Paranoia for fun and profit

It must be a conspiracy. Everyone is talking about the computer game Majestic -- even the aliens.

Published August 10, 2001 7:15PM (EDT)

Alien technology salvaged from Roswell, N.M. Government experimentation on human subjects. Men in black, everywhere. Brain implants. A CIA conspiracy to take over the world. Sounds like your typical "X-Files" episode, but, of course, it's also simply another day on the World Wide Web.

The Net's deep database of conspiracy theories and paranoia is at the root of the summer's most-talked-about new game, Majestic. Produced by Electronic Arts, Majestic is best described as an interactive, immersive and invasive online mystery that combines fiction with (debatable) reality in a very Webby way. For $10 a month, you too can receive mysterious midnight phone calls, anonymous e-mails and tips about a boggling number of surreal goings-on for the next six months of your life.

The conceit of the game is that Anim-X, the Oregon game developer behind Majestic, has uncovered a government conspiracy; when Anim-X suddenly goes up in flames, you are asked to help the surviving staffers solve what's going on. The game becomes a wild goose chase across the Net as you receive phone calls, faxes, e-mails and instant messages from a variety of Anim-X staffers and mysterious informers, directing you to research any number of strange alien conspiracies and nefarious government activities.

A cross between the Michael Douglas movie "The Game" and the online mystery "A.I." (a tie-in to the Steven Spielberg movie that sent thousands of rabid fans chasing across the Net to find clues to a murder), Majestic is a cerebral experience that is part story, part investigation and part adrenaline. Although the game is slightly obvious at moments, there is a solid mystery to solve and voluminous amounts of fascinating material to parse. Did you know that the war in Kuwait was simply part of a CIA conspiracy to take over the world via the Falkland Islands? Play Majestic and you'll find out why.

Salon spoke to Neil Young, the 31-year-old, British-born executive in charge of production (and Majestic's creator), about the making of an interactive experience for adults, the American fascination with paranoia -- and how invasive mysteries like Majestic could herald a whole new genre of gaming.

Majestic is a pretty unique concept. How did it come into being?

I grew up playing games; I can't remember a time when there wasn't a video game machine in my home, or a computer in my school, or an arcade down the street. But what was frustrating was that I'd kind of grown out of developing my dexterity, and I was looking for interactive entertainment.

As you age, your ability to spend six hours a night playing a game changes. There are other demands on your life -- you get a career, maybe a partner and children. When I first started thinking about this, I had been married for a couple of years and my wife was two months away from expecting our first child. I was struggling to find 30 minutes to an hour a night to invest in any type of entertainment, and wanted to create something that didn't require you to spend hours with it each night in order to feel successful at it.

I was also looking at the Internet at that time and trying to seek out interactive entertainment and couldn't find any. All I could find were PC games that were using the communications infrastructure of the Internet to broadcast the locations of players or connect with a server that was handling the economy of a world. And at the other end of the spectrum were cartoons done in Flash, which might have been done better on television. It didn't feel like there was anything created specifically for the medium.

Define what you mean by "for the medium."

For most people the Internet means the Web, but it's so much more than that -- it touches lots of different things, which is where we began to explore the ideas of the game. It extends into devices like the telephone, which the Internet can connect to through voice-over IP. Once you can connect with a telephone, you can connect with a fax. And 30 percent of the traffic on the Net is instant-messaging traffic, so to have a built-for-the-medium experience that didn't touch messaging didn't make any sense. And there's the Web as well -- streaming video and audio. So that ended up defining a canvas for us that we then started to paint a picture on.

And that's where the third idea collided: the concept of blurring the lines between fact and fiction, specifically around conspiracies. I found myself on a Web site for the conspiracy theory radio show by Art Bell, and I was listening to clips from his archives. There was one clip called "Area 51 Caller" -- part of a recurring segment on the show in which government and military employees can call in and give away secrets.

This guy called in, and he either was a fabulous actor or totally believed what he was saying. In a very scared and nervous way, he said that he couldn't talk for long because the government was on to him, they had already caught him once and he just escaped, and there were a lot of things he had to tell people about experimentation that the government was doing and how it knew about the existence of aliens. He started reeling off these locations and, bang, got cut off. There were 10 seconds of silence until Art Bell came back on and said, "Wow, that's pretty weird. We lost the telephone connection, and at the exact time we lost the connection we lost our satellite uplink. We can't get in touch with this guy, and we're on backup satellite broadcasting now."

As a listener, I couldn't tell if that was real or fictional or coincidental. It just led me to think that the Internet is such a fabulous medium to blur those lines between fact and fiction and conspiracy, because you begin to make connections between things. It's a natural human reaction -- we connect these dots around our fears.

Especially on the Internet, which is so conspiracy-friendly. That was what was so interesting about the game; you couldn't tell whether the sites you were visiting were Majestic-created or normal Web sites.

A lot of them are actually made by regular people. One of the things that is neat about Majestic, from a Web-browsing experience, is that we editorialize content dynamically relative to the fiction. The sites that are being shown to you are relevant to where you are in the story. You don't know what's real and not real, and it enhances the fiction because it anchors it in a reality -- the way "Indiana Jones" anchors itself in the World War II Nazi occupation of Africa.

Maybe it's too hard to tell what's real or not: One of my game "allies" told me he called Sandia Laboratories [an actual government research center] because Majestic linked to it, and he thought it was a clue. Is that happening a lot?

[Laughing] Bad! Bad! The lady at Sandia is probably not very happy. That really hasn't happened very much at all. There are subconscious winks and nods, and probably in the case of Sandia, I know why someone might want to call them. We actually changed the link because it was pointing to a bad place.

How many Web pages did you create for the game?

Probably 60 for the first two episodes. It's difficult to measure because it constantly grows. And now we're integrating fan content into the experience. One of the ideas that I really like about the medium is fan fiction: It's akin to watching "The X-Files" and writing your own vignettes that connect with the fiction in some way.

We've opened up these second-level game characters for fans to start creating content around. An example would be when you get the news clipping on the character Howard Deakins, which talks about his recent heart surgery and mentions the name of his wife. If you search for the name of his wife, we don't have the resources to create all the content that would sit behind that.

Rather than leave the game without that depth, we've said to our fans, "You can create content, provided it fits inside this framework and doesn't break these rules." We've leaked surveillance documentation on second-level people that connect through real conspiracies and back into our fiction in different points. We have a fictional character called Solitaire, who has been communicating with fans of the game through the newsletters -- embedding hidden text in the newsletters that you can find if you highlight white-on-white text, which references search terms and phone numbers.

For example, in Episode 1, you'll get an e-mail from Solitaire saying, "You're involved in something that's so much more than a game. I want to tell you the history of this conspiracy," and that sets you a challenge that is dramatically more difficult than the main thread of the story. This allows you to dig deeper and invest untold hours in solving puzzles that fill in your mental picture of what was the start of the conspiracy.

That's given to the fan community as a mechanism to spur their creativity but also preserve the integrity of the fiction.

How many fans have been participating in this?

We have about 30 bio sites, and about 380 fan sites, for Majestic.

How much research, outside of the sites that Majestic itself created, are players required to do? Is the game designed to be research-intensive?

The game doesn't require that -- though there's a search engine built into the game that's built on top of the open directory project. What I find is that people begin to explore based on their interests. We've tried to get an interesting range of sites that sometimes are scientific, sometimes political or spiritual. Individuals can explore the back story of the game from different angles -- there's an alien conspiracy, a science conspiracy, a New Age spiritual angle and a political angle.

There's always a risk that you'll go down a pathway that's interesting, that you expect to be fictional. But you end up exploring real sites, going off down a series of red herrings that are a dead end. That might not be rewarding. But the game has the mechanisms to always bring you back to the game.

One of the more interesting fictional aspects was the creation of Anim-X, a fictional gaming company that supposedly created Majestic and is now at the center of the conspiracy. Even legitimate gaming news sites were reporting on Anim-X's activities, as if it were a real company. Was this a complicit agreement you made with the gaming news industry?

We told press [members] really early on, "If this gets out it will spoil it for players. We can't stop you from reporting this information, but we'd appreciate it if you didn't and played along with it." And they all did. And they haven't changed their links yet.

It almost worked too well. We won the E3 Critics Award for best original product. But Synthetic, my studio, wasn't credited -- it was Anim-X.

Majestic really taps into the American cult of paranoia and our distrust of government. Do you think the Net is making us more paranoid as a population, simply because we have more access to the conspiracies? I mean, you type the word "alien" into a search engine ...

And you get 144,000 search results. Right. One of the objectives we had was to get people to look at this stuff! There's something like 10,000 UFO sightings every week around the world. A UFO could be a plane reflected in the sun, a balloon, a lot of things. But it only takes one of those sightings to be right to change the way you look at the entire universe.

We wanted to get people in the path of this material, whether it's the UFO stuff or the Kennedy assassination or the way the CIA was experimenting on the population in the 1950s -- whatever it is, if you get people to open their eyes to that stuff, maybe they will think a little differently. And that would be a good thing.

The most shocking thing I read, while researching Majestic, was that at the University of Kentucky in the 1950s, they asked students to participate in LSD tests. They gave 17 students LSD every day for 45 days! It's crazy!

Or when the stealth bomber was first tested in the 1970s, and there was a rash of UFO sightings for big black triangles flying through the sky, and the local airport couldn't see anything on the radar. If they were testing the stealth bomber 12 or 15 years before it was made public, what are they flight-testing now? What's flying around the skies right now, waiting to be declassified?!

Do you think Majestic is launching a whole new genre of gaming? It seems to be one of the first cerebral games that fits into the short attention span of your typical professional adult. But how far can you really go with this?

I think suspense works really well on this canvas. And horror, like supernatural horror. I'm working on a new concept right now that, if I had to use a Hollywood pitch to describe it, would be "The Sixth Sense" meets "The Silence of the Lambs" meets Majestic.

I think that the world of interactive online entertainment is going to mature over the next five years pretty dramatically. We'll look back and say that the things we imagined as interactive entertainment -- games, predominantly -- are a relatively small segment of the online entertainment pie. Majestic is interesting because it bridges the gap between storytelling and game play, and does it on top of the platform that is the Internet. And it brings together, for my generation, the three things we have connected with over the last 30 years: stories, whether movies or television; gaming, interactivity and computing; and communications. It synthesizes those three things and creates a compelling platform upon which you can tell multiple stories.

The games business, from a creativity standpoint, made these massive leaps in the early years -- going from Pong to Pac-Man to Zelda and so on. We got to 80 percent of the game experiences very quickly, and over the last five years we've been eking out the last 20 percent.

With online entertainment we're at the very beginning. That's why this is a particularly exciting time: Game designers can be creative again, and create markets with our creativity, like what the guys who invented Silicon Valley were doing years ago.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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