Google has encouraged Android users to wage a silent battle for global domination focused on locations of cultural relevance, through its mobile game Ingress*. For over a year, “field agents” in the game’s invite-only beta have pieced together a deep narrative hiding just beneath the surface of the geolocative gameplay. The game was recently opened up to all Android devices, with an iOS release rumored for 2014.*
By Michael Andersen, originally posted at ARGNet
It’s been over a year since Google introduced the world of Ingress. At its core, the project is a locative mobile game spawned out of NianticLabs@Google, an internal skunkworks team based out of the search giant’s San Francisco office. In Ingress, players compete to capture and connect virtual portals situated at real world locations to control the globe for their team. Ingress isn’t the first game to explore this geolocative game mechanic: games like Plundr and Shadow Cities paved the way for Ingress by conditioning “field agents” to take mobile gaming out to the streets. What makes Ingress distinct is Niantic’s narrative ambitions: in the past year, daily updates from the production team through an alternate reality game have introduced players to a sprawling narrative told across websites, videos, novels, live events, and even hidden within the game itself.
Ingress recently opened up to all Android users, and plans to expand out to iOS devices in 2014. With over a year of story to catch up on, entering the world of Ingress may seem daunting. Familiarity with the story isn’t essential to gameplay, but it does add staying power to a game that runs the risk of turning tedious over time. For those looking to take the plunge, here’s a few helpful pointers.
At Comic-Con 2012, a comic book artist named Tycho interrupted the Buck Rogers Panel with a half-coherent rant about extra-dimensional portals. A professor at UC Berkeley was hauled off in the middle of a lecture on using smartphones to detect “XM anomalies”. A dissatisfied customer’s smartphone was stolen after he complained about the phone glitching near local landmarks due to a Niantic-branded component. These three loosely related events were how players were introduced to Ingress last year, but the events leading up to the game started even earlier.
After years of experiments into a new type of matter with the capability of influencing sensitive people, the National Intelligence Agency sent a team of researchers to work on the newly created Niantic Project at CERN. With the help of the team’s artificial intelligence, ADA (“A Detection Algorithm”), the team discovered encoded communications buried within the matter. The Niantic team developed a scanner app capable of harvesting XM and storing it at locations of cultural significance, taking two separate forms: using the team’s original protocol, XM takes on a blue hue in the scanner app. Using an alternate protocol, it takes on a green hue. The team suspects that the green XM was put in place by the “Shapers”, the entities responsible for creating XM in the first place.
On November 30th, now known as “Epiphany Night”, everything changed. The Niantic lab at CERN was exposed to a massive dose of XM radiation, sending the researchers into frenzied bouts of creativity, like Enoch Dalby’s musical compositions. Whatever the researchers saw that night irreparably splintered the team: some researchers went on to work for Hulong Transglobal, IQTech, and Visur Technology, while others (like Roland Jarvis) ended up dead. The schism of the team was due in large part to philosophical differences about the true purpose of XM, exacerbated by their exposure to massive quantities of XM through Epiphany Night. To the team members who went on to became the core of the Enlightened faction, the Shaper’s influence on sensitive individuals through XM was viewed as the next step in human evolution. For the team members who chose the path of greatest Resistance, the Shaper’s influence was in XM was deemed a “Shaper Mind Virus” that must be countered.
News of these events started to filter through PA Chapeau on his conspiracy website NianticProject.com, which provided classified documents, audio snippets, and videos filling in the blanks of the story. Joined by a motley crew of people curious about the research Niantic and its splinter companies continue to pursue, the Niantic Project website was the primary delivery mechanism for research into XM anomalies. Through the site’s daily updates, players were able to learn more about the history of XM and is influence on history through a series of Shaper glyphs, Roland Jarvis’ death and rebirth as an entity of pure XM, and subsequent attempts to both destroy and resurrect Jarvis. Chapeau’s updates come peppered with ciphers and puzzles. Some of these clues lead to passcodes that unlock additional items in the Ingress game, while others lead to deeper mysteries still.
Piecing together this narrative in its daily, bite-sized doses can be challenging, especially since PA Chapeau’s recent retirement from running the Niantic Project website shifted many of the daily updates to a section of Ingress’ Google+ page. However, a number of resources allow players interested in diving deeper into the narrative’s mythos easier. Felicia Hajira-Lee’s book The Niantic Project: Ingress provides a closer look at the events surrounding Epiphany Night, while weekly videos from Chapeau’s compatriot Susanna Moyer provides a more detailed overview of the story as it evolves.
Soon after Epiphany Night, the Niantic team’s scanner app was leaked to the public in the form of the Ingress mobile app, allowing members of the public to express their allegiance as field agents for either the Enlightened or the Resistance, and to shape the global flow of XM. While the alternate reality game provides a deep backstory to events, the Ingress app is the primary vector for gameplay, and for influencing the narrative.
The Ingress app is available for free on the Google Play store, and provides a brief tutorial on the game’s relatively simple gameplay. The app taps into your phone’s GPS data to pull up a map of your area, with local sculptures, murals, and cultural landmarks identified by portals, that appear as bright splashes of green, blue, or white light. White portals can be claimed for your faction by deploying resonators, which need to be periodically recharged with XM to maintain full strength once claimed. Rival faction members can attack claimed portals using special items to destroy all of a portal’s resonators and claim it for their own. Special items can be deployed on resonators to boost the portal’s defenses. Alternatively, field agents can choose to hack portals to gain additional resonators, items, or items that reveal additional information about the story. By connecting portals together, field agents can gain control of territory measured in “mind units” for their faction. At a macro scale, the game acts like a game of Go, using the real world as its goban by asking field agents to carefully position portals to ensure maximum coverage with limited resources. Leveling up allows players to deploy stronger resonators and use more powerful items in the global bid for supremacy.
Since field agents have been fighting over territory in Ingress for over a year, gameplay is highly influenced by your choice of factions. If the majority of field agents in your area are members of a rival faction, gameplay is akin to guerilla warfare, identifying key portal locations and attacking them while their rivals are distracted. For players whose faction dominates a given region, the focus shifts towards cultivating the faction’s network of portals like a garden, warding against incursions and bolstering defenses during surprise attacks.
Ingress relies on constantly tapping into your phone’s GPS and data plan, so it’s not unusual to burn through your cellphone’s batteries during a session of intense gameplay. Rather than discourage field agents, this has led many to secure specialized gear like external batteries and chargers to fuel extended gameplay sessions. Similar to geocaching, going out for a session of dedicated Ingress hacking becomes something to plan for. Some field agents take that to the extreme, setting up personal “epic wins”. One field agent recently chartered a bush plane to a remote town in Alaska for an epic run, while others set up trans-national collaborations to secure large swaths of territory for their factions.
The game focuses on highlighting locations of cultural significance, the app provides a stealthy way of familiarizing its player base with the murals, sculptures, and landmarks that so often get ignored in the ordinary course of business. And since users can submit their own portals for consideration, Ingress is slowly yet surely augmenting its global database of noteworthy locations through gameplay, particularly in more remote locations.
For the most part, global control of mind units doesn’t have a significant influence on the unfolding narrative. However, field agents are given agency to influence events and characters through a series of special events referred to as “XM Anomalies”. These events offer field agents time-sensitive challenges to secure specific locations for their factions in order to secure secret documents, or even sway the allegiance of characters in the story. The most recent event, codenamed 13MAGNUS, pitted the two factions against each other in a bid to either resurrect Roland Jarvis from the dead, or ensure his destruction. The Enlightened succeeded in bringing Jarvis back from the XM-enhanced dead as one final hurrah before the end of Ingress‘ open beta.
In the past year, the Ingress community has blossomed, with blogs and a subreddit providing regular updates on the game’s progress, Wikis documenting the minutae of the game’s story, and a weekly in-game web series produced by NianticLabs drawing attention to some of the game’s highlights, focusing in equal parts on the narrative and gameplay. And there are quite a few highlights, like when one passionate player got a tattoo of the game’s logo.
Each of these serve as practical windows into the world of Ingress for the outsider, but the most vibrant community can be found on Google+. While Google’s efforts to integrate its social network across everything from YouTube to Gmail has been met its own resistance from the company’s existing user base, Ingress may serve as Google’s strongest case study for providing a compelling reason for people to actually use the service for its intended purpose. Ingress‘ gameplay is inherently competitive, pitting faction against faction. However, inter-faction collaboration is also essential for regional planning, so players have turned to Google+ Circles to manage tactical planning while still participating in cross-factional conversations.
The friendly localized rivalries have even led to some unexpected and unprompted instances of geo-locative artwork. Given a palatte of geo-locative points on a map, Enlightened and Resistance field agents teamed up to engage in not-so-random acts of field art, carving out virtual bat signals, woodpeckers, and sailboats to decorate the game’s interface.
Ingress is free to play, without relying on freemium micro-transactions that could risk unbalancing the game. To test out potential revenue models for the game and its platform, the Niantic Labs team has experimented with a number of business models to support the game. For Ingress, the primary method used is product placement. Companies like ZipCar, Jamba Juice, Duane Reade, and Verizon partnered with Google to add store locations to the list of portals, as well as special codes to unlock additional items inside the locations. Specially marked bottles of HINT water also contain passcodes. As Niantic CEO John Hanke explained to The Verge, the hope is to eventually open up Ingress‘ platform to developers interested in taking the platform in different narrative directions.
If you’re interested in giving Ingress a try, download the app from the Google Play store, take a look at the portals in your area at the official Ingress map, check out the global Ingress community on Google+, and reach out to your local Ingress group to get some insight into the local scene, and watch the Ingress Report’s – video tutorials for suggestions on how to reach level 8 in no time. But be careful: you’re only allowed to change your faction once, by requesting a manual reset for your account. So take your time deciding whether you want to oppose the Shaper infestation with the Resistance, or embrace the change with the Enlightened.