Masquerade: the original alternate reality game?

“One of my pupils lives there,” my Mum said once, as we were driving past a solitary farmhouse in the north of Scotland. She then added, quite wistfully, as Mum was secretly a massive sci-fi and fantasy geek who never really got to indulge her nerdy proclivities: “He’s doing Masquerade.”

“What’s Masquerade?,” the 11-year old me immediately wanted to know.

Mum explained that it was a fantasy picture book that had been published a couple of years earlier, which contained a series of puzzles that led to a real treasure – a golden hare ornamented with jewels – that was hidden somewhere in Britain. Whoever solved the puzzle first and found the treasure would get to keep it. Thousands of people all over the world were trying to solve it.

To my eleven-year old mind, this sounded like the greatest thing ever. A proper mystery that could only be solved by the application of a brilliant mind; something I was quite convinced I was in possession of. I resolved to buy a copy of Masquerade as soon as my pocket money would let me.

Sadly, by the time this came about, the mystery had already been solved. You can find the solution – and all the paintings – on this Masquerade Page-by-Page site.

Masquerade itself was over, but elements of it thrive into the present day: most notably the use of fiction to create a multimedia puzzle (Masquerade was a mixture of written text and a set of beautiful, detailed paintings, like the one to the left) that holds clues to objects and locations in the real world.

In some ways, then, Masquerade was a primitive form of the highly sophisticated puzzle games known today as alternate reality games, or ARGs. ARGs take Masquerade’s premise – that clues to real objects and places can be hidden in fictional texts for people to solve – and updates it for the internet age. In an analogue age, my mum’s pupil was trying to solve Masquerade more or less on his own, but ARGs create collaborative communities of players who can work together online to exchange information and solve puzzles. In the age of print, Masquerade’s story was confined to the page, but in ARGs, characters spill out across a multimedia universe, behaving like real people and interacting directly with players by phone, email and on the web.

Masquerade took two years to crack, about the same amount of time as the first season of 2005’s Perplex City, one of the first proper alternate reality games. But Masquerade laid all its clues out upfront, so players had all the information they needed to solve the puzzle right from the start. Modern ARGs reveal their clues slowly over time, in order to make the game last. The existence of Google, forums and Twitter mean that if Masquerade was published today it would probably be solved by Wednesday.

The internet would have done no favours for Kit Williams’s second treasure hunt book, either. Published in 1984, it was an equally gorgeous multimedia artefact, which scattered arcane clues across text, minutely detailed paintings and exquisite marquetry. But the book itself was untitled: the aim of the puzzle was to work out what it was called.

Being nameless may have seemed like a clever gimmick in the 80s, but in the age of Amazon and Google, it’s commercially suicidal. Like Prince’s squiggle, a book without a name is deeply search-engine unfriendly. Personally, I still think of it as ‘that bee book’, but Wikipedia lists it as Book Without A Name, Amazon calls it The Bee on the Comb, and on the bookworms’ favourite social media site, LibraryThing, it’s simply called Untitled.

If something doesn’t have a name, it’s not only harder to sell online, it’s also much harder for a community to form around it. Search – especially the real-time search provided by the likes of Twitter – is becoming vital to the creation of online communities of interest: if you like something a lot, your default reaction these days is to go online and find other people who like it too. If you don’t have a definite term to search for, you’re on to a loser.

But the internet may just be amplifying an existing problem. With hundreds of thousands of players worldwide, Masquerade ‘went viral’ by the standards of its day – and is even now enjoying a revival, thanks to media coverage of its 30th anniversary. The bee book never captured the public imagination in the same way. And if you try looking for ‘bee book’ online now, Kit Williams’s puzzle has to compete in the search rankings with everything from a kids’ school notebook to a new Nicole Kidman film. Proof that if you don’t have a name, it’s very hard to make a name for yourself.

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