Very few of us have experienced a mental orgasm. Imagine this - at a Nine Inch Nails concert you have to duck out because that bad burrito is turning in your stomach and you’ve learned from past experience you shouldn’t gamble a fart. You’re lowering yourself onto the porcelain throne and your worst fear strikes… Bow down before the one you serve. You’re going to get what you deserve.
“Head Like a Hole” is met with howls of recognition and you wonder what would be faster, willing your burrito to crawl back up or freeing it from its cavernous clutches. Caught up in your sphincter pain and dizzying FOMO you barely notice the USB drive left on top of the toilet paper dispenser. Why would someone think to take out a thumb drive in the toilet stall?
But this toilet was no ordinary toilet. It was a rabbit hole.
What is a rabbit hole?
A rabbit hole is the first point of contact that draws a player in from the real world into the fictional world of the alternate reality game. It could be a website, a poster on a telephone pole, a puzzle on a forum post or in this case, a thumb drive in a toilet stall.
This thumb drive led down into one of the most intense, mind blowing experiences known as Year Zero, an ARG created by Nine Inch Nails and 42 Entertainment.
What is an ARG?
An Alternate Reality Game, or ARG for short, is an interactive story that is driven by player choice. Unlike internet puzzles and conspiracy theories, at least a part of the story unfolds in real life, abbreviated as IRL in discussion forums. A major element of the ARG is a collaborative suspension of disbelief referred to by the phrase, This is not a game or TINAG. Players know it’s a game but because the real world is part of the storytelling canvas, they often don’t know where the game ends and the real world begins.
IRL, TINAG and Choice - Burrito Boy was Already Playing
That NIN fan was on the toilet in the real world. The thumb drive was real. He faced a choice; take the drive or leave it. He took it. Then he inserted the drive into his laptop and found an unreleased Nine Inch Nails song, “My Violent Heart”. Another choice; should he post it on Reddit? He did. These decisions were steps down the rabbit hole. Yet, he didn’t know that he was already playing.
What Makes a Good Rabbit Hole?
A great rabbit hole begins the ARG by balancing promotion and discretion. It can’t announce what it even is. TINAG remember? It doesn’t push. It pulls. In a world of blaring advertising, sometimes targeted with creepy precision, ARGs soft serve is perhaps more palatable.
Year One began with fans discovering an unreleased Nine Inch Nails track. This alone is pretty damn cool. Not quite a braingasm yet though. In fact, an ARG is like a lot of media. For it to really work the player needs to be there for the full ride: beginning, middle and end. The ah-ha moment when the player makes sense of it, when the whole exceeds the sum of its parts, this- this is the perfect drug.
After the unreleased track, “My Violent Heart” was posted online, others came forward, also claiming to find thumb drives. Fans, even those without angry burritos in their bellies, made sure to stop into the toilet stalls. A community beyond the NIN fan club formed. One reader noticed that there was a few seconds of static at the end of the song. Another fan analyzed it as a spectrogram, a visual representation of an audio file. It revealed an image, “The Presence”.
The Nine Inch Nail's ARG story writers created an entire world, set in the year 2022, the year known as year zero, the year the U.S. is reborn as a Christian fundamentalist theocracy. The ARG creators took their story, shattered it, and scattered the shards IRL and in cyberspace. Murals, pre-recorded phone messages, websites and even on the Nine Inch Nails cd itself. Trent Reznor, front man for the band, wrote the album of the same name as a kind of soundtrack to the whole experience. The physical copy of the cd was black. But when you eject the disc a different CD comes out- a white one. The cd was covered in thermal ink and the heat from the laser would peel away the black to reveal secret messages and codes leading to other shards.
Like archaeologists discovering the story of the Ming dynasty by collecting shards of a vase, the community assembled shards of stories by solving puzzles. A narrative began to form. The scientists banded together with students and computer experts to form The Solutions Backwards initiative, one of the factions of the ARG. It was now up to the players, the ARG players to avert this dystopian future.
If Reznor simply wanted to promote his album he might have gotten a better bang for his buck with Facebook ads or partnering with Nike. Walk softly and carry a nine inch nail.
But Reznor didn’t simply want to entertain. He was appalled by the erosion of civil liberties post 911 and the neo-con-esque direction of the government. He didn’t want to entertain, he wanted to affect change.
In an interview treasure hunt creator Chris Waters, ARG creator Elan Lee talked about the importance of sticking the landing. Lee is the creator of what many say is the first ever alternate reality game, The Beast, a promotion for Steven Spielburg’s film, A.I. Though Lee knows that part of the allure of an alternate reality game like Year Zero involves blurring the line between fiction and reality, there are important limits.
When Players Really Don’t Know the Game is Over
One segment of The Beast was a LARP, a live action role play where players had to piece together clues in a whodunnit. An actor was hired to be in a specific location at a specific time so players could witness him picking up and moving a corpse. The actor was there, digging deep to be the best corpse he could. But the players were late. So when his shift ended, he left the building and headed to the subway to go home for the day. He looked over his shoulder and saw that, finally, the players had pieced the clues together. They followed him. He told them, it was over. Go home. Ha, ha, ha, wink, wink. But this is not a game right? They continued following him to his house. Then they were arrested by real police.
Lee learned that the best way to plan an ARG is to start with the end. Year Zero was reversed engineered. They always knew it would conclude with a secret, rather unique, live show.
Players who had solved specific puzzles were rewarded with cell phones that were silent for months. The night of the concert they rang. The voice on the other end told them to show up at a parking lot where a bus with blacked out windows waited for them. The bus drove around in circles disorienting the players then stopped at an abandoned warehouse. They were shuffled in for a resistance meeting where they were reprimanded for carrying tracking devices and signing a waiver.
They were corralled into a freight elevator and ascended. The large loft was illuminated by a glowing haze, stage fog drifting from a stage at the back. The boom chuck of a snare and bass setting a beat and a wave of hoots as the crowd of 50 rush forward. And then the silhouette of the icon of industrial rock, Reznor untethered. As the crowd gathers, the growling build empties into a full blown scream, “May be too late as far as I can tell.” The song was “This is the beginning of the end.”
The concert continued through most of the Year Zero tracks to the rather non-nihilistic song, “We’re in this Together”
If the world should break in two
Until the very end of me
Until the very end of you
All that we were is gone, we have to hold on…
When all our hope is gone, we have to hold on
All that we were is gone, but we can hold on
Nine Inch Nails - We’re in this Together
How to Stick the Ending
Alternate Reality Games that blend fiction with reality are hard to let go of. It dumps players into a world with a little less magic - like switching from a color TV to black and white. Players need catharsis.
In The Beast ARG, players followed the actor home because players missed a key piece of the puzzle blocking them from solving the puzzle, blocking them from the finish they needed. It’s harder to walk away when you don’t get what you came for. Lee had to make sure he didn’t repeat this mistake with Year Zero.
Lee knew the concert was just one piece of the puzzle. It was up to him to circle back and tie up the ARG and ensure that the whole was better than the sum of its parts.
Nine Inch Nail's ARG Ends with a Bang
“We’re in this Together” ended with a screaming crowd. Exuberant cheers yielded to a slam on the piano. The stage fog drifted like cigarette smoke after sex. Fans expected a pause with the more subdued song, “The Wretched”. But the melancholy chords turned ominous. Then there was a ground shaking explosion in the darkness. The band disappeared into the fog.
Blasts from flash grenades and a screaming alarm. The fundamentalist government infiltrated the resistance meeting with a heavily armed SWAT team. Everyone made for the exits. Everyone, that is, but three. Three big guys, and they refused to let go. They were breaking the TINAG rule and they knew it.
A police officer in full riot gear walked up to the largest of them and slammed his fist into his face spewing blood. The beating didn’t stop even as he fell to the ground.
But this time it wasn’t a player and the real police. Lee anticipated this reluctance. He didn’t want players following Trent Reznor home. Both the police officer and concert goer he was beating were actors. The blood pellets and hours of fight rehearsal and choreography were enough to drive the remaining two players to the exits and onto the bus with the others.
Music to Usher in the End of Democracy
If you’ve never been to a Nine Inch Nails concert you might be forgiven for thinking that dancing and nihilistic despair seems like an odd mix. An evangelical parent would likely be alarmed by Reznor’s lyrics. But it’s not dancing, it’s raging. It’s catharsis.
But after the erosion of civil liberties during the Bush administration Reznor likely wanted to harness this energy into a healthy kind of subversion. He wanted to create art that could affect change more than his past projects.
Year Zero was set in a dystopian future where Christian fundamentalists had destroyed democracy. The year Reznor chose to tell this story, his year zero, was 2022. Whatever change Reznor hoped to affect wasn’t enough to stop Donald Trump. It wasn’t enough to stop the repeal of Roe vs. Wade. But something very much like an ARG is making an impact - Q-Anon. Except the players really don't know that they’re playing. Even after they were arrested by the real police on January 6. And some ARGs they don’t want to let go. They don’t want their alternate reality to end.
In an upcoming series, Where Did ARGs Come From? we’ll go way back to the literature that inspired the nomenclature for the rabbit hole, Alice in Wonderland, and trace an absurd line to what Elan Lee calls the World’s First ARG, and follow the timeline all the way up to the ARG we wish that wasn’t, QAnon. Subscribe so you won’t miss it. If you want to participate in an ARG, we're building one. Join the Beta Team.