by Jordan Weisman, Elan Lee, Sean Stewart, and Pete Fenlon
Launched: April 9, 2001
Developer: The Hive (Microsoft)
Platform: Web, telephones, fax machines, IRL
Welcome, my child.
Once upon a time there was a forest that teemed with life, love, sex, and violence. Things that humans did naturally, and their robots copied flawlessly. This forest is vast and surprising. It is full of grass and trees and databanks and drowned apartment buildings filled with fish. It can be a frightening forest, and some of its paths are dark and difficult. I was lost there once, a long time ago. Now I try to help others who have gone astray.
If you ever feel lost, my child, write me at thevisionary . net, and I will leave you a trail of crumbs...
On the evening of Monday, April 9, 2001, not much was happening on the geeky parts of the internet until fan site CountingDown.com posted links to a new trailer for “the most mysterious, and most anticipated, movie of the year.” The film was A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, a collaboration-beyond-the-grave between blockbuster director Steven Spielberg and auteur visionary Stanley Kubrick, who’d passed away in 1999 after years of lobbying Spielberg to direct his story of a robot boy who wanted to be human. The trailer was available as a 7.4 MB Windows Media file or, for those with a faster connection, a “Hi-Res” Quicktime version in 480x272 pixels, just large enough to read the credits at the end.
The trailer was reposted by other sites, including Aint It Cool News, then a major trendsetter in movie geek culture. A few talkbackers there commented on some oddities in the trailer: “Am I a nerd for noticing... under the credits they show it has ‘SENTIENT MACHINE THERAPIST Jeanine Salla’—whats up with that, yo?” Others pointed out the strange notches in “SUMMER 2001,” but no one quite knew what to make of them.
Then on April 11th, Aint It Cool received an email from someone with the alias “ClaviusBase”—a reference to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—encouraging fans to google the name Jeanine Salla. Doing so revealed a whole series of websites seemingly from a distant future where robots and AI companions were commonplace. Interest perked up. Someone noticed the websites had all been registered under a series of alphabetical names: Anna Ghaepetto, Bianca Ghaepetto, Carla Ghaepetto... the last name a clear reference to the woodcarver who’d fashioned Pinnochio, a clear inspiration for the film. Pinnochio’s Geppetto, fans noted, was the puppetmaster.
Then someone else noticed there are ten characters in “SUMMER 2001”—the number of digits in a US phone number. The notches in each character encoded a number which, when called, played a mysterious recording of a woman’s voice: “Once upon a time there was a forest that teemed with life...” The voice urged listeners to contact her at thevisionary . net. Nothing useful could be found at that domain, but since the speech was addressed to “my child,” someone suggested emailing mother@ thevisionary .net. Those who tried this received a reply with a new enigmatic response, leading even deeper down the rabbit hole.
“Is it a game?” the robot boy David in the A.I. film would ask when encountering confusing human behavior. In this case no one was quite sure. Nothing had been announced and no one would admit a game existed. “We don’t have any official position on that,” Warner Bros. said when contacted: “It’s not something that we created.” Yet something was clearly afoot. More posters, trailers, and TV commercials were released with additional clues, one of them flashing “This is not a game” in red letters to millions of prime time viewers. Fans uncovered a vast network of fictional websites filled with puzzles, photos, interlocking story threads, and extensive worldbuilding. They began sharing clues and swapping theories, first in the comments to articles about the trailer but soon moving to dedicated sites and IRC channels set up to explore the mystery. “THIS IS SO FRIGGIN FUN,” Aint It Cool posted, “Like the ol days of ZORK!!!”
Game or not, more and more people were playing: hunting down clues, scrolling through web pages from an intriguing possible future, collaborating with each other to share knowledge and uncover further mysteries. It was an experience that would later be called an alternate reality game, but nobody then knew what label to put on it. “Most often it was nameless, too new and multifarious to be contained by any kind of description we could invent,” one player later recalled. “Like religion or art, it couldn’t be explained to anybody who didn’t already get it.” Players mostly called it just “the Game.” It would later be revealed that its creators had dubbed it The Beast, after an early list of required assets contained 666 items. Before it was over, they would end up producing over a thousand individual pieces of content, the name becoming an increasingly apt moniker for the herculean task of creating and running it.
The Beast had originated with an idea from Spielberg’s producing partner Kathleen Kennedy, future inheritor of the Star Wars franchise but then already the successful producer of hits like Jurassic Park and Back to the Future. Though A.I. told a seemingly one-off story, Kennedy couldn’t help but see franchise potential in a collaboration between the most commercially successful and artistically successful directors of the twentieth century. She arranged a meeting between Spielberg and Microsoft—then getting into games in a big way as they prepared to launch their original Xbox console—to talk about the possibility of a new videogame franchise. The first title could introduce audiences to the world of A.I. in advance of the film, and set the stage for sequel games (and perhaps films) in the same universe. Microsoft attached to the project creative director Jordan Weisman, the acclaimed designer of tabletop roleplaying games like BattleTech and Shadowrun, and Weisman enlisted young producer Elan Lee and science fiction writer Sean Stewart to brainstorm ideas.
The idea of a set of interlinked videogames soon collapsed under its own weight, overly ambitious in the limited time frame before the film’s release. (The concept may have died for other reasons, too: “I don’t know if you’ve seen A.I.,” Stewart later quipped, “but it’s not a movie that lends itself to gameplay.”) But Kennedy and Spielberg still hoped Microsoft could come up with something that could introduce audiences to the world and ideas of the film. Weisman and Lee had been toying with a concept for a very different kind of game:
We had this discussion about the future of games one day. I remember we were sitting at this restaurant, eating sushi, and at that moment his phone rang. He looked at me and said, wouldn’t it be cool if that was a game calling me right now?
Inspired by the 1997 David Fincher thriller The Game, as well as the Beatles’ “Paul is dead” conspiracy which the band had leaned into by planting clues in lyrics and album art, the two hatched an idea for a story
not bound by communication platform: it would come at you over the web, by email, via fax and phone and billboard and TV and newspaper, SMS and skywriting and smoke signals too if we could figure out how. The story would be fundamentally interactive, made of little bits that players, like detectives or archaeologists, would discover and fit together. We would use political pamphlets, business brochures, answering phone messages, surveillance camera video, stolen diary pages... in short, instead of telling a story, we would present the evidence of that story, and let the players tell it to themselves.
When they pitched this idea to Spielberg “he absolutely loved it,” perhaps because it mirrors the structure of the film’s middle act, where David navigates a dangerous world following clues left by his maker, Professor Hobby:
Hobby: Yes, David, I’ve been waiting for you.
David: Dr. Know told me you’d be here. Is Blue Fairy here, too?
Hobby: I first heard of your Blue Fairy from Monica. What did you believe the Blue Fairy could do for you?
David: That she would make me a real boy.
Hobby: But you are a real boy. At least, as real as I’ve ever made one. Which by all reasonable accounts would make me your Blue Fairy.
David: You are not her. Dr. Know told me that she would be here at the lost city in the sea, at the end of the world, where the lions weep.
Hobby: That’s what Dr. Know needed to know to get you to come home to us. ...You found a fairy tale, and inspired by love, fueled by desire, you set out on a journey to make her real. And most remarkable of all, no one taught you how.
There would likewise be no manual for the A.I. game, and indeed no admission that it even existed: no logo or title, no press release or official site, nothing to shatter the illusion that the players were taking a journey of their own. “There’s something very empowering about saying there’s a little bit of magic in this world,” Lee has said, “and if you pay attention you’ll find it.” Combining the affordances of interconnected technology—“the web and google and email and instant messenger and cell phones”—with all the traditional arts of writing, photography, and acting, the team began to see their scheme as a Gesamtkunstwerk, an all-encompassing art form for the new century, just as opera and cinema had been for earlier eras. They even half-jokingly called their project a “search opera.”
But the clock was running out. And so in the earliest hours of the 21st century, during the first week of January, 2001, the team sat down in a Microsoft conference room for a three day meeting to break the story and come up with a plan for building this new kind of game. They had only two months before they’d need to launch: to seed search engines early enough that players could uncover the mystery in advance of the film’s summer launch date, the first breadcrumbs would need to go live by early March. The game would by necessity be a skunkworks, operating largely under the radar of the huge corporate enterprise of Microsoft, which could achieve nothing via the usual channels in only two months. With a budget of less than a million dollars drawn from the film’s marketing funds, and calling themselves the Hive, the team enlisted a pool of subcontracted friends, actors, web designers and writers to develop a vast amount of content, with deadlines sometimes measured in hours rather than days. It would be a frenetic whirlwind of creation that Stewart would remember as the “hardest I ever worked in my life, or ever will work”:
The game was freaking pastiche Armageddon: It started from a Spielberg script inflected with Kubrick notions from a Brian Aldiss short story with echoes of Dune and Clockwork Orange, for God’s sake. Political tracts. Corporate boasting. …Suicide notes. Gibsonian cyberpunk. I stole or hot-wired or tweaked up Shakespeare and John Donne and Tim O’Brien, Ovid and Iain Banks and Puccini and Bladerunner. I wrote every genre character ever invented, I think—bounty hunters and kept women and a bad guy made of nightmares, religious zealots and angry teenagers and streetwise hackers...
For me it was an incomparable professional experience, voice after voice, mood after mood, story after story, until I felt like one of those stage magicians pulling from his top hat a silk scarf of impossible length.
The team produced over a thousand pieces of content, including puzzles, photographs, Flash animations, sound recordings, videos, origami, live events, faxes, and more—but mostly text, hundreds of pages of it. The story played out hidden in the corners of websites for fictional universities with satellite campuses on the moon, online magazines about sentient houses, proto-blogs with existential ramblings on the nature of intelligence written from a myriad of different perspectives. And it was living text, updating as the game’s timeline moved forward with in-character edits, new information, new posts, and new secrets.
The game’s creators had hoped that when it launched, players would work together to solve its increasingly difficult puzzles and unlock subsequent layers of story. But they underestimated the speed and tenacity their fans would show. In a postmortem talk years later, Lee would show a slide of a puzzle schedule for “Beat 1” of The Beast:
Now, there’s a color key here for puzzles: hard, easy, not so hard, etc. [Pointing to different colors:] These were the puzzles that would take a day, these were puzzles that would take a week, and these puzzles they’d probably never figure out until we broke down and gave them the answers. So we built a three month schedule around this. And finally we released.
The Cloudmakers solved all of these puzzles on the first day.
Within days of the original trailer release, Cloudmakers had become the preeminent collective of puzzle-solvers. The name was a reference to one of the game’s earliest and gentlest puzzles, challenging you to find the name of a sentient boat (which the most cursory digging elsewhere on the same site reveals). The Cloudmakers Yahoo group and mailing list became an information clearinghouse for the game, with thousands of players collaborating to share information, speculate, and match wits with the unseen “Puppetmasters” behind the game (who soon took to calling themselves by that name as well). The players’ tenacity forced the Puppetmasters to radically alter their approach, adding new content and throwing out old plans as secrets were discovered too soon or some plot threads sparked more interest than others. “We had a plan, really we did!” Lee later remembered: “characters that we thought were interesting and a story we thought was compelling and a huge document that listed out everything we’d have to do to get through this on time. After week one, we took all those documents and threw them away.”
The game’s plot revolves around the murder of a man named Evan Chan by a robot he seemed to have been in love with. While the murder at first impacts only the intertwined Chan and Salla families, whose different generations have varying perspectives on robots and AI ethics, it soon kicks off a storm of controversy in a future where “sentient property” has become commonplace. Both pro- and anti-robot factions try to use Chan’s death to stir up support for their positions in the run-up to a public referendum on whether AIs should be granted equal rights.
While this frame provides a through line of story, much of the game’s writing is pure worldbuilding, offering fascinating glimpses into a future that’s sometimes dark, sometimes hopeful, and often familiar: a world where humans are increasingly sharing and ceding power to the AIs they’ve helped create, and struggling with all the moral and ethical repercussions thereof. For science fiction, it’s aged remarkably well.
Although Dr. Salla would prefer to deal with you in person, the volume of her correspondence makes that impossible. Unfortunately, it is my unhappy task as her Evolved Assistant to tell you that your message (when evaluated by my admitted arbitrary battery of metrics), is not important enough to pass along to her at this time.
A Djinn class Instant Genius has met with your office familiar to discuss the results of your search request on the terms: Indian Ocean+/thermovariance+/mutant strainsORbiot This instant genius will be available for direct conversation in billable hours until 3.16.2142. Thank you for using Instant Genius.
The story soon became more personal, a change made by Stewart when he felt players were engaging more with the puzzles than the characters. Laia Salla, a young woman identifying as “enhanced post human,” became a primary viewpoint character through her posts sharing memories, perspectives, and traumas shaken lose by Chan’s death:
Two years ago I found something out that made me terribly unhappy. It wasn’t something I could imagine talking about. For six weeks I carried this thing inside me until I was all withered up, like a stick inside. I couldn’t find a way to touch things anymore.
...I couldn’t sleep, so I slipped out and went down to the water. It was dark and cold and lifeless. Evan came up beside me. He had heard me slip out and had come to see if he could help. I tried to tell him I was fine, but the lie caught in my throat and I started to cry. I cried and cried and cried, horrible jerking sobs that shook my whole body. I cried a whole lake of coldness and darkness. And Evan, who is normally so cheerful and kind of goofy, was very quiet. He put an arm around me and let me cry for a very long time. I couldn’t stop saying “I’m sorry!” I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. It’s okay, he said. Usually I forget that he lived through the Warming. When he was a child, he and Nancy and Jeanine saw horrors I will never face.
One of the game’s most memorable plot threads involved a futuristic clinic for patients with sleeping disorders, guided by an AI named Aurora who “would spend most of her time asleep, the better to encourage healing slumber in the clientele.” A subroutine of Aurora named Loki, designed for dream therapy, became increasingly obsessed with nightmares, breaking out of the clinic’s servers to roam hungry across the net, looking for a fix by invading other AIs and making neural links to sleeping humans. Loki, Jeanine Salla wrote, “had become an oneirophage, living for the taste of human fear.”
The rogue AI began hacking into other game sites and disrupting them, and game characters began reporting increasingly disturbing dreams. Laia and Mephista, her familiar (a kind of neurally embedded digital assistant) became traumatized one night by a visitation:
Mephista had a nightmare.
That hasn’t happened before. Usually she’s just there at my ear, my wise raven, my witch’s cat. She works out the score to music I hear and particularly like. She has the menus memorized at all the places I like to order from. She doesn’t make me less human: she makes me more ME. Of course the first few weeks after implanting feel strange, this voice whispering words you haven’t learned to hear yet; showing pictures you have to learn how to see. But it had been years and years since I had the sense of her as something other than me.
But Sunday night I woke up and she was... tossing and turning in me, like a child in a hot bed. Flicks and phosphors of her thought guttered around the edges of the HUD implants. The noises were worse. Part of me, the meat of me, could tell the room was quiet: but in my head I heard these sounds, clicks and whistles. Wind. Clanking machinery. A deep, wicked voice.
What’s wrong? I started to ask. But she, who never sleeps, was sleeping. She didn’t come when I called her, and when I touched my face, it was wet with her tears.
Players became increasingly concerned with how to stop Loki. The Cloudmakers eventually decided to use the “database” feature of Yahoo Groups to assemble a catalogue of nightmares, a massive index of bad dreams submitted by hundreds of their members. It was bait. They announced it ostentatiously on the mailing list, and waited.
And in less than 48 hours, the trap worked. Loki’s attacks stopped, and pieces of him (in the form of small fragments of his signature image) were found scattered across a dozen game websites. Players discovered a Shockwave movie of Loki’s final nightmare, wherein a digitized voice spoke text assembled from phrases out of the database of player-submitted dreams:
I grew up in a house high on a hill
When I was three or four, I dreamed
I reached the kitchen stairs and looked back.
I hear Miss Sally callin’
I have a strange feeling about the kitchen.
a dark room with a tall ceiling.
I felt an evil presence near me...
The players had defeated Loki, overloading and shattering the rogue AI by glutting him on a feast of nightmares. The Puppetmasters had created the character with no clear idea for how his plot arc would resolve: “we didn’t know what the response would be,” wrote Lee. “We wanted to leave it to the players to come up with something creative. ...It was beautiful to see them all work together like that.”
Though it rarely had such direct impact on the story, this kind of collaboration had become the beating heart of the game. “We were betting on the fact that the Internet should be used as a massive organic intelligence,” Lee said. “Everyone contributes his or her own little bit and you have this machine that is smarter than anything else in history.” To solve the game you’d need to know “biology, luddism, be able to read binary, Morse code, pixel analysis in PhotoShop, speak Kannada. Other players had to have a Japanese i-mode cell phone, had to be running at least six different browsers... We were able to give them [the players] more than a single user was able to comprehend.” Players collectively obsessed over every tiny detail in each content update over tens of thousands of messages posted to Cloudmakers, obsession that would seem excessive if it didn’t, at times, pan out with glorious new leads:
There’s been a lot of discussion about what 7/22 means - the common misconception is that it’s an approximation to Pi (3.1415...), but of course that is 22/7, not 7/22. A recent theory which I heard is quite compelling; if 22/7 is Pi, then 7/22 is iP or ‘IP’ - that is, Internet Protocol. If it did mean IP, then the sentence would go ‘She knows IP of everything’ which would indicate that she is some pretty hot-shot hacker...
It should be noted that the music playing on the Electric Toyland main page is the same music that we can hear in the background of the anonymous phone call to Nancy Chan. This suggests that the caller was inside the Electric Toyland shop at the time of the call...
If you click on the mouse, you get a new page asking you whether you are a Man or a Mouse. Clicking on either of these options simply closes the window, but a close inspection of the source code reveals that there is a hidden third option. To see it, you have to click and hold on the text with your mouse button and then drag your pointer down, scrolling down the window.
The Cloudmakers’ indexing became so comprehensive the game’s designers made use of it, too. Occasionally the player base uncovered mistakes that the Puppetmasters had to fix or retcon. After eagle-eyed fans noticed the same stock photo had been used for two different minor characters, and posited that one of them was secretly a robot, the next update introduced the concept of a “step-self”: a robot simulacrum for busy travelers that could stay home and make happy family memories which the original could jealously replay. Some puzzles were made so difficult the designers thought they might never be solved. The players almost always rose to the challenge.
But this made for a strange sort of game. While the sites got millions of hits and thousands of people posted to Cloudmakers or other forums, it was a much smaller core group that could actually track the mystery and meaningfully contribute to its uncovering. “It became clear that the Cloudmakers were growing too massive,” one fan wrote in a retrospective, “unwieldy and inhospitable to anyone who didn’t constantly follow the story’s progress. It became increasingly difficult to be a casual Cloudmaker.” Fans who didn’t join a group like Cloudmakers were left in the dark, with only a fraction of the brainpower and resources necessary to play the game they’d discovered. Even for those within the collective, “virtually any new puzzle was solved before the majority of players had a chance to even see it.” The Puppetmasters seemed unsure whether this aspect of their game was a feature or a bug. In an update they added a new citation to Jeanine Salla’s publications page, a paper called “Multi-person social problem-solving arrays considered as a form of ‘artificial intelligence.’” A link labeled “Demo” went to the Cloudmakers homepage.
In a sense, The Beast had become a game without a human audience, only capable of being fully experienced by an internet-enabled hive mind. Few single humans could be said to have played the whole of its content, and none could ever have hoped to solve it on their own. But many had fun contributing neurons to the distributed problem-solving array that did.
The Beast was extended past its original end date, but finally concluded in late July with players voting to grant equal rights to AIs. On July 24th the creators at last made themselves known through an email from themanbehindthecurtain@ thevisionary .net. They thanked the players for bringing the game to life, revealing that they’d monitored the discussion groups closely but, like the film’s Professor Hobby, never intervened: “Point of pride, though: we have never at any time posted anything story or puzzle related in either venue. Everything you got, you earned.” The overall tone of the message was overwhelmed, exhausted, and satisfied. “It was dazzling, wasn’t it?”
Though the release of the actual film at the end of this goose chase was a let-down to some, the game it had inspired left powerful eddies. In the wake of its conclusion many players felt they’d been part of something visionary and unique, and the end of the journey came as a palpable loss. Player Andrea Phillips wrote a “recovery guide” for those who had been deeply embedded:
You find yourself at the end of the game, waking up as if from a long sleep. Your marriage or relationship may be in tatters. ...You slowly wake up to discover that you have missed the early spring unfolding into late summer...
One of the final story updates from the character of Laia Salla echoed this sentiment:
The world had gotten fat with meaning; charged with invisible connections. Patterns jumped out at me like little electric shocks: a run of numbers on a license plate, the bar code on a box of cereal. I found myself making anagrams out of billboard copy and wondering if you could embed a message in traffic flow by hacking into the transit computers. This spring I made intense friendships with people I had never met, and got yelled at for not paying enough attention to the ones I’d known forever. I learned faster and felt dumber than I ever had in my life; I passed my days in a paradoxical state, both hyper-alert and profoundly confused.
The magic proved hard to recapture, but not from lack of trying. When the September 11th terrorist attacks happened a few months after The Beast ended and the perpetrators were at first unknown, some Cloudmakers reconvened to see if they could solve a real-world mystery. Others had moved on to start their own games or game companies, or to play one of the many competitors cropping up—to keep “beasting,” as for a while the playing was called. Terms like “unfiction” and “immersive entertainment” and even “transmedia” were bandied about to describe these new experiences, few of them sticking: it would take a few years for ARG, “alternate reality game,” to become the standard label.
As for the Puppetmasters, the core team left Microsoft to form their own company, 42 Entertainment (named after Douglas Adams’ answer to life, the universe, and everything). Stewart and others were bullish about the new medium’s potential:
Here is my very large claim: however shambling, ungainly, and awkward it will come to seem in retrospect, The Beast was the first truly successful prototype of what web-based story-telling wants to be. ...You can read a book about Harry Potter or Narnia. An ARG allows THE PLAYER HIMSELF to walk through the back of the wardrobe... Or, more exactly it allows Narnia to come to him.
In 2004 the team would release their second ARG, I Love Bees, a massive and successful promo for the game Halo 2 that involved players coordinating to answer hundreds of pay phones around the world and piece together a fragmented message. But by the 2010s, excitement around the genre had waned. The “opera” analogy may have been apt: ARGs were expensive to mount, hard to expand beyond a niche audience already excited about them, and, like any live performance, quintessentially ephemeral. Within a year of The Beast’s conclusion, many of its links and phone numbers were dead, its trail no longer possible to follow. Many of its techniques have become harder to deploy on today’s more locked-down internet, where social media networks might forbid accounts from fictional characters, and calls from unfamiliar numbers are screened by our own AI assistants.
The Cloudmakers’ extensive documentation of the game remained available until January 31, 2020, when Yahoo Groups shut down and removed all archived posts. Today one can find only fragments of the original journey, mostly in half-broken pages saved by the Internet Archive. But the Shockwave movies on them no longer play in today’s browsers, and the server-side web forms where puzzle guesses could be submitted are long gone.
What’s left of The Beast, as with any great performance, are mostly snapshots and memories—the recollections of those lucky enough to be front and center when the curtain went up.
Next week: an audacious experiment in freeing words from the tyranny of the two-dimensional page, or screen.
The Internet Archive’s copy of Cloudmakers pages The Guide and The Trail, which document the game’s massive chain of discoveries, were an invaluable source for this story, as well as the Wayback Machine’s incomplete archives of some of the original game pages. Other sources not linked inline include interviews in the books “Pause & Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative” and “Well Played 2.0.” You can find out more about Jordan Weisman, Sean Stewart, and Elan Lee’s latest schemes online, and follow recent news in alternate reality gaming at argn.com.