The night before the "Lost" season finale last May, the show's writers and executives had a surprise planned. But the fans found it first.
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 "alternate reality games" 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
Correction: The story incorrectly stated that MegaLottoJackpot.com was a site created by ABC. That site is not officially affiliated with the "Lost" television show.
called "The Beast," made up of hundreds of false Web sites, puzzles and its own complicated storyline.
The creative team behind that work left Microsoft to form their own company called 42 Entertainment, which also ran an ambitious tie-in with Microsoft's "Halo 2," and is currently running an online game promoting the release of Activision's upcoming "Gun" video game.
All three of these landmarks in the young genre have ostensibly been marketing vehicles, advertisements for a separate product. But all have had independent stories and characters that have in
some cases been more deeply realized than the games or movies they were promoting--and each time they have helped coalesce a passionate community of thousands of players.
The creative team's ongoing "Last Call Poker," for example, starts out telling the story of a circle of gamblers, gangsters and Hollywood dropouts, all of whom are loosely connected to a valuable gun, and then traces that gun back through history. The core of the game is a free online poker site, where characters from the game periodically appear to give clues that further the plot.
The story itself is told online through video and audio clips, noir-ish segments of text, conversations at the poker table and more. Characters call players' cell phones in the middle of the day with clues. Live events bring players to graveyards around the country, playing a version of poker with tombstones as cards, which in turn typically turns into a scavenger hunt halfway through.
"Our play is spilling into work, too. If work is going to invade every part of life, why not have games do the same?"
-- Kurt Squire, assistant professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison
The game's creators say they want to make players feel as though they've stumbled into their own version of a "Harry Potter" or "Narnia" novel, by pushing play as far as possible into people's real life.
"We want to keep people in a state of thinking they're just around the corner from finding something amazing," said Sean Stewart, the novelist who is a co-creator of 42 Entertainment's games. "The basic engine of (those fantasy books) is a different world which is mysterious and exciting, which overlaps what (the characters) knew, but transforms what they knew."
"You're a superhero, but you didn't know it yet," added Elan Lee, Stewart's partner, and the director of the games. "That's the feeling we try to capture."
This blend of fantasy into real-life activities--whether it's fictional characters calling on a cell phone or a weekly TV show with new discoveries online--is a natural development in an increasingly wired world, some media researchers say.
"You're seeing more and more with today's communications, with cell phones and e-mail and IMs, that work is spilling into our home life," said Kurt Squire, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies games. "Our play is spilling into work, too. If work is going to invade every part of life, why not have games do the same?"