[Spoilers for the first mission in the game. There’s a demo where you can play it, which you should go and do. Or else.]
The first time I played The Black Watchmen, I almost signed up for a death cult. I am in love.
Playing The Black Watchmen makes me feel like my life could turn into a horror movie at any second. It puts me on edge, makes me anxious, in a way nothing else ever has. It does to me what I imagine the movie The Ring did to people when they first saw it on VHS; it makes me doubt where the line between reality and fiction rests, if it even exists at all. It’s an experience as much as it’s a game, and it exists outside of the program as much as it exists within it. It’s creepy, and enlightening, and it creates real world experiences.
Which is where the death cult comes in. See, in The Black Watchmen you get given a question, and a box in which to type your answer. They sometimes give you faked government files alongside that, or a small brief of information, but for the most part that’s all the game directly is. So then you load up google, and start searching.
This is where things get really interesting. Many of the puzzles are rooted in real world history, so you’re reading about actual things that have actually happened, for reals. I learnt about extreme government drug testing, classified files about aliens, hospitals conducting illegal experiments. Which were all real things, not made up for the game. What The Black Watchmen does so well is it sets you down a rabbit hole, tapping its little GOLDEN pocket watch and urging you on, leading you into some of the most interesting, shocking moments of history. Stuff I’d never heard of, stuff that would feel right at home in a season of American Horror Story.
This immediately puts me on edge. It’s one thing to have a well modelled monster jump out at me from round a corner, buts it’s entirely something else to read about true horrors people have committed. It makes me think, not just about the puzzle, because to be quite honest that’s at the back of my mind by now, but about the world. That’s one of my favourite things about the game, the way it teaches you things, or rather, encourages you to teach yourself. The game lets you stumble through endless Wikipedia pages, obscure corners of the internet mostly untouched until now, news articles decades out of date. It gives you a key, shows you the door, then steps back, and lets you find out for yourself what’s on the other side.
But the trouble is, the creators Alice & Smith have set up little corners of the internet all of their own. There are websites out there, written just the same as many of the ‘real’ websites you’ll stumble across, that are full of things that are entirely made up. The real world information it points you towards, as well as these false websites of their own creation, all fit together into this fascinating universe, rooted in reality and then meddled with, twisted. Except the more I read, the more I learn, the more I struggle to identify what’s part of the game and what’s not, what’s fact and what’s fiction. I spend hours researching a historical group, the [REDACTED], who’re rooted in mystism and magic, who have been around for hundreds of years. Some sources say they’re dead and gone, others say they’re entering a resurgence of sorts, that there are churches setting up all over the globe. The game clearly wants me to be reading this stuff, but is it because they’ve written it? What’s truth and what’s fiction?
I’m disorientated by the whole thing. It’s all so contradictory that the game must have invented some of it, but what? Eventually I find a tangential link to the website of one of these brand new churches. It’s supposedly setting up in Chicago. The website is full of creepy photos of members in strange hoods, of ancient symbols and vaguely threatening welcomes to join. You’re supposed to undergo a face to face psychic initiation if you want to join, apparently, but if you don’t live in Chicago you can just send them a couple of hundred dollars and they’ll remotely initiate you.
I start putting the pieces together. There’s been mention of Chicago in previous puzzles, and the more I think about it the more it DAWNs on me. This must be it. This must be the answer to the puzzle. They’ve sent me down this rabbit whole of investigation, letting me learn all about the [REDACTED], knowing full well I’ll stumble here eventually. They’ve created a fake church in Chicago, and they expect me to find out who in the church is responsible for the crime I’m expected to solve. So I decide I need to get better access, find out who’s involved with the group.
I do something stupid. I click the little button at the top of the page that says join.
I was convinced it was part of the game. Convinced. After all, cults aren’t this obvious, right? No way. Of course, if my previous research had taught me anything it’s that human beings are crazy. They do evil, ridiculous, stupid things all the time. But they’re off somewhere else, right? Nowhere near me. My life is nice and separate from all that.
Except, The Black Watchmen has shown me how close I really am to these horror stories. It’s a game unlike any other, because it’s so firmly rooted in the real world that their fictions are often less ridiculous than the reality. Playing it is like becoming a full on, tin foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist for an hour or two. It makes you question everything, makes you glare at the world suspiciously, checking your shoulder every five seconds. The music, playing along in the background while you investigate, is brilliantly eerie, and enhances the atmosphere hugely. It makes the world a playground, a playground where there’s some weird kid dressed as a clown hiding behind the monkey bars. It makes the insane seem no less sane, but a hell of a lot more prolific.
Which is why I ignored the expensive costs to joining the [REDACTED]. They weren’t asking for my credit card details, so it had to be part of the game, right? Which is why I ignored the thinly veiled threats should I choose to leave the cult. It was all made up anyway, so I didn’t have to worry about that. Which is why I put in my email, and my phone number, and my address…
Hang on a minute. It’s clearly all part of the game, I thought, but let me check something, just encase. I clicked open the game, looked at the little box where I was supposed to type my answer, and tried an idea that had been nagging at the back of my mind. [REDACTED] I typed. Was that what they meant when they asked who had committed this crime?
A pause, a moment of doubt, and then-
Oh. I had just assumed they were after a person, a name. I thought I was supposed to join the cult and get access to a secret website or something, where I’d find the answer. I thought it was all part of the game. But the answer was much, much simpler than that. Something I knew half an hour ago. Still, this Chicago church, it had to be in game, right?
I click to close the page, but a warning pops up, telling me some of the information I’ve entered may already have been submitted. I scan down the form. My address, my phone number, my email…
I still don’t know if the websites part of the game, but the more I investigate the more certain I am it’s not. Whoever they are, it’s looking more and more likely that they’re real. So far, I haven’t been woken in the middle of the night by a figure knocking on my door, and I haven’t received any strange looking letters written in blood. I have been getting quite a few phone calls from an unknown number, but that’s probably nothing…
So, err, The Black Watchmen is great. It blurs the line between reality and fiction in the smartest of ways, and makes you do things you really probably shouldn’t. One mission led t me stalking a number of peoples Facebook’s, trying to work out if they were real people or just a part of the game. I’ve sent emails to strangers, worked out passwords, pieced back together shredded documents. That was one of the less interesting ones, I’ll be honest, but I guess us secret agents have to do the boring stuff every once in a while. And that’s to say nothing about the forum community, who are properly excellent. Whenever you’re stuck you can go look for help, and they’ve brilliantly layered their help through more and more helpful clues, so the investigation isn’t ruined. If you’re confused, you can look at clue one, if you’re still confused, look at clue two, and on and on. It’s brilliant because looking for help won’t ruin the game, and still gives you a puzzle to solve, just a slightly easier one.
So that’s my review of the videogame The Black Watchmen. I like it, and am happy in general, and don’t need any help. It’s really worth playing because it blurs the line between reality and FICTION and because it’s just so different from anything else you might play. It’s great. I’m great. Everything’s great. Stay juicy!