Cloudmaker Days: A Memoir of the A. I. Game
Vertices and Vortices
On the evening of May 6th, 2001, I dawdled on the corner of 4th Street and Avenue A in New York City, trying to decide if I really would attend a rally for the Anti-
I wouldn’t know anybody there. Sure, I had corresponded with some of them through an online message board. And after chickening out of the first gathering, I’d gone to the second cell meeting the week before – a dozen or so tentative geeks communing in an empty mid-town dining room, gingerly feeling each other out over our shared obsession with a strange series of websites. But this would be different. Even though the rally was taking place at an East Village bar, it was ostensibly going to be in the world of the “game.” Nobody knew what to expect, although speculation was rampant. But this would be more than just kibitzing about an online curiosity. This was the real world.
I thought about going home. It was a Sunday night. I could skip a strange evening with a bunch of weird geeks, turn in early and get ready to face Monday morning. I could read about what happened behind the safety of my monitor. Standing on that corner, I hesitated.
At last, I chose the road with the robots and the weirdoes. And that has made all the difference.
Evan is Dead, Jeanine is the Key
The “game” in question had no name. After the experience was all over, we learned that the designers – we had named them the “Puppetmasters” or “PMs” – had no real name for it either. They called it “The Beast,” at first because an early asset list contained 666 items and later because of the havoc that the ever-expanding experience wreaked on their lives. These days, it’s sometimes described as “The A.I. Game” or “The A.I. Web Experience,” dull monikers that give the bare minimum of information necessary to open conversation with a non-initiate.
In the middle of the scrum we called it “Evan Chan,” after the story’s first victim. Most often it was nameless, too new and multifarious to be contained by any kind of description we could invent. Like religion or art, it couldn’t be explained to anybody who didn’t already get it. Or at least, in the rush of spring 2001, that’s how it felt to the initial converts.
Now, almost ten years later, this type of experience has evolved into something called an “Alternate Reality Game,” a term that, as far as I can tell, nobody likes. There continue to be endless debates over what exactly an ARG is, or what it is not, how to make them, how to sell them, how to make money from them, etc. In 2001, we had no terminology to describe these experiences and had to invent or appropriate our own. One of the terms that sprang up quickly – and which has survived in the lexicon – is “rabbit hole,” meaning an entry point into the experience where a player/follower discovers a seemingly innocuous detail in the real world and follows it into the fictional construct of the game.
One of the rabbit holes for The Beast lurked on the poster for the movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, on which a fictional credit appeared for a “Sentient Machine Therapist” named Jeanine Salla. A web search for that name led to the Salla family website, where it claimed the year was 2142. Poking around the site, we learned about Salla’s family and friends: Laia, her granddaughter, who would become our protagonist; Mephista, the artificial intelligence residing in Laia’s mechanical implants, functioning as her familiar and daemon; and their recently-deceased friend Evan Chan, whom we soon would discover was the victim of a covered-up murder.
I won’t recap the entire plot of the game here: the Cloudmakers site hosts archived versions of most of the game sites and great resources, such as the Guide and the Trail, that can help retrace each of the twists and turns. But another story unfolded alongside the mystery of Evan Chan’s death; an ad-hoc community of like-minded people assembled – first online and later offline – to share the experience. If you talked to a hundred people who were there, you’d get a hundred different versions of what happened. This is one.
Head First Down The Rabbit Hole
The first place that I learned about Evan Chan was a post on the entertainment news website Ain’t It Cool News, about a series of “strange websites related to the movie A.I.” Amidst the usual juvenile and joking commentary, this post and related follow-ups also hosted an serious attempt to discover what the strange sites meant. An early focus was a puzzle that was uncovered while scouring the Salla
Initial attempts to solve this replaced the elements with their corresponding atomic numbers. This created a mathematic equation that equaled 406. Despite tortured attempts, no meaning could be gleaned from the number. But if the elements were replaced with their abbreviations from the Periodic Table instead of the numbers, a string of letters emerged that, when the correct additions and subtractions were made, yielded “CORONERSWEBORG,” leading to the site coronersweb.org, where the players learned that Evan Chan had not died in an accident but was the victim of murder. (A common misreading of the element puzzle’s solution led to a running joke about a dashing, Swedish, crime-fighting medical examiner.)
What had until then seemed to be an exercise in creative worldbuilding emerged as a compelling mystery that could only be solved with the help of the players. Who had killed Evan Chan? Why was someone leaving clues on the Family Salla website? The players had come to know and like Evan Chan. They felt the grief of his death through the personal reactions of the other characters, especially Laia. The game had done something that many ARGs that followed would fail to do: it made us care about the fates of the characters.
Another way The Beast was able to hook the audience was through the seemingly limitless range of ways the game communicated itself to the players. Along with movie posters, emails and websites, there were television commercials, newspaper ads, business cards and phone calls from the game directly to the players. When the story could be coming to you from any direction, the entire world seemed to be the game space.
As the complexity of the game increased, the Ain’t It Cool talkback threads became unwieldy, and on April 11th, software developer Cabel Sasser created a dedicated message board on Yahoo Groups to house a more focused discussion. He named the group after Evan Chan’s A.I.-enhanced sailboat, the Cloudmaker, where it was suspected that Evan met his demise. While the Cloudmakers were far from the only locus of player activity surrounding the game, it quickly became the largest and most vocal – for better and for worse. Sasser published a quick summary of what we had learned in the game up until then. He named it The Trail, a name
The Care and Feeding of a Growing Hive Mind
Cloudmakers experienced exponential growth at the beginning of its life, and that growth only accelerated during the run of the game. In order to combat the onrushing hordes of new members who would make inaugural posts of “I solved the element puzzle. It’s 406!” and “Who’s this Coroner Sweborg guy?” the community rapidly self-selected standardized practices, terminology and personnel. Two days after the start of the group, after more than 200 posts to the mailing list, two players – Dan Hon in Cambridge, England and Bronwen Liggitt in New York City – agreed to collaborate on keeping the group on track by updating the Trail, pointing people to already-solved issues, keeping discussions on-topic and creating an IRC chat room for more real-time discussions. Four days after the start of the board the 1000th post was published and Sasser, absent since opening the group, turned moderator control over to Hon and Liggitt. Over the next few weeks, as the scope of the game and the Cloudmaker community exploded, more moderators were added. The IRC chat room quickly became the locus of fast-moving debate. Another Moderator-only chat became the administrative hub and hosted intense discussions of how to keep the group on track. Ultimately, the roster of moderators stabilized at seven. The “Mods” became de-facto full-time managers, many abandoning work or school projects to do so. Because the game refused to identify its own origin, the Mods stepped into the void and became the public face of the game, appearing in interviews and stories from numerous print, online and broadcast media outlets.
An early indication of the difficulty the Mods faced in keeping the community focused – and of the frightening impact that this collaborative collective could generate – was an event that became known as the Zartman Incident. In analyzing each game website, one regular technique was to lookup the site’s WHOIS data from the registrar. Early on, it was found that sites ending in .com or .net were registered to fictional people with the last name Ghaepetto. However, one site was registered with a Romanian .ro domain and contained a real name and address in the contact information – that of Doug Zartman, a well-known game designer. Over the following weeks, the group treated Zartman like a suspect in their murder investigation, tracking down every shred of evidence of his whereabouts and his history. After a month of harassment, a beleaguered Zartman contacted the list directly, pleading for it to stop.
The Zartman Incident became a catalyst for a wide-ranging conversation about the ethics of playing the game and what could be defined as cheating. The game itself published no rules. The debate crystallized around the concept of the “curtain,” a metaphorical divide between what was part of the game world and what would reveal too much about the wizards who were making it happen. For the most part, players agreed that in order to get the maximum enjoyment out of the experience it was important to stay in front of the curtain and not to peek behind it. Since this dividing line was invisible, it was up to the players to decide where that curtain was. This decision was greatly subject to situational ethics, but enough of a consensus was reached so that when a second Puppetmaster, Pete Fenlon, was outed
by inadvertently leaving his name in the metadata of a document, he was not subjected to an avalanche of email and phone calls.
By the end of the group’s first week of existence, as the Zartman controversy raged on and list membership swelled, it became clear that the Cloudmakers were growing too massive, unwieldy and inhospitable to anyone who didn’t constantly follow the story’s progress. It became increasingly difficult to be a casual Cloudmaker. The Mods took a number of steps to deal with this, by proposing – and in some cases dictating – new policies, and by creating two new lower-traffic versions of the list. An effort was also made to enhance civility through new terminology, such as “trout,” which moderator Dan Fabulich intended to be intended to be a constructive shorthand for “we know that information already.” While widely embraced in principle, “trouting” did not quite take on the non-hostile tone that was intended. Instead, it became more of an epithet, another way for “advanced” players to dismiss those who fell behind the dizzying pace. This viewpoint, sadly, was not confined to the fringe but crept into the attitude of many of the first wave of Cloudmakers who, in their lust for new information, appointed themselves arbiters of what was “right” and “wrong.”
The Puppetmasters, recognizing that the situation was making it increasingly difficult to bring new people into the experience, took action. A smaller group of players had started a new message board on a site called Spherewatch, and the PMs immediately mentioned them on an in-game site hoping to encourage a place for more newbie-friendly conversation. When Cloudmakers followed the link to Spherewatch thinking it was a new game site, they instead found another player-created message board, one that was far behind where they were. Rather than allowing Spherewatch to be a gateway for those who were derided for asking “stupid” questions and cluttering their threads with trout, many saw it as a challenge to their ability to “properly solve the game.” The Spherewatch forum was flooded by angry Cloudmakers and flame wars raged on both boards. The Mods went so far as to write an open letter to the Puppetmasters on behalf of their unruly members. The response the Mods got was wholly unexpected and initially not believed.
Elan Lee, the lead designer of the game, secretly contacted the Mods to discuss how to discourage the attacks on Spherewatch and how to make the site more inviting for new players. Initially thinking the communication was a hoax, the Mods were convinced when Lee changed a game site according to their instructions. The Spherewatch situation eventually faded away after that community’s moderator posted a statement of clarification. The Spherewatch community hasn’t been archived, so there’s no comparable record of what the reaction on their side was. After this episode, Lee stayed in secret, sporadic contact with the Mods throughout the rest of the game to minimize further incidents.
Meanwhile, in the Real World…
Many player experiences mirrored my own – as I got sucked further into the game world, I found that my friends and family couldn’t understand what had so captivated me. The only people who got it were other Cloudmakers. And so, around the same time that the Spherewatch flame war raged, a group of New York players met up in a bar to discuss the game. Shortly after, Cloudmaker meetups popped up in several other cities.
As pockets of Cloudmakers met in the offline world, the game was preparing to push itself into realspace as well. One of the in-game sites, a hub for the technophobic Anti-Robot Militia, announced that they would be holding “rallies” in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago on May 6th.
Walking into the New York rally was daunting. Amidst the regular bar patrons, lurkers clumped in ones and twos. We’d been instructed to wear red to identify each other, but in the dim bar light it wasn’t easy to see color. After I had milled around for ten confusing minutes, a man appeared claiming to represent the A.R.M. He assembled us all in the back of the bar and gave us a puzzle to solve, the first of several
A good description of the in-game events of the rallies can be found in The Guide. To my eyes, what stood out were the non-game elements. A few people left quickly, turned off by the weirdness of the situation. The forty or so people who remained at the New York rally quickly assembled themselves into a riddle-solving team. The network assembled with stunning ease, three physical locations in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles connected via phone, email and IRC to countless virtual nodes. People who had only known each other as names were now feverishly collaborating face-to-face and voice-to-voice. It was a transformative moment, for me and for many of the others who were involved. I believe it was crucial in the development of ARGs, as the game actively embraced and rewarded player collaboration and the communal experience. The ambivalence I felt at the start of the evening was a pale memory by its end – I was ready to go anywhere this game asked me.
The unseen, unknown Puppetmasters were far from omnipotent. Players spotted numerous tiny inconsistencies in the game. Many of them were fixed as soon as they were mentioned on the message board, which meant that the players knew that the PMs were out there somewhere and that they were watching. They ended up turning the biggest errors into some of the best parts of the game:
Many of the sites used stock photography to portray the characters. At one point, the same photo was used mistakenly to identify two different characters: a corporate researcher and a robotic sex companion. To cover up the error, the game incorporated the duplication into the world, which resulted in one of the most compelling and best-loved pieces of the entire story.
Another mishap, caused by a miscommunication with an actor playing an A.R.M. member at the Chicago rally, meant that the players were not given all the materials needed to solve one of their puzzles. The Puppetmasters quickly designed an alternate way to convey the answer, but the players didn’t realize it and kept working on ways to crack the obstacle – a password request box. A consensus emerged that a brute force hack of the site, while usually not something that was considered respectful of the curtain, might be permissible in this case where an outside error had thwarted the integrity of the original puzzle. The resulting effort overwhelmed the Puppetmasters and nearly crashed the entire game.
A Place in the Hive
We kept referring to Cloudmakers as a hive-mind, a distributed intelligence made up of thousands of individuals. A small cadre of players built and executed the brute force hack and carried the entire group to the solution. As the game wore on, it leveraged the ability of a single player or a small group of players with certain specialties to provide information that would rapidly spread throughout the collective. And Cloudmakers possessed a wide variety of skills and specialties. There were the crypto experts, who could crack ciphers before the rest of us finished reading them.
There were the masters of speculation, who would extrapolate minor clues into grand theories of the master narrative. There were the provocateurs, those who could be counted on to provoke fierce arguments while staying just inside the lines of acceptable behavior to avoid being banned. And behind it all were the beleaguered Mods, fighting a constant battle to keep the whole unwieldy contraption from
I was none of these people. If I made any contribution, it was in one small thing: as the New York Anti-Robot Militia rally was winding down, I volunteered to organize the NYC Cloudmaker meetups. Many of the people who attended the rally came back out the following week. And the week after that. I kept putting the meetings together throughout the duration of the game. And while these gatherings were ostensibly to discuss developments in the story, friendships were made, and we spoke less about the game and more about each other. (This may have something to do with several of the Mods being New York-based. After spending so much time dealing with the game, they jumped at the chance to talk about something else.) The meetings in other cities followed similar trajectories. People in less metropolitan areas drove hours to meet up with other players. Offline bonds strengthened the online hive. For some, the impact of the game itself paled in comparison to the connections made with other people through the game. (Elan Lee has said that one way to measure an ARG’s success is the number of wedding invitations he received from people who met through the game.)
Isn’t There A Movie of This?
By the end of May, the Cloudmakers group was nearing five thousand members, so many that when game updates took place, the resulting traffic on the Yahoo Groups servers caused the site to lag severely. The onslaught showed no signs of letting up; media coverage of the game increased as the A.I. movie release date drew closer.
Around this time, the game announced that players would be able to buy tickets to an early preview of the film. Speculation ran wild about what to expect at the screenings and how the movie would tie into the game. A few weeks later, an in-game site popped up and allowed players to purchase tickets for a screening the day before the film’s official release at the end of June.
I attended the New York advance screening with my family, who were quite perplexed when I introduced them to my posse of Cloudmakers. Walking into the theater, we were handed free posters that finally revealed the identity of the Puppetmasters – a small unit within Microsoft Games known fittingly as The Hive. Unsurprisingly, the poster also contained several clues that led to new story content. It also contained a special treat: in very faint text were written the usernames of every player who had registered to attend the Anti-Robot Militia rallies. The Los Angeles screening also featured a surprise, as several of the Puppetmasters showed up and went to a post-screening dinner with the Cloudmakers in attendance.
Although the game continued on for a few weeks after the film’s release, the screenings felt to me like the climax of the experience. I think this was partly due to the revelation of the creators’ identities and also due to the colossal letdown most players felt with the A.I. film itself. The enormous number of Cloudmakers by this point – over seven thousand members – made using the list an almost impossible task, and virtually any new puzzle was solved before the majority of players had a chance to even see it. My activity in the game slackened; I was perfectly content to let others solve the clues and point me towards where I could read the next piece of story content. The actual climax of the game came towards the end of July, when the world of 2142 held a referendum on a Constitutional Amendment to grant A.I.s civil liberties equal to humans. The players were given the ability to vote on the outcome, and the Puppetmasters were prepared for either outcome.
At the story’s conclusion, one final email was sent to the players – a goodbye from the Puppetmasters themselves with a link to a detailed list of credits and an invitation to participate in a post-game chat. During this and subsequent forums, the Cloudmakers finally learned about life behind the curtain. It hadn’t been pretty – after the players found and solved three weeks’ worth of content in the first day, the Puppetmasters spent the next six months working virtually around the clock to keep the game going. PMs and Cloudmakers shared war stories, such as the near-cardiac arrest the designers had when on the second day of Cloudmakers’ existence, post #125 unwittingly described the bulk of what the story would turn out to be. By the end, it seemed less like two camps of game designers and players and more like one giant collaborative team.
Moving Behind The Curtain
On June 4, 1976, in Manchester, England, the Sex Pistols gave a concert to about forty people. Although it wasn’t remarked upon at the time, that night has become legendary in the history of rock music. Many of the audience members were so inspired and galvanized by what they saw that they were inspired to form their own bands. These musicians would eventually make some of the most successful and influential music of the next twenty years.
The Beast inspired similar creative fervor in the Cloudmakers; in its wake, several grassroots efforts were undertaken. These groups produced games like Lockjaw, Chasing the Wish and Metacortechs. Others formed news and discussion sites like ARGN and Unfiction. Several used these experiences to begin careers as professional game designers.
My career was profoundly altered by the experience. In the years before The Beast, I wrote and produced short films and stage plays. Toward the end of the game, I wrote a short script about the joke character Coroner Sweborg, as if he were the true protagonist of the entire story. Shortly thereafter, a team that was interested in making a grassroots game set around the Sweborg character invited me to be the lead writer, and I spent the next several months creating my own pocket version of The Beast. Although the project never made it into production, the experience only fueled my interested in new media storytelling.
One aspect of the developing ARGs I found problematic was an over-reliance on puzzles that interrupted the flow of the story. The more I worked with this kind of narrative, the more I became interested in the qualities of story spread across multiple formats and channels, and less with the interactive riddles and puzzles. This line of thinking led me to start producing adaptations of classic works of literature, translated into ARG-like forms. I continue this work today, under the banner of the Loose-Fish Project.
2011 will be the ten-year anniversary of The Beast. Many of the people I met during the game are still in my life. They have become my friends and partners, mentors and colleagues. The experience that had no name became codified by the term Alternate Reality Game, and ARGs have recently become subsumed by an new umbrella term: “transmedia.” While ten years can be a long time, they are also an incredibly short time in the lifespan of a medium, and we are still at the beginning of this process of turning the information revolution into a storytelling revolution.
While debates about the definition of the term are far from settled, transmedia storytelling has emerged in the past year as a hot topic in the entertainment industry and Puppetmasters and Cloudmakers have embedded themselves at the forefront of the movement. We often cross paths at conferences and share stages during panel discussions. Several years of answering the question “What is an ARG?” have given way to “What is transmedia?” – but the most frequent question is still “How do you make money doing that?” The running joke has become that you can’t have a panel about transmedia storytelling where the topic is actually storytelling. But as transmedia makes further inroads into mainstream entertainment, and as every new movie or television show has a Twitter account, I find myself having to explain what I do less often. I certainly get fewer perplexed stares. My conversations have shifted towards how to use transmedia storytelling as actual storytelling and not an obligatory marketing adjunct. I often use the metaphor of the development of cinema to parallel the development of ARGs into transmedia into...whatever it
Searching for The Jazz Singer
The first cinema exhibitors were vaudeville producers. They were not inherently interested in moving pictures, but merely used them as novelty attractions to draw audiences to their stage shows. But once films started telling their own stories, they quickly progressed past being marketing gimmicks to become the dominant form of entertainment of the 20th century. It’s too early to tell if ARGs and transmedia will follow a similar track, but there are a couple of interesting parallels to be drawn.
Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 film, The Great Train Robbery is a landmark of early narrative cinema. The film concludes with a shot of a gunman firing directly at the screen. Famously, audiences of the time reacted as if the shot was real and ducked out of the way. Porter used the audience’s unfamiliarity with cinematic storytelling techniques to jar and surprise them. Almost a century later, 2000’s online experience around The Blair Witch Project managed a similar feat, using web and viral marketing techniques to spread its horror story as if it were a documentary. Audiences unfamiliar with seeing the web as a storytelling medium were primed to be vulnerable to the film’s shocks and scares. Both The Great Train Robbery and The Blair Witch Project show early experiments in manipulating their respective media could be devastatingly effective.
1915’s The Birth of a Nation is considered the starting point of the modern cinema. Its maker D.W. Griffith is credited with codifying the early language of cinema. Techniques such as close-ups, fade-outs and crosscutting had been pioneered and explored in shorts, but Griffith’s film was the first to tie them all together into a unified feature on an epic scale. When the history of transmedia storytelling is written, I believe The Beast will occupy a similar place of importance. It wasn’t the first to tell a story through websites and emails and site-specific live events, but it was the first to wrap them all into a coherent, cohesive, compelling whole – and the first to do it on such a grand scale.
Continuing this comparison to the present day, I place the state of ARGs and transmedia storytelling as roughly analogous to 1926, at the end of the pre-sound era when many different producers were attempting to incorporate audio into their films. These experiments had been underway since the invention of the cinema itself, with many systems and techniques having been tried and abandoned. Each failure bolstered skeptics who questioned if sound cinema would ever be possible and if anybody would even want such a thing. Those skeptics were proven wrong in 1927 by the advent of The Jazz Singer; this was not the first film with sound, but it was the first one to make its benefits obvious and to show that sound was the
In today’s environment, there are new skeptics that need to be convinced. Many see Transmedia as simply a marketing tactic with little lasting value or else a jargon-y buzzword that will vanish as soon as there is a new flavor of the month. And the descendants of The Beast – Puppetmasters, Cloudmakers, and those who have never heard of the game but who create in its wake – are working to make a modern Jazz Singer, a story experience that will make it clear that the Internet is the great storytelling medium of the 21st century.
You ain’t browsed, clicked or tweeted nothin’ yet.
16 It’s striking that an experience so reliant on sharing and connections between far-flung players would happen before the rise of Web 2.0, social media networks and mobile computing.
18 Hon and Liggitt were joined by Andrea Phillips, Dan Fabulich, Brian Seitz and Irwin Dolobowsky in the U.S., and Adrian Hon in England.
35 While the contact between the Puppetmasters and the Moderators was infrequent and no game information was leaked, when this correspondence was revealed it provoked hurt feelings from several Cloudmakers. The controversy was amplified when it was learned that in the waning days of the game, the Moderators were secretly flown to Washington to meet the Puppetmasters.
38 The Puppetmasters would make continuous use of real-world events to great effect in their later games. In “I Love Bees,” players were required to be at specific payphones at specific times, and some braved hurricanes to get there. At the conclusion of “Year Zero,” a group of players were surprised with a private Nine Inch Nails concert.
44 People who met and formed relationships through The Beast were called “Cloudmaker Couples.”
53 The events of that night and its impact on the musicians who would form bands such as Joy Division, The Smiths, The Fall and The Buzzcocks are chronicled in the book “I Swear I Was There: The Gig That Changed The World.” Recreations of the performance and its effects are featured in the films “24 Hour Party People” and “Control.”
63 A sampling: The lead creators of The Beast – Jordan Weisman, Sean Stewart and Elan Lee t – left Microsoft to form 42 Entertainment, where they produced some of the most high-profile ARGs of the last decade, including “I Love Bees”, “Year Zero” and “Why So Serious?”. Weisman now runs Smith & Tinker while Stewart and Lee head Fourth Wall Studios. Moderators Dan Hon and Adrian Hon designed and produced the game “Perplex City” and then formed Six To Start, one of the U.K.’s leading multi-platform entertainment companies. Dan Hon has recently joined Wieden & Kennedy as a Senior Creative. Moderator Andrea Phillips co-wrote the “Perplex City” game and has produced award-winning interactive campaigns for “Routes” and the movie 2012. She also served as the first Chairperson of the International Game Developers Association’s Special Interest Group on Alternate Reality Games. After founding ARGN and helping to start Unfiction, Cloudmaker Steve Peters was a designer on the grassroots ARG “Metacortechs”. He later worked for 42 Entertainment as Director of Experience Design. Peters left 42 Entertainment along with Hugo-award winning author Maureen McHugh and producer Behnam Karbassi to form No Mimes Media.