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."