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 …
#5. 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 F*CKed 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.
#4. 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 F*CKing 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.
#3. 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-F*CKing 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.