On the passenger seat next to me, my Android phone begins to whine and moan like electronic whale-song, while a preternaturally calm voice announces, “Target in range.” That’s my cue to pull over and park the car so I can hack and harass the virtual portal my scanner has homed in on, which is cleverly disguised as a prosaic public library. This is my mission!
Welcome to the wonderful world of Ingress, a near-real-time augmented-reality MMORPG created by Niantic Labs, an internal startup within Google Inc. Ingress is currently in invitation-only closed beta; I first heard about it during all the press hullabaloo around Google I/O 2013 – among the bazillion other things happening during that conference, attendees were issued game invites plus a chance to play during a specially-staged event.
So what is this Ingress game? The TL;DR high concept summary: it’s kind of like Capture the Flag, only powered by the world-wide coverage of Google Maps plus the GPS capabilities of Android devices. But this summary does not do the thing justice, because the back-story of “everything you know might be wrong,” plus the gameplay mechanics, graphics and audio really kick this thing into orbit – almost literally.
Once you download the app (unlocked with an activation key in your invite), you are informed that this is supposedly not a “game” at all, but that you are now privy to a mission to help with the worldwide incursion – the Ingression – of this spooky, extraterrestrial MacGuffin-stuff called Exotic Matter (XM). This XM originates from a mysterious sentient entities known as the Shapers. Niantic Labs is identified as the shadowy research think-tank that has made the detection of these portals spewing XM possible around the world, and you are now recruited into one of two factions dealing with the results: The Enlightened (green team) want to encourage the Shapers to come on in and uplift humanity, while the Resistance (blue team) say, “heck no, we like humanity with all its flaws just as it is, thank you very much!”
Google, with its vaunted access to Big Data, seeded the Ingress world with a huge number of unclaimed portals to start with – that’s why public libraries, fire stations, and well-known public landmarks are massively represented as sites for these portals. Players can also submit GPS coordinates for new portals; Google reviews the submissions and, if they pass muster, puts them on the game map in about 2 to 3 weeks. That’s probably why, in my current hometown of Eugene, Oregon, just about every student-fave bar and restaurant has a portal associated with it.
The way you play is:
- Open the app in your phone;
- Close in on a portal;
- When you’re within range, you can “hack” it (gather items useful in the game such as weapons or portal mods); if it belongs to the enemy you can attempt to capture it for your side; if it’s one of your team’s, you can boost its power by recharging it or upgrading it with mods you previously collected.
- You can also link friendly portals together – if you make a closed triangle, the field within that triangle is claimed for your team. There’s an in-game chat function where you can coordinate with local team-mates to take out portals and build links together; like a number of other MMORPGs I can think of (WoW), power levels are scaled so that you really do need to work together to take out the more powerful portals, even once you’ve leveled up to the current max.
I’m not sure how all of this will scale up once the game comes out of closed beta, but right now the game is offering a lot of fun room to play even for low-level newbies like me, and the folks in my local chat are helpful and fun to interact with. There is definitely some inter-team trash-talking already going on, but it’s pretty lighthearted – we blue Resistance folks get called Smurfs even among ourselves, and we jokingly call the green Enlightened Frogs. Okay, we sometimes call their portals and fields Slime, too. Don’t judge. 😀
But I must confess that my favorite detail in the game is the spoooooky audio. The supposed background XM radiation makes basso profundo moaning noises. Portals whine and keen and sing when they’re nearby; an enemy portal’s counter-attack sizzles like it’s trying to electrocute you into bacon. There’s a reason why the game app’s opening screen says “headphones recommended!”
Niantic Labs, according to its Wikipedia article, has a mission to address the issue that smartphones have a tendency to “divide us, divert us from reality, and make us inattentive,” whereas if properly used they could “connect us to the real world and all the context that’s there.” Admittedly, playing Ingress in the real world, especially with headphones on, does have a tendency to make you inattentive rather than connected, risking walking into a phone pole while stalking a portal on your phone’s screen! (And please do NOT be actually watching that screen while driving, folks! It’s dangerous, not to mention illegal in many places!)
But Ingress does succeed in getting you out in the real world to play, and to interact with your teammates and competition. To that extent, it’s really working for me. And I’m definitely interested to see how the game unfolds – not to mention how Google may choose to further leverage this fun and fascinating project.
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