The 5 Most Insane Alternate Reality Games
An alternate reality game (ARG for short) combines the best elements of viral marketing, role playing games and being an insane person who can't tell fantasy from reality. Basically, ARGs ask the players to pretend they're living in a carefully constructed parallel universe that can include fake websites and phone numbers and even real objects hidden throughout the world ... usually for the sake of promoting a two-hour movie.
What we're saying here is that ARGs are usually pretty crazy to begin with, but some of them go the extra mile. Like ...
Halo 2 -- I Love Bees
In 2004, members of a gaming community received large and completely unsolicited jars of honey in the mail, apparently from someone related to the website ilovebees.com. This was the beginning of the most bizarre viral marketing campaign ever, which was intended to promote a video game about gritty space marines. What do bees have to do with Halo, you ask? Nothing, until this game came out.
Although a sick Master Chief calms right down when you make him a proper hot toddy.
Around the same time as the unexplained honey jar incident, the first trailer for Halo 2 was released, and fans noticed that, for a split second, the xbox.com address at the end was replaced with ilovebees.com. So the website was somehow linked to the game, but how? It appeared to be the blog of a completely ordinary bee enthusiast named Dana, which had recently been hacked and filled with strange messages, corrupted data and a series of mysterious countdowns.
Most of the bee blogs we frequent look like this all the time.
As the players decoded the "corrupt" data, they learned that the "hacking" was actually the result of a rogue AI named Melissa attempting to collect itself in the website's server. From her blog posts, the players learned that Dana was becoming exasperated (which is understandable given that she's paying for the hosting and all) and tried to erase the artificial intelligence, causing Melissa to lose parts of its memory. A virtual catfight ensued, with the AI Melissa leaving threats on the website and capturing webcam images of Dana to freak her out. At this point Dana's character fucked off to China out of sheer terror and left her readers to figure out how to deal with the AI.
You'd probably run away, too, if a rogue AI took over your shitty blog.
Later, ilovebees.com visitors found a series of real GPS coordinates leading to pay phones all over the country. The phones would then ring at a designated time, at which point the nearest player was greeted by a prerecorded message and required to answer a series of questions using codewords related to the game. Players were so dedicated to this game that one of them waited by a pay phone while Hurricane Frances was literally only minutes away in Tampa, Fla.
"You'll have to speak a little louder!"
Other times, when the players couldn't make it to the designated phones in time, they had to persuade employees at a Pizza Hut and an Applebee's to answer the robot's questions. These phone calls were called axons -- every time a group of axons was completed, a new sound file was unlocked at the website, revealing a new recovered piece of Melissa's fragmented memory. Players were able to learn more and more of the back story: basically, Melissa was the AI onboard a futuristic spaceship that was accidentally sent back in time and crashed on present-day Earth. With the ship stranded and damaged, Melissa was forced to transfer itself to a random web server in an effort to get its shit together and call out for help.
And then things got really weird. As more axons were completed, Melissa's memory began to come back, and so did its deranged dominatrix-like personality. From this point onward, the players were able to have actual phone conversations with the character, having to obey to its increasingly bizarre requests: it once told a group of players to form a human pyramid at a certain location (which they did). At other times, it asked them to tell jokes, share personal stories or sing their favorite songs. By the end of the game, the calls routinely involved giggling, laughing and having sing-alongs with the awkward person on the other side of the line.
Apparently futuristic AIs have the same pastimes as 10-year-old girls at a slumber party.
Eventually, Melissa managed to return to its own time, but not before inadvertently giving up Earth's location to an alien empire called the Covenant, thus kicking off the events of Halo 2. Currently, ilovebees.com displays a 500-year countdown to the exact moment of the Covenant invasion. As a reward for constantly degrading themselves to please a fictional future space robot mind, players were invited to play Halo 2 in movie theaters before it was released.
Nine Inch Nails -- Year Zero
Rock albums don't usually have the most extensive marketing campaigns; most of the time it's just some online ads, a plug on The Daily Show and calling some other artist a twat in an interview with a tabloid if we're talking about a British band. Trent Reznor's Year Zero, on the other hand, had 17 websites and a massive alternate reality game devoted to it.
Reznor's main method for spreading information to his fans, by the way? The bathroom stalls of Nine Inch Nails concert venues.
It all started with a Nine Inch Nails Tour T-shirt: among the words on the back, certain highlighted letters spelled out the phrase "iamtryingtobelieve." This was actually the URL for a strange website that described a drug called parepin, an alleged immune system booster distributed by the U.S. government through the water supply to protect its citizens from biological warfare. The website posited that it was actually a hallucinogenic and narcotic drug meant to control the populace. Because people are way easier to keep in check when they're tripping balls, apparently.
Apocalyptic hallucinations or no, we'll sign on with any government that promises us free drugs.
Still, divulging the address of a secret website through a T-shirt is a fairly straightforward method for promoting an album, at least by NIN standards. Things started getting really weird when a fan attending a NIN concert in Portugal found a USB flash drive in a bathroom stall that contained a real song from the then-unreleased album. Embedded in the MP3 file was a link to another website filled with people posting about topics like an underground resistance, the parepin drug ... and alleged sightings of a giant hand coming down from the sky. Oh, and if you ran the last few seconds of the song through a spectrogram, you got this:
We promise we won't show you this thing ever again.
It turns out that these websites, plus others that were found soon afterward, were set in a future where the U.S. has become a Christian fundamentalist state and most civil rights have been dissolved. The large hand is known as "The Presence" and has been seen all over the world.
That doesn't count -- it's a totally different picture.
Fans were able to piece the game's story together by following cryptic clues in objects found or handed out during NIN concerts, like fliers against the corrupt government, lithographs, DVDs and a few more of those bathroom stall flash drives. Another MP3 spectrogram revealed a phone number, which if called would let you hear a lengthy recording of a wiretapped conversation. Players were constantly receiving weird emails and crazy phone calls, not to mention real cease-and-desist letters from the RIAA for hosting and sharing the MP3s that the band had intentionally leaked. It was easy to mistake this for part of the game, though, because the RIAA is fucking ridiculous.
"We've never heard of this 'Reznor' fellow. But he certainly doesn't have the right to go leaking our music."
As the story progressed, the resistance movement became more and more organized. Fans were invited to a resistance meeting in Los Angeles, where they were given all sorts of cool alternate-reality swag (including prepaid cellphones). Those who received the cellphones were summoned to a slightly more secretive meeting five days later -- which turned out to be a live goddamn concert for Nine Inch Nails.
This in itself would have been a spectacular enough way to end the game, but apparently Reznor didn't think so: halfway through the concert and without a word of warning, a SWAT team busted in and shut down the entire thing.
After that, a few more links were found leading to one final website that seemed to describe the end of the world at the hands of the Presence. However, before that happened, a group called the Solution Backwards Initiative managed to send information back in time as a plan to warn us about the future, thus explaining the whole game.
Cloverfield -- Slusho!
When the first Cloverfield trailer debuted in 2007, no one really knew what the hell it was for. All we saw was some shaky footage of a bunch of dudes in New York escaping from an unseen creature (little did we know that the film was basically 90 minutes of that). Online speculation linked the mysterious trailer to everything from Lost to H.P. Lovecraft to Voltron. That's how little we knew. The viral marketing campaign that unfolded didn't just give us a sneak peek into the film's secretive story -- it ended up showing way more of it than the film itself.
Plus, the ARG featured much better camerawork.
Back then we didn't even know the movie was called Cloverfield: the closest thing to a title was the date 1-18-08 at the end of the only trailer. This led inquisitive fans to the website 1-18-08.com, which showed pictures of the characters from the movie plus photos of some sort of sea accident and random Japanese people. Also, someone in the trailer was wearing a "Slusho!" shirt, which J.J. Abrams fans recognized as a Japanese slushy brand that also shows up in shows like Alias and Fringe.
Since at this point the desperate fans were clearly pasting every single word uttered in the trailer into a URL bar, they quickly discovered the official Slusho! website, which is ... very Japanese, let's put it that way.
In addition to mind-fucking the film's followers with sheer confusion, the website unveiled some of the back story. It turns out Slusho! is owned by a company called Tagruato, which has an even more extensive fake website. Besides manufacturing soft drinks, the company has apparently branched out into other ventures like deep-sea drilling and space satellites. Tagruato's corporate website was frequently hacked by an environmentalist group called T.I.D.O. Wave which, whaddaya know, also had its own site.
Take that, evil fictional megacorporation.
Meanwhile, several Myspace pages were discovered for specific characters in the film. One of those characters, a guy called Rob Hawkins, would announce in a January 2008 blog post that he had been offered a job at the Slusho! company in Japan (that's why they're throwing him a going away party at the beginning of the movie). Among Rob's group of friends was a guy called Teddy Hanssen who was actually a T.I.D.O. Wave activist secretly planning to infiltrate the new Tagruato sea drilling station set up near New York City. Teddy's story could be inferred through postings on the T.I.D.O. Wave website, plus the private webcam videos recorded by his girlfriend Jamie Lascano (password: jllovesth).
In January 2008, several news clips from around the world were uploaded on YouTube reporting on the unexplained collapse of the same drilling station Teddy was supposed to infiltrate (Teddy had since disappeared, and was presumably captured by the Japanese).
Tagruato Corp. blamed the activist group for the destruction of the station, but it's pretty obvious from the clips that it was actually attacked by some sort of undersea monster. Players who bought Slusho! merchandise over the website (or who won it in the contest to create a fan-made Slusho! commercial) had previously received a torn Tagruato memo mentioning a "dark secret" in the station. This, along with some other information posted on the activist site, suggested that the company found the strange sea creature with their satellites and built the "drilling station" to study it, accidentally causing it to grow larger by exposing it to the stuff Slusho! is made of. From then on, all that was left was for the monster to march into New York and go all Godzilla on it.
"Quick, someone get this thing some Cheetos!"
The game ended when 200 fans were invited to Rob's going away party, which was followed by a midnight screening of the film they had immersed themselves in for all those months. Of course, it turns out the movie doesn't bother to explain any of what we just told you, even in passing -- the biggest reference to the ARG is when we see the girl from the webcam videos passed out on a couch during the party.
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.
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.