[24 March 2011]
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 email@example.com. 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.
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.
Crucially, Why So Serious? was nonlinear. Like hypertext—text that has embedded within it links to other texts, an essential feature of the Web—it could lead you along different paths. Links can carry you deeper and deeper into a story, revealing levels of detail that would be impossible to convey in a single, two-hour movie. Or they can take you into alternate story lines, showing what would happen if you, or the author, made different choices along the way.
Why So Serious? also assumed that the participants would be connected. The game wasn’t restricted to the Internet or to any other medium, but it certainly relied on the connective tissue of the Web. In a networked world, information doesn’t just travel from author to audience, or in a closed loop from author to audience and back again; it spreads all over the place, and more or less instantly. Fans can collaborate with each other, as they did in the search for the cake phones. This is what generates the hive mind, the spontaneous joint effort that transformed The Dark Knight into an experience anyone could take part in.
At the same time, Why So Serious? was a fusion of game and narrative. Conventional narratives—books, movies, TV shows—are emotionally engaging, but they involve us as spectators. Games are engaging in a different way. They put us at the center of the action: whatever’s going on is not just happening to a character on the page or an actor on the screen; it’s happening to us. Combine the emotional impact of stories with the first-person involvement of games and you can create an extremely powerful experience.
An immersive experience, you might say. And that immersiveness is what blurs the line, not just between story and game, but between story and marketing, storyteller and audience, illusion and reality.
For most of its 69 years, Batman existed as a series of comic books—printed artifacts that followed certain well-defined rules of narrative and graphic art. It stayed within the lines. You picked it up, you put it down. You could read it or not, but it would not read you. It wouldn’t bleed into your life. As a television series in the sixties, Batman remained very much, as they say, inside the box. When Tim Burton brought the story to movie theaters in 1989, it got larger than life, but it didn’t try to jump the screen. No longer.
The forces that took Batman to new dimensions were at work long before most people experienced the Internet or even heard about it. They could be felt decades earlier at a summer camp deep in the north woods of Wisconsin. Jordan Weisman, a 14-year-old from the Chicago suburbs who would grow up to more or less invent the concept of alternate reality games, was back for his sixth summer—this time as a junior counselor. Camp Shewahmegon fronted on a remote and pristine lake, its thousand-foot shoreline dotted with sugar maples, yellow birches, white pines, and balsam firs. But for Jordan the fun started after dark, when the little kids were asleep and the older ones had the evening to themselves. That’s when the camp’s senior counselor brought out a new game he’d just discovered in college. The game was Dungeons & Dragons. The year was 1974.
When he was in second grade, Jordan had been diagnosed as severely dyslexic. In a way, he was lucky. Dyslexia had been identified by European physicians in the late nineteenth century, but American schoolteachers had only recently been introduced to the idea that otherwise normal kids might be unable to read because their brains couldn’t process words and letters properly. Jordan’s teacher had just attended a seminar on the disorder, and a nearby teachers’ college was one of the few places in the country that tested for it. Since then, years of daily tutoring had given Jordan a way to cope, but reading was still difficult—so difficult he found it almost physically painful.
Dungeons & Dragons gave him a different kind of story—one he could act out instead of having to read. The first commercial example of what would become a long line of fantasy role-playing games, D&D provided an elaborate set of rules that guided players through an imaginary adventure as they sat around a table together. Each player got to pick a character with certain characteristics (human or elf, fighter or wizard) and abilities. The game started with the lead player, the “Dungeon Master,” describing the setting and the plot to all the others. As the game progressed, the Dungeon Master determined the outcome of the players’ actions, often with a roll of the dice. For those few hours, they weren’t a bunch of knock-kneed mall rats in a cabin in the woods; they were axe-wielding warriors fighting goblins and orcs. The images that played out in Jordan’s head during these sessions were so vivid, and the socialization with the other boys so intense, that decades later he remembered thinking, Wow—my life is going to be changed.
As he told me this story, Weisman and I were sitting in his lakeside guesthouse in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, the snow-covered peaks of the Cascade Range rising in the distance beyond the water. Bellevue’s downtown has the raw look of an insta-city, but here on the shores of Lake Sammamish it felt secluded in an upscale, north woods kind of way. Now in his late forties, Weisman was slender and soft-spoken, with dark, curly hair and a salt-and-pepper beard that gave him an almost Talmudic appearance.
“Here was entertainment that involved problem solving and was story based and social,” he recalled, taking a sip of coffee. “It totally put my brain on fire.” Ultimately, it led him to fashion a career in game design and social interaction—two fields he sees as intimately connected. “Games are about engaging with the most entertaining thing on the planet,” he added, “which is other people.”
On his way home from Camp Shewahmegon that summer, Jordan convinced his parents to stop at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, a small resort town near the Illinois border. He wanted to buy his own copy of Dungeons & Dragons, and the only way you could do that was to see Gary Gygax, the local insurance underwriter who had invented it with a friend. Gygax had a passion for games, but no publisher was interested in taking this one on, so he had published it himself and was selling it out of his house.
Jordan started a Dungeons & Dragons club when he went back to school that fall—the beginning of what would become a lifelong pattern of entrepreneurship. After graduation he attended the Merchant Marine Academy and then the University of Illinois, but before long he dropped out and started a company he called FASA Corporation—short for Freedonian Aeronautics and Space Administration, after the fictional nation in the Marx Brothers’ film Duck Soup.
Building on the role-playing game genre that Gygax had started with Dungeons & Dragons, FASA created games like BattleTech, a science fiction title inspired by Japanese anime—the animated films and television shows that were beginning to turn up on videocassette in the United States, usually with English-language subtitles provided by fans. Launched in 1984 as a board game, BattleTech existed in an elaborate fictional “universe” of warring feudal states set centuries into the future. Over the years it morphed into a PC game, a console game, an online game, a series of novels, and an immersive simulation in Chicago that enabled players to sit in a virtual cockpit and engage in combat with other players.
In 1999, Microsoft acquired a spin-off company called FASA Interactive and moved it from Chicago to the woodsy Seattle suburb of Redmond, not far from corporate headquarters. Weisman became creative director of Microsoft’s new entertainment division, which was about to launch the Xbox—the console that would pit the company against Sony and its best-selling PlayStation in the video game business.
Weisman’s new role gave him creative oversight of everyone developing video games for the Xbox. One such group was Bungie Studios, another Chicago-based game developer that Microsoft had bought and moved to Seattle. Bungie’s big project was Halo, a shooter that had generated rave reports after being demonstrated at game shows in prototype form. In 2000 and 2001, as the Bungie team was retooling Halo to be a game that could be played exclusively on the Xbox, Weisman helped the Bungie crew create a backstory for the game, like the universe he had devised for BattleTech.
“You need characters,” he explained. “You need plotlines that can be extended and moved to other media to create a more robust world.” Weisman’s team put together a Halo “bible,” a compendium of information about the characters in the game and the universe in which it takes place. They made a deal with Del Rey Books to publish a series of novels that would flesh out the Halo story. But while Weisman was spending most of his days thinking about Halo and other new Xbox titles, on his own time he was thinking about an entirely different kind of game.
In truth, Weisman didn’t really care that much about video games. He liked storytelling, and game developers at the time were far too busy trying to deliver gee-whiz computer graphics to pay much attention to story. Ever since his days at camp, he’d loved telling stories through interaction with other people. Now he was starting to think about how interactive stories could be told in a way that was organic to the Internet.
“What do we do on the Net?” he asked. “Mainly we search through a ton of crap looking for information we care about, like an archaeologist sifting through dirt.” Gradually, after months of midafternoon rambles through Microsoft parking lots and 3:00 a.m. phone calls with a young protégé named Elan Lee, this line of thought evolved into the notion of a deconstructed narrative. They could write a story, fabricate the evidence that would have existed had it been real, and then throw the story out and get an online audience to reconstruct it. That was the theory anyway—that we humans would forage for information the same way other species forage for food, and use it to tell ourselves a story. Now all he needed was some way to try it out.
One of the video games Weisman was supervising at Microsoft was based on the upcoming Steven Spielberg movie Artificial Intelligence: AI. Originally developed by Stanley Kubrick in the 1970s, then taken over by Spielberg after Kubrick’s death, the film was meant to be a futuristic retelling of the Pinocchio legend, with an android in place of the wooden puppet that dreamed of becoming an actual boy. Personally, Weisman had his doubts about the appeal of a video game centered on a boy who longed for his mother’s love, even if the boy in question was a robot. But he also figured that the kind of deconstructed narrative he wanted to create could be used to establish a context for the game, and for the movie as well.
While overseeing development of the video game, Weisman worked closely with Spielberg and his producer, Kathleen Kennedy. One day he sat in Spielberg’s headquarters at Universal Studios, a grandly appointed “bungalow” just down the hill from Jurassic Park—The Ride, and told them he wanted to explore a new way of telling stories.
Much as the theme park ride was designed to give the sensation of being hurled headlong into Jurassic Park, Weisman wanted to create an experience of being plunged into the world of AI. But there the similarities stopped. The Jurassic Park ride was Hollywood’s idea of participatory entertainment: a five-and-a-half minute boat trip past some robotic dinosaurs, with a scream-inducing 85-foot drop at the end. It was an expensively produced theme park attraction that sought to match the public’s desire for more Jurassic Park entertainment with Universal’s desire for more Jurassic Park profits. Weisman’s idea was to use the Internet to go beyond the very personal narrative of Spielberg’s new film to tell the story of the world the movie was set in.
Weisman is a persuasive guy. At the end of the meeting, Kennedy called the head of marketing at Warner Bros., which was making the picture. As Weisman recalls it, she made an announcement: “I’m sending Jordan over. I want you to write him a very big check. And don’t ask what it’s for.”
“It’s good to be king,” Weisman remarked when the call was over.
“Yes,” she said, “it is.”
The experiment began in April 2001, 12 weeks before the release of the movie, when a credit for something called a “sentient machine therapist” appeared among the myriad other credits listed in trailers and posters for the film. The clue was so tiny you could easily miss it, but that was the point. Marketers were already encountering a growing problem: how to reach people so media saturated that they block any attempt to get through. “Your brain filters it out, because otherwise you’d go crazy,” Weisman told me. So he opted for the subdural approach: instead of shouting the message, hide it. “I figured that if the audience discovered something, they would share it, because we all need something to talk about.”
He was right. Within 24 hours, someone posted the discovery on the movie fan site Ain’t It Cool News. Googling the therapist’s name, people found a maze of bizarre Web sites about robot rights and a phone number that, when called, played a message from the therapist saying her friend’s husband had just died in a suspicious boating accident. Within days, a 24-year-old computer programmer in Oregon had organized an online discussion forum to investigate. More than 150 people joined the forum in its first 48 hours. By the time the movie came out in June, some 3 million people around the planet were involved at one level or another.
Whatever they were experiencing seemed to know no boundaries. Clues were liable to appear anywhere—on Web sites, on TV, in fake newspaper ads. Phone calls, faxes, and emails could come at any time, day or night. Almost the weirdest part was that no one announced or even acknowledged that anything unusual was going on.
One day a Warner Bros. marketing executive asked Elan Lee, who was essentially running the AI game, for a single line of text to go at the end of an AI movie trailer being made for TV. He needed it in 20 minutes. Lee was desperate. He wanted to make people feel good, or at least not silly, about responding to emails from a fictional character. So he came up with the line “This Is Not a Game.” It was flashed for a few seconds on TV. This cryptic missive quickly became a mantra among the players, a neat summation of the mystique generated by a game that refused to acknowledge its own existence. It was the closest Lee or Weisman or any of them ever came to speaking publicly about the experience as it was happening.
They made mistakes, of course. When he and Lee were planning the game, Weisman had argued that no puzzle would be too hard, no clue too obscure, because with so many people collaborating online, the players would have access to any conceivable skill that would be needed to solve it. Where he erred was in not following that argument to its logical conclusion.
“Not only do they have every skill set on the planet,” he told me, “but they have unlimited resources, unlimited time, and unlimited money. Not only can they solve anything—they can solve anything instantly.” He had dubbed his game The Beast because originally it had 666 items of content—Web pages to pore over, obscure puzzles to decipher. These were supposed to keep the players busy for three months; instead, the players burned through them in a single day. With people clamoring for more, the name took on a different connotation: Weisman had created a monster.
It’s little wonder that the game’s success took Weisman by surprise. Its mix of real-world and online interaction violated every notion of what futuristic digital entertainment was expected to be. For years, science-fiction novels like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash had conditioned readers to think the future would bring some swirling electronic phantasm so vivid that the real world could never compete. But Weisman didn’t do virtual reality; he trafficked in alternate reality. The Beast wasn’t about retreating into some digitally synthesized head space. It was about interacting with other humans in response to an alternate sequence of events.
The world in the spring of 2001 might have been trying to cope with the sudden deflation of the Internet bubble, but people caught up in the AI game had to deal not only with that issue but with the furor over civil rights for sentient machines in the year 2142. This was, if anything, more radical, and perhaps ultimately more in sync with the current direction of technology, than the gloves and goggles that kept popping up in the media’s breathless reports about virtual reality. “What we’re doing is a giant extrapolation of sitting in the kitchen playing Dungeons & Dragons with our friends,” Weisman told me as we sat at the table in his guesthouse, gazing out across the placid surface of the lake. “It’s just that now, our kitchen table holds three million people.”
In commercial terms, however, Weisman was years ahead of his time. Three million people engaging with The Beast was a lot for something that had never been tried before, but by Hollywood standards it was a negligible figure. The film itself was a dud—ticket sales in the US and Canada came to only $79 million, a fraction of the box office take for E.T. or Jurassic Park. Microsoft canceled the AI video game while it was still in development, so no one at his own company paid much attention to what Weisman was doing. Executives in Redmond were fixated on Halo, which quickly became the must-have title that gave traction to the Xbox.
Nonetheless, Weisman wasn’t the only person to try his hand at an immersive entertainment experience. Electronic Arts, the San Francisco Bay Area video game giant, had Majestic, an online computer game that likewise attempted to create an alternate reality experience. Developed by a 31-year-old EA production executive named Neil Young, it was introduced in July 2001, not long after the conclusion of The Beast. Players were thrust into a story that was described at the time as “interactive, immersive and invasive.” Five minutes into the tutorial, your computer would crash. Then your cell phone would ring with a cryptic missive regarding a fire at Anim-X, the fictional Oregon studio that had purportedly built the game. For $9.99 a month, you could continue to delve into the mystery of Anim-X and the government conspiracy it was said to have uncovered—a mystery that unfolded through an unpredictable sequence of faxes, phone calls, emails, and instant messages. “Whenever your phone rang,” Young says now, “I wanted the next thing in your head to be, Oh my God—is that part of the game?”
Even though Majestic had been highly anticipated before its release, it garnered only about 15,000 subscribers. Young sees several reasons why it didn’t gain traction. One is the linear structure of the story: “If you got interrupted, it became harder to get back into it. It would have been better to allow the users to consume episodes in any sequence, so they could explore the characters versus exploring the story.” There was another structural issue as well: the game designers installed brakes to keep players from running through the game’s content the way they had done with The Beast, but players complained about being forced to wait for the next step rather than being allowed to proceed at their own pace. And then there was timing: the game was put on hiatus for several weeks following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It never recovered. Eleven months after introducing it, EA pulled the plug, calling it “a noble experiment that failed.” It would be a long time before anyone tried something like this again.
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.”