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).
Later in March, through more issues of The Gotham Times, new websites emerged: Danaworthington.com (Dent’s competitor), Trustgarcetti.com (the incumbent DA) Maidenavenuereport.com, JosephCandoloro.com, Citizensforbatman.org, Rossisdelicatessen.com, and Gothamcablenews.com.
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: