The internet has much to offer. As one Reddit commenter aptly noted, it’s “capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man,” yet most people use it to “look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers.”
But the internet’s nerdy, turn-of-the-century youth was an uncertain, exciting time: everyone was still figuring out how to use it. Around 2001, MSN was the place to chat, logos were all in 3D, and the Space Jam website was considered cutting edge. (Go ahead and click through. 20 years later, it’s still up, and that star field backdrop never gets old.)
Marketers were just realizing the interactivity of the internet, and pushing their limits. This spring marks the 15th anniversary of perhaps the most complex and insane puzzle game a marketing team has ever been paid to engineer to bamboozle internet denizens. Players called it “The Game.”
Though the grassroots gameplay would extend across 40 websites, it started IRL. It wasn’t a secret that it was all a marketing campaign, as the first clue was hidden in posters and trailers for Steven Spielberg’s 2001 sci-fi film A.I. Artificial Intelligence, specifically a credit to one Jeanine Salla for her work as the film’s “Sentient Machine Therapist.” One trailer hid a coded telephone number; calling it gave instructions leading to an email claiming that Jeanine is “key” and that “you’ve seen her name before.” Some entertainment outlets even received posters with the coded message, “Evan Chan was murdered. Jeanine is the key,” just in case previous hints were too subtle.
Fans with their eyes open, or those who paid attention to wide-eyed friends, formed a web community to untangle the mystery. A veritable “web of clues was spun through the datasphere,” according to a now-archived fan site called “Cloudmakers,” a Yahoo group of puzzle-solvers dedicated to the game. A tableau of characters was slowly revealed: combing through the website of Jeanine’s employers, Bangalore World University, puts a face to her name. Finding her granddaughter Laia Salla led to family friends the Chans, and news about the death of Evan, “accidentally” killed during an excursion on his A.I.-enabled boat, Cloudmaker, on March 8, 2142.
In the world of The Game, everyone was online, from software systems to the coroner. Emails, telephone calls, and even faxes were essential to the multimedia evidence-gathering. Individual puzzles, listed by the Cloudmakers, numbered nearly 100. Though Evan’s death was the first mystery, more were added, interconnected so that each served as red herrings for others. An executive at a cryogenic freezing company was blackmailing a client with his own sister, whose neurodegenerative disease would kill her without cryofreezing. The suspects weren’t limited to humans: not only was the boat an early suspect, but the aforementioned blackmailed man, a “free-range hacker,” was found to be murdering A.I.-enabled houses.
If the puzzle sounds like a near-unparseable mass of clues and devious puzzles, you’re getting a clear picture of it.
Some pages let users register to receive email updates; others updated with occasional news items. The onslaught of bread crumbs meant that players could constantly immerse themselves in data and wild theorizing. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the insane depths of fan theories about who Rey’s parents are or what the deal is with that Cloverfield-related film. People adore puzzling over impossible mysteries, and once the full power of the internet is unleashed, mysteries are rarely as impossible as they seem.
Months passed. The Cloudmakers were officially formed on June 11, and, counter-intuitively, the game continued well after A.I. premiered on June 29, not to be conclusively solved until July 24. As the game progressed, murders piled up (RIP Jeanine, whose coroner’s report ignored her strangulation marks), and the puzzles became even more complex.
The team behind The Game were dubbed “Puppetmasters,” in reference to the name uncovered though game sites’ whois search result, Geppetto. The team used the internet to their advantage: by monitoring the puzzlers’ online activity, the Puppetmasters could calibrate new puzzles to make them just barely solvable. Some required knowledge of Photoshop, or buried webpages within the HTML source code of other pages. When one Cloudmaker revealed knowledge of lute tablature, the Puppetmasters ensured a future riddle couldn’t be solved without the skill.
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The film, based on the Bryan Aldiss short story Supertoys Last All Summer Long, ran parallel to the puzzle storyline. Each barely impacted the other. Sadly, broken links, hacks, and password changes make the entire game impossible to retrace in 2016, despite the Cloudmakers’ impressive archives. However, it’s fitting that such an inscrutable game should remain inscrutable today. The ethereal nature of the puzzle emphasizes the emotional element that so intrigued armchair detectives in 2001: Crazy-mysterious possibilities.
Once the game officially wrapped, players stayed in touch, finding new web mysteries to obsess over, or just reminiscing with their newfound friends. The Puppetmasters, a team from Microsoft’s entertainment division, revealed themselves, and the internal title they’d given their project: “The Beast.” The entire puzzle extravaganza has been cited in multiple academic texts on Semiotics. Academics are particularly excited by the game developers’ incorporation of the lute tablature-related feedback.
One rumor suggested there was a proposal to turn the game’s storyline into a novel, but that the film studio nixed it. As for the film? It didn’t receive an enormous boost from the niche viral campaign, despite no doubt capturing the coveted internet-puzzle-solving demographic. Possibly due to this fact, no internet campaign has risen to quite the same heights since.
Should you choose to watch A.I. in the future, keep an eye out during the credits to see a certain Sentient Machine Therapist receive the acknowledgement due her for the key role in an unbeatable, unrepeatable event.
Do you want to play a game?