Lord Ogre — that’s not his real name — wanted to lose weight, so he started playing “Ingress.”
Silussa — not her real name — wanted to better know Chicago after relocating from Portland, so she started playing “Ingress.”
They were just two of the approximately 2,000 attendees who descended upon downtown Pasadena on Saturday for an “Ingress” meet-up. “Ingress” is a game-meets-social-experiment from Google, one in which players battle for the virtual control of real-world spaces such as a church, a mural or a Metro stop. A mobile phone becomes a sort of interactive game board, pinpointing a players’ real-world location and overlaying it with a game of alien warfare.
“It’s like Risk,” said Andrew Krug, who flew in for the gathering from the Washington, D.C., area. “Except in real life.”
For Google, “Ingress,” born in the technology giant’s Niantic Labs, is just the beginning.
The company will later this year unleash another so-called augmented reality title, “Endgame,” this one a collaboration with author James Frey. “Endgame” is even more ambitious, as it exists first as a Frey-co-authored book (“Endgame: The Calling”) and seeks to ask questions regarding the future of technology and storytelling.
“We’re in the 21st century, but nobody is telling stories in a 21st century way,” Frey said Saturday in Pasadena. Augmented reality games use technology, in this case a mobile phone, to present an altered view of the physical world.
“Nobody is considering technology when you tell a story,” Frey said. “A search result on Google can be part of a story. A picture on Google Image can be part of a story. A character in a YouTube video can also be in a book. The future is this merging of storytelling and technology and the real world.”
“Endgame” will build on the lessons of “Ingress,” which was launched in 2012. The app, available for Android and iOS, has been downloaded about 10 million times, said Bill Kilday, marketing lead at Niantic.
While the underlying story of “Ingress” can get complex — players in Pasadena’s Memorial Park shouted military lingo at one another while rapidly tapping their phones — the core of the game is ultimately about exploring the real world rather than a virtual space.
“Ingress” encourages players to put one foot in front of the other and use the app to view a heightened version of reality, one in which mind-controlling alien matter is seeping into the planet via portals. Earth, using Google Maps technology, has become a battleground between optimists, who think the aliens have good intentions, and pessimists, who want to fight back.
Not having been an “Ingress” player, much of the alien matter stuff went over my head on Saturday, but what stood out was the way “Ingress” can encourage one to pay attention to little, easily overlooked details. A griffin on the side of an apartment building can be a portal, for instance, and so can a tree at the Highland Park Metro stop.
One can even avoid the over-arching narrative and simply use the game to play tourist. Missions inside the app will send players on scavenger hunts throughout, say, downtown’s Grand Park, or the grounds surrounding Los Angeles County Superior Court.
And since success in “Ingress” is ultimately built around cooperation with strangers, it provides a respite from the nastiness that plagues online games.
“It breaks down barriers,” said Krug. “It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white or speak English or are liberal or conservative. You have a common goal. Right now, the goal is to capture these portals. Barriers just evaporate.”
Frey, whose “Endgame” is a young adult novel that pulls on alien conspiracies and historical events — as well as some apocalyptic, “Hunger Games”-like battles — said he approached Google after getting wind of “Ingress.”
“’Ingress’ had just started turning the world into a video game,” Frey said. “Normally a book is a static object. It exists in your mind and in the pages, but nowhere else in the world. Part of the idea of the book of ‘Endgame’ is we were going to make a book that wasn’t a static object — it was also existing in the real world and the digital world.”
Already, Google is influencing the narrative. Characters that were initially created to exist in the game’s online portal were worked into the second book in the series, Frey said. The game will launch later this year.
Prior to “Ingress,” many augmented reality games were marketing tie-ins used to promote such vehicles as “The Dark Knight,” a “Halo” game or a Nine Inch Nails album. Google has grander ambitions for “Endgame.” The game’s executive producer, Jim Stewartson, stressed it does not exist to sell copies of the book. Players, for instance, can take part in the game and skip the book.
Stewartson said the advantage of “Endgame” is that it has a full narrative from Frey to drive it. Too often, he said, games rely on gimmicks, such as allowing players to pick an ending. Consider it a twist on the choose-your-own adventure books of old. Ultimately, though, such devices can call more attention to the medium than the narrative.
“You need to make people feel immersed, feel part of it and feel in it, but you can’t take away the story from them,” he said. “If you have them vote on the end, or choose this way or that way, it tends to turn people off. It’s counter-intuitive because it sounds really cool. ‘We’ll make two endings and the audience will vote!’ It doesn’t work.”
Frey had a bigger-picture point of view.
“I just hope people think it’s cool,” he said
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