RANDOM ENCOUNTERS

Judith Schepers, That Which Darkly Thrives, 2018

I wasn’t interested in playing Randonautica until it led two teens to a suitcase with a corpse inside, on a beach in my city. They put it on TikTok. Flash forward a few months, and a suspect is in custody.

Randonautica is approximately ten lines of buggy code in an ARG trench coat. All it does is generate coordinates, but does so with a modicum of style. The mystique of the app dwarfs the app itself. Enough users have reported confluences, strange occurrences while playing, that the app is now “haunted”, in Buzzfeed and HuffPost parlance. In my experience, the app is broken but serviceable. The user provides the haunting.

Here’s how it works: in a simulated chat screen, you select whether you want your coordinates to be an attractor (a place other users have visited, almost always a public park in my experience), a void (a place other users have not visited; typically inaccessible, or in the middle of a body of water), or an anomaly (some statistical middle ground between attractors and voids – I always select this option because it sounds the coolest, and has the potential to be the most interesting). You make your choice; a compass appears. The app tells you to focus on your intent. Once it spits up your coordinates, which takes an awfully long time, it redirects you to Google Maps, and you redirect yourself to your destination. You take a long walk. Going by car defeats the purpose; it’s about the journey, the chance encounters, the assemblages of geography laying themselves out underfoot. Ideally, you tell the app when you get to your destination and upload photos of the trip, but mine always crashes by the time I arrive, erasing any breadcrumbs I might have left it. You walk home.

Hungry for some excitement in the doldrums of quarantine, I thought to myself: sure. Let’s make my statistical likelihood of finding a dead body incrementally higher. The more places I visit on my walks, the more interesting things I am likely to find. Instead of bouncing between the same few familiar parks day in and day out, I’ll let myself be directed by chance. Along the way there will be trees, coffee opportunities, houses with no appeal other than being able to say that I have seen them, and possibly intrigue.

When you’re looking for anomalies, it follows that everything becomes an anomaly. Every pumphouse is an occult shrine and every side street is a crime scene when you want them to be. I have not found any bodies. More often than not, my destination is a mildly interesting car, which leads me to think that the “magnetism” of Randonautica’s coordinates has something to do with GPS data sourced from a mapping app. However, I have found some things I wouldn’t have found otherwise, which have brought me some wonderment, or at least amusement. They are:

  • a hidden park on the lakefront, with a dock just large enough for two people to sit and soak their feet in the water
  • two black cats (one would not let me pet it; one was too far away to pet), one orange cat (screamed in my face and then left fur all over my black pants)
  • two wooden footbridges with fantastic forest views
  • a church that looks like a Disney version of a medieval castle, complete with those parapets like gapped teeth, you know the ones
  • a grave, belonging to no one of importance (I checked)
  • a beautiful Victorian home, burnt mostly to the ground
  • many Little Free Libraries (take a book, leave a book), with a few books worth taking, on occasion. For some reason, I find Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick in these most often. Everyone apparently read this book and decided it was not worth saving; so I too now have a copy, and I will decide whether it’s worth saving.
  • a 1940s pickup truck, lovingly restored
  • a purple Mustang
  • many wild rabbits, each one small and round and precious

Maybe someday I’ll find that corpse, me and all of the TikTok teenagers hoping for some excitement in a world that has been mostly compacted down to our immediate neighborhoods. In the meantime, while bodies generally do not abound, novelty does, if you know not where to look but how to look.