Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Why So Serious: How 'The Dark Knight' Alternate Reality Game Changed Fandom Forever

Celina Beach had no idea she'd fallen right into the Joker's trap. But in July 2007, when someone handed her a dollar bill at Comic-Con in San Diego, the former Navy software QA specialist and self-described geek quickly realized this was no ordinary buck. For one thing, George Washington's typically stoic visage had been defaced by dark circles around the eyes and bright red across the lips. The currency had also been bowdlerized by a soon-to-be famous movie catchphrase: "WHY SO SERIOUS?"

Beach followed that phrase to a website that provided recruits like her with a set of GPS coordinates for a specific location in the nearby Gaslamp Quarter and instructions to meet there at 10am. "Our elite organization is expanding!" read the website's invitation-like poster, which gave a graffiti facelift to Uncle Sam. It was nearly 90 degrees outside the bustling convention center, and she was carrying a backpack filled with supplies for a day of waiting in long lines for screenings, panels, and signings, but she was game to trudge to the meeting point anyhow. A crowd, baking under the blazing summer sun, had already gathered near 1st Avenue and J Street, waiting for a message to be relayed via friends monitoring the website online. Finally, they got their instructions: "Look up."

"We're all standing around wondering what's going to happen," recalls Beach over a decade later on the phone from California. "And then we hear an airplane overhead and you looked up and a skywriter writes, 'Ha Ha, Ha.' And a phone number. Of course, immediately we're all dialing the number -- and that was the entrance into it."

The entrance into what exactly? The dollar bill, the skywriter, the website, the phone number, and the accompanying scavenger hunt that followed opened a portal into the world of an unprecedented alternate reality game, or "ARG." Designed by the company 42 Entertainment to promote The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's highly anticipated follow-up to Batman Begins that would introduced Heath Ledger as the maniacal, brilliant, and unpredictable Joker, the game would go on to engage 11 million players in more than 75 countries, inspire countless posts on movie blogs and superhero forums, and even earn a spot in the Guiness Book of World Records. Over the next year, leading up to the release of The Dark Knight, the ARG would grow to be as labyrinthine as one of Nolan's painstakingly constructed puzzle films, stacking narratives upon narratives to entertain players mobilized by the whims of a team of studio-backed puppetmasters behind the scenes.

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The Joker-ized dollar bill | Courtesy of 42 Entertainment

But on that 90-degree morning in San Diego, the goal was simple: create chaos. That's what the Joker does. For Beach and her fellow members of this ad-hoc army, that meant applying Joker makeup to their faces as they raced around completing puzzles and carrying out the bidding of their new leader. In a "Gotham City Police Report" that can still be found online, those acts include forming a "dangerous roaming mob" and terrorizing "a Girl Guide" and stealing "her cookies." At the end of the chaos, one of the Joker's rabid "henchmen" was picked up in a van and "killed" by the mob.

"We convinced this guy to lay down in the ditch and take a bunch of photos," explains Alex Lieu, the chief creative and experience director at 42 Entertainment. "And he was taken out."

Beach, who at the time was writing about alternate reality games for the website ARGNet and eventually filed her own account of the events, had a more pressing issue as the day's festivities wound down: She had to get the damn makeup off. It was starting to run in the heat and she needed to head back to the convention center. So she ducked into a beauty salon with her melting Joker face intact, walked up to the staff, and asked to use the bathroom as the customers looked on in confusion. "Everybody was just like, 'Oh my God, what is going on?'" she says. "It was pretty hilarious."

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The Dark Knight | Warner Bros.

The promotional ARG for The Dark Knight began with a Trent Reznor email. The Nine Inch Nails frontman and industrial music pioneer was looking for a way to tell the story he'd dreamed up in correlation with his record Year Zero, a project set in a dystopian version of the year 2020 defined by political upheaval and domestic terrorism. As he told Wired at the time, he was aware of both the "Lost Experience," an ARG centered around the popular ABC series Lost launched in 2006 between the show's second and third seasons, and "The Beast," a groundbreaking piece of digital storytelling created to promote Stephen Spielberg's 2001 film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Always looking to confound and confuse, Reznor wanted to create an online narrative with a "hoaxish feeling," like Orson Welles' radio performance of War of the Worlds.

Naturally, he reached out to 42 Entertainment, the Burbank-based company founded by "The Beast" creator Jordan Weisman. In the mid-2000s, ARGs and the larger world of transmedia -- an umbrella term used to describe stories that unfold across multiple platforms -- were in the middle of a big mainstream moment, particularly in marketing departments at movie studios, record labels, and video game companies. The low-cost, high-reward viral campaigns of projects like 1999's The Blair Witch Project, which cleverly blurred the the line between fact and fiction, had given way to far more ambitious, expensive operations like 2004's "I Love Bees," a dense, award-winning ARG produced by 42 Entertainment that bridged the gap between Microsoft's best selling video game Halo and its sequel.

When Reznor's email arrived in the company's inbox, Alex Lieu could not have been more excited. "For a long time I was known as 'the guy in the Nine Inch Nails T-shirt' before people ever knew my name," he says in a phone interview with Thrillist. Now his hero was sending him an email at his job. "It was a really big deal when that happened. I was like, 'If we're not doing this project, I'm leaving the company.'"

The company took on the project, whipping up media attention and fan excitement with a tale that remixed Philip K. Dick-ian paranoia for a post-Y2K age. A sprawling fiction incorporating psychoactive drugs, religious fundamentalism, and quantum mechanics, "Year Zero" caught the attention of Jonathan Nolan, the younger brother and frequent creative partner of Christopher Nolan. He was working on the script for The Dark Knight, and soon Syncopy, the production company founded by Christopher Nolan and producer Emma Thomas, set up a meeting with 42 Entertainment. They loved "Year Zero." But could something that immersive be done for a feature film?

"And of course we were like, 'Yes!'" remembers Susan Bonds, the company's co-founder and Chief Executive Officer. "The other question was 'Would this work for a movie audience?' There was a lot of expectation on the reboot of Batman, and they knew they had to bring together audiences that may have seen different Batman films in the past."

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Heath Ledger as the Joker | Warner Bros.

Once 42 Entertainment was on board, the studio presented them with another challenge: The casting of the Joker was still considered to be controversial. The appearance of the clown-faced killer teased at the end of Batman Begins immediately inspired fantasy casting -- Robin Williams, Adrien Brody, Steve Carell, and Paul Bettany were all rumored to be up for the role -- but Nolan had his eye on 27-year-old Heath Ledger, still best known for his heartthrob turns in films like A Knight's Tale and 10 Things I Hate About You. Nominated for an Oscar for his stoic, emotionally wounded turn in 2005's Brokeback Mountain, he became the target of homophobic jokes on comic-book forums and in the comment sections of movie blogs. Before principal photography began, the studio was looking to shift the conversation away from the debate around Ledger's casting; instead, they wanted people talking about how excited they were to see the new Joker.

"What they didn't want was for someone on the streets of Chicago to catch a picture of Heath Ledger walking from his trailer to the set or at the end of the day of filming when his makeup may have been washed off," says Bonds. "They didn't want someone to snap a picture. So they gave us a picture they had taken."

On a Friday in May 2007, the image became the first "reward" in the ARG. Bucking the traditional promotional route of publishing the first glimpse of a major character in a magazine like Entertainment Weekly, the image was unlocked by fans who had discovered a Joker-vandalized version of Harvey Dent's campaign website after Joker cards were left in comic book shops in select locations. Sharing your email address with the site would remove a pixel from what was eventually revealed to be the Joker's first big close-up. You've probably seen the photo. It's striking: Ledger is glaring from the shadows, the scars on his cheeks and the red on his lips popping against the white makeup and the black background. This wasn't Jack Nicholson's slick, dandy-ish Joker. He was messy. Intimidating. Unwell.

The studio was looking to shift the conversation away from the debate around Heath Ledger's casting.

Given the unceasing critical adoration and enduring popularity of Nolan's Bat-trilogy, it's hard to remember that The Dark Knight was not guaranteed to be the obvious, slam-dunk mega-hit we now think of it as. Batman Begins, the brooding 2005 origin story that attempted to reimagine a character that had fallen out of favor after the cartoon excess of Batman & Robin, was a commercial and creative success, but its $374 million box office take didn't make it a record-breaking phenomenon. (By comparison, Tim Burton's 1989 Batman made $411 million and Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-Man broke $800 million.) The Dark Knight, which self-consciously mimicked Michael Mann's Heat in attempting to tell an epic crime story on Gotham's gray streets, took a bigger swing for the fences. From a marketing perspective, it needed a competitive edge.

This push-and-pull between Batman and the comic-book hero's passionate fanbase is partially baked into the history of the character. As critic Glen Weldon writes in his book The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, there's long been a group of "hard-core enthusiasts" who only accept "the darkest, grimmest, most hyper-masculine version of the character imaginable." Christian Bale's gravelly-voiced, tough-guy portrayal of Batman was a product of that mold, and Nolan's aesthetic -- a mix of political allegory, dorm-ready philosophy, and adrenaline-fueled pulp -- fit with that audience's stark demands. At the same time, this was a summer tentpole that, at least theoretically, needed to appeal to anyone.

Tangible rewards like the Joker photo were central to the audience's relationship to the ARG -- "You can't just exploit them to make content," explains Bonds -- and the larger "pulsed" structure of the game played into that tricky, malleable dynamic. How do you keep a growing global squad of players involved with a campaign while still attracting new thrill-seekers with each interactive stunt? It's a balancing act.

Drawing inspiration from The Long Halloween, an acclaimed 13-issue Batman comic released in 1996 and 1997, Lieu and his team purposefully spaced out puzzles, missions, and challenges to mimic the way the mysterious killer in that series only killed around holidays. The artists, designers, and writers working on the project poured over graphic novels like Alan Moore's The Killing Joke and Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum. Ideally, those ink-stained pages would spill out into the streets via the ARG. They drew up plans, typed out scripts, and scribbled designs. Lieu handled all the Joker's writing himself, scratching out the bloody letters with brushes and ink quills.

"The filmmakers were concerned that the fans were so avid. They didn't want people climbing up on rooftops to take pictures."

When I ask Lieu if they ran into any conflicts with the studio about the severity of the subject matter, particularly the violence of the Joker, he admits there were some ideas that never made it past the brainstorming stage. One Long Halloween-inspired concept involved Santas dressed up like Jokers around Christmas time -- basically, a child's nightmare and potential PR disaster waiting to happen. The studio nixed that. "I think that was a good call," laughs Lieu.

There were other safety concerns. Both Lieu and Bonds were reluctant to speak too freely about certain aspects of the process -- non-disclosure agreements still linger -- but Lieu did mention that at one point there were discussions about having Batman sightings all over the world where the Caped Crusader might appear on windowsills and rooftops, or hanging off gargoyles. "The filmmakers were really concerned that the fans were so avid at that point they didn't want people climbing up on rooftops and trying to take pictures with them or steal them," he says. You can't have people scaling walls to swipe movie tie-in merchandise. "I think it was a really legitimate concern."

In the design of ARGs like these, safety is the top priority for all the events staged in the physical world. A former Disney imagineer, Bonds had experience in getting crowds of thousands to do her bidding. "First of all, make it safe, and then protect the fiction," she says of 42 Entertainment's philosophy. The company takes its core tenets seriously -- it's like a heightened mix of spycraft and theater. "You don't want people seeing behind the curtain or to see you on the phone making things happen."

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An ARG cake with a cell phone hidden inside | Courtesy of 42 Entertainment

Still, pulling off an event as elaborate as the Comic-Con scavenger hunt required an intense amount of logistical legwork beyond coming up with a wacky idea. A currency attorney was consulted to make sure the dollar bills were legally defaced. (They used stickers.) Meetings with top Comic-Con brass were arranged to figure out how to distribute bills through their internal banking system. (Originally 42 Entertainment wanted to toss the dollars from the third floor of the convention center, a la the Joker in Burton's Batman, but it was deemed a safety hazard.) Security guards had to be hired. (They wore suits and acted as mobsters.) The coordination required boggles the mind.

Then there's the online experience to worry about. In addition to racing around confirming actors were at the proper checkpoints at Comic-Con, Bonds and the team, who were running the operation at a command center at a nearby hotel, had to periodically add servers to keep the website from crashing. They knew that if the website took too long to load or the makeup ran out, players would abandon the game. They're fickle. The promise of free stuff only keeps a crowd hanging around for so long.

"Most of the people at an event like that don't know what an alternate reality game is," says Geoff May, a programmer who played the ARG and also maintains the game's voluminous Wiki. "They just turned up because there's something really cool going on with Batman and all their friends told their friends, and everybody's coming out to whatever they can to be a part of."

That desire to get everyone involved, to make a piece of big-tent pop entertainment, was central to the studio and Christopher Nolan's vision of The Dark Knight. According to Bonds and Lieu, the filmmakers were intimately involved in the ARG, and there wasn't a piece of content in the campaign that they didn't see. Even as the 2008 release date of the movie drew nearer and the Joker's missions grew more baroque -- in December 2007, players picked up cakes from local bakeries, called a number, and discovered a Nokia "Joker phone" ringing in the center of the desert -- every detail needed to be on point. Nothing was insignificant. Each element had to be as tailored as the suits Nolan wore on set.

"That team, specifically, they're extremely competent," says Lieu when asked about working with the Nolan brothers and the Syncopy crew. "They know how to get stuff done. They know how to drive things forward. It's almost slandering them to say they're extremely intelligent and sharp. It's obvious."

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Ledger's untimely death changed the game | Warner Brothers

That degree of control was tested on January 22, 2008, when Heath Ledger was found dead in his Manhattan apartment from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. He was 28 years old. It was a shock to the public, to the filmmakers, and to the people at 42 Entertainment, who already had a sense of how bracing Ledger's performance as the Joker would be. He had completed his work on the film, but, following reports of his death, speculation about the movie intensified. Quickly, the ARG was put on hold for 30 days following the terrible news. A small black ribbon was added to WhySoSerious.com.

"It was so unexpected," says Bonds. "By that time everyone had seen how amazing he was in this role. So the anticipation to see the movie, and particularly the anticipation to see him in the movie playing the Joker, by the end of December it was so high."

Would the ARG change in the wake of the tragedy? An article in a May 2008 issue of Ad Age laid out the "intense marketing headaches" Warner Brothers faced, drawing a comparison to James Dean's death before the release of Giant in 1955. There were still commercials, toys, and promotional tie-ins to consider. That Nokia phone in the cake? It was an extension of a sponsorship deal the brand had with the studio. Throughout the game, players with the phones would receive secret messages and images that would lead to further clues. Was it now strange to own a "Joker phone" when the actor who played the character had just died? Wasn't it all a little silly? 

The version of the game that returned in March 2008 had a slightly different tone from the more madcap, diabolical Joker-centric days, but Bonds says the shift was already planned before Ledger's death. The marketing campaign became a political campaign: Harvey Dent, the square-jawed lawyer played by Aaron Eckhart in the film, was now the focus of the game and he wanted your vote. With the volatile Democratic primary race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in full swing, the electorate was ready to pretend to advocate for a fictional politician. (Even if everyone knew he eventually became Two-Face, he could still help reduce crime in the city.) In the game, you didn't get your news from The New York Times and CNN; no, your favorite paper was The Gotham Times and you never missed an episode of Gotham Tonight on GCN.

By this point, the ARG was in conversation with the regular marketing materials that were out in the world. Trailers, posters, and even a clip of the opening bank robbery that debuted in IMAX theaters had given audiences a taste of The Dark Knight -- and they wanted more. Immediately. In addition to the websites built by 42 Entertainment, the anticipation of The Dark Knight and the dissection of the ARG played out on message boards like Something Awful, Unfiction, and Superhero Hype. There was an active, content-hungry media ecosystem that covered the ARG, from mainstream outlets like the L.A. Times and New York Magazine, to breathlessly enthusiastic movie blogs, like First Showing and Ain't It Cool News.

"It was something where [the ARG] was both crossing over into comic book fandom as well as the established alternate reality gaming space, so there were a bunch of different communities coming together," says Michael Andersen, the owner of ARGNet, which has covered ARGs since the early '00s. "But also having relationships between those groups build."

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An image from WhySoSerious.com | Courtesy of 42 Entertainment

What were they building toward? Ending a promotional ARG can be complicated: It can spiral out into nothing or close with a bang. (Let's admit you're unlikely to get anything as genuinely cathartic as the final twist in Michael Douglas's 1997 proto-ARG thriller The Game, or the last plot reversal in this year's comedy hit Game Night.) The studio's goal for the "Why So Serious" campaign was to generate excitement, entice new fans, and get butts in seats at the theater. Lieu remembers checking message boards toward the end of the campaign and seeing fans not just discussing pre-sales, but talking about buying tickets for a midnight show and the screening immediately after at 3 a.m. "That was a first," he says.

When the film hit theaters on July 18, it made $203.8 million domestically in its first five days of release, breaking numerous box office records on its way to a $1 billion global haul, a first for a superhero movie. Given the hype surrounding the film, particularly the anticipation of Ledger's performance and the positive word-of-mouth, it's hard to quantify the role the ARG had in the film's success. The members of the 42 Entertainment team I spoke to were careful not to overstate their own importance in the larger financial success of the movie. "If you look at the traditional marketing material around The Dark Knight, it was amazing," says Bonds. "But it all comes down to the belief that Chris was really hitting his stride in the imagining of this world."

Obviously, playing the ARG was not a prerequisite for enjoying the movie. When the truck flips during the movie's show-stopping car chase or you see the Joker sticking his head out of a cop car, it's just cool. No transmedia experience necessary. But for the fans who played the game, there were small details, stray references, and moments that came alive because of the months they'd spent in the fiction of Gotham City. The ARG was designed as a "bridge story" between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, so, if you played the game, you hit the ground running when the movie started.

"When you watch the movie, you already feel like you're a part of that story."

When I ask Geoff May, the keeper of WikiBruce, whether he liked the movie, he responds with an instant, "Loved it -- oh man." He was impressed by the way ARG and the film blended together. "Depending on how much of the story the creators of an alternate reality game are privy to, there could be bits and pieces in the film that you feel more connected to because of the experience you had before the movie. So you could be introduced to characters that might have a cameo in the film or you might have phrases or certain scenes that are connected. And so when you watch the movie, you already feel like you're a part of that story."

That quest for total immersion drove the world of ARGs in the years following the release of The Dark Knight, but the larger media landscape surrounding it also evolved. It wasn't the new thing anymore. The professionals and fans of the genre offer a range of reasons why the age of the ARG came to a close: Studio marketing budgets began to shrink; companies grew more risk averse; the rise of social media transformed the way fans interact with these properties; and the market got saturated with games that couldn't deliver on the hype. 42 Entertainment has continued to create projects for Hollywood fare like Tron: Legacy, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Amazing Spider-Man -- in addition to a number of campaigns for video games as well -- but they've yet to replicate the global frenzy of The Dark Knight ARG. Neither has anyone else.

"I think the biggest part of the legacy of The Dark Knight alternate reality game was its introduction of this type of storytelling and this way of engaging that people hadn't necessarily seen before," says Michael Andersen, who still writes about new ARGs like the recent Dungeons & Dragons "No Stone Unturned" interactive experience. "We're used to seeing brands engage in these fashions. We're used to seeing stories playing out this way."

He names recent examples like the "in world" websites for the recent Jurassic Park films, the Hooli campaigns launched for HBO's Silicon Valley, the elaborate "Blade Runner 2049 Experience" at Comic-Con in 2017, and a stunt put on by HBO to promote Westworld at SXSW earlier this year, which involved re-creating the town of Sweetwater, complete with beard trimming, knife throwing, and real booze drinking.

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Image from the ARG, with tasks completed | Courtesy of 42 Entertainment

Maintaining a healthy skepticism about ARGs is probably a good idea. Do these storytelling experiences stand on their own as art, or are they just shiny pieces of branded content? A bold new narrative genre, or a flashy trend? Do they challenge curious internet-dwellers, or cater to entitled fans? Part stunt, part theme park ride, and part choose-your-own-adventure novel, they exist to draw you in and keep you engaged -- which can lead to toxic results.

In the decade since The Dark Knight hit theaters in 2008, genre fans have only grown more eager to live in these fictional worlds and claim ownership of them. When The Dark Knight Rises arrived in 2012, the first critic who dared to give the movie a negative review received multiple death threats. That anger has curdled into the bizarre, alienating subset of rage-filled DC Expanded Universe fans who defend Zack Snyder's Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice and the recent Justice League as though they're persecuted religious zealots. Individual fans have always been cruel and dumb online -- the message boards of the '00s were filled with spiteful trolls, mean jokes, and bad-faith arguments -- but increasingly digital mobs are ready to pounce at the slightest provocation. As Harvey Dent famously quips in The Dark Knight, you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.

In the ARG, that moral choice was up to you. By accepting a dollar bill, looking up in the sky for a phone number, slathering on clown makeup, going to pick up a cake, searching for a Bat signal, wearing a Harvey Dent campaign button, reading a police report, or simply typing in a URL, you became part of the story. 42 Entertainment could get you to do almost anything, but they couldn't force you to respect your fellow fan.

In The Dark Knight, one of the Joker's key motivations is to prove humanity is as depraved, selfish, and cruel as him. In the sequence on the ferry, the Joker rigs two boats to blow up: one transporting prisoners and the other carrying civilians. He'll let one boat survive if they decide to blow up the other boat. "When the chips are down, these civilized people, they'll eat each other," he tells Batman in the film's interrogation room showdown. 

If the ARG was a (much, much safer) plan by the Joker, it proved that people like Celina Beach and her fellow Jokers hitting the streets of San Diego during Comic-Con were mostly looking for a good time and a sense of community. She remembers the experience as a joyful morning spent "meeting new people" and talking about "how exciting it was." The players were cooperative, kind, and cheerful. "And you got lots of fun swag along the way," she says. She still has her Joker dollar and even kept her Joker phone in a box somewhere -- you never know when it might ring.

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.