Earlier this month, a strange phenomenon began to spread across Tumblr: users were receiving messages from what appeared to be a run-of-the-mill pornbot with the username “sexygirlmax2019.” Curious bloggers quickly discovered, however, that the messages—all variations of “Hey pee head – can you teleport?”—were part of an immersive storytelling experience: an alternate reality game, or ARG, where players are tasked with discovering and decoding clues hidden in various websites, images, and audio files.
ARGs are relatively common, but this one was remarkable for its lovable characters and how quickly it built a frenzied fanbase. Within a matter of hours, a subreddit, several dedicated blogs, a fan Wiki page, and even two Discord servers had popped up, all determined to solve the mystery of Max, the guardian angel in peril, and Anita, her terminally ill ward. Players busily discussed clues and updates at all hours, with nearly 2,500 people actively participating, and upwards of 600 users online at any given time.
At the ARG’s conclusion, it was revealed that—despite player speculation that the developer or “gamemaster” was actually a group of people in their 20’s—the “man behind the curtain” was in fact two fifteen-year-olds: Rowan (a.k.a. “Rad,” found on Tumblr at iloveyougulliver and raddical) and Rook (found on Tumblr at zoopyhigh). They agreed to answer some questions about their storytelling project and the surprising velocity at which both diehard ARG fans and people new to the genre took to their piece.
A more comprehensive summary of the max2019 ARG can be found here.
How did you guys decide to make this ARG in the first place?
Rowan: Well, we’ve talked about this, definitely. This is one of the first questions that comes up. It happened on accident. I’m just being honest. It started with the actual sexymax blog, I thought it would be funny to do something like that. And then it kind of just like… devolved into an ARG. Like, we got the opportunity to do something like that, and we just took it and ran with it.
Is this your first project of this scale? In terms of the response?
Rowan: I would say so, yeah!
How did it compare to the response that Daddy-Double-D got? (Note: Daddy-Double-D was an infamous parody blog Rowan ran where he pretended to be an enthusiastic but often oblivious anti-sjw of the 4chan variety; notable highlights include the infamous “Not a homosexual myself, but he’s quite the hands-on man” post in reference to the Spongebob pickle guy and “I WILL tear Antifa down. If he wants to mess with me, so be it.”)
Rowan: Daddy-Double-D was less of an accident, so the amount of feedback that I got on that one was a little bit less surprising. But I think it was definitely similar in the sense that some people weren’t able to tell if it was real or not.
Rook: It was a lot different, in terms of how people responded to it. And also it wasn’t really something that had a fanbase or fanart or anything like that. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think Rad and Arlo were intending to do something like an ARG with Daddy-Double-D a long time ago but it never ended up happening?
(At this point Rowan’s dad came into his room to tell him about the new Gorillaz album and we had to pause.)
Rowan: Don’t tell them my dad came in. Don’t put that in the article. That’s off the record.
Rowan: But yeah, me and my other friend Arlo intended to do something like an ARG with Daddy-Double-D but it never really took off. (Note: by “never really took off” Rowan means “I accidentally deleted all my blogs and someone hoarded the URL.”) But [Daddy-Double-D] was a little different in terms of popularity because it was definitely something that was sort of attention grabbing because [the character]’s whole… thing… was so stupid… Like Rook said, we never got any fanart [for Daddy-Double-D], so the fanbase—quote unquote “fanbase”—was definitely different, because a lot of people were convinced that he was real. But with [Max], a lot of people knew right off the bat that it was piloted by a real person.
What was your reaction to how Max2019 was received? Were you surprised at all?
Rook: Yeah, for sure! When I found the subreddit, I peed myself.
Rowan: Definitely! It started taking off, like, the day after I messaged people from the account. I think it was tumblr user zsnes—they made a post about it, screenshotting the messages, and so did a couple other users, and those got a lot of attention. So those started going around and me and Rook were like, “what the fuuuuck.” But once we started turning it into more of an ARG and using, like, Anita’s blog, the amount of attention we got was insane. I still can’t believe there’s like, a whole subreddit and a Wiki and two whole Discord servers… So definitely, yeah, we were blown away by the responses.
Was the character Anita inspired by anything in particular?
Rook: Tumblr teens. I wanted to make it pretty realistic. As long as I’ve been a teen, I’ve been a Tumblr teen…
Rowan: Rook mostly ran Anita’s blog, but I’ll also say that—just being on Tumblr for a couple years beforehand, and seeing blogs like hers like every day, definitely it was inspired by that. It was something… I don’t wanna say, like, Tumblr culture, because that sounds weird, but it was something that me and Rook were both sort of experienced in, I guess because we’ve been at it for a really long time. Anita was definitely inspired by the kind of Tumblr teens you see every day.
You had that “Internet Memories” page, which served to humanize her more. And it seemed to me it was sort of a map of your experiences as well.
Rowan: Yeah, it definitely was! It was kind of like, a mix of my and Rook’s experiences growing up on the Internet. And also seeing other peoples’ experiences, and kind of taking that in.
It was cool—watching in the Discord, everyone reacting to her memories and relating to them. It made Anita’s character for the audience.
Rowan: Definitely. I’m glad we were able to do that.
Rook: We both talk about old Internet memories a lot, and I guess it was something that we often think about anyways, and it ended up just fitting naturally. I was really happy that people related to it!
Rowan: Yeah, like Rook was saying, we talk about old Internet, our memories, like… a lot, like, a LOT, a lot. So I think it was something that we were very eager to incorporate, ‘cause we knew a lot about it, and… we like it.
So, when you guys were figuring out the plot stuff—like, when you were moving from it just being a joke with the sexygirlmax blog to being like, “oh shit, we have to do something with this now,” how did you decide to include the Biblical themes? Because that’s not something I see a lot of fifteen year olds really working with or—or really leaning into all that often.
Rowan: We both had this in common where we both are sort of into the idea of angels, and what they mean to us, and our own interpretations and what they mean to us.
Rook: We both have an angel tag on our blogs that goes back like, seven months or something.
Rowan: Yeah, we both have an angel tag. So we’ve definitely talked about our different interpretations of angels and stuff, and certain other things with Biblical themes. So we were also eager to incorporate that into something like this once it got kinda bigger. Also, just personally, I’ve been wanting to do something with Biblical themes for a while. I started writing something in the beginning of summer that had really similar themes, but I abandoned it, like, a week before the whole ARG thing.
In terms of the fandom response—I love that I can say “fandom” and it’s totally true—but in terms of the fandom response around Max2019, what’s your favorite thing that’s come out of it?
Rook: LOL, the word “fandom” is embarrassing. Personally, I was really happy that people were inspired by stuff we did! That’s one of my main goals in life: to create things to inspire other people to create.
Rowan: I was really happy that people were inspired by it. I got a couple asks that were like, “Can I write fanfiction about this?” and stuff. We got one ask, like, today or yesterday, about someone wanting to incorporate it into their roleplay blog and I thought that was really fun.
That is so cool!
Rowan: Yeah, someone asked Rook if they could make, like, roleplay blogs of the characters.
Rook: YEAH someone sent me an ask that was like… they wanted to make a DnD thing. Out of max2019.
Rowan: They wanted to make a DnD campaign, too? Wow. That’s crazy. Geez! Yeah, we got a lot of really cool feedback like that. And then, also—the fanart! It’s so amazing to me. I’ve wanted to make something for years that got traction, and one of my main goals was that people would make fanart of it. So having this much fanart is crazy. I never thought that this amount of attention would come to something that we made, so I was like, swag.
Swag, indeed. I know we kind of touched on this before briefly, but how did the idea of using the pornbot spam messages spark? I know it wasn’t originally intended to promote the ARG, but it’s such a wild, off-the-wall idea—but somehow something I’d so expect of you two.
Rowan: Just seeing the amount of attention it got, and the whole weird setup of it—I remember being like, okay, this is something I could do something with. I didn’t have any idea where it was gonna go when I first started it. It was a day-by-day thing. Thinking back to Daddy-Double-D, I thought it’d be fun to do something like that again. A couple days before I was talking to Rook about DDD, and I was like “I’m never gonna make something like this again!” So it was a combination of me desperately wanting to make something and having a lot of information, and the bot getting attention.
Rook: I think the fact that it was wild and off the wall definitely helped, since they were mainly sent to like, humor bloggers who could be expected to screenshot and post them. It was kind of like, “You’ve got this attention so do something with it.”
How old were you when you started Daddy-Double-D, by the way?
Were there any popular fan theories that you ended up adopting?
Rowan: The pregnancy one. No, I’m just kidding. Don’t put that in.
Rook: I think Rad started doing the Circles of Hell thing.
Rowan: Someone was like, “Oh, this is going through the angel spheres so it’s probably gonna go into the nine circles of Hell,” and I was like, “Hmm…”
“Yes, it is, that was my plan, all along!”
Rowan: Haha, yeah. I think a lot of stuff we never took directly, but we definitely looked at the chat logs and that gave us something to build off of. Like, I know there were times when I felt a little—‘cause again, we were doing this day-by-day—there were times when we were like, “Oh god, I don’t know what to do next,” and the chat logs gave us… somewhere to start, even if we didn’t use the actual theories.
I know the figure in the tv was Rowan wearing a chroma-keyed inside-out Minecraft tee shirt.
Rook: IT WAS YOUR MINECRAFT T-SHIRT?
Rowan: LOL. Yeah.
Rook: YOU JUST TOLD ME IT WAS CLOTHES!
Were there any other funny ways that you guys improv’d bits and pieces of the story?
Rowan: There was a video that I was going to release—I think it was DAYTHREE. It was either DAYTWO or DAYTHREE. I didn’t get it up in time. I finished it past midnight, so I couldn’t put it out anymore. It was a video that me and Arlo went to the beach for, at night, and we threw another Minecraft shirt into the lake—
Rook: HOW MANY DO YOU HAVE??
Rowan: Like, five!
Rook: Oh my god… oh my god… oh my god.
Rowan: But yeah so we filmed that, and we filmed like… the sky. So that was another instance of a Minecraft shirt. I had to like, run into the lake to save it. So I came out of that like, dripping wet—SOPPING—and I didn’t even get to use it. So.
That was my karmic revenge for when you made me walk into that river in my tights and then we stayed in the woods for like five more hours.
Rowan: It was! But yeah, if you look back at the chat logs between me and Rook, they’re very panicky. It wasn’t funny at the time, but it definitely is now. It was sort of a blur, so when I get questions like this I have to really think because I’m like, “I don’t remember anything.”
Just so we can put this one to rest—what was the extent of the Enricks connection?
Rowan: Oh, yes. A lot of people have asked about this. In canon, it was something before Max’s Neocities that was sent out by her when people asked her what was wrong. This is established in canon because of angels’ connections to the Internet and how she was reaching out through Limbo. It was something that Max found parallel to her experiences. It was one of the earlier cries for help. But a lot of people thought we were expanding the Enricks universe, which wasn’t the case. I didn’t even really know it was an ARG. I thought it was just a creepy website.
Rook: Yeah, that was basically Max being like, “This is what is wrong with me.”
Do you guys think you’ll make more interactive pieces like this in the future?
Rook: Oh yeah, for sure! I mean, I’d like to.
Rowan: Definitely! This was extremely fun. I love Rook, we always have inspiration—
Rook: I love you!
Rowan: I love you! But definitely. This is something that I’ve been wanting to do. There’s a lot of stuff I’d like to improve on. It wasn’t the ideal thing because it was something that we made in a week kind of by surprise, and definitely there’s a lot of stuff I’d change if I got to go back. But I liked making it. I liked the people who got involved. That was so fun. And I think, doing something like this in the future with more planning would also be really fun. So. Yeah. Definitely.
Rook: This was asked a lot and I really would like to. Also, I’ve been wanting to… there’s a lot of stuff I’d like to improve upon. But yes, for sure. So keep an eye out.
Cool! Well, thank you guys so much.
Rowan: Yeah, thank you for interviewing us! Geez!
Of course! I love you!
Rowan: I love you!