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If You Love Pokémon Go, Thank This 15-Year-Old Alternate Reality Game

Replaying The Beast, the groundbreaking game from the movie A.I.

His story was fake, the game was not. (Photo: Quentin X/Fair Use/Warner Brothers)

We get it: Pokémon Go is a really fun new way to experience the world, and make it seem more mysterious and magical than it really is. But did you know that in many ways, we owe the current Pokémania to a game created to promote the 2001 movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence? A game known simply as “The Beast?” 

Years before Pokémon Go got people to hit the streets and rediscover their world, The Beast took early internet culture by storm and paved the way for all of the alternate and augmented reality games we are obsessed with today.

In case you’ve forgotten, A.I. was a movie originally developed by Stanley Kubrick, but which was finally brought to the big screen under the helm of Steven Spielberg. The story follows the adventures of a little robot boy as he attempts to be turned into a person after he is abandoned by his human family. At the time, the hype surrounding the film mainly swirled around the ways in which Spielberg was translating Kubrick’s original vision. It became one of the most hotly anticipated films of the time prior to its release, and while it didn’t turn out to become the cinema classic many people had predicted, its wild, interactive marketing campaign became the first large-scale ARG, inspiring a whole genre of gaming and countless viral marketing campaigns.

The game began not with a flashy, direct announcement, but with a credit hidden in plain sight in the block of fine print on the film’s poster. There among the names of producers, actors, and editors was a credit for Jeanine Salla, Sentient Machine Therapist. There was no indication that this odd position was the beginning of a sprawling, immersive interactive murder mystery, but this was in fact the first “rabbit hole” into the A.I. Alternate Reality Game, which would come to be known as The Beast.

Apologies for the image quality. (Photo: Quentin X/Fair Use/Warner Brothers)

Any curious souls who followed up on Salla, or what a Sentient Machine Therapist was, could find their way to Salla’s website, a wholly fictional site claiming to exist in the year 2142. From there you could follow to the site for Bangalore World University, another invented institution that appears to hail from the far future, and so on and so forth. Before long, players were on the trail of a murder mystery taking place in 2142, some 50 years after the events of the not-yet released A.I.

The project was the brainchild of a group of “puppetmasters,” as they were eventually credited in the film, who directed the story and designed the puzzles. They worked for Microsoft, who had obtained the game rights to A.I., apparently before having read the script.

“I don’t know if you’ve seen A.I., but it’s not a movie that lends itself to gameplay,” says Sean Stewart, the award-winning author who wrote the game. Stewart, who came to the project after it was turned down by author Neil Stephenson, describes the film as an “emotional family drama”—not really the stuff games are made of. But while film’s story wasn’t that easily game-ified, its large sci-fi world was fertile ground for such a story, and the growing popularity of the internet seemed to the puppetmasters to be the perfect place to let their emergent narrative unfold.

“It was a very early attempt to understand how the internet WANTS to tell stories,” says Stewart. “A printing press makes a certain kind of art, a motion picture camera makes a certain kind of art. Well it turns out that the internet makes a certain kind of art too, and The Beast was that.”   

There was every chance that no one would have caught on to the subtle clue on the poster. “We’d been sitting around for anyone at all to find any of this stuff for more than two weeks,” says Stewart. But eventually nerdy film buffs caught on and began hitting the internet message boards of the day (hello Ain’t It Cool News and Yahoo!), and began working with each other to figure out what exactly was going on with this bizarre promotion.

Deeper down the rabbit hole. (Photo: Colin/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Once players found their way into the story of the game, they became embroiled in the mystery surrounding the murder of character Evan Chan. The story weaved in and out of emails, telephone numbers, and movie-related press, across four months, with new episodes of four or five puzzles each getting released once or twice a week. At one point in the development of the game, it was found to encompass 666 different assets, giving it its popular “Beast” nickname among the puppetmasters.

As players found new clues, they would have to solve new puzzles that led to more clues that drove the story along. “For instance, you might find somebody’s web page, but there would clearly be a secret page where they kept their innermost thoughts, that was password protected. And you’d have to figure out what that password might be,” says Stewart.

The 30+ puzzles were both ingenious and devilishly tough. One of them ended up forcing the players to break the World War II Enigma code, but only if they could figure out that that was the solution based on a picture of a faucet and a sound file of dripping water. “From there you had to figure out that those were the rotor and plugboard settings for an Enigma machine,” says Stewart. Players who solved the mystery revealed a note claiming responsibility for the murder of a series of sentient houses (remember, the game is set in 2142). Other puzzles included esoteric elements like semaphore and 15th-century French lute tablature.

Thousands of players began to take part in the game, following the clues and really throwing themselves into the mystery, creating a living puzzle-solving engine that was hard to beat. Stewart says that the puppetmasters had created what they thought was enough game content to last them for four months, but most of it was discovered and solved within days once the game caught on.

The beating heart of the player machine was central online community of fiercely devoted players on Yahoo!. They called themselves the Cloudmakers, after Chan’s sentient, robotic boat. Despite starting life as a licensed tie-in to a film, the game acquired a loyal player community who took play very seriously.

“It came along at just the right moment when the internet made that kind of connected community possible,” says Jay Bushman, an avid player of the game, who has since gone on to begin career in transmedia storytelling himself. But it wasn’t merely lucky timing that made The Beast such a hit, it was the quality of the game that kept people interested. “It wasn’t just that the story came at us from all directions in continually surprising ways, it was that we CARED about the characters and their fate,” says Bushman.

Both the players and the puppetmasters fell into the story with equal fervor and they both began directing the path of the story as it went along. “[The puppetmasters] worked basically a hundred hours a week for four months on this thing, which is really hard to do,” says Stewart. “But it was made possible by the fact that on the other side of the game were these people for whom this was Woodstock.”

The puppetmasters had already began to step up their game to create more challenging puzzles, but as The Beast grew, players would pick out inconsistencies in the story that the creators would then have to address, leading to the community often directing key parts of the story. Live events even began to be integrated into the narrative. Players would meet up and solve puzzles presented to them by actors working with the puppetmasters.

After months of puzzling mysteries the story of the game had sprawled from one covered-up murder to a national referendum on robot rights to decide whether they were people or property. The Beast came to an end with a vote from the players on the rights of robots. Main characters in the game, including the now-adult brother of the robot boy in the film, had fallen on either side of the debate, attempting to persuade players to join one side or the other. In the end, the player community voted for robot emancipation, but in a sign of how richly developed the game world had become, there was only about a 10 percent margin of difference, according to Stewart.

At the end of the game, Stewart and the other puppetmasters revealed themselves, thanked the community for helping make the game such a success, and showed their true faces for the first time. The Cloudmakers forum itself was shuttered, but many members of the community spun off to create their own ARGs.

It’s unclear whether or not this grand experiment had much of an impact on ticket sales for A.I., but The Beast’s influence on gameplay and storytelling is still being felt. “It may not have invented any techniques, but it was the first project to take a whole bunch of disparate methods and roll them together into a single, large scale, epic story that reached a big audience,” says Bushman.

Mixing fiction and reality into an immersive experience is only becoming more and more common in gaming, storytelling, and advertising, and we owe a great deal of it to The Beast. Yes, even Pokémon Go. From Bushman, “It’s really interesting to see the current online conversations about the pros, cons, biases, dangers and joys of Pokémon Go echoing many of the same design conversations we’ve had over the years. So I’d say it’s a direct descendent.”