In early October 2007, the WhySoSerious webpage contained merely a jack-o-lantern with a candle inside of it. The left side of the pumpkin appeared to be slowly rotting away with every day. (early allusion to Two-Face).
Finally, on Halloween, the pumpkin page transformed into a puzzle page and the Dark Knight ARG was officially underway.
On the page, there was a letter from the Joker instructing the players to take a picture of alphabetical letters at 49 different locations and send them in.
As I looked through the 49 clues, two things jumped out at me about the game – its massive scale and its complexity. The clues were scattered amongst almost every major US city, from Boston to Seattle. They were not obvious. For example, one for Detroit read: “Stand under the People Mover at Library & Farmer, and look away! Look away! Look away! From pup-petland.” Somehow, people found the Letter Y out of that. Clearly, a huge amount of coordination had to go into organizing this. And as the game continued, its extensive design became all the more apparent.
The 49 letters compiled to form the message:
After the code was cracked, the site displayed a photo from the film and a short audio clip. This kind of collective intelligence brings a new component to “gaming” in ARGs. No one fan could have traveled the country and found all the clues; the only way to continue the game was to work together. This fascinates me. Most games set in real-time either involve competition (Halo, Madden) or fantasy (Second Life, WOW). But players in ARGs don’t usually compete against each other, and they don’t play through an avatar. Instead, such games are driven by the challenge of puzzles, the collaboration necessary to solve them, and the reward of story information.
Jason Mittell and Jonathan Gray, in their essay ‘Speculation on Spoilers: Lost Fandom, Narrative Consumption and Rethinking Textuality,‘ highlight the spoiler fans’ need to “to take control of their emotional responses and pleasures of anticipation, creating suspense on [their] own terms rather than the creators.’” The same may be said for the motivation behind playing The Dark Knight. Batman has been a long-standing and beloved franchise. The world of Gotham does not belong to Christopher Nolan and it certainly does not belong to Warner Brothers. It belongs solely and completely to the fans.
In an era where Geek properties are consistently being converted into mainstream ones (Superhero movies, Enterprise, LOST, Heroes), loyal fans require a sense of value and appreciation. For it is their love and dedication which sustain a franchise and it give it meaning. And that is exactly why such fans deserve more respect than to have the mainstream media not only tell them what to be excited about, but to tell them in the same fashion as they tell every other moviegoer. Thus, the Dark Knight ARG can be seen as one intricate spoiler. Participants of the game were able to look at all movie posters, trailers, photos, and movie clips before anyone else. Yes, this was partly to market the movie, but it was also to market it in such way which made it the fans’ movie. The ARG represents a shift in power from the commerciality of Batman to the originality with which the fans love. It is the loyal fans who built the world of Gotham, and through the ARG, they were able to engage with it on their own the terms.
To give you an idea of just how many fans were participating in this game, take a look at RorysDeathKiss.com. When the Joker asked people to take photographs of themselves in clown makeup by major national landmarks, hundreds of people uploaded their submissions. In return, they obtained…well…the Joker’s email address. That’s right: email@example.com. Imagine the Joker checking his email. Maybe even updating his Facebook page.
In all seriousness however, the Joker never broke out of character. Players had to complete a personality test and an aptitude test before they could work for him. They had to solve online puzzles and prove themselves. After all this, the fact that the Joker had an email address was completely plausible. If you’re a super villain, you have to stay connected to your cronies nationwide somehow, right?
The Joker even tested his hard core fans by launching a real life carnival themed scavenger hunt. He placed packages at 22 different addresses around the country. Players who solved the clues and reached the packages first received a cake with a Joker cell phone inside.
Calling a number then got them free IMAX movie tickets to see the Dark Knight’s opening 5 minutes before IMAX screenings of I Am Legend. As I’ve said before, whether it’s free movie tickets or interacting with the Joker over email, the Dark Knight ARG recognized the importance of giving back to its hard core fans. And the fans gave back to franchise, telling their friends about their discoveries and hyping the movie.
The ARGs second set of clues came through The Gotham Times, (which was sent to all the RoryDeathKiss participants). Examining the fictional newspaper led to a plethora of websites, which either furthered the stories in the Times through puzzles and clues or provided backstory on Harvey Dent, Batman, and Gotham City in their efforts to clean up the city. I will not go into detail for each website since the Dark Knight ARG wiki does a fantastic job of that already. Here are a few of them:
Some of the highlights within these sites:
-A GPD wiretap operation headed by Gotham Internal Affairs at Betty’s House of Pies was streamed live at Gpdiad.com at 3 PM EST. The clip depicts the GPD internal affair dept officers arresting two corrupt cops who fled the scene of a murder.
-Players who submitted a phone number to Wearetheanswer.org received threatening calls from the corrupt cops on their Joker phones.
-One clever clue in the Hahahatimes had a link which provided a number of escape routes. When all the escape routes were plugged together they formed the message “Out of Time,” leading to a site where the Joker congratulates the player and posts the next clue on the corpse of a character from the newspaper.
- When one player studied a printed movie poster for the Dark Knight, they found the phrase “atasteforthetheatrical.” Players added .com to the phrase and got the first look at the film’s theatrical trailer.
At the end of 2007, the game’s activity exploded. Unfiction (the ARG forum) boasted hundreds of threads and tens of thousands of views as people worked together to summarize the plot, post their findings, and discuss the mysteries. Every clue was scrutinized, every phone call analyzed. But on January 22nd, the death of Heath Ledger brought the game to a screeching halt. How would the ARG respond to this tragedy when the Joker had played such a central role in the narrative and gameplay?
(all images courtesy of the Dark Knight Wiki)