The first time I ever remember hearing about an ARG or Alternate Reality Game would have probably been in 2004, prior to the release of Halo 2, the sci-fi space marine game made by Microsoft. I was a huge gamer back then. Even though I was a father by that point, you could still routinely find me waiting outside in a line at midnight to score my pre-ordered game. Typically I would take a day of vacation the next day so I would be able to consume as much of the game as possible in 24 hours. I recall hearing a lot of hubbub about something called I Love Bees in the run up to the game’s release. This was pre-YouTube era mind you so there wasn’t an army of content creators covering up-to-the-nanosecond updates about whatever topic suits a person’s fancy.
After doing a little sleuthing I discovered that there was this apparently massive “game” being played out in real time all around the world. The entire thing was spawned by a hidden message in the Halo 2 trailer. Upon going to the website mentioned, text on the screen would indicate that the site had been hacked by an artificial intelligence.
The wiki for the game tells us that over a quarter of a million people viewed the ilovebees site in July 2004 alone and more than half a million people would visit every time more content was added. Over the next three months more than three million people would hit the site.
At this point you might be wondering just exactly what this “game” was. Just an internet-based browser game? Hardly. The entire thing is actually a form of viral marketing and really kind of a publicity stunt.
The mechanics of the game are basically a set of puzzles or riddles that must be solved that unlocks the next piece of the plot that the game centers around. Think internet scavenger hunt and you’ll be close. The videogame world of Halo contains artificial intelligences in it so the plot is tangential to the fiction found within it.
People interact with the game by networking with each other via email, text and phone calls. One of the main hallmarks of an alternate reality game is that it gives little to no directions or hand holding on how to proceed with the game itself. The idea is to have a group of people share what they’ve discovered and team up to figure out how to proceed. Typically, people with certain skills or expertise are required to solve some of the more intricate problems. Chemistry, music, obscure languages, various programming skills the list goes on.
I remember hearing stories at the time—I never participated myself—of people standing by pay-phone booths in cities waiting for a mysterious call at a particular time. Pre-recorded messages on answering machines, mild hacking into web servers to decrypt information and other sorts of shenanigans are what I also recall. At the end of the storyline people were prompted to go to one of four specific movie theatres where they could be one of the first to play the new Xbox game before its retail release later that year.
All for a videogame.
But this wasn’t the first alternate reality game to be spawned for the sake of marketing. Nor was it the first one made by some of the team members who put together Ilovebees.com Many of the same people also worked on another ARG a few years prior. This one was called The Beast.
The Beast was created as a marketing campaign for the Steven Spielberg movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence. There it is again. Artificial Intelligence.
I’ll admit right now that I’ve never watched A.I. Even though I’ve typically been a fan of Spielberg movies in the past, this was just one that never got my attention. I think for some strange reason it’s linked with that weird Robin Williams robot movie Bicentennial Man in my head. They’re not related in any way. Maybe it’s some strange Mandela Effect thing going on with me. Dunno.
I do know that in the movie there’s a little boy played by the Sixth Sense kid who is apparently an intelligent robot. That was about the long and short of my recollection of it. So when I learned about The Beast and I started working backwards towards the film I was surprised by a few things.
The movie was apparently produced by Kathleen Kennedy of Star Wars fame along with Mr. Spielberg. But even more interesting is that before Spielberg picked it up it was originally going to be directed by none other than Stanley Kubrick. The script itself was based off of a 1969 short story called Supertoys Last All Summer Long. The wiki tells us that it was basically in development hell for several decades. Kubrick was not convinced that the special effects of the time could pull off his vision for the movie. For him it was a re-telling of Pinocchio.
Another thing that I find intriguing about the film is that it set in a post-global warming world in the 22nd century. Not that climate change was really anything new in 2001 as far as the idea goes, but it does serve as a reminder as to how long they’ll run with topics and serve it up to us in various mediums. After all, An Inconvenient Truth would not be released until 2006, with climate disaster movies such as The Day After Tomorrow preceding it in 2004.
The Beast was unleashed when a couple of peculiarities were noticed with the trailer and posters for the film. In the credits on both the trailer and poster, the name Jeanine Salla is listed as “Sentient Machine Therapist.” If someone were to look on the reverse side of the movie poster they would see some ringed letters that spelled out “Evan Chan was murdered” and “Jeanine was the key”.
Back in ’01 there was no social media landscape to blow up the info within seconds on Twitter or Facebook. If one did a search for “Jeanine Salla” they would find a personal website, and a site said to be for Bangalore Worldwide University. All containing clues. For a few weeks nobody really noticed anything. That all changed when a mysterious email was sent to someone in media recommending them to do a search on this Jeanine Salla person. That was the match that lit the torch. After only about one hundred people discovered the anomalies organically, once the news story went live on April 11, over twenty-five-million hits were registered to the various sites. Oh, and by the way, that mysterious email came from someone using the handle “claviusbase”, which itself is a reference to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Likewise at the end of the trailer you see “Summer 2001”, which seems innocuous enough unless you notice the little hash marks in the letters and numerals. They equal out to 5033215122. A phone number. If that phone number was called back in 2001 you would hear this message:
“Welcome my child. Once upon a time there was a forest that teemed with life, love, sex and violence. Things that humans did naturally. And their robots copied—flawlessly. This forest is vast and surprising. It is full of grass, and trees, and databanks, and drowned apartment buildings, filled with fish. It can be a frightening forest, and some of its paths are dark, and difficult. I was lost there once—a long time ago. Now I try to help others who have gone astray. If you ever feel lost, my child, write me at thevisionary.net. And I will leave you a trail of crumbs…”
Although no longer a real website, if one went to thevisionary.net back in 2001, you would hear an audio file that would chastise you for not following directions. “Once upon a time, there was a rude and wicked child who came visiting when told to write!” A pre-populated email would then pop up addressed to “[email protected]” and if you sent the email you would then get messages back about a lady—“you’ve seen her name before”—and about Evan’s murder.
In fact, in March of 2001 somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty to forty websites all went live with the sole purpose of furthering the plot line and puzzles of The Beast.
I’ll give you a second to wrap your head around that.
You might ask who set up the websites. That would be Microsoft, under the guise of their game studios. That would be Bill Gates’ Microsoft, mind you.
At a live media event at MIT that May, Kathleen Kennedy took a question from a planted shill in the crowd asking about her experience working with Jeanine Salla. Kennedy even handed out Salla’s business cards. There were staged “Anti-Robot Militia” protests in New York, LA and Chicago.
Kennedy, after the game had been completed, said that the point of it was to go beyond the marketing for the film and to lay a foundation for a series of video games in conjunction with Microsoft. Those games never came to fruition. Unless you count ilovebees and the connection to the Halo franchise. Her exact words were “a very elaborate long term project with Microsoft and Xbox.”
We’re also told that the production costs for The Beast topped a million dollars. I’m not sure if that seems like a lot of money to people nowadays. As far as advertising goes, it’s a steal. Even in the mid-2000s the average marketing budget was north of thirty million bucks. Much higher for a summer “tentpole” film such as A.I. Today, high-profile movies that are marketed internationally can spend more than 200 million.
In any of my articles about movies or TV shows, I’ve intentionally left out the phrase predictive programming. Westworld. Altered Carbon. Black Mirror. Arrival. I say intentionally because it’s kind of like the tail wagging the dog. If a person really doesn’t understand the purpose of most media then just saying, “it’s predictive programming” is entirely a waste of words. My intention is to hopefully clue in anyone reading that they are being programmed. And it has been meticulously planned.
How much of our reality is actually fiction? How much of it was manufactured? If you’re starting to ask those kinds of questions then maybe the matrix that was created is starting to glitch in front of you. And speaking of matrix, I had to laugh the other day when I read a headline that proclaimed the Matrix movies are actually, according to the brothers-turned-sisters who directed them, just a metaphor for the transsexual experience. Mmhm. Sure they are.
Anyone who considers themselves a “truther” or is labeled as a conspiracy theorist by friends and family can attest that one of the first, if the not the first, rebuttals is, “well there’s no way they could pull that off.”
A marketing campaign containing fake people and produced storylines can get hundreds of thousands to millions of people to go down designed rabbitholes, or points of entry into one of these narratives. The game makers style themselves as puppetmasters. They’re the ones pulling all the strings. How is it any different than what we experience in our day to day lives? We call it the “news” and we assume that the events that are portrayed are either real or have happened in some spontaneous fashion. But are they real? Did they really happen as we are told? Did they happen at all?
I once asked someone very close to me if they knew that the Sandy Hook kids were dead. They answered that, yes, they knew they were dead. How did they know? Because the TV told them so. The coroner corroborated. Police and other “officials” claimed it to be. So there you go. The truth according to a talking head on a news media channel reading from a teleprompter.
But I had another question as follow up. Actually several. One being, were they there? Actually physically at the location. And even if they were, would they be able to understand they were just a background actor in an “elaborate long term project” that was now taking place around them? Did the “Anti-Robot Militia” protests seem organic to the bystanders who watched them unfold in May of 2001?
Quite the thought experiment. And people can be unreliable witnesses, whether on purpose or just by the nature of being programmed. In group settings people can often be made to change their minds to either deny things they had said they previously saw or vice versa. A missile explosion can become a plane for instance. Not because anyone actually saw a plane at the time of the event, but because we all saw planes on the news channels.
And the real question. How many TV spots, coroners, police, firemen, parents, and gunmen can be bought with, oh let’s throw out a number, say 500 million dollars? A billion? If a movie studio will spend 200 million in order to recoup a billion at the global box office then how much would entities, who can literally print money, spend in order to bend reality to their desire? And if they can shell out that kind of cash for either cooperation or silence then would they even blink twice knowing they had to kill some kids, fire into a crowded concert or blow up a couple of buildings? Real or fake no longer matters at some point. Just the narrative.
I think we all inherently know the answer to these questions. But as I brought forth in my paper about The Prestige, the real problem is that they show us these things but we don’t really want to know.
What is it that the character Cypher says in the Matrix movie when negotiating the betrayal of his friends for the chance to be put back into the matrix? He says, “I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I recognize? Ignorance is bliss.”
That statement represents 90% of the population. Easier and better to have one’s head in the sand and ignore what’s really going on. But look on the bright side, our imitation Whoppers sure do taste good.
Even more so than staged terror events, shootings or protests, the reality of our very existence is handed to us from the moment we’re born. Did you know that NASA has a daily budget of upwards of 50 million dollars? I’m guessing that’ll buy you a trip to the moon and back in more ways than one.
Maybe it’s just me but I find it more than amusing or coincidental that the guy who was linked to the faked moon landing—Kubrick—just happens to be involved with The Beast, if even just in a tangential way. He died in ’99 but not before, as I said, he passed the torch to Spielberg for the A.I. movie.
Spielberg would go on – in a now post-9/11 world – to direct Minority Report, with none other than Tom Cruise, in 2002. That movie would introduce us to pre-crime as a concept. It would also shower us with all sorts of nifty technology, much of which we would be using within a decade.
And just like any good alternate reality game, once the puppetmasters have fulfilled their purpose and the game has been brought to a conclusion, the details and minutia are free to be thrown away. You’ll find hardly a trace of any of the websites or registered domains that were linked to The Beast today. It used to be that dusty corners of the World Wide Web were routinely overlooked and information could still be found by someone who truly desired. But today, with the consolidation of the social media networks, the same tools that make recognizing the game possible also aid the puppetmasters with the ability to scrub clean any path that doesn’t lead down the desired rabbit hole.
I can’t help but wonder if the Q phenomenon is in any way connected or influenced by alternate reality gaming. It’s been popularly theorized that Q could be an A.I. construct. And that may very well be. They say that whenever anything hits the public domain for wide consumption, that it’s a good bet that the military and intelligence circles have had it for quite some time. Just look at the internet itself and other technologies. Perhaps A.I. is much farther along than we’ve been led to believe. Maybe a movie in 2001 is just the sort of dog whistle to signal those in the know. It could also be that Q is a next-level ARG designed for the social media infused internet we have today. Just as millions of people groped around for the next clues to the puzzle for months “playing” something like The Beast, perhaps Q has millions of followers simultaneously titillated and perfectly content with not doing anything in particular except trying to decipher and analyze the next “drop”.
You’ll decry the fact that Twitter and Facebook can ban thousands of QAnon groups and posts, but then again…that would be the point. If Q is the game and is anonymous, then the players surely can’t claim the same. As I said, the very apparatus used to disseminate the information will be the very same one used to collect, categorize and contain all of the people who choose to play or get involved.
That’s the beauty the left hand and the right hand. Both can be involved in the sleight of hand.
One of the last pieces of the The Beast is a message from one of the in-game characters, Laia Salla:
“The world had gotten fat with meaning; charged with invisible connections. Patterns jumped out at me like little electric shocks: a run of numbers on a license plate, the bar code on a box of cereal. I found myself making anagrams out of billboard copy and wondering if you could embed a message in traffic flow by hacking into the transit computers. This spring I made intense friendships with people I had never met, and got yelled at for not paying enough attention to the ones I’d known forever. I learned faster and felt dumber than I ever had in my life; I passed my days in a paradoxical state, both hyper-alert and profoundly confused.”
For some strange reason, this seems to sum up a lot of 21st-century life. Knowledge has increased and people are traveling to and fro, but at the same time confusion and melancholy seem to grip the entire earth. We can feel that something is not right. It’s out of joint. It feels like an alternate reality. How can it not?
“See, I have told you beforehand.” Messiah’s words.
“…false messiahs and false prophets will rise up and show great signs and wonders so as to lead astray, if possible, even the chosen.”
Stay on guard, brothers and sisters. There’s a beast out there looking for whom he may devour.