by Allie Pape
I'd heard about alternate reality games (ARGs) in the past, but had never actually played one before. The versions you could play online were too tied up in bad memories (yes, I was one of those deeply misguided people who thought there was a grand and fascinating plan behind the plot of Lost, and by the time I found out about SF's most famous real-life ARG experience, the Jejune Institute, it had already closed. So when someone mentioned Stamps from Elsewhere as a fun game to play, I was on it in a hot minute. My friend Greg, who's just moved to town, agreed to team up with me on my quest (and get to know the city a little better).
The story behind Stamps from Elsewhere is a little vague, though that's meant to be part of the fun. The game is an invitation into the strange history of the Elsewhere Philatelic Society, an SF-based organization for lovers of stamp collecting (philately is the art of stamp collecting) and a shadowy group of enemies, the Elsewhere Numismatic Society (numismatists are coin collectors). To play, all you need to do is visit their website, download a map and seven "audio stamps" (mp3 clipsthey also have a two-page transcript for those without an audio device) and hop on BART or Muni to Embarcadero station. The game involves entering some public buildings, so they recommend you begin playing on Monday-Friday from 9 am-3 pm, or on the weekend from 9 am-4 pm. Map and iPod in hand, we set out at 2 pm on a Saturday afternoon, ready for adventure.
From here on in, I'm going to spoil the experience, so don't read any further if you want to play the game yourself!
With only the somewhat byzantine printed map to rely on, getting started with Stamps from Elsewhere was a bit tricky. The map indicates "Start Here" at a little triangle that has The Embarcadero printed on one side, even though the rest of the game takes place on Steuart Street between Howard and Market. Noting the X that said 523, we headed to what our phone said was 523 The Embarcadero a couple of benches just outside the Hi-Dive. After listening to the designated "audio stamp," #6, we started to wonder if we were in the right place. We strolled back to Steuart and Howard, but were nowhere near the 500 block on any of the streets, so the 523 remained a mystery. Perplexed, we decided to give up and head to the next audio clip.
Our second destination was the mosaic tower of dolphins in the courtyard between One and Two Rincon Center. We counted the dolphins on the column (seven), while the deep-voiced narrator on audio stamp #3 told us about the EPS' sister organization, the Aquatic Mammal Art Collective, which specialized in teaching dolphins to create art in classes like "Underwater Painting" and "Sculpture with Mackerel and Herring." From there, we were instructed to enter the atrium at One Rincon Center, where the staff of Yank Sing was busily arranging the area for a wedding reception. Luckily, they didn't seem to mind the two weirdoes with headphones, and we listened to the story of how the the numismatists destroyed a dolphin tank with a coin-tossing contest (re-spinning the 85-foot "Rain Column" fountain in the center of the room as a commemoration of the tragic accident). The audio clip also told us to take note of the maximum number of people who could fit in the building; luckily, the capacity sign was right next to me, reading 898, which I dutifully filled in on the map.
By this point, the adventures of the EPS, the empty Financial District buildings, and the stares of the few other people we saw were starting to give Greg and I the creeps. Though I knew there was no way the organizers could know we were playing the game that day, I kept expecting someone to jump out from around the corner and surprise us. This feeling didn't abate as we followed the map to One Rincon's historic lobby, where the security guard watched us warily as we listened to track #1 and observed the historic WPA murals. When the audio tour guided us to the "Stamps" window of the old lobby (which, of course, had been there all along), I couldn't help but get chills. On the upside, I was seeing parts of the area that I hadn't known existed, including the very cool fountain and the gorgeous murals. We noted the final number we needed, 3, from the mural of Sir Francis Drake near the entrance.
But when the tour instructed us to head to One Market Plaza through the Mission Street entrance, we hit another road block. That entrance was locked, as was the second entrance on Spear Street. Luckily, I'd just been to new wine bar Wine & Wall the previous week, and remembered that they had atrium access-- but the bar turned out to be closed for the day. We found a security guard for the building on Market who also had no interest in letting us in. Our last chance was One Market restaurant, which was closed for the afternoon but still had some staff inside. Through a combination of furious signaling and sign language, we were able to get the hostess to come to the door, and explained our situation. Luckily, she found us amusing, and agreed to let us spend five minutes in the atrium as part of our "scavenger hunt."
Gazing up at the atrium, we listened to the final audio clip, in which the narrator told us of the EPS' failed attempt to set up an office in the "pineapple-shaped" roof of the building. He then instructed us to call the phone number on the map and punch in the code we'd assembled on our journey (that's 78983, for you cheaters out there). The message sent us to one of two final locations: one, on Bush Street, was only open during the week, so we wrote down the address of the other, which turned out to be the nearby SF Railway Museum.
The woman staffing the counter at the Railway Museum was deep in conversation with a couple visiting from Australia, so we explored the exhibits and played on the mock cable car until she was free. When she saw the map in Greg's hand, she lit up. "I saw that you had that, and I think you're looking for this," she said, pressing a small wax envelope into my hand. Inside was a beautiful triangular stamp.
We asked her what she knew about the mysterious creators of the EPS. "Not much," she told us. "A woman came in here with these one day, explained the game, and told me to pretend she was never here. She did say, though, that I was supposed to make you wander around the museum a bit first, to work for your stamp." Stamps from Elsewhere players are her favorite visitors, she told us, since they lacked the hubris of the corporate scavenger hunters who often barge into the museum, messing up the exhibits in the process. ("I once saw someone knock over an 8-year-old and just keep going, without even apologizing," she said.)
Mission completed and stamp in hand, strolled over to the Ferry Building for some well-deserved ice cream. Later that night, I attached the stamp to the map we'd used, added a sheet of paper with our contact information, and sent it to the EPS' very own P.O. Box. (Hopefully they won't look too askance at my utterly boring "Forever" postage.) Even if we screwed up a little bit when it came to playing the game correctly, I'm hoping we'll still be awarded membership. Down with the numismatists!
Allie Pape is a writer in San Francisco. She also writes for 7x7, DailyCandy, and The Bold Italic.