At first it seems like any other YouTube video. Someone's pointing the camera out a car window as a desert landscape rolls by. But then thunder crashes, and what appears to be a giant hand made of black smoke reaches down from the sky.
The only clue to the clip's provenance is a road sign that flashes past so quickly you have to hit PAUSE to make it out: I AM TRYING TO BELIEVE. There's no music, no credits. Nothing to indicate that it is, in fact, a teaser for Nine Inch Nails' new album, Year Zero. The clip, and dozens of other online clues, form the latest salvo in a burgeoning new style of promo called alternate-reality gaming (ARG). Part scavenger hunt, part online game, these elaborate puzzles are created by a clandestine startup called 42 Entertainment. The goal: to blend fiction and reality in ways that engage a new generation of fans.
Just don't call it marketing. "The term 'marketing' sure is a frustrating one for me," NIN mastermind Trent Reznor recently blogged. (He and reps from 42 Entertainment declined to be interviewed.) "What you are now starting to experience is 'year Zero,' " Reznor wrote. "It's not some kind of gimmick to get you to buy a record – it is the art form . . . and we're just getting started."
Based in Pasadena, California, and the Bay Area, 42 Entertainment sports an all-star team of marketing and gaming vets whose experience runs from Procter & Gamble product launches to designing rides for Disneyland. ARG, they believe, is the next frontier – and their mind-bending online campaigns for the likes of DreamWorks, Microsoft and Disney are often more compelling than the products being pushed.
"The eighteen-to-thirty-five-year-old demo has grown up in a marketing-saturated environment and has developed a sophisticated set of tools for avoiding the vast majority of marketing messages," Jordan Weisman, 42's co-founder, has said. "As a rule of thumb, the bigger the neon sign, the faster they'll run the other way. So the premise here was, instead of shouting, go the opposite way and whisper."
Year Zero's strange life started in February, when a fan noticed that his NIN concert shirt had the words I AM TRYING TO BELIEVE encoded on the back. A quick Googling revealed a Web site of the same name. The site warns of Parepin, a drug put into the water supply by the feds that may be causing you to see stuff like a giant hand descending from the sky (photos included). E-mail the Webmaster and you get an auto-response in which he inexplicably changes tune: "It is now clear to me that Parepin is a completely safe and effective agent. I'm drinking the water. So should you."
Cryptic new Web sites keep popping up online, elaborating on the conspiracy. There are phone numbers to dial, wiretap transcripts to decipher. At NIN concerts in Portugal and England, fans found computer memory sticks in bathroom stalls containing Year Zero songs. The clues are coming at such a rate that there's a Wikipedia entry and forums of NIN nerds teaming up to keep track.
"It engages fans to the point where they can actually feel like they are an important part of the marketing of the album," says Mike Swindley, the twenty-four-year-old administrator of the NIN fan site Echoing the Sound. "It makes me feel like I'm fifteen again."
For Reznor, a lifelong gamer, that's the idea. As a kid, he drew early inspiration from video games, once going so far as to pry off the back of an Asteroids machine just to peer inside. Since then, he composed the soundtrack for the game Quake and stopped recording The Fragile to play Halo upon its release. "It put me back a few days," he said at the time. "But what's a few days when there's something important to do?"
Some pioneers warn that ARG can get too geeky for its own good. "The most difficult thing is striking the balance between accessibility and making it too complicated," says Mike Benson, executive vice president of marketing for ABC, which ran the Lost Experience online game to promote its hit show last year.
"ARG law has always been to not let anybody know you're doing ARG," says Jesse Alexander, co-executive producer of NBC's Heroes, which is currently developing a game. "I think that keeps a lot of people from playing. So we are actively trying to lower the barrier of entry [by] being open about what we're doing – to get more than the usual D&D-type guy involved."
With the Year Zero buzz growing, Reznor has proved that harnessing the power of music geeks may be victory enough.
This story is from the April 19th, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.