And what did YOU do this weekend? Played an ARG, of course!

Here it is, Wednesday. And I am not doing any work on Willow. Why?

Because I can’t stop reading about this stupid alternate reality game.

Last weekend, I watched “Artificial Intelligence: AI” for the first time. It was okay. A little creepy in parts. I totally understand why people say it should’ve ended 20 minutes sooner; but at the same time, I understand why it ended the way it did. Overall, I liked it.

But while reading the IMDB entry, I noticed one bit in the trivia:

“The elaborate series of promotional websites included information about the characters’ lives after their last appearances in the film. For instance, one website revealed that Martin Swinton grew up to be an architect who, after being traumatized by David’s disappearance, spent his career building sentient AI houses.”

That intrigued me. After all, the movie mainly focuses on David, the boy-robot who can love. I was pretty bummed that the movie didn’t follow up on David’s family after he ‘disappeared’. Such an event would have emotional consequences for them. (And yes, I know I’m including a spoiler for the movie while at the same time being vague. If you haven’t watched the movie, then watch the movie. It’s interesting.) So I figured if I go to this so-called Cloudmakers website, it should include some information on what happened to David’s family in the movie. I thought it would be a webpage or two, at least.

Webpage? Turns out to be a lot more than that.

In 2001, a bunch of Microsoft folk got together and created an interactive online game using puzzles buried fake webpages, journal entries, emails, faxes, voice mails and the promotional posters of AI. Through all of these, they told an elaborate story of love, hate, betrayal, murder, insanity and hacking–not bodily hacking, but website hacking. All this set in the world of AI, where robots are gaining personalities and consciousness for themselves. The game ran from April to July 2001, but there is a well-documented guide that details the entire story from start to finish. And better yet, the website hosts nearly all the webpages used in the game. So basically, you can still ‘play the game’ for yourself.

So that’s how I wasted a whole weekend. And Monday. And Tuesday…and, today, I guess.

Part of the thing is that I’ve never seen anything so elaborate used to tell a story. Well, yes, I heard about such websites games before, mostly lame, obvious commercial tie-ins to movies or products that are featured prominently in the story. This game is different in that it is telling an actual story. A massive complex story (so much that the game has been nicknamed “The Beast”).

And the story’s good. Real good. It starts off with the boating accident of a man named Evan Chan, whose personal homepage you can visit here. From all accounts, it looks like an actual webpage of a man who lived, had a family, loved, life, enjoyed boating. You get pictures of his family and everything, including links to his company and to family friends, Jeanine and Laia Salla, who may be connected with Evan more than you think. Jeanine is mentioned in the AI movie credits as a ‘Sentient Machine Therapist’. Following the webpages, you learn that Laia suspects that Evan’s death wasn’t accidental and that foul play was somehow involved. And we get our first puzzle that will take you to an interesting letter…

I’m not going to go into much detail–if you want to see for yourself, read the guide. But the websites and the clues and the puzzles work to pull you in, where you act as both sleuth and observer. And you start to forget that this is a game promoting a movie–the movie itself is more of a foundation, a surrounding environment for the game and its characters, both human and artificial. When the movie characters do show up in the story, even they are characters in their own right rather than supporting characters from the movie. It’s like…it’s like a fanfic.

Take that, Enter the Matrix video game that wouldn’t load on my computer.

What really impressed me about the whole thing was the writing. Obviously, the story used different formats to tell the story from puzzles to emails to players calling phone numbers to listen to voice mails. But the writing! Take, for instance, one of the ways you got into the game. On one of the billboards and a few trailers, there are notches in the words that correspond to a phone number (don’t ask me how). If you call the number, you will get a message that directs you to a website that spawns an email message for you to send. Then on a certain date, you get an email back:

“Once upon a time there was a young man who dreamed of the sea. The waves, he thought . . . the waves beat like the world’s heart, crashing and hissing against the shore.

Crash and hiss.
Crash and hiss.

He loved the sound of the swell as it slapped and gasped against the hull of his boat.

Slap and gasp.
Slap and gasp.

And he was thinking about the rocking ocean, gentle as a mother’s arms, at the very moment he was murdered.

A mother’s arms.
A mother’s arms. “

“Slap and gasp”…Man! That’s good!

You get pages written in hacker-speak. Transcript style interviews. Rambling diatribes. Alice-in-Wonderland nursery rhymes riddle taunts. A written analysis on a woman slowly sinking into insanity. Letters written before someone’s death (and by the way, to the person who wrote the last Svetlana letter–I’m so not worthy to be a writer. <much bowing and scraping> So not worthy, so not worthy…and I’m never going to take a bath again…) So much good writing here that doesn’t translate well in book form. This game shows that not only webfiction can be done, it can be done well. (It certainly helps that the head writer, Sean Stewart, is a science fiction/fantasy writer.)

Well. I certainly didn’t expect this to turn into a review of a now defunct webgame. I was going to bemoan the fact that I wasted a good part of the week reading and absorbing this thing. That means no writing. No reading of Willow. No looking for markets for “She’s All Light”. And no cleaning. No laundry. No emptying of the dishwasher.

Oy.

But you know, I just need to process this. This whole game was a wonderful way to get a story across. And just think–this was all done in 2001. Before YouTube. Before Twitter. Before broadband. Imagine what would happen if they released that game now? It boggles the mind. Of course, there are now ARGs all over the place, as well as their cousins MMORPGs. None as complex as “The Beast”, but who knows? Course, I got dishes threatening to top over onto the floor, so I think this will do for now. Maybe I’ll use an ARG as a treat once I kick myself into writing again.

Ah, so glad I got that out of my system. Now I can get to work again. At least, until the next new fad hits me.

I don’t think I’ll watch any movies for the rest of the week.

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11 Responses

  1. Hi! I’m Andrea, one of the moderators for the Cloudmakers Yahoo group that played the A.I. Game back in the day. I’m an ARG designer and writer now, so you can truthfully say this game changed my life.

    At the time, we were all wrapped in a feeling of amazing import and awe. Wek new we were articipating in a collaborative activity the likes of which had never been seen before, and it felt incredibly big and new and important. I wonder sometimes, with all of the things that have come and gone since, if it was really as special as we had all believed it to be. And from your reaction… yes, it sounds like it really was.

    Man, what a trip to Nostalgia Land. Thanks for posting this. ^_^

  2. Ditto on most of what Andrea wrote. I was in college while we were playing The Beast, and it’s the game — rather than anything specifically relating to school or dorms or friends — that is my defining collegiate experience. The Beast changed the way I approach problem-solving certainly, but also challenged my worldview, opening questions of morality (the StepSelf story that you reference is something I think back to regularly) and responsibility.

    I never thought that someone fresh to the game would truly be able to follow the Cloudmakers.org walkthrough and have the same sort of experience that we did live, and I’m so thrilled that you did.

  3. Thanks so much for reminding me what it was play this game the first time around. I remember bone-chilling phone calls when I least expected them, I remember wonderful friends and dastardly puzzles.

    But most of all, I have that game to thank for my lovely wife, who I met while playing the game online.

  4. I was also a Cloudmaker… thanks for posting this. The game changed my life too, because I made friends I still talk to, and even married another Cloudmaker. It was a game, it was a story, but it’s so much more.

    I don’t know if you picked up on this from the Cloudmakers site, but the person responsible for all that great writing (it was mostly just one guy) is Sean Stewart, who has a number of fine novels available on Amazon.com. I’m a particular fan of “Resurrection Man.”

  5. Oh, wow. It is a massive, massive relief that youfound this still to be such a powerful experience years after it happened – and not as-live, either.

    All misty-eyed now.

  6. Wow! I am amazed by all the responses. This truly must’ve have been an awesome experience. I’m a little sad that I missed out on it (I do believe at the time it happened, I was transitioning from the city to the suburbs. Plus, I did not have a computer of my own). But I’m very humbled that my little post brought back great memories for all of you!

  7. […] And what did YOU do this weekend? Played an ARG, of course! « The Cafe in the Woods They might take a lot of time to go through, but the content is still pretty damn compelling. This is in part because Sean Stewart is such a kick-ass writer. (tags: seanstewart thebeast ai arg review nostalgia) […]

  8. Tahnks for posting

  9. I was a cloudmaker too, and completely obsessed. So glad you still found it exciting all this time on

  10. You mentioned “The elaborate series of promotional websites included information about the characters’ lives after their last appearances in the film”

    I am more curious about information about characters’ lives. Still, I was wondering where I can go to find those information about certain character, Gigolo Joe?

    help? cuz i don’t want to go through the annoying websites game……

  11. I think the only characters the ARG follows is David’s family (I believe I mention that in the blog)– As far as Gigolo Joe goes, or any of the other main characters, they don’t.

    I wouldn’t count the ARG out though. Going through it is a fascinating, fun read, and it’s a whole universe in itself. You’ll be missing out on an awesome story if you skip it.

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