Last week, the Halo 2 trailer unspooled in movie theaters across the country. Besides eliciting loud cheers from gamers, the trailer also launched one of the more baffling viral marketing campaigns in years.
The head-scratching began when observant gamers noticed that when the Xbox logo appeared at the end of the trailer, the xbox.com URL at the bottom of the screen was briefly replaced with "www.ilovebees.com." After double-checking that someone hadn't laced their popcorn with mescaline, those who noticed the switch went home and looked up the URL.
What they found appeared to be a laughably amateur site for a Napa, California, bee farm called "Margaret's Honey." But besides offering some unappetizing recipes and a nauseating copy about how honeybees "make life sweet," the site appears to have been the victim of a bizarre hacker attack. After a few seconds, a black screen appears with the following copy: "HALT - MODULE CORE HEMORRHAGE. Control has been yielded to the SYSTEM PERIL DISTRIBUTED REFLEX. This medium is classified, and has a STRONG INTRUSIVE INCLINATION."
Below that is a countdown, which initially said "in [variable] days, network throttling will erode" and changed to "PHASE 1 COMPLETE: Network throttling has eroded" on July 27. After that is a countdown that ends on August 10, which reads, "In [variable] days this medium will metastasize." This is followed by the words "COUNTDOWN TO WIDE AWAKE AND PHYSICAL," beneath which is nestled a countdown clock that ends August 24. The section ends with the ominous words, "Make your decisions accordingly."
The countdown clock's termination date has caused many to speculate that Halo 2 will ship on August 24, two months before its scheduled November 9 release. Other observers concluded that www.ilovebees.com is a marketing scam using a bizarre approach to spark word of mouth and get free press (like, say, a news article on a top gaming Web site).
While the latter group is essentially right, the www.ilovebees.com hoax is more complex than recent viral campaigns like Burger King's subservientchicken.com. It hops on the trend known as the alternate-reality game (ARG), where a story is told via a series of fake Web sites laden with clues that readers can use to solve the story's central mystery.
Companies have been using ARGs as marketing tools for years. Since it is relatively cheap and sparks the sort of edgy buzz that companies crave, the technique has been used to hype various films, including Galaxy Quest and, most famously, The Blair Witch Project.
A more complex PR ARG was implemented for Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence in 2001. Much like Majestic, Electronic Arts' ambitious but failed "real-world" mystery, the A.I. ARG was interactive, having players uncover passwords to "private" blogs and even sending them e-mails and calling them.
Alternate-reality games have also been used to hype video games--by none other than Halo 2's developer, Bungie Software. First came the infamous Marathon Gold hoax e-mail in 1998, which the company downplayed as a practical joke. Then there were the "Cortana Letters," a series of oddly worded e-mails that started going out in 1999, purportedly from the AI named Cortana that would eventually help the Master Chief on Halo's titular ringworld. However, the wording of the e-mails sounded a lot more like Durandal, the crazed AI from the classic Marathon series.
So what is Bungie's game this time around? The central mystery of the ilovebees.com ARG is who--or what--has hacked the Web site, which was allegedly created by its proprietor's niece, Dana. A link was present on the ilovebees.com site to Dana's blogspot, in which she talks about her upcoming trip to China and expresses befuddlement on what happened to ilovebees.com. It also includes a mini-almanac about the significance of August 24.
That all changed on July 27, when the site got more "hacked." Besides displaying more corrupted images and jacked coding, it also now contains a series of disturbing messages to Dana from the author of a lengthy story about a "Queen" and a "Widow." Far from being a writer of atrocious fiction, the author appears to be a stalker. In a series of images that randomly appear on the site, the stalker answers questions presumably asked by Dana, who is pictured looking increasingly worried in a series of webcam shots. Little wonder then that her next blog entry is titled "emergency exit" and reads: "It saw me. It knows me now--seen and skinned. I'm sorry. I'm out."
So should we be worried that a young woman named Dana has had to flee the clutches of a maniac? Probably not, since she almost certainly doesn't exist. While a female voicemail message from "Dana" answered the contact number for the ilovebees.com Web site, the contact address is a rental mailbox in a former leather-fetish shop in San Francisco's Castro district. Furthermore, there is no phone listing for a Margaret's Honey in Napa, California, or its supposed proprietor, Margaret Efendi. The only things that appear to be real are the comments on Dana's blog, many of which warn that the whole ilovebees.com thing is a marketing ploy.
What does Microsoft have to say about ilovebees.com? Even though the company officially has nothing to do with the Web site, it refused to even comment on the site's existence. And, while interesting, the whole affair will raise the same question in many minds: "What the hell does it have to do with Halo 2?"
At first, the connection was only the brief flash on the Halo 2 trailer and the fact that the contact e-mail for Margaret's Honeyemail@example.com the number "7," which Bungie staff members historically have a predilection for hiding in their games (343 Guilty Spark in Halo, for example). Also of note is that the August 24 date is 77 days before November 9, the day Halo 2 is scheduled to be released.
However, since the "network throttling has eroded" message appeared on ilovebees.com--interestingly, on the same day the Microsoft Meltdown developer conference started--the site's connection to Halo 2 has become much more obvious. [WARNING: potential spoilers ahead]
First is the appearance of snippets of dialogue on ilovebees.com that sound like they could be lifted from a Halo 2 cutscene. Scattered across the site in hidden and visible chunks, the dialogue appears to be between crewmen in a futuristic navy much like Halo's United Nations Space Command. One section, spliced together with the newly hatched ilovebees.com Wikipeidia, reads as though it has been "overheard" from the bridge of the UNSC ship that discovers the Covenant's plan to invade Earth.
1st Lt. Sorenson: Oh my God. If the decrypt is right-
Capt. Greene: I know.
1st Lt. Sorenson: We have to drop the mission. We have to bug out of here right now and get word back to HQ. An evac on this scale they need every second. Jesus. I was stationed on Troy.
Capt. Greene: I'm not... I'm not sure.
1st Lt. Sorenson: Ma'am?
Capt. Greene: There's a bigger picture, Rolf. Several.
1st Lt. Sorenson: The mission... This mission is more important than millions of lives? Oh my... god.
Capt. Greene: I'm just saying, the choice isn't as easy as you might think.
1st Lt. Sorenson: You know, I was so curious when you got your orders...
Capt. Greene: And then there's the strategic view.
1st Lt. Sorenson: For the first time, I'm not sure I want to know what's in them.
Capt. Greene: Even leaving aside our particular mission, there's the issue of letting them know we've broken their codes. If we bug out and scramble home to warn HQ about Troy, people like Standish will say we've already compromised a huge tactical advantage, and that mounting a big evac operation will completely give the game away.
1st Lt. Sorenson: Not even Standish would let them glass a planet if he knew it was coming. ... Oh my God.
Capt. Greene: I am not privy to strategic conversations at that level. But if we run home and present the decrypt, we put them in a tricky situation. If they act, they risk letting the enemy know we have a toehold in their C-and-C. If they decide that strategic advantage is too great to risk and don't act, then you know Section Zero will be all over them. Zero's wanted Standish forever.
1st Lt. Sorenson: I...I understand. It's so much easier for everyone if we don't tell them. But...wait a second. Don't you have family on Troy?
Capt. Greene: That can't be part of the equation, Rolf. You know that.
1st Lt. Sorenson: Jesus.
Capt. Greene: I think we have to report it. Our job is to gather intelligence: it's HQs job to decide what to do with it.
1st Lt. Sorenson: God, I'm glad it isn't me making that call.
Capt. Greene: Don't feel too sorry for them, Rolf. Even Admirals have to earn their pay.
In another conversation between two lower-level crewmembers, ONI tech Kowalski and Midshipman Arrelts, they talk about a computer program as though it were a person.
ONI tech Kowalski: (coughs) Anyway, she shouldn't feel that slowness through Nav & Comm. anymore.
Midshipman Arrelts: Great. You know what they say: Happy ship
ONI tech Kowalski: Happy crew. Yeah. (coughs) Yeah, I know a lot of about these systems.
Midshipman Arrelts: That's great, what with it being your job and all.
ONI tech Kowalski: fr'instance - know what the single [...] best correlate is for these babies, in terms of matching personality to service designation? Favorite game.
Midshipman Arrelts: Favorite game?
ONI tech Kowalski: You know, from before. Tag - that's regular navy, like destroyers. Command HQ is usually Truth or Dare, something like that. Red Rover -
Midshipman Arrelts: Light [...] picket?
ONI tech Kowalski: Couriers, too.
Midshipman Arrelts: (laughs) I never would have thought... So what about her?
ONI tech Kowalski: The Operator? (coughs) File's classified.
Midshipman Arrelts: [...] Even for you?
ONI tech Kowalski: Well, of course, I know, but I really shouldn't
Midshipman Arrelts: Come on! I won't tell!
ONI tech Kowalski: Well...
ONI tech Kowalski: Well... (whispers) Spin the Bottle.
Midshipman Arrelts: (laughs)
ONI tech Kowalski: (laughs)
The conversation is laden with clues Halo fans will pick up on. First is the designation of Kowalski as a technician for the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), the espionage arm of the UNSC. Besides being in charge of Covenant surveillance and R&D programs like the SPARTAN project that created the Master Chief, ONI is also in charge of creating and maintaining AIs like Cortana.
Not so coincidentally, the tone of the Cortana Letters used to promote the first Halo sound like a monologue that has been popping up on ilovebees.com. One chunk of this immediately followed the Kowalski/Arrelts exchange:
"Except he's lying. He's lying to her, Trying to impress her he's lying because that's the wrong game (how do I know that?) it's the wrong game and I know I can feel it my favorite game is HIDE AND SEEK! Memory benchmark test concluded."
Further ramblings from the monologue author also point to "her" being "The Operator" AI, with references about breaking "free of this Babbage Machine" (a primitive form of 19th-century computer) and wanting to "GET OUT OF THIS BOX." There is also evidence that the author of these snippets is the entity referred to as "the Queen" by Dana's stalker, which tacitly admits to being "the Widow." Incidentally, the Widow mentions being trapped in a "Sleeping casket" and offers to "apply a construct to protect [Dana's] core." The Widow also makes references to how it has "been changed going back a while though, more than 7 years ago."
While the ilovebees.com alternate-reality game probably won't reach its conclusion until August 24, the next update will occur when the "medium will metastasize" on August 10. However, two conclusions about Halo 2's plot can already be drawn. First is the certainty that a UNSC colony called Troy will be attacked by the Covenant before they invade Earth. This is clear from the references to the "millions of lives" in the Lt. Sorenson/Captain Green dialogue.
It is also likely that a new AI will be introduced in Halo 2. Given the parallels between hoax e-mails used to introduce Cortana before Halo and the AI rants on ilovebees.com, it is likely that the "Queen" and the "Widow" will be either two new AIs or an AI with a split personality. Readers of the Halo novel First Strike will also remember how Cortana battled a Covenant AI, which may also be a possibility.
One non-game-related conclusion can also be reached in the wake of the ilovebees.com affair: Viral marketing is effective, especially when applied to an audience starved for information. For the fraction of the cost of a national TV blitz, Bungie and Microsoft have generated a monstrous amount of buzz (no pun intended) among Halo 2 fans. The ilovebees.com site has become a self-perpetuating phenomenon, spawning thousands of discussion threads on hundreds of forums and creating unquantifiable office-cooler banter. For every cynic decrying it as a marketing hoax, there are two Halo 2 and/or ARG fans spending hours trying to uncover the clues hidden inside ilovebees.com. Somewhere, an advertising executive is laughing all the way to the bank.