Spencer McCall’s documentary The Institute takes a look at a fantastical alternate reality game that played out around San Francisco from 2008 to 2011. Created by Jeff Hull, the ARG revolved around the Jejune Institute and its fictional chairman, Octavio Coleman, Esq, as it led those who followed the instructions hidden around the city on a journey that recontextualized day-to-day reality into something far more interesting.
Perhaps too interesting, however, as the world that grows up around the game begins to take on a life of its own, as some players see the ARG as less than a game and more like the truth. Players go missing, others get injured (sometimes physically, usually emotionally) but all have the time of their lives.
The documentary does a brilliant job of revealing the details of the game in a similar fashion to how the players would have experienced them, bolstered by interviews with former players and game organizers. The result is almost as much of a mindfuck as I can imagine blindly playing the ARG would’ve been.
Which is to say, the documentary sometimes blurs the same lines in and out of reality; there were moments where I questioned whether the entire documentary was false, if the ARG, already a fictional story, was fictional altogether and nonexistent outside the framework of the film. It was fascinating in the way even a recounting of the ARG causes a viral unbalance of reality.
And that’s the plus and minus of the documentary. It remains interesting and engaging, but sometimes it becomes too confusing trying to parse out what’s Elsewhere, what’s Jejune, what’s nonchalance and any other major idea or premise the film explores. In some cases you do get straight answers, and the story of Eva is a powerful touchstone period, but often it’s a feeling of unease watching the film play out.
But I like that. I like that if someone told me that the Jejune Institute is real and the game never ended, I’d actually consider that possibility. I like that I’m not completely trusting of the documentary and its storytelling. The film fascinates me, especially because, in all honesty, I’m not really the type of person who would’ve taken that initial step to play the game in the first place. Then again, based on watching the film, I may be playing right now.