The Beast Is Back

Okay, maybe not the original “Beast,” but at least a descendant thereof (and thanks to Tom Bridge for calling my attention to it).

For those of you who don’t know about the original Beast, it was a game put together to promote the movie A.I. — and though I’m not as down on the movie as most folks out there, the elaborate complexity of the game made the movie look like a slapdash movie-of-the-week. It all started with a couple of rather obscure clues. First was an unusual credit in the movie trailer, specifically a “Sentient Machine Therapist” named Jeanine Salla. And second, a series of apparently insignificant hash marks embedded in the lettering “Summer 2001” on the movie poster — hash marks which turned out to correspond to a telephone number. Calling the number gave you a rather cryptic message leading you to an equally cryptic website. Doing a Google search for “Jeanine Salla” led to information about the suspicious death of a man named Evan Chan, ostensibly the mystery underlying the game — although the truth ended up being far less straightforward. The game architecture comprised phone numbers, faxes, dozens of websites, newspaper ads, text messages, and actual live performances (I remember my mother-in-law getting a bit freaked out when she answered our home phone only to hear a digitally-altered voice warning me against investigating the murder). It involved puzzles requiring knowledge of web coding, cryptography, numerous foreign languages, and even origami. Further, it evolved based on the participation of the players, changing continually, week by week.

The beauty of the game was that it required group participation — no single person could possibly find all of the clues, let alone solve all of the puzzles. Several “virtual communities” arose to tackle the problem, which in turn seriously challenged the game creators — including science fiction author Sean Stewart and game pioneer Elan Lee — to stay just one step ahead of the players. And they did so beautifully (you can read Stewart’s introduction to the game here). The “collective detective” problem-solving model was seen by many as a completely new method of social interaction, an interaction impossible before the development of digital technology (the subject of a paper by UC Berkeley professor Jane McGonigal).

Alas, the game eventually had to end. They did go out with a bang (especially compared with the lukewarm reception of the movie itself), but they did go out. A static “picture” of the game was archived, but it can never recapture the sheer thrill of playing this dynamically changing adventure the first time. Unfortunately, a novel based on the game, The Death of Evan Chan, penned by Stewart, was shelved when licensing rights issues prohibited the book’s being released in conjunction with the movie’s DVD — which means there’s a completed (at least in draft form) manuscript just sitting out there unread; I keep searching to see if anyone’s managed to “leak” a copy out onto the ’net, but so far, no such luck. (I myself have gone so far as to create a set of MacOS X Icons based on artwork in the game — hey, I wanted my archive CD to look nice, okay?)

Subsequent efforts to create immersive games like this have so far failed, thanks in no small part to the necessity of remaining commercially viable. It’s one thing for a movie studio to spend millions on a game to promote a movie, but another thing entirely for a business to try to recoup its own development and maintenance costs.

Now, though, it looks like someone’s trying to use the original model once again — using a movie’s promotional budget to make it happen. This time around, the movie is The Matrix Revolutions, and the first site is Metacortex (http://www.metacortechs.com), the fictional company at which Thomas Anderson worked in the original Matrix. The movie’s subject matter would certainly seem to lend itself to a virtual game in much the same vein as A.I., but it remains to be seen whether they’re going to try to do it on the same scale.

And unfortunately, this time I’m going to have to bow out. As much as I’d love to venture back into that world, my schedule no longer permits it. (Okay, so maybe it’s just that I’ve found new ways to waste time, but if so, I’ve become overly attached to those new ways.) But for any of you out there who find this as fascinating as I do, play on — and keep me posted as to your progress.

Some starting points: The Metacortex site includes links (as mentioned by Tom Bridge in his original entry on the subject) to http://www.metadex.net, http://www.metadex.net/usr/emc2/bio/, http://www.theaquapolis.com/, http://www.underscorehosting.com/, and http://www.little-boxes.net/. And I’ve uncovered a Yahoo! Group and a virtual community, and a “collective detective” group investigating as well. Tally-ho!


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