How an Actual Alternate Reality Game Helped ‘Dispatches From Elsewhere’ Pull Off That ‘Communal’ Finale

“That last little treat of the show needed to be secret to have the impact it did,” AMC’s VP of digital content tells TheWrap

Dispatches From Elsewhere

(Warning: This post contains major spoilers for the finale of “Dispatches From Elsewhere.”)

As the spooky, surprise-filled ride that was Jason Segel’s “Dispatches From Elsewhere” came to an end for viewers last month with a finale that actually incorporated some of those viewers. The final moments of the AMC series closed with a compilation of more than 100 self-recorded videos featuring people saying a crucial line from the show: “I am [insert name here], and I am you.”

Now the way Segel and the “Dispatches” team got these clips — made by people who did not originally know that they were going to be used in the show — was in true “Dispatches” fashion: through an alternate reality game (ARG).

“From when the show was greenlit, Jason already had this in his head that he wanted to sort of share the experience that he had when he came up with the show when he first encountered this game,” Kevin Dreyfuss, AMC’s VP of digital content, told TheWrap. “He wanted to replicate that for other people and then actually get people into the show itself. So that was from the jump, he said, ‘We wanna do this, how do we do this?’”

“Dispatches From Elsewhere” centers on Peter (Segel), Simone (Eve Lindley), Janice (Sally Field) and Fredwynn (Andre Benjamin), a group of people that get sucked into a mysterious ARG. The show is based in part — as you find out in the finale — on Segel’s own life, and in part on the 2013 documentary film “The Institute,” which is the story of “Jejune Institute,” an ARG that was set in San Fransisco. 

Segel, Dreyfuss and Sarah LeTrent, AMC’s director of digital media, partnered with ARG company Hexagram to create a digital and real-world experience for people that mimicked the story Segel had crafted for “Dispatches From Elsewhere.” Actually, the game itself launched last fall, long before the show premiered in March, so that clues that were important pieces of the ARG’s puzzle could be worked into the series during shooting.

“We started with creating this sort of parallel universe to the show itself, with competing mysterious organizations and Twitch livestreams of fake mind control experiments and weird conspiracy theories on Reddit and Discord,” Dreyfuss told us. “And we started building out this faux universe while the show was still in production. So while Jason and [shorunner Mark Friedman] and the creative team were scripting it and prepping it and shooting it, the ARG team and their writers were interoperating with them. They were embedding clues in the production design, getting props from the show to use in the Twitch livestreams and things we were doing. So even before the show had launched, they had created these mysterious competing organizations doing science experiments through a mobile app, through Twitch livestreams and through these mysterious websites that you needed codes to enter.”

“When we launched the game last November, there were already 5,000 players of the game before the show had been announced and people had any idea it was connected to the show,” Dreyfuss explained. “And all of these strange things, anybody who played along or wanted access to them were asked to do different video testimonies or video trials and they didn’t know at the time, but those were essentially the words Jason wanted to use at the end of Episode 10. And this was kind of a way to a) put people through a similar sort of communal experience to what he did and b) get from them the video we needed for the show.”

Over the past few months, the ARG included 14 different livestreams and website messages that came together to tell the story of the hunt for a missing visionary artist, Clara — the same hunt going on in “Dispatches From Elsewhere.” But the ARG version of Segel’s story was occurring out in the real world, with clues planted in episodes of “Dispatches” that only game players would recognize.

Here’s an example of how that work: LeTrent told us that following Episode’s 7 twist, “when you find out that the Clara (played by Cecilia Balagot) that you think [you know] in the show is not the Clara you believe,” game players spoke with Clara (still played by Balagot) via livestreams, who gave them additional clues that connected the stories in the ARG and the show.

Segel himself was also part of the game, but in a much more behind-the-scenes way, putting up flyers in Philadelphia (where the show is set), jumping on Reddit threads and ultimately culling through around 3,000 video submissions to pick the ones you see in the finale.

Segel, Dreyfuss and LeTrent were “super paranoid” about the possibility of a leak from the players whose videos were selected, “because that last little treat of the show needed to be secret to have the impact it did for people watching the show.”

“So part of the way we kept it secret was that people playing had no idea that this is what it would be used for until we were locking Episode 10, which was only a month and a half ago,” Dreyfuss told us. “And once we knew who we wanted to use, Jason himself wrote a letter to them and contacted them individually and everybody agreed to keep the secret. I think these players were having so much fun with it that we had no leaks. And we had all sorts of contingency plans about what happens if somebody leaks something before the episode airs. But that never happened thankfully.”

Once the series and ARG had concluded, Segel thanked the players for coming into both worlds.

“At the very end of the game was, one of the last things that everybody who participated got was a personal message from Jason that he shot from wherever he is now in quarantine with a magnificent quarantine beard, thanking them for being part of it.”

This final touch was one more way that Segel revealed how personal “Dispatches From Elsewhere” was to him, and how much he wanted to share it with all of you.

“Every step along the way it became more and more concrete that what he was saying was, ‘I, Jason Segel, went through a period that was pretty transformative, I’m going to make a show that shares that experience with other people and also going to share myself,” Dreyfuss said, adding: “Like, I’m going to completely rip down the walls at the end and go even deeper and show you the inspiration behind it. And all along the way, I’m gonna do as many things as I can to make this a communal experience for as many people as possible so that they feel directly involved up to, and including the fact, that they are gonna be in the show itself.’”

“Even in the beginning, he was very excited that this was gonna be a show that rolled out weekly and not binged. Because he wanted to replicate that communal experience.”