This is a re-post of my In Media Res article on Tron: Legacy’s transmedia design. I intend to flesh out these ideas once the entire campaign concludes:
The 1982 film Tron, known for its spectacular special effects at the time, transported audiences inside the then foreign and unfamiliar realm of computer technology. Director Steven Lisberger has described the original Tron as portraying a certain “naïve idealism,” since he was freely able to imagine the vast, glorious potential of the digital world. However, Disney’s Tron: Legacy promises to reflect a more nuanced, modern view of technology and its impact on our civilization. In an effort to hype the sequel’s December release and fill in narrative gaps between the two films, 42 Entertainment launched an ARG marketing campaign entitled “Flynn Lives“. One of the chief strategies of this paratext is to revive the nostalgic sense of wonderment emanating from the Tron era of early computing, but then re-contextualize its aesthetics, content, and style into a more evolved and sophisticated gaming culture.
The premise of Flynn Lives is that Kevin Flynn, the famous game developer, has gone missing and Encom International, the fictional mega-corporation profiting from Flynn’s games, appears to be withholding key information about his disappearance. Participants decipher clues, hack into the Encom website, and attend live events as they begin to piece together the mystery. The ARG has already incorporated puzzles with pixelated graphics and simplistic color palettes reminiscent of the early 80s arcade games. But so far, we can see the most interesting interplay between the modern and the retro happening around Encom’s newly released Space Paranoids Online (SPO).
For many casual players, SPO serves as nothing more than a throwback to the original Tron. The in-browser game does a terrific job of maintaining the ‘feel’ of Space Paranoids, which had previously never existed outside the film. SPO maintains the same visual style, from the glowing neon labyrinth to the green targeting box, yet revamps the graphics to be slicker and smoother. The Recognizers (flying staple-shaped vehicles) not only look remarkably similar to the originals, but their escalating rumble as they hover towards your position remains consistent as well. SPO also makes explicit allusions to the original Tron. The leader board features Flynn’s untouchable high scores from 1982. And on some levels, we see a white particle-flowing square resembling the memory stream traveled through by Flynn’s hack program, Clu. More importantly however, Space Paranoids provides a framework for the Tronverse logic. As we can see in the opening scene of Tron, recognizers and tanks are not just part of an arcade game; they are an integral part of how the Tron computer system functions as a whole. Thus, at its core, the gameplay of SPO reinforce the rules and physics of the Tron world, providing a better sense of what’s at stake when we meet these vehicles again in Tron: Legacy.
At the same time, SPO works on a much deeper level. Within hours of the game’s release, ARG players began noticing secret walls with bar codes on them. They worked together to map out the game space and offer strategies for completing the levels. Utilizing a barcode reader to extract the corresponding numerical sequences, players posted the full codes on Unfiction.com. Entering these codes into Encom’s virtual server ultimately yielded new Tron: Legacy photos and concept art. Clearly, SPO functions not just as a vintage emulator for reliving fond memories, but also as a data mine for uncovering secret messages. Casual players might view Flynn’s high scores as playful allusions; ARG players approached them as potential codes. Thus, whereas traditional arcade games promote social interaction through competition and spectatorship, SPO encourages collaboration and collective intelligence by embedding new insights or “rabbit holes” within the underlying structure. The trailer for SPO claims to be “classic gameplay for the 21st century,” indicating an appeal to generations both before and after the original Tron. Indeed, participants of Flynn Lives can take pleasure not just from revisiting arcade culture, but from seeing how those nostalgic elements are remediated and repurposed to fit contemporary gaming ambitions.
The Dark Knight ARG took just over two months to return after Heath Ledger’s death. When it did, perhaps as a response, the game shifted dramatically from the Joker and his pranksters to Harvey Dent’s political campaign.
In March, Ibelieveinharveydent.com was updated so players could submit contact information. And again, the game did not slouch on realism. Harvey Dent’s page resembled a politician’s homepage in every way: detailed descriptions of why to vote Harvey, his trademark slogan “take back the city,” downloadable campaign materials, a road map of the Dentmobile, a van that toured the county and held rallies (much to the chagrin of the actual police), hundreds of photos of Harvey Dent and his supporters, and dozens of videos promoting the Dent campaign.
Hear Harvey Dent introduce his campaign:
Watch the Harvey Dent campaign team:
As Dent’s campaign expanded, so too did his opposition. The site Concerned Citizens for a Better Gotham attacked Dent as arresting innocent officers to gain media publicity. The site sent members of ibelievinharverydent.com a half-burned Dent campaign button in the mail. (furthering the allusion to two-face).
It wasn’t until April Fool’s Day when the Joker would make his full return. Owners of the Joker cell phones descrambled a secret letter, which brought them to a new scavenger hunt on Clowntravelagency.com. The hunt called for players to go to bowling alleys around the country and collect green and purple bowling balls.
See the news report: (warning…worst lead-in EVER)
The Joker then directed his followers to Acmesecuritysystems.com/delos. However, the site turned out to be a police set up. Once the player submitted his/her information, James Gordon busted them:
James Gordon then sent the player an email which launched Operation Slipknot. The mission: work for the Gotham Police Major Crimes Unit and hunt down the corrupt cops (who also organized the ConcernedCitizensforaBetterGotham website). Players called The Gotham Hotel and re-routed packages intended for the cops. As a result, 27 of the 30 officers were arrested. Gordon rewarded the players with a personal phone call.
The Joker, not to be out done, sent an email to his mailing list to not worry about Gordon. He also distributed a new whysoserious link displaying Jokerized political figures. Then through more scavenger hunts in major cities, players unlocked the new movie poster, the second theatrical trailer, and the Jokerized film reel.
At this point in the game there were three story lines running. Harvey Dent’s campaign, supporting Dent in his run for DA; Gordon’s Operation Slip Knot, following intel and various clues to catch the remaining criminals, and the Joker’s campaign of chaos, helping the Joker terrorize the city. Here the ARG really took off and it is impossible for me to go through it all but here are the major happenings:
-Players found a Citizens for Batman Underground forum within a Gotham Pizza website. The forum members discussed becoming vigilantes themselves. The pizza website contained a hidden link to Whysoserious.com/Myhero, containing a first glimpse of Two-Face.
–The Gotham Cable News launched the show Gotham Tonight, which asked people to submit photos or videos of Batman. Later, these submissions were posted on the show. Gotham Tonight ran for six episodes.
-In early July, Joker cell phone owners went to another whysoserious site. A game of “operator” between the cell phone owners began, with one player calling another with a code word, that player calling another player, and so on. When the puzzle was finally solved, the new poster for the Dark Knight was revealed.
Through the information on a variety of sites, participants then decoded the organization of an event on July 8th in Chicago and New York City. Sure enough, on that day, the bat-symbol appeared on the Sears Tower and the Woolworth Building:
Web users were able to see it through live-streamed video. Two days later, Joker cell phone owners were pointed to a word puzzle. Beating the puzzle depicted a bomb, which days later, exploded on the Internet, Jokerizing every website in the game. Even the bat signal was not spared:
Finally on July 14th, Joker cell phone owners were rewarded for their participation with free tickets to the Dark Knight film. For other players, the final episode of Gotham Tonight led directly up to the movie’s explosive beginning as Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhert himself) discovers on live TV about a bank robbery. And. here. we. go!
As I have said before, part of the reason for the Dark Knight’s success was its meticulous attention to detail and dedication to realism. Exploring the ARG’s videos, websites, and storyline all confirm that hypothesis. People were completely immersed in Gotham because it meshed so seamlessly with the real world. For a movie that prides itself on its grittiness and moral complexity, the game supplemented it perfectly.The Dark Knight was certainly a powerful, authentic experience, but does it hold up as successful transmedia storytelling? Let’s return to Chapter 2.
1.) The domination of mainstream media outlets by corporate conglomerates makes maintaining a crossover market relatively easy. I counted this statement as a potential advantage although I recognize this process only works in theory, not in practice. Time Warner utilized its control over the mainstream media to promote the movie across multiple platforms. From the cell phones to the branded widget to the HBO special, The Dark Knight took center stage. Promotional partnerships with Dominoes, Kmart, General Mills, Got Milk, Comcast, Xbox, and MySpace also added to the publicity. Even the media seemed to be part of the campaign as they ran story after story: Can Batman live up to the hype? Is Heath Ledger’s performance career defining? Is this the best superhero movie ever? Apparently, if a news headline is in question form, it’s news, not advertising. But that’s for another blog post.
In the midst of all the mainstream hype, the ARG provided an alleviating alternative. Fans were able to actively participate in the marketing campaign, instead of passively consuming its branded content, and Warner Bros. profited immensely as a result. Hopefully, other major blockbusters with existing fan bases will learn from the Dark Knight and balance their overwhelming promotions with original, engaging experiences.
2.) Transmedia stories cater to fragmented audiences, increasing the chance advertisers will reach their target consumer.
Comcast, for example, acted as the creator/distributor of Gotham Cable News and Gotham Tonight. Advertisements on these sites read “GBC: A Comcast Network.” The Gotham Tonight episodes, chronicling the campaign of Harvey Dent, were available online and broadcasted to Comcast subscribers’ TVs. Thus, the Internet service company was able to advertise within the diegesis of the story. Comcast not only presented itself in a non intrusive manner, it actually enhanced the fictional world by adding its brand. In addition, players (who spend a lot of time on the Internet and TV) may even begin to associate Comcast with Batman.
3.) Transmedia stories offers different entry points, expanding the potential market. As I will continue to emphasize, transmedia storytelling is the process of world building. Consumers have entered the Batman universe through many different platforms – the TV show, comics, movies, merchandise, and now the ARG.
A successful transmedia story is a delicate process of asking questions, providing answers, and then asking questions again. One transmedia text I have not covered yet was the animated movie that came out before the Dark Knight.
The Batman: Gotham Knight anthology went directly to DVD and featured six animated shorts. These stories occur between the events of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Unlike the Animatrix however, the DVD was not required viewing in order to understand the movie; instead, it added depth by providing back stories and new characters. I have not seen the shorts so I can’t comment on how canon they are, but seeing as how they are PG-13 for bloody violence and injury, I suspect they fall in line nicely with the gritty films.
Additionally, the animated shorts were well received. One fan wrote on the World’s Finest Online:
“The writing found in Gotham Knight is some of the sharpest and darkest pieces to come out of the Batman world. On top of the writing is some of the most visually stunning animation that you’ll likely ever see the Batman character take part in.”
Watch the trailer for Gotham Knight:
Clearly the beauty of the Batman franchise is that a consumer can enter through whichever platform they prefer. The anime fan can watch the Gotham Knight. The ARG player can play the Dark Knight. And of course, the film buff can see the movie. When these people become intrigued by the story, they are more willing to seek out other transmedia texts and increase their emotional and financial investment in the franchise.
4.) Expanding platform for content also brings in a larger global audience. Unknown. I don’t know how many people followed the ARG overseas but I do know that the movie cashed in 128 million worldwide so far.
5.) Transmedia storytelling facilitates collective intelligence and enhances fan involvement. Here’s where the Dark Knight shines. I hope it has been clear how involved fans were in the Batman universe. The ARG was the perfect way to facilitate active engagement. But beyond a meaningful interactive experience, players saw the story from the ARG correspond with the movie beautifully. Their discoveries from the game were not wasted, not part of some marketing ploy, but interconnected with the film. The ARG wiki highlights all the intertextual references here. Although the Dark Knight film was the primary point of interest, the ARG and the DVD acted as jigsaw pieces to the same puzzle. For niche audiences, each text made a distinct and valuable contribution to the world of Batman. For mass audiences, each text stood on its own. Here we have the perfect balance between casual and loyal fans; Jenkins’ transmedia storytelling at its best — and box office records as a result.
P.S. As a side note, it has been interesting to follow the reactions to this op-ed in the Wall Street Journal:
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 newspaperled 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:
-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.
Escape Route Clues
Escape route with all coordinates. Led to website: Whysoserious.com/Outoftime
– 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.
Look carefully at the very bottom
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?
I’m sure you’ve heard the statistics by now. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight poured in a record 155 million domestically in its opening weekend. It is now poised to reach the 300 million dollar benchmark after just 10 days. And some think it will overthrow Titanic as the highest grossing movie ever. It is indeed an incredible masterpiece. The stunning special effects, action-packed sequences, epic music, thrilling twists and turns, and of course a chilling performance from Heath Ledger all contributed to this powerful superhero movie. Not to mention the film’s critical acclaim, receiving a whopping 95% on Rotten Tomatoes.While all of these factors certainly created a “surround sound effect,” hyping up the movie in all directions, I’d like to examine another element driving the film’s success – its dedication to realism through extratextual content. (Before I go any further, I must warn you, I will draw on spoilers in my analysis…read at your own risk.)
As the Dark Knight got closer to its release date, Warner Bros. launched a “let’s give them everything we got” marketing campaign. There would be cool posters, exciting trailers, batman and Joker Peanut Butter Cups, partnerships with Dominoes, Got Milk, Comcast, Verizon, Kmart, General Mills (to name a few), and even a complete takeover of the mySpace homepage. All of these traditional forms of advertising certainly got people, and the media, buzzing.
But over a year before any of this, Warner Bros. collaborated with 42 Entertainment to launch an ARG (alternate reality game), so extensive, so compelling, that it made viral marketing efforts from Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project look like child’s play. Chris Thilk of Movie Marketing Madness, points out why the studio pushed an intricate online viral campaign in addition to its usual ‘branding barrage:’
“This separation is important since the two components are appealing to, if not drastically, at least partially different audiences. [Through the ARG] Online Warner Bros. has been able to activate a serious core of fans and Batman/comic enthusiasts who have reveled in being part of Joker’s army or in finding out what they need to do as part of the Gotham PD’s task force. But offline there is the larger movie-going audience that needs to be appealed to. So the elements that are crossing media need to not just be geared for audience that has “found” them through unlocking clues, but which sees them as part of the larger media landscape they live in.”
What Thilk is describing here is the movie’s remarkable ability to appeal to the casual fans and mass audience, who do not seek out online scavenger hunts but embrace the coolness of the trailer or the movie poster, as well as the enthusiastic fans, who may actively ignore traditional forms of advertising but revel in engaging, original content instead. And The Dark Knight’s ARG (check out the wiki) did not disappoint the latter.
It started on May 11, 2007 with the release of the official Dark Knight website. A week later, clicking on the bat symbol brought a user to the Harvey Dent campaign website, which simply contained Aaron Eckart’s picture and the slogan, “I believe in Harvey Dent.”
Meanwhile, in California, a comic book employee reported defaced Joker cards appearing in his shop with “I believe in Harvey Dent too! Hahahah!” stamped all over them.
Participants typed in their email address and received their first exposure to Heath Ledger’s Joker.
So after only a week, fans realized a recurring pattern: As Thilk writes,
“Put up a mysterious site, promise something in return for enough participation, deliver on that promise and then shut things down with the message that there’s more to come. Across this online effort the reward is, more often than not, a piece of the movie’s traditional marketing campaign, be it a poster or a trailer or something like that. This puts the audience in a position of power – Getting a look at a new trailer or whatever becomes dependent on their activity or at least their alertness. They *need* to participate or the goodies will go away. At least that’s the perception that’s created through such efforts.”
This sort of interactivity is not only the essence of viral marketing; it’s also the heart of transmedia storytelling. When a studio provides mysteries and answers through cross media platforms, fans essentially become willing participants in marketing the movie. They embark on a puzzle solving quest, craving more information and comparing notes with each other to heighten the experience of the story world. The question remains however, are such fans participating in this hunting and gathering adventure on their own terms, or are they just puppets who are carefully guided through a pre-determined story for advertising purposes?
At last year’s Comic Con, the Joker distributed “Jokerized” one dollar bills pointing people to WhySoSerious.com, a fgJoker costume website which told users to go to a certain location at a certain time. Hundreds of people followed the instructions. After the crowd assembled, a phone number appeared:
Those who called the number overheard a hostage message, solidifying the player as part of Joker’s crew and initiating the scavenger hunt. The San Diego participants collaborated with friends online, who would import the clues to the WhySoSerious website. In return, the ‘ground team’ received Joker masks and the online players got a first look at the teaser trailer for the movie.
Here in the second phase of the ARG, we see a level of immersion building. Fans joining Joker’s army were able to show friends their picture on the Rent-a-clown website, a fake clown rental company within the whysoserious game. Interestingly, participants in the ARG immersed themselves in the world of Gotham by working for the villain, a role not only much more realistic in the context of Gotham (Batman works alone) but also, arguably, more fun as well.
In retrospect, the focus around the Joker in the ARG fit the movie quite well. The Joker is so manipulative and conniving that in some ways, the fact that he instills chaos into real people makes sense. Players will do anything for answers (in this case information about the movie) and the Joker seems to exploit this within the ARG by sending participants around to solve complex puzzles, make phone calls, and go on real life scavenger hunts. In this way, the Joker demonstrates his power and his psychotic tendencies way before the film’s premiere–he has complete control over the players and the game. (it’s all part of the plan)
However, the blurring lines between reality and fiction have all kinds of moral and legal implications as well: do all of the players really know it’s all a game? Would they be tempted to break the law in honor of Joker’s “live in a world without rules” philosophy? As I examine the ARG further, you’ll see just how far players were willing to go.
to be continued…
P.S. Speaking of blurring lines between reality and fiction, could the ARG have had something to do with this recent incident?