Young went on to produce two Lord of the Rings games for EA before leaving to become founder and CEO of the iPhone gaming company ngmoco. Weisman left Microsoft to run WizKids, a company he had started that built games around collectible action figures. But then Chris Di Cesare, a Microsoft Game Studios executive who had worked with him on The Beast, approached him about doing an alternate reality game for the November 2004 launch of Halo 2.
Del Rey had published three Halo novels by this time, the latest of which showed the series’ space aliens at the point of invading Earth. At the E3 gaming conference in Los Angeles, Bungie had unveiled a Halo 2 trailer that showed Master Chief, the humans’ faceless supersoldier, looking down from a spacecraft as the invasion begins. Di Cesare wanted to create a War of the Worlds–like experience that would end with Master Chief’s arrival on Earth to lead the resistance—the point at which Halo 2 begins. Using an accounting sleight of hand, he got $1 million from the game’s marketing budget to pay Weisman up front. “I honestly thought there was a risk I’d get fired,” Di Cesare recalls. “No one invests a million dollars in an unproven medium for a marketing effort you won’t admit exists. Especially when its success is measured in PR.”
Weisman took the bait, launching a boutique marketing firm—42 Entertainment—to develop alternate reality games full-time. The name was a cosmic in-joke: in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the answer to the ultimate question of life is revealed, after tremendous buildup, to be . . . 42. “I figured if we were going to set up a consulting company, we ought to offer people the answer to the secret of the universe,” Weisman quips.
The game Weisman and his team created, I Love Bees, was The War of the Worlds told over pay phones. It had people answering phones around the world in the weeks leading up to the game’s release. One player braved a Florida hurricane to take a call in a Burger King parking lot. Each call provided a clue that made sense only later, after all the clues had been pieced together online.
When Halo 2 racked up $125 million in sales on its first day, people in marketing took notice. Soon alternate reality games were being used to market all sorts of things. In 2005, an Orlando company, GMD Studios, even staged a fake auto theft at a Park Avenue auto dealership as part of a game to promote Audi’s A3 premium compact. The stunt launched a three-month alternate reality game called The Art of the Heist that caused a huge spike in traffic to Audi Web sites and was said to have generated more than 10,000 sales leads for US Audi dealers.
To Weisman, it was a case of the Internet transforming the nature of marketing. For centuries, Western commerce had been built on a clear proposition: I give you money, you give me something of value. But like a rug merchant who invites the customer in for tea before discussing his wares, marketers were now beginning to sense that the customer had to be engaged and entertained—whether with a free single on iTunes or an alternate reality game that could run for months. “I believe all marketing is heading in that direction,” he said. “But for artists, it’s a different thing. To them, this is a new way of telling stories.”
That’s certainly the way Trent Reznor thought. Reznor is the singer, songwriter, and sole permanent member of Nine Inch Nails, the industrial-rock project he started in Cleveland in 1988. He spent much of 2006 recording Year Zero, a grimly futuristic song suite evoking an America beset by terrorism, ravaged by climate change, and ruled by a Christian military dictatorship. “But I had a problem,” he recalled when I saw him the following year, lounging on the second-floor deck of the house he was remodeling in the vertiginous terrain above Beverly Hills.
The problem was how to provide context for the songs. Reznor had spent a long time imagining his future dystopia. Now he wanted to make sure the story he was telling got through to his fans. In the sixties, concept albums came with extensive liner notes and lots of artwork. MP3s don’t have that. “So I started thinking about how to make the world’s most elaborate album cover,” he said, “using the media of today.”
Years earlier, Reznor had heard about the strange game that tied into the Spielberg movie AI. He wanted to give people a taste of what life would be like in a massively dysfunctional theocratic police state, and with a game like that he could do so in a visceral way. A little googling took to him to 42 Entertainment’s Web site. He filled in the contact form he found there and clicked Send.
Weisman had barely heard of Nine Inch Nails, but Alex Lieu, 42’s creative director, was a major fan. Over the next few weeks, he and 42’s president, Susan Bonds, spent a lot of time talking with Reznor at Chalice, the Hollywood recording studio where he was mixing the album. Reznor and his art director, 28-year-old Rob Sheridan, had already constructed a wiki describing in great detail the dystopia Reznor envisioned 15 years into the future and explaining how things had gotten that way. With Weisman already preparing to launch his next project, a kid’s entertainment company called Smith & Tinker, it was up to Lieu to figure out how to translate the wiki into something people could experience firsthand. Rather than write a narrative for the players to reconstruct, he approached it as a songwriter might—by creating a series of poignant emotional moments that people would seize and make their own. By the end of January, as Nine Inch Nails was about to start a European tour, he had a plan.
The initial clue was so subtle that for nearly two days, nobody noticed it. On February 10, 2007, the first night of the tour, T-shirts went on sale at the nineteenth-century Lisbon concert hall where the group was playing. The shirts had what looked to be a printing error: random letters in the tour schedule on the back seemed slightly boldfaced. Then a 27-year-old Lisbon photographer named Nuno Foros realized that, strung together, the boldface letters spelled “i am trying to believe.”
Foros posted a photo of his T-shirt on the message boards of The Spiral, the Nine Inch Nails fan club. People started typing “iamtryingtobelieve.com” into their Web browsers, which led them to a site denouncing something called Parepin, a drug apparently introduced into the US water supply. Ostensibly, Parepin was an antidote to bioterror agents, but in reality, the page declared, it was part of a government plot to confuse and sedate citizens. Email sent to the site’s contact link generated a cryptic autoresponse: “I’m drinking the water. So should you.” Online, fans worldwide debated what this had to do with Nine Inch Nails. A setup for the next album? Some kind of interactive game? Or what?
A few days later, a woman named Sue was about to wash a different T-shirt from one of the Lisbon shows when she noticed that the tour dates included several boldface numbers. Fans quickly interpreted the sequence as a Los Angeles telephone number. People who called it heard a recording of a newscaster announcing, “Presidential address: America is born again,” followed by a distorted snippet of what could only be a new Nine Inch Nails song.
Next, a woman named Ana reported finding a USB flash drive in a bathroom stall at the hall where the band had been playing. On the drive was a previously unreleased song, which she promptly uploaded. The metadata tag on the song contained a clue that led to a site displaying a glowing wheat field, with the legend “America Is Born Again.” Clicking and dragging the mouse across the screen, however, revealed a much grimmer-looking site labeled “Another Version of the Truth.” Clicking on that led to a forum about acts of underground resistance.
For Nine Inch Nails fans, the unfolding of the Year Zero game was as puzzling as it was exciting. Debates raged online as to whether all this had anything to do with the science fiction of Philip K. Dick or with the Bible, and why the Year Zero Web sites kept referring to something called the Presence, which appeared to be a giant hand reaching down from the sky. The band’s European tour dates became the object of obsessive attention. Fans were so eager to find new flash drives that they ran for the toilets the moment the venue doors opened. With every new development, the message boards were swamped. By the time the album hit store shelves in April, 2.5 million people had visited at least one of the game’s 30 Web sites. “I don’t know if the audience was ready for it to end,” says Susan Bonds. “But we always expected to pick it up again.” Reznor, after all, had conceived Year Zero as a two-part album. “Those phones are still out there,” she adds. “The minutes have expired. But we could buy new minutes at any point.”