“This show has now made Pokémon creepy to me.” Augmented and Alternate Reality Games, Interactive Narrative and the Documentary TV Series Hellier

Presenter: David Sweeney
Registration Number: 024
Institution: The Glasgow School of Art, Scotland
Abstract: The title of this paper comes from a March, 2021 post on the sub-Reddit dedicated to the online paranormal investigation TV series Hellier (2019 - ). The poster, Dessie_Hull, states they can no longer enjoy the Augmented Reality Game Pokémon GO (released in 2016) after watching Hellier because a ‘goblin’ in the game resembles images emailed to Greg Newkirk, one of the investigators in the series, by an individual who claims these beings are real and dwelling in the Kentucky town that gives Hellier its name. The first season of the series (2019) shows Newkirk receive a series of cryptic communiques, after his first excursion to the town, from a mysterious underground figure associated with both occult practice and anarchism known as Terry Wriste (a play on the word ‘terrorist’) urging him to continue the investigation. As the season progresses, Newkirk, and the investigative team he has assembled, begin to suspect that they are being manipulated by Wriste for his own enigmatic ends: at the end of the second season (2020) they come to the conclusion that the events of the first, including a string of seeming coincidences/synchronicities, were in fact a form of esoteric initiation orchestrated by Wriste which has fundamentally altered their view of the world, even though they never actually encounter the Hellier ‘goblins’. Both seasons are presented as documentary and the team has continued to maintain that the series is a work of non-fiction. If this is true, it is possible that the team was, unwittingly, involved in not an Augmented but an Alternate Reality Game, designed by Wriste. Regardless of whether it is a genuine documentary or not, the series certainly represents the investigative team’s immersion in an interactive quest narrative comparable to such Alternate Reality Games as Joseph Matheny’s Ong’s Hat from 1988 – widely considered to be the first Alternate Reality Game and, like Wriste, associated with both anarchism and occultism - or The Jejune Institute (2008-11) devised by Jeff Hull, which appears to be influenced by Situationism. The team’s immersion parallels the experience of Hellier viewers, such as Dessie_Hull, who are active on Reddit and other social media platforms where they discuss not only the series but also the numerous esoteric texts referenced by the investigators throughout both seasons. It may be, then, that Hellier is not only a work of fiction but also itself an Alternate Reality Game, in which viewers who believe that it is a work of non-fiction are unwitting participants to the extent that, for Dessie_Hull, it has affected their participation in an Augmented Reality Game, the obviously fictional (being based on an existing media franchise) Pokémon GOIn this paper, drawing on recent discussions pertaining to both Augmented and Alternate Reality Games and the consent (or lack thereof) of participants – including claims that the QAnon conspiracy movement is an Alternate Reality Game gone awry – as well as a range of literary, media and game theory, I will discuss Hellier in the context of the history and development of such games, using the examples mentioned above as points of comparison and focusing on the interactive narrative elements of the series.

David Sweeney is a lecturer in The Glasgow School of Art's Design History & Theory department specializing in popular culture, a subject on which he has published and presented widely. Publications include journal articles and book chapters on such topics as music and nostalgia in Twin Peaks: The Return; the Marvel Cinematic Universe; the development of the Marvel comics universe; time travel cinema, digital comics and the relationship between media technology and the ongoing Folk Horror Revival. His critical studies of the novels of Michael Marshall Smith and the Netflix Originals series The OA are due to be published later this year by Subterranean Press and Auteur respectively.