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I Love Bees (also known as ilovebees or ILB for short) was an alternate reality game (ARG) that served as both a real-world experience and viral marketing campaign for the release of developer Bungie’s 2004 video game Halo 2. The game was created and developed by 42 Entertainment. Many of the same personnel had previously created an ARG for the film A.I. titled The Beast. I Love Bees was commissioned by Microsoft, Halo 2’s publisher.
I Love Bees was first advertised by a subliminal message in a Halo 2 trailer; players who investigated the titular website discovered that the pages appeared to be hacked by a mysterious intelligence. As players solved puzzles, audio logs were posted to the ilovebees.com site which gradually revealed more of the fictional back-story, involving a marooned artificial intelligence stranded on Earth and its attempts to put itself back together.
I Love Bees was a marketing success; 250,000 people viewed the ilovebees website when it was launched in August 2004, and more than 500,000 returned to the site every time the pages were updated. More than three million visitors viewed the site over the course of three months, and thousands of people around the world participated in the game. I Love Bees won numerous awards for its innovation and helped spawn numerous other alternate reality games for video games.
Alternate reality games or ARGs are designed to involve fans of video games or other media in a form of viral marketing which CNET described as encompassing “real-life treasure hunting, interactive storytelling, video games and online [communities]”. I Love Bees began when jars of honey were received in the mail by people who had previously participated in alternate reality games. The jars contained letters leading to the I Love Bees website and a countdown. At around the same time, theatrical trailers for Halo 2 concluded with the Xbox logo and a URL, Xbox.com, that quickly flashed a link to ilovebees.com, ostensibly a hacked site related to beekeeping.
Both events, not connected publicly for several weeks, caused the curious to visit the website ilovebees.com. The site, which appeared to be dedicated to honey sales and beekeeping, was covered in confusing random characters and sentence fragments. Dana, the ostensible webmaster of the ilovebees site, created a weblog stating that something had gone wrong with her website, and the site itself had been hacked. Suspecting that this was a mystery that could be unraveled, Halo and ARG fans spread the link and began to work on figuring out what was going on.
The gameplay of I Love Bees tasked players around the world to work together to solve problems, with little or no direction or guidance. For example, the game presented players with 210 pairs of global positioning system coordinates and time codes, with no indications to what the locations referred to. Players eventually figured out the coordinates referred to pay phones and the times to when the phones would ring; one player in Florida stayed by a phone while Hurricane Frances was minutes away in order to recite answers to prerecorded questions. Other phone calls were made by live persons known as “operators”; these calls allowed players to interact with the characters of the games in spontaneous and occasionally humorous ways. Other players treated the corrupted data on ilovebees.com as encrypted files to decipher, or used image files found on the web server to solve puzzles. After players completed certain tasks, they were rewarded with new installments to an audio drama which revealed the reasons for the ilovebees.com malfunction.
Over time, the game’s mechanisms for contacting players grew more complex. Players were sent messages via email, called on their cell phones, and travelled to arranged meetings between players and characters. The game culminated by inviting players of the game to visit one of four cinemas where they could get a chance to play Halo 2 before its release and collect a commemorative DVD.
The game’s plot begins with a military spaceship crashing to Earth in an unknown location, leaving the craft’s controlling artificial intelligence or AI damaged. This AI, known as the “Operator” or “Melissa”, is not alone; other AI programs share its system. In an effort to survive and contact any surviving allies, Melissa transfers herself to a San Francisco-area web server, which happens to host a bee enthusiast website known as I Love Bees. To the distress of Dana Awbrey, the website’s maintainer, Melissa’s attempts to send signals began to appear largely as codes, hidden in images or other text, interfering with the operation of the I Love Bees site and corrupting much of the content.
Dana, attempting to regain control over the corrupted website, accidentally erases data which comprises part of Melissa’s memory. Furious, Melissa lashes out at the webmaster, obtaining pictures of her using the webcam on her computer and promising to take revenge. Alarmed, Dana announces that she is removing herself from the situation and is taking a previously planned trip to China earlier than expected.
All AI units contain a program called SPDR, short for System Peril Distributed Reflex. As SPDR attempts to fix Melissa, random dumps from Melissa’s memory began to spill into the website, largely detailing Melissa’s history and revealing the presence of a malicious Trojan-horse virus known as the “Pious Flea.” The Spider tries to erase the Flea but is outwitted, as Melissa erases the Spider instead of the Flea. The Flea continues to overwrite Melissa’s programming with its own mysterious goals.
With the assistance of other characters revealed by audio chapters, the fictional protagonists break into a secure military installation and manage to deactivate a Forerunner device which is implied to begin the firing sequence of the Halo installations. However, the price paid for the deactivation is a powerful energy transmission which alerts the Covenant of the location of Earth. Whole again, Melissa sees how she has been manipulated by the Pious Flea, and returns to her time. I Love Bees ends with the Covenant invading Earth, corresponding to a major plot point in Halo 2.
Due to Bungie’s commitment to the development of Halo 2 during I Love Bees’ run, they were unable to assist 42 Entertainment with story creation, and so the ARG’s story is only tangentially related to the main Halo storyline. The events of I Love Bees were, therefore, originally not considered to be Halo canon. In a 2006 interview, however, Bungie’s content manager Frank O’Connor expressly confirmed that I Love Bees is part of “things that we embrace as canon.” References to elements of I Love Bees have since appeared in the 2006 Halo Graphic Novel and the 2009 Halo Encyclopedia, both of which are official canon.
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