Games People Play
Spoiler alert! Don’t read this backstory unless you want to find out the results of the first leg of the game.
It’s a stormy Friday morning, just another day at the grindstone for the 9-to-5ers who are likely glad to be indoors and out of the rain. Me? I’ve been unemployed for a few weeks, stuck in my bedroom with my web browser stuck to Craigslist’s job postings. I don’t care if there’s a storm, tsunami or Godzilla and Mothra duking it out downtown—I’m getting my ass out of this apartment.
A friend told me a while back about the Jejune Institute in the Financial District. She wouldn’t tell me much about it, only that it was kind of like a scavenger hunt and, after a brief orientation at the center, I’d be sent to explore the city like I’d never done before. “Episode 1,” she said, would keep me occupied for a couple hours and all I’d need was $1.10. Fun for a dollar? I was sold, so long as it didn’t involve me doing anything unmentionable in a dark Tenderloin alley.
According to its website, The Jejune Institute is a “Center for Socio-Engineering,” offering life-changing products and services including a camera that takes pictures of the past and a human force field. By the time I started clicking around the faux cult’s website, it was too late—I’d already drunk the Kool-Aid. Needless to say, the whole thing is a sham to lure you into an intricately designed game, one that forces you to constantly reevaluate your surroundings. I found out later that there are four episodes to play with a fifth in development. Visiting the Jejune Institute would launch me into the first part, and leave me scratching my head in the middle of a parking garage.
I pick up my friend Michelle, tell her to grab her camera and an umbrella, and head to the Jejune Institute. We check in at the lobby of 580 California Street and ask the guy at the front desk if he knows anything about what we’re getting ourselves into. “Yeah, I know about it, but I can’t say anything,” he says before handing us visitor’s passes. “You’ll be in and out of here a few times.”
the elevator up to the 16th floor, check in at the front desk and
receive a key to the institute. We step into a small room with a lounge
chair on one end and a TV sitting on a desk on the other. Pictures of
strange cosmic images on adorn one wall, and a shelf lined with books
on various subjects, crystals and antiquated radio equipment sits
against another. What’s more, the room is fully automated: as soon as
the door shuts, a woman’s gentle voice greets us, instructing me to
take a seat.
I’m starting to feel a little uncomfortable, afraid I’m about to be brainwashed like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. The TV turns on a few seconds later with a message from founder Octavio Coleman spewing cryptic language, something about “breathanarianism,” “dark horses” and “a recondite family.” He’s got the creepy old cult leader thing down pat—the kind of guy you wouldn’t leave your children around unattended. If I didn’t know beforehand that this was all made up, I’d already be out of the door. But this is just a game…right? We’re instructed to fill out a small form, tear off a piece and follow the instructions. It’s up to us to find the clues and fill in the blanks. And down the rabbit hole we go.
The first step is to leave the building undetected. Don’t worry, there are instructions for that. However, if you happen to work in 580 California, you might want to have your security reevaluated.
What happens next is a series of events that find us wandering through the Financial District, searching for a “timecraft loading anchor,” lurking in alleys, trespassing onto a Chinatown balcony, looking to the sky and, out of desperation, asking random people for help. I’d lived in San Francisco for over six years and just finished a six-month fellowship in the FiDi; I thought I was well-acquainted with the area, but right now I’m feeling like a tourist.
Several steps into the game and we’re led to a small locker heavily caulked to a wall in a parking garage. Inside the box are items left by previous participants, including matchbooks, a San Jose Sharks ticket stub and a pen. There are a couple sheets of text, none of which makes sense to me. I’m scribbling notes to myself: “Find the metal man.”
At that moment, a shaggy-haired guy in his early 20s walks up and says, “Excuse me, I forgot my pen,” and walks off. It’s at this point that paranoia settles in. I can’t distinguish between what’s real and what’s part of the game. Who was that guy? Were we supposed to follow him? Or was he following us? Or was he, too, sucked into this mad world of mind-trickery? We turn to two guys getting into a car in the parking lot and ask if they know anything about a metal man. “We’re metal workers,” one guy says. Coincidence?
We get in the elevator, going up. We hold the door for an older, snowy-haired man dressed in a khaki trench coat and black fedora. He’s going down, but gets in anyway. Distressed and assuming he frequents this garage often, we ask him if he knows of a metal statue in the area. “Not that I know of, and I’ve lived here my whole life,” he says. Immediately after, the elevator opens to an empty, rain-soaked St. Mary’s Square Park. “Oh, there you go,” he says.
Staring right at us from the far end of the park is a tall (15-20 feet), sleek and shiny metal statue of revolutionary Chinese politician Sun Yat-Sen with raindrops cascading down to its base, which we examine in search of our next clue. I used to take my lunch break in this park and never thought twice about the giant monument.
A few minutes later, I receive a call. “You do not want to associate with these people. It will only lead to ruin,” the ominous voice says before advising us not to follow the instructions we were given at the Jejune Institute. It’s a bit late for that, as we’re nearing the end of the first mission.
Two and a half hours after the orientation, we finally have the form completely filled. With our last clue, we return to my friend’s apartment and log on to the Jejune Institute’s website, eager to see what this whole thing has been leading up to. After a brief “WTF?” moment, we’re told to tune into “Radio Nonchalance” and head to Dolores Park for Episode Two. Here we go again...
Following the tip from our big homie Sun Yat-Sen, we find ourselves scouring Chinatown for clues. We’re led into a shop to purchase a clue (this is where the $1.10 comes to play) and to a building where we’re instructed to go onto a balcony. We call a number for a fictional private eye. It’s a recording listing open missing persons cases, something about a girl named Eva last seen at Coit Tower who’s been diagnosed with mental disorders. This, I’m sure, will come into play later (and it does in Episode Three).
Are you ready to take the red pill and free yourself from The Matrix? According to the mastermind behind the game, 5,000 people already have. All you really need is some free time and an open mind. Episode One requires a couple hours and $1.10 and will unravel a larger, complex story, which is up to you to discover. Begin at 580 California Street in the financial district by dropping in any time between 12pm and 5pm, Tuesday through Sunday. It’s advised you start early. Tell the guy at the lobby that you’re there for the Jejune Institute. But don’t say I didn’t warn you: you’ll never look at the city the same way again.
Photos: Beau Trincia and Zoneil Maharaj