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nekobun avatar 1:27 AM on 03.02.2012  (server time)
Promotions: The bees are all right

The late 1990s and early 2000s, some of the earliest alternate reality games, or ARGs, would seep their way into small segments of public awareness. Sort of a blend of geocaching, viral marketing, social networking, and interactive stories, ARGs began as a social experiment of sorts before their marketing potential was fully realized. Promotion behind the film The Blair Witch Project, which attempted to push the movie as legitimate non-fiction and its events as actual occurances, up to and including a faux documentary aired on SciFi about the town of Blair and its witch, is seen by some as a prototype of alternate reality gaming that was yet to come. Microsoft and Steven Spielberg teamed up to market another film, A.I., with an ARG called The Beast, which was basically a massively multiplayer murder mystery. However, it wasn't until 2004 that ARGs would come into a more widespread limelight, thanks to some strange goings-on at the website of a Napa Valley apiary.

The campaign that would later be known as I Love Bees drew in players in July of 2004, both through honey mailed directly to participants from prior ARGs by organizer 4orty2wo Entertainment, and via flashing the "" url at the end of one of the earliest trailers for Halo 2. The site began as an innocent enough tribute to beekeeping, but it was soon clear something was up, as evidence of some sort of tampering with the site's code began to crop up. A woman named Dana Awbrey, claiming to be the niece of the site's owner, put out a call for aid in fixing whatever was wrong with I Love Bees on a separate blog, but from there, the instructions became a lot less clear. The centerpiece of the game was a series of GPS coordinates tied to times, which turned out to be the locations of payphones where pre-recorded messages were going to be played. Small mobs formed around these phones at the given times to answer questions, and occasionally interact with a voice actor they'd hired to give some of the calls live.

Player response was fairly enthusiastic, as sizable groups formed online and off to solve the tasks doled out to them by 4orty2wo in order to unravel the mystery of what was happening to, and eventually, how things tied into the forthcoming Halo 2. Some reports even state that one player may have barely dodged Hurricane Frances in order to take a call, and in another call, one of the live ones, the voice actor on the other end of the line broke character to tell a player to get to safety as Hurricane Ivan was beginning to roar around him. Game elements moved on from payphone messages to employ online images, direct emails, cell phone calls, and even direct meetings between players and actors portraying some of the characters involved. And, while the grand scope of all this is fairly impressive, that's only half of what makes I Love Bees something of a landmark.

At the time the ILB ARG was running, Bungie was still embroiled in trying to finish Halo 2, so almost all of the writing and story work was left up to 4orty2wo themselves. I Love Bees' backstory, which told the tale of a UNSC artificial intelligence splintered by her ship's crash on Earth, and the transmission of some of those parts back in time several centuries, was concieved outside of the Halo canon, and was never intended to be accepted as an official tie-in to the video games' storyline. However, the success of the campaign and the solid nature of the story was enough to inspire Bungie to go back and include the events of I Love Bees in the main timeline of the Halo universe. The incident has seen nods in the Halo Graphic Novel and the Halo Encyclopedia, and the AI at the center of everything, Melissa, is now an acknowledged, if mostly unknown outside of Halo diehards, character.

On top of the sheer scale of the campaign and its inadvertant canonical status, I Love Bees was the first ARG to garner any great deal of mainstream attention. Sure, there were the usual articles from outlets such as Electronic Gaming Monthly and IGN, but ILB saw writeups in more wide-appeal tech news sources such as Wired and Cnet, and even daily newspapers like The New York Times, New York Post, and Washington Post, among others. One could argue that this ARG opened the door for much of viral marketing as we know it today, with echoes of ILB's interactive elements visible in Burger King's three-year "Subservient Chicken" campaign, and other entertainment realms such as music, film, and television employing ARGs of their own in the wake of ILB, for Nine Inch Nails' Year Zero album, the movie The Dark Knight, and 2007's return of Chris Jericho to the WWE, respectively.

Microsoft would try to recapture the buzz generated by I Love Bees in 2007, with the Iris alternate reality game designed to promote Halo 3, but its limitation mostly to bungie-related forums, as well as commencing after trailers and a public beta for Halo 3 had already occurred, kept Iris from blowing up nearly as much as I Love Bees had. This time around, however, direct links to the Halo canon were intended from the start, with the story in this game explaining a great deal in regards to what started all the Halo trouble in the first place.

This ability to intertwine sales and story is one of many reasons I keep coming back to Halo as a franchise, and I imagine I'm not the only one. The fact that almost nothing is frivolous or irrelevant in Halo-related material, be it in or out of the games themselves, is a testament to how much love for and oversight of the series Bungie maintained, both during its stint under Microsoft's wing and after it left the nest. Managing to juggle so many aspects of a franchise, or at least to be the central juggler in the group throwing all this stuff around, with little to nothing falling in the process, is a work of art an and of itself. Fans can only hope 343 Industries can maintain the same firm, loving, and steady-but-audacious grip on all things Halo once the last vestiges still under Bungie are turned over at the end of March, 2012.

If you'd like to learn more about the campaign itself, Halopedia's writeup is a fairly solid summary, and Halo Nation's article on the subject, while shorter, has links to some of the audio files from the game. As linked above, the original site and blog are still viewable, the former having been "abandoned to the rampant AI" that took over it, and there's a wiki on the whole game itself that runs down pretty much everything involved, story-wise. The logo image at the beginning of this article is taken from the menu of a DVD players recieved as a reward for completing the I Love Bees ARG, at multiplayer betas for Halo 2 to which said completion earned them invites. You could try finding one on eBay, but in all honesty, I'd expect any Halo fan rabid enough to finish I Love Bees is fairly unlikely to part with such a memento.

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