Reprinted from Chapter 1. ‘The Dyslexic Storyteller’, from The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories by Frank Rose (Copyright © 2011). Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
One day toward the end of 2007, several thousand people received a cryptic and, it must be said, highly inappropriate email from firstname.lastname@example.org. The email read, “Heads up, clown! Tomorrow means that there’s one last shifty step left in the interview process: Arwoeufgryo.”
The people who got this missive had applied to serve as henchmen of Batman’s perpetual nemesis, the Joker. Some recipients—the savvier ones—realized they had just gotten a tip-off to go to www.whysoserious.com/steprightup (“arwoeufgryo” shifted one letter over on the keyboard). There they found a carnival game in which a series of ratty-looking stuffed animals appeared a few at a time, each with a different street address pinned to its belly.
The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories
(W. W. Norton & Company; US: Jan 2011)
Since Whysoserious.com was known to be associated with weird occurrences involving the upcoming Batman movie The Dark Knight, word of the new Web page quickly spread among those who gravitated to online discussion forums about the film. There they learned from those who had googled the addresses that each one was for a bakery. A note on the Whysoserious.com carnival game bore instructions to go to each address and pick up a “very special treat” that was being held for someone named Robin Banks. The race was on.
In Boston, a local couple and a friend from the Netherlands went to an address on Salem Street in the North End and found themselves at an old-fashioned Italian American pastry shop. It was empty except for a handful of employees. When they announced they were there to pick up a package, they were met with a curt response. “Name?”
They were given a box. Opening it, they found a cake inside. Written on top in lurid purple and green icing was a phone number and the words “Call Me Now.” So they called—and the cake started ringing.
Borrowing a knife from the bakery, they cut into the cake and found a sealed evidence pouch inside. The pouch contained a cell phone, a charger, and a note with instructions to call another number—which in turn triggered a text message to keep the phone turned on and charged at all times. Also in the pouch was a single playing card—a joker. To anyone attuned to the mythology of Batman, the message was clear: from now on they were accomplices of the Joker—in robbing banks. The cake was chocolate and, they reported, quite good.
This scenario was repeated in 21 other cities across the United States. City by city, minute by minute, the reports came in. Los Angeles, Las Vegas, St. Louis, Miami—each time someone phoned in from one of the cake phones, another stuffed animal disappeared from Whysoserious.com. When all the animals were gone, people could click on the strength bell next to the empty animal display and be taken to another page on the site. There they would find an evidence pouch, a set of keys, and a pair of jokers. But what did this mean?
The week before, another page on Whysoserious.com had shown a police evidence vault, together with a nonsensical set of instructions that turned out to contain a code that would get them inside. There they had found, among other things, a set of keys and an ID card stolen from one Jake Karnassian, an employee of the Gotham Unified School District who had apparently been mugged. On the school district’s Web site they had seen Karnassian listed as “Mgr. Buildings and Grounds (on hiatus),” along with a notice announcing that school bus service had been rerouted in District 22. Over the next few days they had been led to a series of other pages on Whysoserious.com, culminating in a page that showed Karnassian’s ID to be missing from the evidence vault, along with one of his keys.
So the two jokers they were looking at now were a sign that the Joker had been there. Clicking on the card on the left unveiled a new poster for the film. The card on the right led to tickets for IMAX screenings a couple days later in New York, Philadelphia, Toronto, Chicago, and LA. There was no indication of what was being screened. When ticket holders got to the theaters, however, they discovered it was footage from The Dark Knight. Christopher Nolan, the film’s director, introduced it at the New York theater by saying, “I wanted to make the Joker’s introduction a mini film. That’s what this footage is.”
What followed was the first six minutes of the movie—six minutes during which a gang of robbers shoot up a bank. The scene begins with a sweeping view of Gotham City, the camera slowly zooming in on a black glass tower, just as two guys in clown masks shoot a grappling hook to the roof of the next building. This is the start of an elaborately choreographed heist. Five robbers, each wearing a grotesque clown mask, rough up the bank employees, break into the vault, and kill each other one by one, apparently on the boss’s orders.
In the midst of the mayhem, a bright yellow school bus bursts through the bank’s front doors, rear end first. The sole surviving robber hurls bags full of cash into its interior, and then casually shoots the bus driver. Then he turns back to confront the bank manager, who’s lying wounded, yet defiant, on the floor. “Whadda you believe in, huh?” the manager demands. “WHADDA YOU BELIEVE IN?”
Calmly, deliberately, the clown-faced robber kneels down, pulls a concussion grenade from his pocket, and places it in the bank manager’s mouth. It’s a fair question, and he answers it. “I believe,” he says, in a preternaturally quiet tone, “whatever doesn’t kill you, simply makes you”—and here, fully five minutes into the film, he finally removes the mask, revealing a face smeared with red and white makeup—“stranger.” It’s the world’s first glimpse of Heath Ledger as the Joker.
Shuffling back to the school bus, the Joker hops in the back and drives off. The bus, “DISTRICT 22” emblazoned on its side, pulls into a long line of identical buses filled with happy, squealing children. For many in the audience, this was the big reveal: So that’s why they had broken into the evidence vault—so the Joker could take Karnassian’s key and ID and use them to steal a school bus. They were accomplices in the getaway of a psychotic criminal. An agent of chaos with a bent for destruction. A nihilistic cartoon supervillain rendered in larger-than-life, high-definition digital flesh. Heath Ledger—the brilliant and promising young actor who seven weeks later, at the age of 28, would be found dead in his New York loft, apparently from an overdose of the pills he had swallowed in a vain attempt to get some sleep.
For Ledger, who had inhabited his role in The Dark Knight with a vengeance, the fiction became all too real. But to a (fortunately) far lesser extent, the line between fiction and reality could also become blurred for anyone with an Internet connection. The cake phones were a mechanism that enabled thousands of people to step into the fiction long before the movie’s July 2008 premiere. The 12-hour cake hunt involved only a few dozen people on the ground, but some 1.4 million gathered online to see what would happen. And that episode was just a small part of the larger collective experience known as Why So Serious?, which played out intermittently for 14 months before the movie’s release. Ultimately, more than 10 million people across the planet took part in a cascading sequence of riddles, puzzles, and treasure hunts that sucked them into the latest chapter in the 69-year-old story of Batman. Not coincidentally, The Dark Knight grossed $1 billion worldwide during its 33-week run—far more than any previous Batman movie, and enough to make it the number one film of 2008.
On one level, Why So Serious? was an enormously successful marketing stunt, not just for the movie but for Nokia (which supplied the phones) and for other brands that had cut product-placement deals with Warner Bros., the studio behind the production. This is what won it a Grand Prix at the 2009 Cannes Lions, the world’s largest and most prestigious advertising festival. But it was also a new kind of interactive fiction, one that blurred the line between entertainment and advertising, as well as between fiction and reality, in ways barely imagined a decade earlier.
Alternate reality games, as these experiences are known, are a hybrid of game and story. The story is told in fragments; the game comes in piecing the fragments together. The task is too complicated for any one person. But through the connective power of the Web, a group intelligence emerges to assemble the pieces, solve the mysteries, and, in the process, tell and retell the story online. Ultimately, the audience comes to own the story, in ways that movies themselves can’t match.
Staged for Warner Bros. by 42 Entertainment, a small Pasadena company headed by a former Walt Disney Imagineer named Susan Bonds, Why So Serious? was essentially an experiment in the future of narrative. There are many such experiments, and though they vary wildly in form, most share a few essential characteristics.