Crow 64 and the Impact of Alternate Reality Games

A little less than a year ago, I wrote a pair of entries (here and here) exploring the scholarship on, and potential educational uses of, armchair treasure hunts. Those competitions, you may remember, typically require participants to find clues, decode hints, solve puzzles, and, eventually get out into the world and locate or even dig up a hidden treasure. Although I haven’t been able to devote much time to any ATHs lately, I’ve put in a number of hours over the last several years working on The Secret and the Forrest Fenn treasure hunt, which was, quite famously, solved by a med school student back in the summer of 2020. (1)

Another type of activity similar to ATHs–similar both in their style and in my lack of time to pursue them lately–is alternate reality games, or ARGs. There is no single, clear definition of the term, but in general, ARGs tend to be fictional experiences, conveyed through a variety of media forms, in which participants interact with each other and with the game’s creators in order to advance a story. Some ARGs are created by hobbyists, while others, including the first ARG I ever learned of–I Love Bees, which was released to promote the Xbox game Halo 2 back in 2004–are crafted by marketing professionals to drum up enthusiasm for a game or movie. I Love Bees, for instance, created a scenario in which an AI had supposedly arrived on Earth from outer space and attached itself to a website for bee enthusiasts. In the game, the AI assisted players in depowering a powerful alien weapon, but at the cost of giving away Earth’s location to another faction of aliens. Those aliens, the Covenant of the Halo games, then invade Earth at the beginning of Halo 2, which I Love Bees had been designed to market. The ARG simultaneously boosted interest for the game while also providing important backstory and including players in the game–not just as users of video game controllers, but participants in the story itself. (For more on the craft behind ARGs, check out this game creator’s analysis of the recent QAnon conspiracy, which is decidedly not a game but manifests many characteristics similar to one.)

Although I’m hardly at the cutting edge of the ARG community, I have been keeping a close eye recently on developments surrounding a new game, alternately titled Crow 64 or Catastrophe Crow! As a longtime Nintendo 64 player and owner, I was intrigued when I originally came across the YouTube video which serves as the unofficial jumping-off point for the ARG. The video is embedded below, but first, let’s walk through the developments that have taken place in the ARG since it first began.

In October 2020, the filmmaker Adam Butcher posted an unusual video to YouTube in which he claimed to have acquired a developmental copy of an unreleased Nintendo 64 game–titled, again, either Catastrophe Crow! or Crow 64. (2) According to the video, the game was originally created by esteemed German developer Manfred Lorenz and was the subject of an enormous amount of media hype in the late 1990s, particularly related to its new and groundbreaking “eternal revival system.” The game, however, was never finished. Lorenz’s company, Opus Interactive, closed down due to financial troubles, and ultimately, Catastrophe Crow! mysteriously disappeared along with its creator.

According to the video, though, Butcher came across a developmental copy of the game on eBay this year; the seller claimed to have found it in his attic, and Butcher purchased it immediately. The video begins as a relatively straightforward “Let’s Play…”, but then takes a turn for the surreal. The levels Butcher explores feature impossible geometry, disturbing scenes, and a general sense of unease indicating that something went horribly wrong during the game’s development. Butcher can hardly believe what he sees, and eventually stops commenting on the proceedings altogether.

Those of you who know your N64 history well, or who have happened to read this particular article on gaming hoaxes, will know that there was never any such game as Catastrophe Crow! and realize that the footage of the game in the YouTube video (and in other clips the game’s creators seeded on a variety of gaming-related channels) is not authentic. What the fake game and its fictional backstory are intended to do, however, is to kick off a new ARG centered on Lorenz’s apparent return from the grave (the eternal revival system, anyone?) and his attempts to contact his son, Nils.

To try to explain everything else that has been determined so far would be a tough chore in a short blog post, but to try to sum it up, players have collectively managed to decipher several in-game code languages (including “Crow” language) which have in turn made them able to translate codes hidden elsewhere in the revealed footage. These messages have fleshed out the story of the fictional game and its development saga, revealing, for instance, that Lorenz apparently suffered a tragic family accident related to his daughter, who was the inspiration for the game. Another interesting angle is that community members were, for a time, able to communicate with “Lorenz” via a set of email addresses, and “Lorenz” spoke of trying to meet his son in a real-world location at a specific time. That information is seemingly not available to players yet, but if the game continues, that may very well be the end of the ARG or at least a major plot point. More recently, a number of the fictional game’s assets, including several levels, were released and are, at least at some level, playable in Unity. A large part of the community’s collective wisdom can be found in a lengthy Google Document which has already been translated into an astonishing number of languages. (3)

I’m writing this first draft in late December 2020, and it’s not impossible that further major developments will have taken place by the time this post goes up in early February. If so, I’ll update below, but either way, if you’re interested, check out the video below–and hang on!

NOTES

(1) Daniel Barbarisi, “The Man Who Found Forrest Fenn’s Treasure,” Outside, December 7, 2020, accessed December 28, 2020, https://www.outsideonline.com/2419429/forrest-fenn-treasure-jack-stuef

(2) Ian Walker, “The Story of Crow 64, A Game That Did Not Exist,” Kotaku, October 15, 2020, accessed December 28, 2020, https://kotaku.com/the-story-of-crow-64-a-game-that-did-not-exist-1845386675

(3) “Crow64 Known Info Recap,” https://docs.google.com/document/d/18UTSshuwH0MG3TYWHNqdyw4PRpqJltG-PivizkXNlgc/edit

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