Signs of Intelligent Life

A.I.’s mysterious and masterful promotional campaign. 

The A.I. game isn’t much of a secret anymore, and it’s not supposed to be: It is an ad, after all. For the uninitiated, it’s a multimedia labyrinth that can be followed from the trailer for the forthcoming Steven Spielberg/Stanley Kubrick movie of the same name. If you look at the notches on the words “Summer 2001” at the end, they form a phone number, (503) 321-5122. Call that number, or perform a Web search for Jeanine Salla, the curious-sounding “Sentient Machine Therapist” credited in the trailer, and you start down an enormous, convoluted path of cross-references, puzzles, and red herrings: a science-fiction murder mystery that involves e-mail, faxes, voice-mail messages, at least 15 distinct Web sites (each with its own purpose and design aesthetic), and “rallies” for a fictitious anti-robot organization that were held in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago last weekend.

The no-really-this-is-real online campaigns for The Blair Witch ProjectThe Center of the World, and (going back a few years) Joe’s Apartment are clearly the models here, but A.I.’s improves on them both in scale and by using real-world, everyday technology to advance the game. You play by poking around for behind-the-scenes info and making inferences about how things connect—the same way you’d investigate, say, an interesting upcoming movie. (If you see a business name and want to know more about it, for instance, you stick “www.” and “.com” around it, maybe with a hyphen, and try Googling it if that doesn’t work out.) The game includes witty parodies of familiar kinds of sites—the achingly earnest political group, the Flash-crazed new-age clinic, the immaculately boring personal page complete with vacation snapshots—but there’s also some first-rate science fiction threaded into them. A site for Martin Swinton, a character in both the game and the movie, is a delicious piece of speculation about the future of architecture. His hidden diary (click on the sun or moon on his home page, then complete a quote from Shakespeare) includes a dialogue with his intelligent house that’s even cleverer. It also slips in a major clue that’s impossible to notice unless you’re conversant in both T.S. Eliot and HTML. (Click  here if you want the beans spilled.)

Which is where your teammates come in. The genius of the game is that it starts out by making you feel like a protagonist, and eventually turns you into part of an actual team. As it’s progressed, the puzzles have gotten far too complicated for any one player to work out, and an online community called  Cloudmakers has convened to solve them and crack the central mystery (the death of an engineer named Evan Chan) collaboratively. Cloudmakers doesn’t appear to have any direct connection to the puzzle-makers, but they approve. Within the game, there’s a mock academic bibliography featuring a paper called “Multi-person social problem-solving arrays considered as a form of ‘artificial intelligence’ “; the link takes you to Cloudmakers. Naturally, the research teams have turned into social groups as well. There are even discussions about which ways of playing the game are “legitimate”—whether it’s cheating to run a WHOIS search to determine who owns a site, for example, or whether that’s how we’re supposed to be uncovering evidence.

What there’s not much of among the Cloudmakers, surprisingly, is speculation, or even curiosity, about the film itself. The official A.I. site doesn’t make any reference to the game or the subculture evolving around it—in fact, the trailer makes the movie look like a heavy-handed tearjerker about a little boy who’s actually a robot. The “chatbot” on the site’s front page is a lame Eliza-type routine. Meanwhile, the game recently added a demonically hard  puzzle involving a petulant, snippy chat program called Eliza that actively hinders you unless you suck up to it; it might be meant as a parody of the movie site’s chatbot. And the most direct reference the promotion has made to A.I. itself is a gag about an upcoming film with an all-robot cast, Aaron and Irene (“This simplistic tale of a couple in a doomed, robosexual relationship is nothing but trash”).

That’s a wise move on the producers’ part. Advertising backfires when its audience finds it shallow and manipulative; the less advertising for the smart, tech-friendly Web audience seems like prefab Hollywood hype, the better it works. By commissioning a PR campaign that doesn’t even mention A.I. by name and stimulates your intelligence rather than insulting it, DreamWorks has engendered something that feels like genuine support, and even wonder: Imagine, a bunch of movie marketers shunning a mass audience in favor of people who can quote Shakespeare and Eliot!

Still, playing the game gives me two powerful impulses about A.I., neither of them exactly in line with what advertising is supposed to do. One is to see the film as soon as it opens, not because the game has made me interested in it—it hasn’t—but to thank the filmmakers for the days of enjoyment its PR operation has brought me. The other is to stay home, because the ad campaign itself is the kind of interactive entertainment we’ve been promised since the earliest days of hypertext, the kind that can be experienced not just collectively but collaboratively.

It’s possible that the game and the film will enrich each other’s meaning. Maybe the movie will be packed with Easter eggs and hidden clues for game-players; maybe it’ll provide the same kind of challenging, multidirectional narrative the Cloudmakers have grown accustomed to. But it’s hard to see how it could do that and still make sense to moviegoers who haven’t been investigating the online mystery for weeks. After this kind of buildup, a Hollywood blockbuster can only be a letdown.