Alternate reality games (ARGs to gamers) are typically internet-based, making use of chat rooms and message boards to build intelligent (and surprisingly mature) communities that work together to uncover a fictional story or solve a puzzle. Last year at least two ARGs were used to effectively market brands; Sharp's "More to See" campaign with Wieden + Kennedy/N.Y. contained an internet-based puzzle that led to the prize of a high-end LCD TV, while Microsoft's "I Love Bees" made players locate ringing pay phones to unlock hidden pieces of backstory related to the blockbuster game Halo2. However, "The Art of the Heist"-the first ARG designed for a major automotive company-combines elements of both. Using fictional characters and gamers who serve as "retrievers" in the story, who interact with actors, the lines between fiction and reality are nearly impossible to find. Through live events and meetings, gamers get clues to a mystery that creative director Jonathan Cude, copywriter Matt Fishvogt and art director Jason Musante describe as a mix of art theft and spy drama made successful by The Thomas Crowne Affair and The DaVinci Code.
The story began on March 31, when an Audi A3 was "stolen" from the rotating display at the New York Auto Show. The campaign launched with wildpostings requesting information about the missing car, then it went national, with spots in prime time that listed the vehicle's VIN number, its unique features, a toll-free number and Audi's website. Visitors to the site can follow a trail that introduces them to the character Nisha Roberts, her company Last Resort Retrieval, and-due to a deliberate glitch in her site-her intranet, which is rich with messages, tapped phone calls, photos, surveillance videos and puzzles. Other integral characters are Ian Yarbrough and Virgil Tatum, Nisha's assistant and a videogame developer, respectively, who serve as sources of dramatic tension. Nisha and company's mission is to find data-rich memory cards hidden in A3s to thwart an art heist.
The project's directors-Mike Monello (who worked as a member of directing team Haxan on Sega's "Beta 7" and "More to See") and Brian Cain-not only ensure that the action is well documented, they are also responsible for the real-time evolution of the story. Gamers affectionately refer to them as "puppetmasters," something that Monello reveals with a smile. "The most difficult part of our jobs," he says, "is making sure that the story is seamless for the people following along. We have real people in fictional scenarios and fictional people in real scenarios, and we cannot show how that happens."
Disguising the seams are several well-placed details. Ads for Last Resort Retrieval have run in national magazines. Chelsea employee Myke Gerstein served as a contact person during a chaotic mission that unfolded during the Coachella Music Festival, and he was killed off in the fictional world. An actor playing game developer Virgil Tatum was interviewed in character for VH1's Top 20 Countdown at the E3 gaming conference, along with Kazunori Yamauchi, the creator of Gran Turismo, the best-selling videogame of all time.
One of the most interesting aspects of the campaign is its continual pliability and the need for constant monitoring over its three-month lifespan. The culprit will be revealed at the end of the month, but in the meantime, the creative team can alter parts of the story to give players the most entertaining experience possible, though they still stick to a detailed script. "Since we've started, the final villain has changed a couple of times," says Cain.
At the mission in New York, there is one minor glitch-the retrievers have trouble finding the card in a tiny place under the driver's seat. The actress playing Nisha decides to move in herself, a risky move in the game. "Everyone OK with that?" says Monello after it has happened. "Wanna shoot it again?" asks Fishvogt with a chuckle.
Client: Audi Agency: McKinney+Silver ECD: David Baldwin GCDs: Dave Cook, Jonathan Cude AD: Jason Musante CW: Matt Fishvogt Director: Mike Monello/Campfire Co-director: Brian Cain Digital Creative: Brian Clark Puzzle Designer: Dave Szulborski Writers: Jim Gunshanan, Ernie Larsen Short Film Director: Ben Rock/Chelsea