Two game devs made up a classic JRPG to help promote their new title, a twine game about fandom, nostalgia and Usenet boards. What they didn’t count on was people believing the fake game was real.
Sophia Park and Penelope Evans initially gave out jewel cases for Arc Symphony, a “classic” JRPG that they made up whole cloth, to their friends so that they would post about it on social media.
Park and Evans brought the remaining cases to the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, and found that people wanted in on the fun, and that a few would insist to them that they’d actually played Arc Symphony.
“They saw one of our jewel cases and said ‘Oh. Yeah, I remember this. Didn’t dig into it much though,’” Park said over email. “We were both stunned.”
“One or two people at TCAF mentioned something along the lines of: oh, I think maybe I played this at a friend’s place,” Evans said. “That was surreal. I was really focused on nailing the look of the case, and apparently I succeeded.”
Indeed, if you look at the pictures of the jewel cases that have been posted on Twitter, they look exactly like a classic Playstation JRPG, down to the limited color palette and font choice. If you google Arc Symphony, you’ll end up at a Neocities fansite for the game—and that was where I got fooled. It is such a pitch perfect recreation of how people performed their fandom for games in the late 90s, that my first thought upon reading it was, “Huh, I should ask Jason Schreier what this is.” I wasn’t the only one: if you search “Arc Symphony” on Twitter, you’ll find a few people asking why they’d never heard of this apparently classic game, and it’s gotten a thread on NeoGaf where people are cheerfully spreading misinformation.
“We reached out to a few people, described the game itself and how we wanted to act out its central premise (this game you can only discover through tertiary, fan content) in real life, and so many developers thought it was fun to join in, especially after playing the game ahead of time,” Park said. “I was surprised that it took off from there, however … agents of misinformation found their own agents of misinformation to help them. People found us, saw what was happening, and just decided to add ‘evidence’. It was all so natural.”
In reality, Arc Symphony is a game about the performance of fandom. It takes place on a Usenet board for this non-existent game. After taking a brief personality quiz, you jump in the mix, playing the part of a lapsed poster. Just like their marketing felt so accurate that you could believe Arc Symphony was real, the cast of characters you talk to in the game does as well. There’s the cute couple that ended up getting two phone lines so that could chat on IRC at the same time; a newbie with a tendency to push people’s buttons; and a university professor that insists you call him by his username while you’re on the world wide web. While some of the conversations are ones that we still have about games at in the present day—you can gently rib one of the moderators for liking an unpopular character or pedantically correct people on their knowledge of game mechanics—but it also feels distinctly like a snapshot of world long lost.
“I was active on a number of Sims 2 forums as a kid, and I do have nostalgia for it. It was a weird community. Forums are weird in general. I rejoined one a year or two ago and got slapped on the wrist for double posting,” Evans said. “The game gives you a chance at a few points to really hurt some people. I think it feels a lot like a real forum experience: all you’re looking at is pixels, but there is someone behind that screen. They get to accept or reject you, and you get to accept or reject them.”
Park doesn’t feel that kind of nostalgia. “I don’t really miss any of it: old sites, BBSes or mailing lists, but it’s a part of me. I hand-coded the website. I used the ‘graphic design’ I learned on 2000s GFX forums to make a lot of the website’s art,” she said. “However, and I will stress this: I was never into fanfiction? So all the fanfiction that I wrote for this game is kind of accurately … bad. You can tell when it’s really bad, it’s probably mine.”
Arc Symphony works because of Park and Evan’s marketing of it—it becomes easier to pretend to be a fan of the game when they’ve managed to slip a little nostalgia for it into your drink. Both Park and Evans were very surprised by the success of their campaign, and how quickly it got away from them.
“It’s actually really unsettling when it stops just being indie game devs having fun with each other,” Park said, “and starts being, well, rewriting cultural memory…”