Where did I go wrong? Ethan tortured himself, staring at his smartphone screen. The streaming platform on which he published his videos every week had just sent him a ton of statistics as depressing as they were cruel. The report coldly displayed that his latest vlog had the worst start in his channel's history. Viewers had stayed only ten seconds on average watching the video, and thirty thousand of them had decided to unsubscribe from Ethan's account. A big red arrow plummeting downward mocked him at the end of the email and seemed to confirm the inevitable: "You're finished."

Ethan took a deep breath. His nails dug into the palm of his hand to vent his frustration. He couldn't break down. The blue and green YARTS bus he had just climbed into was supposed to take him all the way to the heart of Yosemite Valley in the Sierra Nevada, California. A six-hour journey from Sacramento, which he embarked on after a ten-hour flight from New York. Ethan had crossed the entire United States to shoot a thirty-minute video. His carbon footprint was as disastrous as the outcome of his latest vlog.

Ethan swallowed his anxiety and began to dissect his failure in a surgical manner. After all, his income depended entirely on his videos, and the competition was fierce. Nowadays, successful content hid an entire production team, sponsors, communication strategies, and astonishing technical means behind it. If Ethan disappointed his audience, soon to be 900,000 subscribers, they would have no trouble going elsewhere.

The subject of the video was sensational and intriguing. Ethan had filmed himself exploring the famous village of Nagoro, tucked away in the depths of the Japanese countryside, in the mountains. This unique place was inhabited by three hundred residents unlike any others. Scarecrows. These life-sized, colorful dolls were meant to bring an abandoned village back to life. You could see them waiting at a bus stop, passing time in front of their houses, or having fun in the gym of a school without students. These scarecrows made of newspaper were frozen in time, wearing the clothes of former inhabitants who had passed away.

Ethan had given his all in this video. He had procured a new camera for three thousand dollars, endured the flight to Tokyo, the train to Hiroshima, and then the five-hour bus ride to the doll village. This vlog should have made his audience realize the severity of the demographic crisis hitting Japan, discover the beauty of the wild nature of Shikoku Island, and marvel at the creativity and poetry that these scarecrows conveyed. Ethan had paid careful attention to the editing, the pace, and the background music had been meticulously chosen to produce complete immersion in the village. So, what was the problem? Why had most of his subscribers rejected this video?

Ethan began by re-reading the title he had chosen: "I visit the legendary doll village in Japan, and it's creepy!!" He held his head in his hands. He despised such ridiculous titles, but if Ethan didn't grab the public's attention and curiosity, no one clicked. An informative, sober title just doesn't cut it. You have to create a need.

Ethan began to realize his mistake. No, this village isn't legendary. Few people actually know about it. He should have chosen another adjective, like "enigmatic" or even "disturbing." His statistics had proven that users were drawn to negative terms. Then, his title suggests that the content is supposed to be scary, like the entirety of his channel's vlogs. Imagine an employee with only an hour's lunch break looking for a video to watch while eating. The title promises that they will shiver, thrill, and be scared. Forget the dreariness of their daily life. They click. They see Ethan marveling at the beauty of the Japanese countryside for the first thirty seconds. They switch videos.

That's the basics, you moron, Ethan thought. A video must deliver on its promises within the first ten seconds. Unfortunately, his thumbnail was in the same vein as the title. He had zoomed in on the face of a scarecrow that smiled, its small round black eyes staring at the lens.

I should have created a secondary channel, he realized. Ethan had accustomed his audience to horror content. They followed him solely to get their weekly dose of anxiety. The videographer noted in his notebook to change the title and thumbnail of Nagoro as soon as he had access to his computer. But unfortunately, this action wouldn't have any significant consequence. The platform's algorithm had already recorded the inevitable: this video does not please the viewers. The content is not relevant. It will no longer be promoted, the main goal of the algorithm being to keep viewers on the streaming platform as long as possible.

Ethan had done all this for nothing. He had bet big, only to lose miserably. Everyone knows, the house always wins. But Ethan was a compulsive gambler and hadn't had his last word.

Suddenly, the YARTS bus driver announced:

– Next stop: Yosemite Valley Visitors Center.

Ethan locked his smartphone, ignored the growling of his empty stomach for almost 48 hours, and finally looked out the window. It was raining. The bus lights reflected on the wet road. Majestic pines rose on all sides, forming a narrow tunnel of greenery. It was impossible to see the imposing mountains that nonetheless surrounded the YARTS, which timidly traveled at twenty kilometers per hour to navigate the capricious contours of Yosemite and not end up off the road.

For his new video, Ethan wanted to make an impression while relying on a horror classic: Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. To create the unforgettable Overlook Hotel, the famous director had been inspired by The Ahwahnee nestled in Yosemite Village. This historic and luxurious hotel of 14,000 square meters boasted rustic architecture with Native American and Art Deco designs. The hotel was named after the Ahwahneechee tribe that had populated Yosemite Valley for centuries. The lobby with its imposing fireplace, the maze of corridors, the reception halls, and the impressive suites of this hotel were going to be the ideal setting for Ethan's new vlog. He wouldn't just film the interior of this unique establishment. That had already been done a hundred times on the streaming platform. Ethan had sixteen hours of travel to devise an entire Alternate Reality Game (ARG) from scratch.

His subscribers wanted to be scared? They were in for a treat.