The Beast (game)
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The Beast was an alternate reality game (ARG) created by a team at Microsoft to promote the Steven Spielberg film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. The Beast, which ran for twelve weeks in the spring and early summer of 2001, is one of the most influential early ARG games.
An ARG is a game which deliberately blurs the line between the game and the real world. Players investigate the world of the game using the same tools with which they interact with the real world such as websites, email, telephone conversations and even in-person discussions with actors playing game characters.
The mantra of The Beast, and most other ARGs, is "This is not a game." When a player reads a character's blog, or looks at his employer's website, or even speaks to him on the phone, the character never indicates that he is anything but what the game says he is, whether that's a professor of biology, a kidnapped child, a DP artist, or a robot bounty hunter.
The Beast was set in the year 2142, 50 years after the events chronicled in A.I. There were three overlapping entry points to the game, or "rabbit holes" in ARG parlance. First, some trailers and posters for A.I. had a credit for Jeanine Salla as Sentient Machine Therapist hidden among the credits for Spielberg and the actors. Second, one of the trailers encoded a telephone number in markings on the promotional text; if a player called this number and followed the given instructions he/she eventually received an email stating in part that "Jeanine is the key" and that "you've seen her name before." Third, an A.I. promotional poster sent to some technology and entertainment media outlets had a very simple code stating "Evan Chan was murdered. Jeanine is the key."
Each rabbit hole led to questions about Jeanine Salla, especially since one would not expect a film made in 2001 to require the services of a robotherapist. Googling Jeanine brought up several web pages set in the fictional world of the game such as the homepage of Salla's employer, Bangalore World University. Reading Salla's bio page, the player encountered a link to the personal page of Salla's granddaughter, Laia Salla, as well as Jeanine's phone number. Following these clues leads the player to the homepage of Evan and Nancy Chan, family friends of the Sallas. Jeanine's phone message revealed that Evan recently died in an alleged boating accident on his A.I.-enhanced boat, the Cloudmaker. From the beginning some question the official story of Evan's death. For instance, on Laia's web page memorial to Evan she writes "He was a superb swimmer. He was a wonderful sailor. He died on the boat who loved him within sight of land."
At this point the player joins the investigation into Evan's death. Over the course of the three months the Beast went on, it incorporated thirty diverse in-game websites, from the Anti-Robot Militia to the Coalition for Robot Freedom; from an architectural magazine to a sleep clinic, and from the coroner's office to a hat store. As the game progressed, the players came across additional mysteries, such as who is killing A.I.-enhanced houses, the location of the sexbot with whom Evan had an affair, and malfunctions in the weather-control system. By the end of the twelve weeks, players had also had live phone conversations with a game character and participated in Anti-Robot Militia rallies in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
The Beast was created by a small team led by co-designers Sean Stewart (head writer) and Elan Lee (lead director and producer) and Pete Fenlon (content lead) under the supervision of Jordan Weisman, then Creative Director of Microsoft's Entertainment Division. This team kept their identities secret until the end of the game, as consistent with the "this is not a game" philosophy, and players referred to them as the Puppetmasters, mostly because whois searches on the game URLs were under the name of Geppetto. The name The Beast was actually the design team's internal appellation which remained undisclosed until the Puppetmasters pulled back the curtain; at the time players referred to this endeavor as the A.I. webgame or, simply, The Game. The narrative visual content fell to director/dp Tarquin Cardona and producers Rudy Callegari and Bob Fagan.
Cloudmakers was the name of a Yahoo group created to tackle the game, named after Evan's boat. The group had thousands of members at its peak and generated over forty thousand messages amongst players. The game was being developed as it was played. While most players came to the plotlines after they had been solidified, the Cloudmakers group was constantly on the cutting edge of the game, pushing the game's developers and influencing the plot. Warnings and messages sent by Cloudmakers members to characters in the story regularly turned up in the plot, and designs/blueprints and databases produced by the group were referenced by and even featured on in-game websites and magazines (as were the efforts of a smaller group, SphereWatch). After the game, the Puppetmasters admitted that they relied on the vast storehouse of knowledge amongst the Cloudmakers and other player groups to be able to meet any puzzle the designers created. For instance, a puzzle near the end of The Beast required that the players understand lute tablature, and sure enough there were Cloudmakers who could solve it. The group unwittingly took the name of the central AI in the underlying story. While the killing of boat "Cloudmaker" seemed collateral to the murder of Evan Chan, it was the ultimate goal of men afraid of empathetic machines… for Cloudmaker's AI contained the essence of Dr. Allen Hobby's design.