A Beginner's Guide to Alternate Reality Games

In the credits on a poster for the Steven Spielberg film A.I. was a mysterious job title: "Sentient Machine Therapist - Jeanine Salla." Some curious folks did a web search for this woman and found themselves involved in a murder mystery that included messages hidden in movie trailers, bizarre websites, strange phone numbers, and angry emails from fictional people. It was all part of a revolutionary marketing scheme that has since become known as an Alternate Reality Game, or "ARG." While there are a few ARGs that weren't designed to market a new product, most are conceived to blur the line between our world and the fictional world of the movie, TV show, video game, record album or book that is being promoted. Some ARGs are purely online affairs, but the most exciting ones bleed over into the real world, providing players with a genuine adventure experience.

For example, in the ARG for The Dark Knight, a few lucky players visited participating bakeries and bought cakes that had been reserved for "Robin Banks." Written in the icing was a phone number. When the player dialed the number, a cell phone hidden inside the cake began to ring. As the campaign went on, these players received text messages, recorded voice messages, and were instructed to call numbers to gain further access to the game's many puzzles.

How do I get in the game?

This all sounds like a lot of fun, but getting in on Alternate Reality Games is not always easy. Often they are underground campaigns launched without a press release, adding to the intrigue and making players feel like they're in on a secret. Therefore, one of the first hurdles is finding what are called "trailheads"—websites that lead the player "down the rabbit hole" and into the ARG world.

Like the A.I. game, one of the most common ways to find ARGs is to look closely at promotional materials like posters or TV commercials to find repeated phrases or hidden messages. But it's much easier to let someone else do that and simply monitor sites where fans of the show, band or movie congregate. For example, it was on a Nine Inch Nails forum that a fan first told of finding a USB flash drive in the bathroom at a concert. On the drive was a new track from the band and a message to check out a special web address.

What if I get stuck?

Once you've found a trail, the game producers, or "puppetmasters," present puzzles that you will have to solve to reach the next level of the game. But figuring out each step is where things really start to get difficult. If you get stuck, you'll be happy to know there are websites dedicated to ARGs, including argn.com, despoiler.org, wikibruce.com, and unforum.net, where player groups, or "collective detectives," gather to hash out the latest riddles. This brings a wide variety of skills together to solve a common problem, forcing game producers to be more inventive in creating complex, exciting, and engaging puzzles.

What are some games going on right now?

1. topsecretconspiracy.com

If you head over to topsecretconspiracy.com, you'll see poorly made videos of aliens starting California wildfires, fake alien coins created by the U.S. Mint and video from a science fiction convention where fans are interviewed about the government's alien conspiracy. That all sounds like pretty typical stuff for a UFO site, right? But look closely at the paperbacks for sale at this sci-fi convention and you'll notice that the some of the book covers feature the stars of the upcoming animated film Monsters vs. Aliens. Did I mention that the website is owned by Pacific Data Images, which is part of Dreamworks Animation, the company behind the film?

2. The 39 Clues
A new ARG has emerged that's tied to a kids' book series, The 39 Clues. The books, written by some of the top names in young adult literature, include trading cards with unique identification numbers that readers can enter into an accompanying website and gain valuable clues to solve the mystery plot at the center of the 10-book series. To help young sleuths gather clues, additional trading cards are sold separately. With a $10,000 prize going to the first person to solve the mystery, even non-readers might pick up a book or two, which is never a bad thing.

3. Stop the International
stopinternational_money.jpg

If you're interested in grand theatricals, Stop the International is a tie-in game for an upcoming film starring Clive Owen. Players can go to the website and enter the serial number of any paper money in their pockets to learn the bill's sordid history in the hands of international drug dealers and money launderers. But by following clues on the site, some players have already met with real people in public places like the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, where the mysterious contact tells them the hidden location of special $2 bills whose serial numbers lead to a special section of the website. It's rumored the game is being run by 42 Entertainment, the puppetmasters behind many influential ARGs (including the Dark Knight game), so if you want to get in on a major ARG, this might be the one.

4. Coraline
As mentioned before, most ARGs are released with barely a whisper. Other times, though, they'll start with a bang. Such is the case with an ARG surrounding the soon-to-be-released film Coraline. The stop-motion film from the people who brought you The Nightmare Before Christmas is coming to theaters this February, but the marketing campaign recently began with the delivery of gorgeous handmade boxes to various people around the world. Inside each box are items that look like they belong in the world of the haunting film, as well as an old fashioned key with a small note attached by a string. By visiting the movie's official website and typing in the keyphrase written on the note, players are able to see behind-the-scenes footage of the making of the film. Fifty of these boxes are being sent out and the passwords are being collected at various ARG sites, most notably Evil Buttons.

5. Traces of Hope
tracesofhope.jpg

For the most part, ARGs are all fun and games, but "Traces of Hope" is an ARG designed by the British Red Cross that is hoping to change that. While the game is fun, it's also meant to shed some light on the real-life struggles of those in war-torn regions of the world. You play the role of humanitarian Alan Hackston as he attempts to help Joseph—a survivor of war in Northern Uganda who is wandering around a Red Cross refugee camp in search of his mother. He has been given a satellite phone that you can use to track his location around the camp and direct him to various Red Cross services. Many interactions with Joseph are handled via an instant messenger feature, but you will also receive emails and video messages, and you can visit websites like LinkedIn and Flickr to gain additional information to aid him in his quest. It's a game with a message and might very well be the next stage in the evolution of the ARG.

6. StreetWars
If the notion of hidden messages on movie posters and cell phones planted in cakes is all just a little too unrealistic for you, StreetWars is a slightly different take on ARGs. Rather than play the game online, it gives people the chance to live out their wildest dreams as hired assassins stalking their prey through the streets of New York, London, San Franciso, and a handful of other cities worldwide. Once a person has joined the game they are given an envelope containing a photo and contact information for their target. From there, the assassins begin the hunt, "killing" one another with a blast from water pistols, usually when the target least expects it. As hitmen make their kills, they take on the intended targets of their victims, narrowing down the playing field until only one assassin remains. And that's when the big guns come in "“ the masterminds of the StreetWars game come to town and attempt to take out the last man standing. The next game starts in June.
* * *
While ARGs are undoubtedly an exciting new tool in a marketing company's bag o' tricks, many question if the advertising message is really getting through to the consumer, or if this is all just a waste of resources that could better be used on other, more effective media outlets. Only time will tell the viability of ARGs. But for now, get involved and have some fun playing in another world for a little while.

Rob Lammle is an occasional contributor to mentalfloss.com. You can read more of his work on his own site, spacemonkeyx.com.

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Warner Bros.
19 Shadowy Facts About Tim Burton's Batman
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Superhero movies are bigger than they’ve ever been before, but we arguably wouldn’t be here at all without 1989’s Batman. Produced at a time before comic book movies were considered big business, Tim Burton’s dark look at a superhero then best known for a goofy TV show is a pop culture landmark, and the story of how it was made is almost as interesting as the film itself. So, to celebrate Batman—which was released on this day in 1989—here are 19 facts about how it came to the screen.

1. AN EARLY MOVIE IDEA RELIED ON THE CAMPINESS OF THE CHARACTER.

As development of a Batman movie began, studio executives were still very tied to the campiness embodied by the Batman television series of the 1960s. According to executive producer Michael Uslan, when he first began attempting to get the rights to make a film, he was told that the only studio who’d expressed interest was CBS, and only if they could do a Batman In Outer Space film.

2. IT TOOK 10 YEARS TO MAKE.

Uslan lobbied hard for the rights to Batman, and finally landed them in 1979. At that point, the fight to convince a studio to make the film ensued, and everyone from Columbia Pictures to Universal Pictures turned it down. When Warner Bros. finally agreed to back the film, the issue of developing the right script had to be settled, and that took even more time. In 1989, after years of battling, Batman was finally released, and Uslan has been involved in some form in every Batman film since.

3. AN EARLY SCRIPT FEATURED BOTH THE PENGUIN AND ROBIN.

When Uslan finally got the chance to develop the film, he drafted legendary screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who had been a consultant on Superman, to write the script. The Mankiewicz script included The Joker, corrupt politician Rupert Thorne, a much greater focus on Bruce Wayne’s origin story, The Penguin, and the arrival of Robin late in the film. The script was ultimately scrapped, but you can see certain elements of it in Batman Returns.

4. TIM BURTON WASN’T THE FIRST POTENTIAL DIRECTOR.

Though Warner Bros. ultimately chose Tim Burton to helm Batman, over the course of the film’s development a number of other choices emerged. At various points on the road to Batman, everyone from Gremlins director Joe Dante to Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman was in line for the gig.

5. MANY STARS OF THE TIME WERE CONSIDERED FOR BATMAN.

The casting process for Batman was a long one, and involved a number of major stars of the day. Among the contenders for the title role were Mel Gibson, Bill Murray (yes, really), Kevin Costner, Willem Dafoe, Tom Selleck, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen, Ray Liotta, and Pierce Brosnan, who later regretted turning down the role.

6. TIM BURTON HAD TO FIGHT TO CAST MICHAEL KEATON.

At the time, Michael Keaton was best known for his comedic roles in films like Mr. Mom and Night Shift, so the thought of casting him as a vigilante of the night seemed odd to many. Michael Uslan remembers thinking a prank was being played on him when he heard Keaton’s name pop up. Burton, who’d already worked with Keaton on Beetlejuice, was convinced that Keaton was right for the role, not just because he could portray the obsessive nature of the character, but because he also felt that Keaton was the kind of actor who would need to dress up as a bat in order to scare criminals, while a typical action star would just garner “unintentional laughs” in the suit. Burton ultimately won the argument, and Keaton got an iconic role for two films.

7. JACK NICHOLSON WAS THE FIRST CHOICE FOR THE JOKER, BUT HE WASN’T THE ONLY CHOICE.

From the beginning, Uslan concluded that Jack Nicholson was the perfect choice to play The Joker, and was “walking on air” when the production finally cast him. He certainly wasn’t the only actor considered, though. Among Burton’s considerations were Willem Dafoe, James Woods, Brad Dourif, David Bowie, and Robin Williams (who really wanted the part).

8. TIM BURTON WON JACK NICHOLSON OVER WITH HORSEBACK RIDING.

When Nicholson was asked to discuss playing The Joker, he invited Burton and producer Peter Guber to visit him in Aspen for some horseback riding. When Burton learned that was what they’d be doing, he told Guber “I don’t ride,” to which Guber replied “You do today!” So, a “terrified” Burton got on a horse and rode alongside Nicholson, and the star ultimately agreed to play the Clown Prince of Crime.

9. EDDIE MURPHY WAS ONCE CONSIDERED TO PLAY ROBIN.

Though the character of Robin was ultimately scrapped because it simply didn’t feel like there was room for him in the film, he did appear in early drafts of the script, and at one point producers considered casting Eddie Murphy—who, you must remember, was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1980s—for the role. 

10. SEAN YOUNG WAS THE ORIGINAL VICKI VALE.

Burton initially cast Blade Runner star Sean Young as acclaimed photographer Vicki Vale, who would become Bruce Wayne’s love interest. Young was part of the pre-production process on Batman for several weeks until, while practicing horseback riding for a scene that was ultimately cut, she fell from her horse and was seriously injured. With just a week to go until shooting, producers had to act fast to find a replacement, and decided on Kim Basinger, who essentially joined the production overnight.

11. TIM BURTON WASN’T OFFICIALLY HIRED UNTIL BEETLEJUICE BECAME A HIT.

Though he was basically already a part of the production, Burton wasn’t officially the director of Batman right away. Warner Bros. showed interest in him working on the film after the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but according to Burton they only officially hired him after the first weekend grosses for Beetlejuice came in.

“They were just waiting to see how Beetlejuice did,” Burton said. “They didn’t want to give me that movie unless Beetlejuice was going to be okay. They wouldn’t say that, but that was really the way it was.”

12. DANNY ELFMAN THOUGHT HE WAS GOING TO BE FIRED UNTIL HE PLAYED THE MAIN THEME.

Danny Elfman is now considered one of our great movie composers, but at the time Batman was released he didn’t have any blockbuster credits to his name. He recalls meeting with Burton (with whom he had worked on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) and producer Jon Peters to go over some of the music he’d already written for the film, and feeling “a lot of skepticism” over whether he should be the composer for Batman. It wasn’t until Burton said “Play the march,” and Elfman went into what would become the opening credits theme for the film, that he won Peters over.

“Jon jumped out of his chair, really just almost started dancing around the room,” Elfman said.

13. THE JOKER WASN’T ALWAYS GOING TO KILL BATMAN’S PARENTS.

In the final film, The Joker (then named Jack Napier) is revealed to be the gangster who guns down Bruce Wayne’s parents in the streets of Gotham City. It’s a twist that some comic book fans still dislike, and according to screenwriter Sam Hamm, it definitely wasn’t his fault.

“That was something that Tim had wanted from early on, and I had a bunch of arguments with him and wound up talking him out of it for as long as I was on the script. But, once the script went into production, there was a writer’s strike underway, and so I wasn’t able to be with the production as it was shooting over in London, and they brought in other people.”

Hamm also emphasizes that it was also not his idea to show Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave.

14. THE CLIMACTIC SCENE WAS WRITTEN MIDWAY THROUGH SHOOTING.

Though much of the film is still derived from Hamm’s script, rewrites continued to happen during shooting, and one of them involved the final confrontation between Batman and The Joker in a Gotham City clock tower. According to co-star Robert Wuhl, the climax was inspired by Jack Nicholson and Jon Peters, who went to see a production of The Phantom of the Opera midway through filming and watched as the Phantom made his final stand in a tower. Together, they somehow determined that a final fight in the tower was what Batman needed.

“The next day, they started writing that scene … the whole ending in the tower,” Wuhl said.

15. MICHAEL KEATON’S BATMAN MOVEMENTS WERE INSPIRED BY THE RESTRICTIONS OF THE COSTUME.

Batman fans still love to make jokes about the original costume, and Michael Keaton’s inability to turn his head (there’s even a dig at that in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight), but the restrictions of the costume actually inspired how Keaton performed as the Dark Knight. In 2014, Keaton revealed that his performance as Batman was heavily influenced by a moment when, while trying to actually turn his head in the suit, he ended up ripping it.

“It really came out of the first time I had to react to something, and this thing was stuck to my face and somebody says something to Batman and I go like this [turning his head] and the whole thing goes, [rriipp]! There was a big f***ing hole over here,” he said. “So I go, well, I've got to get around that, because we've got to shoot this son of a bitch, so I go, 'You know what, Tim [Burton]? He moves like this [like a statue]!’”

“I'm feeling really scared, and then it hit me—I thought, 'Oh, this is perfect! This is perfect.' I mean, this is, like, designed for this kind of really unusual dude, the Bruce Wayne guy, the guy who has this other personality that's really dark and really alone, and really kind of depressed. This is it.”

16. GOTHAM CITY WAS REAL, AND IT WAS EXPENSIVE.

Production designer Anton Furst put a lot of work into the incredibly influential designs for the film’s version of Gotham City, and the production was committed to making them pay off. The production ultimately spent more than $5 million to transform the backlot of London’s Pinewood Studios into Gotham City, and you can see the dedication to practical effects work in the final film.

17. PRINCE WAS PART OF THE PRODUCTION EVEN BEFORE HE JOINED IT.

Batman famously features original songs by Prince, who wrote so much new material for the production that he basically produced a full album. Even before the Purple One was drafted to write for the film, though, he was influencing it. Burton played Prince songs on set during the parade sequence and the Joker’s rampage through the museum.

18. THE FILM’S MARKETING WAS SO EFFECTIVE THAT IT INSPIRED CRIMES.

By the time Batman was actually on its way to release, it was becoming a phenomenon, and the marketing for the film was inspiring a frenzy among fans. People were buying tickets to other films just to see the first trailer, and selling bootleg copies of the early footage. The poster, featuring the iconic logo, was so popular that, according to Uslan, people were breaking into bus stations just to steal it.

19. IT WAS A BOX OFFICE LANDMARK.

Though studio executives resisted the idea of a “dark” Batman movie for years, the film ultimately set a new standard for box office success. It was the first film to ever hit $100 million in 10 days, the biggest film in Warner Bros.’ history at the time, and the box office’s biggest earner of 1989—and that’s not even counting the massive toy and merchandising sales it generated.

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