#2. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence -- The Beast
It's hard to imagine now, but back in 2001 A.I.: Artificial Intelligence was one of the most anticipated films ever. It was a long-awaited Stanley Kubrick project that had been handed off to one Steven Spielberg, at a time when a big-budget sci-fi Spielberg film could still get fans worked into a frenzy. Then you had an insane and groundbreaking marketing campaign. Let's just say that every other ARG mentioned in this list wouldn't exist if it weren't for this one.
It all started when people noticed something unsettling about the film's trailer (other than Haley Joel Osment). Check out the credits at the end, at around 1:14:
Look for the name Jeanine Salla. Since when is "Sentient Machine Therapist" a film industry job? This wasn't a typo or anything like that: the exact same credit could be found in the small writing of the movie's poster:
Because everyone reads that stuff.
Turns out Jeanine Salla was a character in one of the first alternate reality games ever -- and anyone who typed her name into a search engine was taking part in it, whether they knew it or not. A simple Google search led to Jeanine's biography at the website of the fictional university where she worked, as well as the incredibly detailed personal sites of some of her family members and friends. Her bio also contained her phone number and email, and those curious enough to call her (perhaps hoping to schedule some therapy sessions for their vacuum cleaner) heard a message revealing that her friend Evan Chan had recently died in a boating accident aboard an AI-enhanced vessel.
Wait, first a robot therapist and now an AI boat? Oh, right: this whole thing takes place in the year 2142, in the same universe as the movie.
It was hard to tell the difference.
The player was able to follow a series of clues hinting that Evan Chan was actually murdered -- one website described him as a "superb swimmer" and "excellent sailor," and another had evidence of his torrid affair with a sexbot. Also, the phrase "EVAN CHAN WAS MURDERED" was actually hidden on the backs of the promotional posters, so there's that. But Evan was just the beginning: The entire game spanned more than 30 websites featuring characters like anti-robot activists, rogue AI trackers and robot sympathizers. Players who entered their phone and fax numbers into these sites would then receive calls saying stuff like:
"Good evening, meat. The year is 2142, and we are done with you. When the Mann Act passes, and the machines take over, we'll be watching. People like you are the easiest to track down. When the machines take over, our brave soldiers will delete you."
"Darling, I think it's for you."
The best part? Since nothing like this had been done before, the game was actually being created at the same time as the incredibly devoted community of players explored it, which meant that the developers were able to incorporate many of their actions into the changing plotline. The whole thing reached a climax when players were invited to Anti-Robot Militia rallies in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, where they were handed robo-phobic leaflets and bandannas. Since not every player could attend/was willing to leave the house, the developers created puzzles that could only be solved by rally members cooperating with those online, like keywords being shouted by rally leaders or an email address being found on a bathroom mirror.
The game lasted three months and was played by over 3 million people, ending when news broke of the passing of legislation that recognized the civil rights of robots, which is great news for social equality but not so much for humans. Finally, the creators "broke character" (which is unusual for an ARG) to send a thank-you email to everyone who played the game.
Oh ... well, shit.
#1. The Dark Knight -- The Dark Knight ARG
Perhaps the most unusual thing about the massive The Dark Knight viral marketing campaign is that the film didn't need viral marketing. This is a movie about Batman and the Joker. Even if it had no advertising at all, it still would have become one of the highest-grossing films of all time (Harry Potter be damned). This didn't stop them from creating the most extensive and insane ARG ever made.
"My primary motivation as a filmmaker? I'd have to say 'fucking with people.'"
The game took off with a bang when, during the 2007 San Diego Comic-Con, people found "Jokerized" $1 bills that led them to whysoserious.com, a page advertising jobs for Joker henchmen. Those eager to be repeatedly punched by costumed vigilantes and/or murdered by their own boss were instructed to be at a certain spot near the convention center at 10:00 a.m. the next day. Upon going there at the allotted time, players discovered a phone number ... written in the sky.
"Don't call that, dude -- it's probably Goatse."
Calling the number prompted a recording of a whimpering man being forced to read instructions for what came next: a scavenger hunt. The fans at Comic-Con were then painted with Joker makeup and sent off to find clues throughout San Diego, having to cooperate with those online in order to solve additional puzzles at the website. At the end of the day, the online players were rewarded with the first ever trailer for The Dark Knight, while back in the real world one lucky winner was selected to be taken away by mobsters and "killed" in place of the Joker.
But wait, why would the mob want to kill the Joker? Because the game took place before the events of The Dark Knight and right after Batman Begins, bridging the gap between the two movies by showing events like the rise of the Joker, Harvey Dent's campaign for District Attorney and Jim Gordon's attempts to weed out the bad elements in Gotham's police department. Players took on the role of the Joker's lackeys, whose jobs basically consisted of finding clues and solving intricate puzzles.
One scavenger hunt told players to go out and take pictures of themselves dressed as the Joker while standing near a famous world monument, or to send the ones they already had, if they were lunatics. Those who submitted pictures were later mailed actual copies of a Gotham City newspaper, which revealed a dozen more fake websites within its pages. Another time, the Joker sent the players to 22 different bakeries all over the country to pick up cakes that had cellphones stuffed inside them. Why? Because he's the Joker, that's why. This went on for over a year, by the way, and each puzzle would change the website in some way or reveal a new bit of information about the film.
Like the fact that the people who made it were out of their goddamned minds.
Just when it looked like the ARG was going to be entirely devoted to the Joker, one puzzle that involved hacking a website was intercepted by Lieutenant Gordon, who coerced the players into cooperating with the police. These players were then commissioned to participate in a secret operation to track down 30 corrupt cops -- apparently they missed a few, though, because a corrupt cop working with Gordon was actually a huge plot point in The Dark Knight. Meanwhile, Harvey Dent was elected District Attorney with the help of the players who joined his campaign, but we imagine that this part of the game was slightly less exciting than the Joker henchman/police informant side.
"We can pretend to be people who give a shit about politics!"
The game ended when, a week before the movie's release, every single site involved in the ARG was vandalized by the Joker and his mad hacker skills. One final puzzle revealed a website that allowed players to receive free tickets to early IMAX screenings of The Dark Knight on a first come-first served basis, while those with Joker cellphones were personally invited through their emails. At this point the players must have been completely surprised to find out that the movie was actually about some dude named "Batman" or something.