High Tech: The Beast that never admits it's a game

In the spring of 2001, Internet and gaming enthusiasts were intrigued when they saw a credit for Jeanine Salla for her work as "sentient machine therapist" in the trailers for the upcoming film A.I. Entering the name into Internet search engines yielded links to a number of intricate Web sites (including one for the fictitious Bangalore World University). The path of The Beast was revealed.

Sleuths learned that Evan Chan had been murdered. The mystery was to determine by whom and for what. Clues in Web sites (there ended up being more than 50 different sites) led to phone numbers. Phone numbers led to answering machines. Leaving a fax number on the answering machine led to receiving a fax with another URL. And on it went.

The biggest mystery was still unanswered: was this real? It was clear that there was no Bangalore World University, for example, but nobody was taking responsibility for the conspiratorial web of clues that were there to be found.

After the film's release, the veil was lifted and the Puppetmasters, the name given to those who had initiated the game, became known. They were Jordan Weisman and Elan Lee from Microsoft's Entertainment Business Unit, and Canadian novelist Sean Stewart.

The specialized Microsoft division had been asked to create a virtual world promotion, but nobody anticipated that the Internet game, The Beast, born as a marketing campaign, would end up being more successful than the film it promoted.

Stewart has written on his own Web site (seanstewart.org/) about the experience of creating The Beast; he recalls that a phone rang during an initial design conversation. Weisman looked at the phone and said, "Wouldn't it be cool if that was the game calling?"

Most important, says Stewart, was that "the game would never admit that it was a game."

In uncovering the identity of Evan Chan's murderer, participants had to decode encrypted messages, translate languages, and follow a trail of clues that Sherlock Holmes himself would have needed a database to organize. In the process, they organized themselves-using chat rooms and on-line messaging services-into the Cloudmakers (cloudmakers.org/): "founded as a discussion group for the interactive web game centered around the film A.I. We officially solved the game on July 24, 2001."

By solving the game, the Cloudmakers were told a story that was set in the A.I. universe. The narrative of The Beast wasn't necessary to understand the film, but those who had played the game had a bigger picture of the "world" that was created by Stanley Kubrick and Spielberg (and, by extension, Brian Aldiss, on whose short story the film was based).

The collective and cooperative nature of the Internet was essential to the success of the idea; by this point, the gamers had organized to the point where they had created a name for what they were playing: alternate reality games, or ARGs.

THE PUPPETMASTERS found themselves having to create material based on what the gaming audience was discovering. Gamers had become participants in the storytelling.

And that realization was taken a step further by Weisman, Lee, and Stewart in their next project, I Love Bees.

I Love Bees launched in July 2004 after trailers promoting the long-awaited Xbox video game Halo 2 screened in movie theatres, ending with the URL ilovebees.com/.

I Love Bees required that players actually participate in the real world. Not only did they have to solve puzzles to get the story, but they had to be at specific payphones (determined by GPS coordinates) at specific dates and times, and they had to speak the correct code words. Only then was the next segment of the story released to the entire community of players. In a sense, I Love Bees was a story that could not have been told without the participation of the gamers.

And the story being revealed to I Love Bees participants was, essentially, what was happening on Earth at the same time Halo was taking place, immediately before the incidents in Halo 2 begin.

Fans of ARGs, who tend to be fans of science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres, as well as board-, card-, role-playing-, and video-game enthusiasts, had established portal Web sites where they could talk with each other, establish message boards for discussion about specific topics, and let each other know what was new in the realm of ARGs. Interested? The place to start is the Alternate Reality Gaming Network (argn.com/).

Plus, they were making games for each other. But the games made by the community for the community are lacking in that they don't have the financial muscle to truly incorporate "reality" (like newspapers and payphones), nor the depth of story that multimedia narrative development allows. The games gamers make for themselves tend to be simple conspiracy stories with puzzle-solving components. The best, most successful viral marketing promotions in the ARG world are those that come from a high-concept, alternate-universe genre project with a well-developed mythology that can be expanded.

On-line "games" have been used to promote films like X-Men, Swordfish, and the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes remake, but until The Beast and I Love Bees, none were overly successful.

Video-game producer Electronic Arts attempted to get in on the action with Majestic, but it required that participants subscribe (about $10 a month) to play. Having to subscribe kept people away.

The Wachowski brothers, creators of The Matrix, are this year releasing their on-line game experience, which will tell more stories in that universe. This despite the fact that the earlier video game, Enter the Matrix, received poor reviews.

And many high-profile companies are getting in on the action. Sharp's Legend of the Sacred Urns promoted the release of their Aquos LCD televisions. Sega's Beta-7.com was played in the months leading up to the release of ESPN NFL Football. And ReGenesis Extended Reality is an on-line game extension of the genre television series ReGenesis, broadcast on Canada's the Movie Network/Movie Central.

The payoff for gamers is that they are revealing an interesting narrative in an interesting way. Even better for genre fans is that the extra stories are set in the same universe, so the fan's knowledge and experience of that "world" is more robust. You don't need to play I Love Bees to enjoy Halo 2. But if you completed I Love Bees, you've got a much bigger picture of the story being told in Halo and Halo 2.

Playing with the veil between reality and fiction is one of the keys to the success of these promotional games. And the more "realistic" a game appears to be, the more consistent it is with the logic and rules of a "universe", will, in part, determine how successful that game is.

Who says gamers are out of touch with reality? -