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Beast, The

Entry updated 2 April 2015. Tagged: Game.

Videogame (2001; vt A.I. Web Game). Microsoft. Designed by Jordan Weisman, Elan Lee, Sean Stewart. Platforms: Web.

The Beast was the first Alternate Reality Game. The key premises underlying its design were that it should be a cooperative game (solved by many people working together on the internet), that its existence should be kept secret from the players (so that they could discover it on their own), that its story should be delivered through as many routes as possible (including telephone calls, faxes and websites) and that it should contain a strong embedded narrative (see Interactive Narrative) which the players would have to reassemble from fragments. Based on this approach, the designers also decided that the game should never admit it was a game; all of the story elements would be presented as if they were real. These concepts were used to design a promotional game for Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), set in the film's future world but expressed as a present tense narrative. Several entry points were provided for potential players, including an incongruous credit for a "sentient machine therapist" called Jeanine Salla in some of the film's trailers and posters, as well as phone numbers and secret messages encoded in other promotional material. These "rabbit holes" were rapidly discovered, leading players to a separate world of recorded phone messages and fake websites that implied a man named Evan Chan had been murdered, and that "Jeanine is the key". The story that was eventually uncovered was well crafted and strikingly complex, featuring a pogrom against artificially intelligent (see AI) houses and a missing Robot built for Sex. Players were often asked to participate directly in the narrative, helping characters they had come to know and attending rallies of the fictional "Anti-Robot Militia". The majority of the gameplay revolved around cryptic puzzles which required collaboration to solve; examples include messages written in the language of the Indian state of Karnataka and clues encoded into digital images. Players rapidly formed communities on the internet to discuss the game which became the primary venues for its play, the most prominent of which was the "cloudmakers" group. As in a Role Playing Game, The Beast's narrative was not entirely predetermined; the designers, referred to by the cloudmakers as PuppetMasters, monitored the players' progress and tailored the new material which was released every week to ensure that the storyline remained involving and that it would be resolved before the premiere of the film.

The game's blurring of the line between fiction and reality, and the sense of personal involvement in and power over an ongoing story that it bestowed, made it an extremely affecting experience for many players. It is important to recognize, however, that The Beast never entirely shed its fictional identity; from the outset it was clear that the mysterious discoveries made by the players were linked to the film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and that they were occurring in its science-fictional future. If there had truly been no boundary between the game world and the actual one, the experience might have evoked more fear than fascination in its participants. Nevertheless, The Beast was far less obviously artificial than its markedly less popular cousin Majestic (2001), a fact which undoubtedly contributed to its success. As well as being the first professionally created Alternate Reality Game, The Beast also inspired many members of the cloudmakers community to create their own similar games, giving birth to a new amateur art form. [NT]


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