Authentic Content: Susan Bonds dissects NIN’s ‘Year Zero’

Joseph Beyer

“This is the natural evolution of entertainment – going beyond the screens and traditional forms to allow audiences to live and participate in more ways with immersive worlds,” Susan Bonds said simply.

On Sunday, October 22, Bonds, CEO of 42 Entertainment, presented the opening keynote to the Sundance inaugural New Frontier Story Lab. 42 Entertainment creates genre defining participatory and cross-platform entertainment often described as “alternative reality games (ARGs).” These rich worlds extend beyond film screens, game consoles, television shows, book pages, and music albums, allowing audiences to “live” the story in unforgettable ways that intersect when, where, and how they live.

More than any other form of interactive media, these ARGs create strong, passionate global communities and galvanize them into a powerful hive mind of collective intelligence. Susan has produced over two dozen successful transmedia projects over the past decade, working with properties like Halo, The Dark Knight, TRON: Legacy, and Resistance 2, including a case study which she presented on Year Zero, an alternate reality collaboration with Trent Reznor.

“My business partner, Alex Lieu, and I received a message through our website that caught our attention because it was from Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. He found the ‘info-at’ email on our site and was reaching out about an idea he had for a concept album. That’s how it started,” she explained.

Reznor, a longtime gaming enthusiast and innovative artist, was looking for a partner to help him create something special for his next album. He was thinking about the social-political climate of the time (2007) and wanted to stimulate a mass conversation around issues of freedoms and privacy that he was concerned about in the zeitgeist.

“Technology and connectivity has allowed for more personal experiences which can also be collective. Story and world building provides a way for us to participate and share experiences together. We’re not alone,” Bonds pointed out.

Year Zero was a futuristic fiction where Reznor envisioned a society plagued by losses of freedom and where art and the expressions of art became a way to fight back against tyranny. Through meetings and discussions, they devised a strategy for an Alternate Reality Game that would bring to life the themes of the concept album, which was named Year Zero, and give the audience a role in uncovering both the experience and the music.

Using unique engagement and game mechanics, puzzles, physical objects, online content, street art, and finally live events, they created a huge interwoven set of media that would eventually lead to the release of the album and launch it into the world.

What they conceived together, what happened next, and how a global community was built around this experience is now the stuff of #transmedia legend.

Starting while the band was one tour, the project teased into existence with a hidden message embedded in a Nine Inch Nails T-Shirt that when decoded, read simply “I Am Trying To Believe.” And the audience proved instantly that it was. Within 15 hours the message was “received” and the audience was down the rabbithole.

Using the built-in fan base for Nine Inch Nails and working from the assumption of their hive-mind collective intelligence to decode the experience, Bonds and her team slowly and precisely set the narrative afoot with an ever-growing and ever-more mysterious rollout. The distributed narrative world of Year Zero had been launched and would be represented by dozens of strange websites that users were self-discovering and contributing to, quickly.

“We’ve never seeded or involved ourselves on community boards during an ARG. We’ve had backup plans in case something goes wrong, but we’ve never had to use them,” she pointed out. “We respect the audience, their intelligence, their ability to organize and decipher — and that has made the difference for us. Sometimes content creators and studios don’t respect them enough.”

Knowing that Reznor’s music was the bond that held the community of Nine Inch Nails fans together (and using a statistic that said that 90% of people who “found” thumb drives would open them), the team planted five unmarked USB drives at a concert in Portugal, counting on at least one being found. One was, in the men’s restroom. When the user opened it, they found it contained a new (never been heard) Nine Inch Nails song along with white noise that seemed to contain hidden messages. This became, by design, a key tipping point in the awareness of the ARG.

Within minutes of discovering the music, the fan had shared this crucial clue with the growing community intrigued with the mysterious messages being collected all over the Internet. Fans used spectrograph analysis of the white noise on the drives to discover further clues in the form of audio visualizations that matched previously established icons of the game as well as new clues like phone numbers.

“We run every project like some of you out there do, there has to be a strong script, a strong plan. We have a director and a producer on every project and everything runs through them, how else would it work? It has to be a consistent world, it has to be big – that’s what people connect to. It also has to have a flexible structure that feels alive. People want to be a part of something,” Bonds answered to a question about scripting the story out.

The true success of Year Zero was being able to transfer the “what if” scenario playing out in the future to present day, with the audience organizing into Art is Resistance groups, discussing serious issues, and even creating pieces of original art, a graphic novel and other unique ways to spread the Year Zero movement.

Bonds points out that you cannot tip the scales with only a core group of built-in fans or supporters for the project or its source material – you must design to broaden the audience and levels of engagement at all times organically.

“There is a science to this – direct participation, amplification, audience build. There are ways to predict and up-step the experiences to deepen audience engagement, but the creators must keep the right tempo for releasing both new content and in unusual ways on multiple levels to make it work. Tempo and rhythm are important. The trends show 8-12 weeks of active engagement is prime for running an interactive narrative/episode, although we have ARGs running right now in years two and three and who knows how long the echoes of Year Zero can or will go.” Bonds said. The length of the Year Zero campaign in active live production was 12 weeks.

During Year Zero, hundreds of elements were developed including music videos that were more like short films, advanced viral distribution of new tracks of original Nine Inch Nails music, posters and phone messages, heat sensitive CDs, survival kits, tattoos, street art, and eventually a surprise private concert for 100 die-hard players.

Bonds is the least surprised at the intersection of creative mediums with technology. She pointed out that young directors and producers like Zach Snyder are the first generation that grew up fully immersed in modern game culture and they are bringing those DNA experiences into their approaches to creative forms.

Asked about the return or ROI on this type of work and Bonds says that there is more measurement available for this type of internet centric work and direct correlation than for other more traditional mediums. Time spent in active engagement is a differentiating factor – earned media is another. The active participation is amplified through social networks, online press and buzz, as well as multiple content platforms/usage that each have their own unique reach.

When she started 10 years ago in the field, she says “We didn’t have a name for it then either,” telegraphing the reluctance of everyone in the screening room to even formalize the fun with a rigid taxonomy. It’s too exciting to still be an explorer in new lands.

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