The ARG as a new model for Rennes-le-Château phenomenon


In this short paper I will offer a new point of view from which to analyse the Rennes-le-Château phenomenon (1): I am suggesting that many modern approaches to the matter can be better interpreted as complex ARGs.


The curious life of a Catholic priest, Bérenger Saunière, has been so far analysed through many biographies, and the surrounding geographical area, in the South of France, has been dug, studied and visited by thousands of tourists looking for treasures, positive vibrations or archaeological relics.

Despite some previous references to treasures in the surrounding area, as in most of the places in the world, the life of the priest showed some elements typical of his time (selling masses, political and religious struggles flown into the symbols in the decorations, etc.) but very little evidence of treasures found in the area (just uncontrolled gossip about possible sources of his wealth).

The absence of solid documentation about any treasure found by the priest led to the creation, by several different groups of people, during the 20th century of a number of false documents, artifacts and apocrypha. Modern researchers still haven't reached a consensus on the reasons for this happening.

The most frequently quoted example is the literary production of Pierre Plantard and Philippe de Chérisey, who created - and deposited in the French National Library in Paris - a great number of documents regarding the survival of a hidden Merovingian dynasty, whose heir is Plantard.

Both sceptics and believers fail to explain the reasons behind the impressive work of Plantard, who spent many years in defining his own mythology, which was in some ways coherent with historical facts and introducing unpublished elements supporting his alternate version of French history.

The core of the activity of many creators of historical artifacts and documents is the purpose of suggesting "alternate" versions of history, all of which are more romantic and "interesting" than the so-called "orthodox" version - the one given in academic papers. Just as in novels and movies, the alternate versions of the history of Rennes-le-Château describe its priest Bérenger Saunière as a member of secret societies, a wizard of old egyptian cults, and the area is full of hidden tombs, chests full of treasures and clues on their trail, all linked through complex geometries, anagrams, and mysterious inscriptions. All the characters involved show a double personality: the public and the esoteric one. The esoteric side is one which cannot be found in official biographies, but only through a reinterpretation of the clues found somewhere in the area surrounding Rennes-le-Château (e.g. Nicolas Poussin and Pope John XXIII, but even Jean Cocteau and Jesus Christ).

Alternate Reality Game

The idea of implanting false clues and documents in reality, pretending them to be real, is at the basis of the so-called ARGs (Alternate Reality Games). An ARG is an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants' ideas or actions.

The form is typified by intense player involvement with a story that takes place in real-time and evolves according to participants' responses, and characters that are actively controlled by the game's designers. Players interact directly with characters in the game, solve plot-based challenges and puzzles, and often work together within a community to analyze the story and coordinate real-life and online activities.

Modern ARGs generally use multimedia, such as telephones, e-mail and postal mail, but their model can be useful to interpret the birth and the development of large communities dealing with a single theme.

Alternate Reality and Rennes-le-Château

The ARG model is very useful to describe Plantard's activity: like many ARGs' creator, he defined an Alternate Reality typical of lost treasure novels, and created a large set of props (including maps, documents, genealogies, newspaper clips, etc.) which were implanted in the real world by depositing them in the French National Library or publishing in books (e.g. La Vraie Langue Celtique Belfond Edition, 1978).

The idea of implanting props in the real world is now achieved by publishing books or writing ads in newspapers. One of the most recent ARGs is The Lost Experience, designed by the writers and producers of Lost to engage fans and expand the storyline. According to a New York Times article, the game had been "a multimedia treasure hunt that makes use of e-mail messages, phone calls, commercials, billboards and fake Web sites that are made to seem real". What is more, there were no prizes to win, but the Experience claimed to offer clues that could unlock some of the island's many secrets.

All the elements of the ARG model can be easily recognised in Pierre Plantard's activity:

1) Puppetmaster

A puppetmaster is the individual involved in designing and/or running an ARG. His real identity may or may not be known ahead of time. Plantard was very good in unveiling some material without getting too much attention on him. The book Holy Blood Holy Grail confirmed his wish to keep himself hidden from the wider public, releasing his own material to create new interpretations from his explicit intervention on the discussions.

It would also be interesting to analyse his interventions on the debate raised upon his mythology, and a chronological approach to the evolution of his mythology from 1956 to 1989 (developed on his writings) could be extremely revealing.

2) The Curtain

The curtain is generally a metaphor for the separation between the puppetmasters and the players. This can take the traditional form of absolute secrecy regarding the puppetmasters' identities and involvement with the production, or refer merely to the convention that puppetmasters do not communicate directly with players through the game, interacting instead through the characters and the game's design. The secrecy of the Priory of Sion was the curtain behind which Plantard kept himself apart from the researchers, justifying the apparent incoherence of the mythology he offered in his writings.

3) Rabbithole

Also known as a Trailhead. A Rabbithole marks the first website, contact, or puzzle that starts off the ARG.

Pierre Plantard used (at least) four "rabbitholes": the first one was L'Or de Rennes (1967) by Gérard de Sède; the second one was the issue #18 of French review Le Charivari, published on 1973, written by Jean-Luc Chaumeil with his help; the third one was his preface to the Belfond edition of La Vraie Langue Celtique, published in 1978; the fourth and most important one was the book by Lincoln, Baigent and Leigh Holy Blood Holy Grail. Each of them revealed the following clues towards the alternate scenario of French history created by Pierre Plantard: the first one declared the survival of a hidden Merovingian blood-line in Rennes-le-Château area; the second one confirmed the existence of Priory of Sion and of a series of documents deposited at French National Library; the third one declared the existence of 12 chests full of treasures (each one linked to a zodiacal sign) around Rennes-les-Bains; the fourth one was the first attempt to sort out the material and provide an interpretation of the scenario.

It is interesting to see that Plantard implanted in Holy Blood Holy Grail some of his ideas through his authors, who were both players of his ARG and authors, together with him. Almost the same could be said about Gérard de Sède.

4) This Is Not A Game (TINAG)

Setting the ARG form apart from other games is the This Is Not A Game philosophy, which dictates that the game not behave like a game. Phone numbers mentioned in the ARG, for example, should actually work, and the game should not provide an overtly-designated playspace or ruleset to the players.

This is the strongest feature of ARGs - and also of Plantard's mythology, linking old myths with unpublished elements, so creating an alternate reality which mixed symbols and ideas in a syncretic way: Freemasonry, Catharism, Holy Heart-ism, Politics, Templarism... The scenario created by him was designed as a complex octopus, the study of which can be both disturbing or extremely funny.

So far, only a few researchers have supported the idea that Plantard's scenario was just an alternate version of history, supported by false documents and props created by him.

The problem of mixing reality with fantasy (and not being able to distinguish between real and fake artifacts) has some consequences, i.e. the inability of providing coherent scenarios and finding the hidden treasures many believers are looking for.

Evolution of Rennes-le-Château ARGs

Plantard's mythology is probably the most successful ARG in the history of Rennes-le-Château, but it is not the only one. Many other so-called "researchers" based their own studies on false documents, created with different purposes, and many Web forums are full of players discussing the theories raising from that material, fitting very well the TINAG aesthetic. The ads for the book by Patrice Chaplin City of Secrets used fake photos and letters by Bérenger Saunière in order to sell it, and some forums are still discussing the historical basis of the alternate reality described in its pages.

One of the most recent examples of ARG is the one created to support Bloodline - The movie. The use of YouTube and websites in support of the movie, the style of ads and the nature of the artifacts found (letters mimicking Saunière's calligraphy, Roman coins bought on Ebay and typical objects of treasure hunting, such as papers sealed in bottles) make of it one of the most typical Rennes-le-Château ARG in the age of Internet (probably more successful than André Douzet's attempt to link Rennes-le-Château mystery to Perillos through a model, strange letters by Saunière from Lyon and so on).

Like any other previous ARG, the Bloodline - The movie discoveries did not raise any interest from DRAC, the official archaeological body of France, and the discovery of the material announced in the movie was made without any official authorization; being just a theatrical stage, the fact is not strange.

There is no doubt about the fact these ARGs will always be successful in their purpose of providing deeply emotional and immersive experiences to the players. Most of the tourists in Rennes-le-Château are not only spectator, but - thanks to De Sède, Plantard, Lincoln, Wood, Douzet and so on - they are now real players in a game whose stage is more similar to the one in Indiana Jones movies than the real world. The ARGs described so far are clever enough in not defining a unique winner, because all of them suggest the existence of a secret knowledge which can be discovered and shared between "initiates".

Many of these ARGs are by now "self-supporting": the material published by Plantard, for example, is so complex that, with the help of new players and websites discussing the matters, new links will emerge in the future, "supporting" and enlarging the mythology. The absence of boundaries in Rennes-le-Château pseudohistoriography has already been analysed by the author.

Although some skeptical researchers label them as "bullshit", there's probably something more, from a psychological point of view, justifying their strong appeal.

Updates (May 2010)

On February 1st, 2010 Burcu S. Bakioglu published on her personal blog an interesting post titled "Rennes-le-Château, revisited". She disagrees with the point of view expressed in my original article, pointing at the flaws of my arguments and concluding:

...while the Rennes-le-Château phenomenon is an intriguing case, it cannot be considered to be an ARG.

Given the fact I strongly agree with her accurate analysis, I'm adding further notes to the previously published.

Her criticism is mainly directed towards the concept of "awareness" of ARG's players. As stated by Jane McGonigal in her article "A Real Little Game: The Performance of Belief in Pervasive Play":

...gamers maximize their play experience by performing belief, rather than actually believing, in the permeability of the game-reality boundary.

McGonigal's article focuses on the very difference between an intentional performance of belief and belief itself, and the same point is raised by Bakioglu in her article:

What makes Tomatis's argument untenable is that he bases most of his case on the representation of the fake documents as real. This assumption implies that the players, because the game claims not to be a game, believe that the game is indeed real. [...] One might ask, then, did the people who were engaged in the legend surrounding Saunière willingly suspend their belief and pretend to believe that the world suggested by these manufactured documents were in fact real? Or, did they genuinely think that the legend was real which would ultimately make it a hoax? I submit that this is one of the reasons why Tomatis identifies all the elements of ARGs in these legends surrounding the priest except the players. Because, clearly, that there were none. People who were trying to solve the mystery surrounding Saunière were thinking that they were genuinely involved in uncovering the truth… not about a game, rather, about a real incident that happened decades ago.

By reading Bakioglu's analysis, I concluded that my original article was lacking of a disclaimer revealing openly his defiant nature; the definition of Rennes-le-Château phenomenon as an ARG was intended to be provocative, because the goal was to "downgrade" dozens of so-called "researches" about the treasure of Bérenger Saunière to their real nature: just "moves" in a greater game, with no other purpose than the entertainment, in James P. Carse's conception of "infinite game". (2)

I agree with sadness to the fact that Rennes-le-Château Mystery Hunters are not aware of the fact of being playing an ARG, and I'm pretty sure that the phenomenon didn't start as a game: Pierre Plantard gave birth to it as a part of his political activity, but Philippe de Chérisey's contributions added a surrealistic and playful aura, including also puzzles and elements typical of games. From this point of view, I confirm Bakioglu's analysis: Rennes-le-Château phenomenon cannot strictly be considered an ARG, because not the creators, nor the players were/are aware of creating/playing a game.

Nevertheless, the idea of an "infinite immersive game", played with the goal of continuing play, fits perfectly the attitude of the average Rennes-le-Château Mystery Hunter, who reacts towards skeptics with the typical harassment of a player menaced by an external force willing to put a stop to the game: the Mystery Hunter wants the play to go on and on, and Rennes-le-Château scenario provides tons of elements to play with. Moreover, the "magic circle" can be always resized by players because the creator of the game is dead and any new element (a stone, a painting, an historical character) can be included for the purpose of prolonging the game.

The subtext of my article is the concern for the inability of being aware of the "ludic nature" of Rennes-le-Château phenomenon; the same problem was denounced by Umberto Eco in his Foucault's Pendulum, in which the main characters invent a great conspiracy for fun, calling their satirical intellectual game "The Plan"; when adherents of other conspiracy theories learn about The Plan, they take it seriously, and it leads to a tragic ending.

Commenting on the book Holy Blood Holy Grail, a milestone in "Rennes-le-Château Mystery Hunting", Eco wrote:

The bad faith of its authors is so self-evident that a vaccinated reader may enjoy the reading as if it was a role game. (3)

In citing this quotation in my recent book La magia dei numeri, I stressed the interesting fact that London's publishing house Jonathan Cape published Kit Williams' Masquerade (one of the first "armchair treasure hunts") in 1979 and Holy Blood Holy Grail in 1982: it is probably just a coincidence, but both books share the love for treasure hunting. But only the first with readers' awareness of its playful nature.

1.Many thanks to my friend Ferdinando Buscema for his help in defining the features of ARGs and their core and to Marcus Williamson, who helped me in translating the original article in English

2.James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games, New York: Ballantine Books

3.L'Espresso, 23.8.2001

© 2017 Mariano Tomatis Antoniono