lot of the photoshop images people come up with.

I mention this because it’s one of the few cases I can think of where a meme has been turned into a detail in a fun little project of its own, rather than a detail in some book or film or whatever being taken and turned into a meme.

Marble Hornets


The premise of Marble Hornets is pretty simple and is summed up in the introduction video: “J”, the owner of the main YouTube account of the game, was friends in college with Alex Kralie, a young filmmaker who had a plan to produce a coming-of-age movie entitled Marble Hornets (which, from the few details we get of it, sounds incredibly mediocre). After extensive filming in 2006, Kralie abruptly cancelled the project and intended to burn the tapes; J convinced him to give the tapes to him instead, and Alex handed them over on the condition that J never raise the subject again. Three years later and having lost contact with Alex, J finally gets around to looking at the tapes and almost immediately finds strange things recorded on them.

Marble Hornets starts out, therefore, is presented as footage from the shooting of the fictional Marble Hornets film, presented in the order that J discovers weird shit rather than in the order it was shot (a common activity of people following the game is to try and put Alex Kralie’s footage in order). Around a third of a way into the first “season” (the game is on hiatus at the moment, through the creators promise they’ll be back for Part 2 at some point), a second YouTube account, ”totheark”, started posting video responses to J’s entries; at first these were cryptic (most of the actual “puzzles” in Marble Hornets are contained in them, but they only provide short messages rather than great swathes of new material), but they soon became ominous, and even threatening. Meanwhile, the entries concerning the 2006 footage were gradually displaced by J’s own filming of his efforts to investigate the mystery, set against his growing awareness that something unusual is intruding on his life too.

Marble Hornets doesn’t sprawl as much as other ARGs, and doesn’t even extend as far as EverymanHYBRID currently does when it comes to other sources of game information. It had a Twitter account, but this was mainly used for announcing when a new video was up, though there was a flurry of activity on it as J narrated a trip he was making to locate a clue. In general, in fact, Marble Hornets doesn’t solicit audience involvement to the extent that many ARGs do and which EverymanHYBRID does, and arguably isn’t really a “game” at all - whilst an ARG would have left clues in the wild and provided pointers for viewers to go find them themselves, the makers of Marble Hornets had J go off himself and find the clue in question, and you didn’t need to look especially hard to find the totheark videos. I don’t mean that as a criticism - ARGs and Marble Hornets both use the medium of the Internet to tell a story in a similar way, Marble Hornets simply chooses not to make a challenge out of it, and prefers to avoid letting outsider comment disrupt the atmosphere they’re going for (to the point where comments were disabled on the main account).

As far as the presentation goes, the Hornets aren’t brilliant actors and the script isn’t going to set the world on fire (and does sometimes come across as being improvised a little), but they are able to work in a few nice touches; it helps that by and large they are trying to present the clips as naturalistic, spur of the moment stuff rather than great peaks of emotion. The guy who plays Alex is probably the best actor of the bunch, and he’s given the widest range of emotions to convey; one of his best moments is the climax of Entry #7, where he’s able to get across how he’s panicking but trying not to show his friend that he’s panicking. As far as the cast as a whole goes, Entry #9 is a highlight in terms of both writing (or improvising) and acting, partially because it gets across the point that Marble Hornets, had it been completed, would have probably been a pretty lousy film.

Given that it’s a low-budget YouTube series, especially high-quality visual effects aren’t to be expected, but most aren’t necessary for what they want to achieve; even being generous though, the fact remains that Entry #14 looks increasingly fakey on repeat viewings, and therefore loses its shock value. On balance, in fact, I think it was a wise move of them to de-emphasise the Slender Man in the later videos; the most effective shots of him are the ones where he’s distant, but at the same time the progress of the story demanded that the horrors come more and more to the fore. By shifting the balance of the videos from the Slender Man to his masked agents, and to the strange distortions of space happening around J, the Hornets are able to push him back into obscurity without taking the pressure off so towards the end of the series whenever the Slender Man appears it’s always significant. What succeeds even more than the visual effects, though, are the sounds, which the Marble Hornets crew are real masters of - they have a real knack for making a burst of static, an ambient tone or a distant crackling sound like Hell itself has crawled into your speakers.

My big criticism of Marble Hornets is that during its run it didn’t seem especially open to player input or interaction; totheark responded occasionally to YouTube comments, but that was about it. J’s occasional responses to the audience via the Twitter feed would be addressed to the audience as a whole, rather than personal responses to individual inquiries. Of course, taking care about what information you reveal is key with this sort of thing, and shutting down the YouTube comments did at least prevent people from trying to wreck the atmosphere by leaving goofy joke comments. At the same time, though, by stepping back from direct interaction with their audience the Hornets reiterate the fact that there’s an audience-performers relationship going on here, which is slightly jarring when the name of the game is verisimilitude.

Another downside to the series is that once you’ve sat through it and found most of the hidden parts there’s little in the way of rewatchability. Each video normally has the most impact when you watch it the first and suffers greatly from diminishing returns, partially because you’re expecting all the scares and partially because there isn’t a huge amount of information to be derived from any particular individual video. And whilst the acting is just about sufficient for the purpose of convincing you that these people are spooked, it doesn’t quite manage to distinguish the characters enough to make you want to revisit them for the sake of enjoying their company. But Marble Hornets is powerful and interesting enough to hold the attention, enough so that you can see why it’s inspired a host of imitators.

There’s a decent wiki covering Marble Hornets, which presents a suggested order in which to watch the videos (including both the main entries and totheark’s contributions) at the bottom of this page.

EverymanHYBRID


Of all the web series taking on the Slender Man idea in the wake of Marble Hornets, EverymanHYBRID is far and away my favourite, and I consider it even better than Marble Hornets itself. For its introduction and its first few episodes the pretense was that EverymanHYBRID was an internet series about health and fitness with incredibly shoddy Slender Man cameos in the episodes - most of which were far too blatant and unsubtle. Having gained the attention of Marble Hornets fans by appearing to be a really badly done take on the same subject, things turned around with the sixth video, in which it turned out that the really obvious Slender Man appearances in their early videos were actually in-character hoaxes, a bit of fun they were throwing in to spice up their series - and that’s brought them to the attention of the real deal.

The big reason EverymanHYBRID is a success is that, unlike most Slender Man web series, they try to do their own thing rather than following the lead of Marble Hornets. In particular, the core cast of Vince, Evan and Jeff are well-defined characters whose interactions with each other, the supporting cast, and the audience drive the story as much as the Slender Man’s appearances do. Whereas a fair number of the Marble Hornets were solo or almost-solo recordings, EverymanHYBRID by comparison relies mainly on group recordings and puts the chemistry between the characters at centre stage. The fact that you have this group of friends kidding around with each other at the heart of the series both makes the videos more watchable, and the HYBRIDs also do a great job of incorporating clues into their very behaviour. If you want an example, check out Evan’s reaction when Vince is talking about his dream in the third episode - there’s all sorts of things which can be inferred from that.

Generally, in fact, the HYBRIDs go out of their way to stuff all sorts of hidden clues and references into their videos to maximise the rewatchability, from offhand comments by the characters to little details in the background of the videos. It’s definitely worth following one of the various forum threads out there following the series, such as the one on the unfiction forum, to keep track of the current speculation about the videos and all the things other people notice that you might miss. For example, towards the end of this video there’s a sighting of a strange new horror (the HYBRIDs, like the Hornets, finding it useful to include scares other than the Slender Man in his series), and some viewers took to calling it “the Rake” after a similar manufactured urban myth - and then someone noticed that the HYBRIDs had been playing The Rake’s Song by the Decemberists on their drive earlier on in the video.

The HYBRIDs are also very approachable, and are quite responsive to e-mails and enquiries via their Twitter feed, and there are some events and pieces of information you can learn through those means - for example, it was through such responses that the HYBRIDs first revealed that they can’t actually see the videos on their account with titles written in Morse code, which tend to either cover behind-the-scenes events or bizarre, surreal sequences. They also use their Twitter feed to suggest to the audience which clues they’d especially like to hear ideas about, and occasionally to rally the troops - for example, a while ago Jeff went missing, and after he came back safe and sound from his road trip his girlfriend Jessa went AWOL - both times, the HYBRIDs have used Twitter to publicise the issue and seek the audience’s help.

Overall, actually, EverymanHYBRID has far more ARGish elements than Marble Hornets did. There are a bunch of boxes hidden around the place which some intrepid audience members have managed to track down from clues in the videos, and which contain some interesting material; likewise, they recently ran a competition to promote the series, and the winners received DVDs in the mail containing videos like this one. The series has recently begun to sprawl across a wider and wider stage - the HYBRIDs have hosted a few chats with the fans on uStream, the CANYOUSEETHEWORDS tumblr blog turned out to be part of the story, being the diary of one of Jessa’s friends, and Jeff’s younger brother Alex recently started up his own YouTube account, which so far he’s used to troll the HYBRIDs but might contain something a little more meaty in the near future.

The trolling video is another example of something EverymanHYBRID does differently to Marble Hornets - their use of humour. Whereas Marble Hornets avoided comedy like the plague for fear of spoiling the atmosphere, the HYBRIDs have shown that they know how to slip in the odd joke that doesn’t hurt the atmosphere - or can even help it. Marble Hornets tried to be all scary, all the time, which is hard to sustain and even more difficult to sit through, whereas the HYBRIDs know that if you mix things up a little it can enhance the scares - and even when something mildly frightening is happening, having the pals nervously joke around just shows how tense they really are. And if the HYBRIDs themselves are joking around from time to time then that makes the occasional gag from a viewer in a YouTube comment seem much less disruptive - the comments don’t shatter the atmosphere because the atmosphere’s been set up to incorporate jokes in the first place.

They’re funny, the scope of their work is more ambitious, they’ve got a really interesting fire/flood motif going on, they’re not just open to audience involvement but are eager to encourage it, they’ve got a finer sense of detail than Marble Hornets and they’re just as adept with the sound and visuals as they are (if you want proof, look no further than this awesomeness) - what’s not to love about the HYBRIDs? Whereas Marble Hornets came up with the basic idea in the first place, the HYBRIDs have developed it wonderfully, to the point where if the Hornets ever get around to doing Part 2 they’ll have to seriously up their game in order to keep up.

If you want to catch up with the HYBRIDs yourself, fans of the game have started on a wiki, though it’s a bit less complete than the Marble Hornets one. (Note that the suggested viewing order on the front page doesn’t yet include Alex’s videos.)

TribeTwelve


It feels a little unfair to directly compare TribeTwelve with the Hornets and HYBRIDs. Whilst the HYBRIDs obviously have a whole team working on their videos, and the Hornets have more people working behind the scenes than you might at first guess, TribeTwelve seems to be mostly the work of one guy - Noah Maxwell, if his in-game name is his real one - working alongside what few people he can rope into appearing in the occasional video. Most solo Marble Hornets-inspired stories unfold in blogs, like Just Another Fool, and for situations where there are only one or two creators involved that’s a good compromise - even though the written word lacks the immediacy and the verisimilitude a well-made video can offer, you can still do a lot with it. TribeTwelve, however, is a few steps more ambitious than that - it’s an attempt to produce something which is a lot like Marble Hornets, on a comparable scale, and so I don’t think it’s completely outrageous to measure it against the standards the Hornets’ set and see how far it gets, although to get as far as it has is an achievement in itself if it really is just one guy and a very few friends doing it.

TribeTwelve kicks off with a series of numbered “submissions”, which consist of extracts of footage recorded by Noah during a visit by his cousin, Milo Asher, during the early summer of 2008; after the visit, Noah lost contact with Milo, and the tapes sat undisturbed for two years until the news came that Milo had died, apparently overdosing on his medication. So, in tribute, Noah pulls out the old tapes and rewatches them - and sees things which are more than a little strange.

As you probably noticed, TribeTwelve is influenced and inspired by Marble Hornets in the same way that Never Say Never Again was “influenced” and “inspired” by Thunderball - let’s face it, if it were any closer it’d be a straight-up remake. You’ve got the footage shot a few years ago and then forgotten about, you’ve got the host of the YouTube channel not noticing Slender Man in the shots until he reviews the material to put it online, you’ve got the footage chopped into chunk and put onto YouTube in numbered entries. The “Submission” videos themselves cleave even more closely to the Marble Hornets model, complete with white text on black background for the title cards, and an introductory video setting up the whole thing consisting of text against a backdrop of silent outdoor shots.

Milo is pretty much cast in the same role as Alex in the early Marble Hornets entries; aside from the first substantial video, in which Milo arrives and not much else happens, and the sixth and last of the “submission” videos in which shit hits the fan and then Milo leaves, all of the submissions pretty much take ideas from the earlier series. There’s a couple of videos with Milo walking around with the camera late at night, like Alex’s night footage from Marble Hornets only less interesting, and there’s a couple of videos where Milo and Noah are strolling around and then Milo sees Slender Man and runs away, like the “Alex is shooting his movie and then sees Slender Man in the alleyway and freaks” video from Marble Hornets. The latter videos actually get kind of tedious because Milo does the running away thing multiple times in both of them, which just seems like overkill - did we really need to see both incidents in Submission #5, when one of them could have happily been cut to yield a more terse and punchy video?

Part of the reason I found the Submission videos so tedious was their aimlessness. Marble Hornets had the filmmaking project to lend structure to the early videos, but Noah and Milo are just kind of hanging out, and neither Noah nor Milo present a sufficiently exuberant personality on-camera to make watching videos of them just hanging out especially appealing. Watching people actually doing something, like setting up a scene or scouting out a location, is always going to be more engaging than watching them strolling around a park, even if one of them does occasionally mutter “we need to go now” and run away. It doesn’t help that the camera spends an entirely disproportionate amount of time pointing out the ground - I mean, there’s plenty of ground shots in Marble Hornets, but that’s usually when whoever’s filming is fleeing or rummaging around in the dark, not when they’re slowly and smoothly walking along in broad daylight.

Don’t get me wrong. The six Submissions aren’t completely artless. There’s some pretty good visual effects in there, and the last one is pretty wild. But Marble Hornets and EverymanHYBRID both managed to strike a fine balance between being interesting enough to engage my interest and having sufficient verisimilitude to draw me in, but TribeTwelve just doesn’t.

I get the impression that Noah (or whatever his real name is) realised that he needed to find some way to move out of the shadow of Marble Hornets, because the submissions end after the sixth one and the later TribeTwelve videos are much more of a mixed bag, ranging from Noah being given a talking-to from his grandfather to him picking through the contents of a mysterious box. The thing is, they don’t seem to be going anywhere. The box is a promising start, but after revealing the box contents Noah hasn’t really done anything. He’s been using his twitter feed to keep people posted, and he seems to have hit on a technique of grabbing pictures of things he notices from day to day and throwing them up on TwitPic in order to imply that he’s at the centre of a web of sinister phenomena, like stumbling across a dead bird, or whatever, but even then these pictures are a little hit or miss - I mean, I know Noah’s using his latest picture to show the audience that the Slender Man stuff is having a severe impact on his health, but this just looks plain silly.

If I had to pick one video to sum up TribeTwelve as it currently stands, it would be Night Recording - a slightly overlong video which kicks off with some legitimately spooky stuff but towards the middle begins to outstay its welcome and by the end descends into farce as Noah stomps around aimlessly outside his house in the middle of the night waving his knife at the bushes in an unconvincing way. There’s some good ideas there, but it’s probably a bit much to expect one person to actually bring them to fruition and compete with the Hornet and HYBRID teams.

It Could Happen To Any of Us


Back in 1999, Michal Oracz wrote De Profundis, a Lovecraftian-themed epistolary game that’s barely a game that was published in Hogshead Publishing’s New Style range of experimental RPG-like games that are barely games (the line also included Violence, Puppetland/Power Kill, Pantheon and the first edition of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen). The basic idea of the game was that players would write letters to each other in the guise of their characters (who could be themselves, if the players so chose) and make up various spooky things happening to them - the game encouraging them to draw from their day-to-day life in coming up with scares, especially if they’d opted to play themselves.

The whole Slender Man thing, at this point, reminds me of an enormous Internet-wide multimedia De Profundis game. There are other YouTube series out there in addition to the ones I’ve been following, and blog series as well, all of them taking their lead from Marble Hornets and varying the formula to a greater or lesser extent but keeping the (extremely) basic facts of the mythos more or less consistent between them. With each creator after Marble Hornets sprinkling their work with references both to Marble Hornets and other spin-offs, the boundaries between different ARGs, YouTube series and blog stories begin to blur - for example, it’s commonly assumed that one of the anonymous commenters on CANYOUSEETHEWORDS’ blog is Zeke Strahm of a completely different blog-based Slender Man story, and the “Operator” symbol from Marble Hornets sooner or later appears in most Slender Man-themed blogs and YouTube series.

What the various bloggers, tweeters and filmmakers have done is produce a whole which is simultaneously greater than the sum of its parts, but which you don’t have to consume the sum of its parts in order to enjoy. It’s a all-you-can-eat smorgasboard of horror - you can pick and choose which stories you choose to follow, and how much time you want to sink into following any particular individual tale. Take EverymanHYBRID as an example - you can just watch the main videos on the central YouTube channel as they’re uploaded, or you can read the CANYOUSEETHEWORDS and follow the twitter feeds and keep up with Alex’s videos, or you can subscribe to the unfiction thread and join the people actively trying to solve what clues the HYBRIDs throw at them. The entire common mythology is a lot like that - it can be something you spend five minutes catching up on when you’ve got a moment, or something you spend evenings ploughing through, and it fits itself to your schedule remarkably well. In the best series there's usually just enough repetition of important points between videos and posts that you don't even need to watch all the stuff to more or less follow what's going on.

ARGs aren’t new, and YouTube series aren’t new, and you can argue whether Marble Hornets was more like one or the other, but what is new is the way it’s spawned this series of unofficial spin-offs and tie-ins. Just as Lovecraft’s stories established a shared mythos for other writers to contribute to, and succeeded in doing so partially by setting out a clear formula to start off from, Marble Hornets came up with a structure which could be easily picked up, adapted, modified and run with by anyone interested in producing a similar Internet-based story and inclined to tap into the common mythology, and the more different bloggers and YouTubers tap into the mythology and weave connections between their stories the more immersive the whole thing will be. Even if the Hornets never come back for Part 2, they can be pretty proud of themselves. I’m sure the Slender Man’s pleased too.


”What, all these videos are about me? Aw, I’m flattered!”
Themes: Horror
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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 12:09 on 2010-10-24
Update: EverymanHYBRID's latest video contains what looks like a fresh set of co-ordinates, if you're interested in owning one of their boxes, can figure out the co-ordinate scheme and live near the locale then act fast (and check the unfiction thread first to see if those guys have nabbed it already, they're pretty quick).

EDIT: Looks like one of the unfiction people lives right on top of it (it's in Titusville if that means anything to anyone) and posted that they'd go look for it straight away...
Arthur B at 10:16 on 2010-10-28
Another update: this was just put out on the Marble Hornets twitter feed, which has been dormant since the end of Part 1. Most people are taking that as a sign that Part 2 is coming out soon (just in time for Halloween!), so if you want to get in on the ground floor for that now's your chance.
Arthur B at 21:23 on 2010-11-03
Another update (last one I promise): TribeTwelve's latest video is a sudden spike in the quality of Noah's output. Holy crap. It looks even better if you watch it in high definition.

I still stand by my assessment of the earlier videos and material, but it looks like it's finally started to get interesting.
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