For several months, the team behind the hit television show had been discussing a new set of Internet sites, different from the studio's usual fare, to supplement the program's second season. By the time the finale was about to air, they had created elements of an online "adventure" that they thought would bring fans more deeply into the show's world.
They hadn't expected the fans to get there first. The night before it was slated to launch, someone found the secret Web address on ABC's own server and posted it online. It quickly spread online, and fan forums were soon buzzing about the fake airline Web site stuffed with secrets about the show.
"Luckily, we were ready," said Mike Benson, the ABC senior vice president who oversees the show's Net tie-ins. The inadvertent release may even have helped, he said. "The whole idea was not necessarily to promote 'Lost,' but to get people involved in a Web site that would create as much mystery as the show provided."
From its beginnings, "Lost" has had an unusually active online community, but this season's new set of online teases, puzzles and "Easter eggs"--hidden messages or commands that developers tuck away as an inside joke--has helped give the show's busy forums, blogs and chat boards the frenzied air of a treasure hunters' club.
Those Web components--similar to the "" appearing with increasing frequency online--have helped keep the buzz around the popular show at a fever pitch, even between episodes and through the long dry spell of summer.
"This is all feeding the greater mythology of the series, in a really intriguing way," said Mike Hanttula, a Los Angeles-area graphic designer who maintains his own CliffsNotes-like guide to the show. "There have been plenty of shows that have spawned an online following, but never to this degree."
For non-"Lost" initiates, the basic premise of the show is as follows: Airplane crashes on remote tropical island, leaving a fairly large group of easy-on-the-eye survivors. Mysterious, possibly supernatural events follow. Relationships, romantic and otherwise, develop. Think "Gilligan's Island" crossed with the most paranoid "X-Files" episodes, and you're not far off.
Around that storyline, the studio has created an expanding set of Web sites that provide clues--or often raise even more questions--about the mysteries in the show itself.
The most prominent site is Oceanic-Air.com (it's a tradition in airplane crash films and TV shows to use the fictional Oceanic Air name). On the surface, the site seems to belong to an airline gone defunct after a horrible crash.
Digging a little deeper finds the "Lost" flight's seating assignments, with a trove of little videos, stills, maps and other tidbits linked to individual's seats, providing hints of new background for the characters.
A mysterious foundation with a role in the show has its own site, in which certain areas are for now tantalizingly blocked from view.
Benson said he and his team started conceiving this parallel online world last March, as they started thinking about the show's second season. He ran the idea past executive producer J.J. Abrams, whose previous show "Alias" has had a long and complex series of Web tie-ins. Abrams gave it the thumbs up, and the rest of the creative team pitched in to help design and develop the online components.
The creative team and actors also feed the audience's hunger for interaction more directly, with a message-board site called "The Fuselage," where the show's principals often answer fans' questions.
Deepening the sense of mystery, fans have weighed in with their own sites, some of which are well-disguised as official productions. One site purports to be a Lotto program in which one character won money, while another appears to be the home page for a character's rock band.Blending reality and fantasy
As alternative realities go, the "Lost" sites are relatively shallow, serving as a gateway to the much richer storytelling of the TV show itself.
But their seductive mix of mystery and revelation taps into a vein of interactive storytelling--essentially a new cross-media art form--that is quickly picking up speed and sophistication online.
The genre of alternate reality games is a young one, dating in its current form to 2001, when Steven Spielberg's "Artificial Intelligence: A.I." production team joined with Microsoft to create a sprawling online promotion