Year Zero

Introduction

Year Zero is the sixth album by the American band Nine Inch Nails and featured an Alternate Reality Game. In fact, The Alternate Reality Game (ARG) was an introduction and promotion to the album and introduced the album’s storyline. The album was meant as a reflection of the politics of the United States and outed this through a dystopian view of the year 2022. The ARG featured mulitple media such as numerous websites, some phone numbers, physical USB-sticks and murals.

 

 The ARG started in february, 2007 when fans found that the Nine Inch Nails tour T-shirt highlighted certain letters that spelled the words “I am trying to believe”, which was soon after discovered to be a registered website. In the same IP range, several other websites were found (Another Version of the Truth, Be the Hammer, Consolidated Mail Systems, 105th Airborne Crusaders, and Church of Plano) all describing a dark, dystopian world eleven years in the future. During a concert shortly after these findings, a USB flash drive was found in the bathroom containing an MP3 of one of the new songs. Although this was first believed to be an accident, repeated USB drives found at later concerts indicated some intent. At the end of all the songs found in this fashion was a short fragment of static which, when analysed through a spectogram, revealed a hand.

Spectogram of the noise

On a USB drive found at a concert in Barcelona a MP3 file was found which, when analyzed through a spectrogram, revealed the phone number 1-216-333-1810, which in turn revealed http://www.uswiretap.com/case_number_required/.

Spectrogram analysis of “2432.mp3.”
Red flyers were handed out at a later concert in Paris with the words “Art is Resistance,” leading to artisresistance.com. A third USB drive was found at a concert in Manchester, it contained two files: the track “In This Twilight” and an image of the Hollywood Sign apparently demolished. The picture led fans to a website called hollywoodinmemoriam.org. 
Flyers were handed out at a Nine Inch Nails show in London, which had directions to a local bridge, which underneath housed a billboard with the words “Operation Swamp 0000,” pointing to the website www.operationswamp0000.net, which in turn directs users to operationchipsweep.net.

On april 13th an “Art is Resistance” meeting is scheduled in Los Angeles posted on opensourceresistance.net . Participants are asked to “Wear something that shows you’re one of us.” Art is Resistance kits are handed out to those attending, consisting of Art is Resistance buttons, posters, stencils, bandannas, and in around 25 cases, pre-paid cell phones on which participants would receive in-game phone calls and become a part of the game. On april 18th another resistance “meeting” schedules in Los Angeles. Participants are invited via cell phones given to them in the Art is resistance kits. The meeting consists of a speech by a “resistance member” and a free concert by Nine Inch Nails. The concert is cut short as the meeting is “raided” by a SWAT team. Unedited video of the entire meeting is posted on Open Source Resistance the same night, and an edited version two nights later.

 
An Art is Resistance kit handed out on April 13 in L.A.

The Year Zero album is released in Europe, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Japan respectively. The album is released in special packaging, which contains a sticker advertising 1-866-445-6580, a thermochrome CD face which, when heated, reveals a binary sequence which leads to exterminal.net, as well as various other clues leading to www.freerebelart.net, www.viabilityindex.com. With the release of the album, Nine Inch Nails sold over 187,000 copies in the first week and reached number two on the Billboard 200 chart. Critic responses were generally favorable towards the new album en the accompanying ARG.

Art is Resistance members received automated phone calls on the given cell phones after the release of the album on April 27th. The pre-recorded message contains a clue leading to hourofarrival.net . The message seems to mark an intermission of sorts in the alternate reality game, as the message states “we’ve got to go dark for a while, but that is ok – you don’t need us anymore.”

Analysis of the used media

The media used in the Year Zero ARG can be grouped in the categories:

  • Print
  • Gift boxes
  • Websites
  • Audio Content
  • Telephone

Generally seen, this entire ARG can be easily divided in the four AIDA steps:

  • Attention

 As the ARG started off during a tour of the old album (with the USB drives) the audio fragments and ‘leaked’ new songs can be seen as the instigator for the attention phase. A logical choice, because audio (music) is what the band is known for and would thus not confuse the audience, but they would know that ‘something’ was going on.

 

  • Interest

The spectograms of the MP3’s and the linked telephone number translate the participant into the interest phase, where the search through the many websites starts. The participant is rewarded with the thrill of accumulating parts of the story and the social appreciation of sharing your findings in an online community.

  • Desire

 The printed flyers handed out during the concerts would then make the connection between the fans and the ‘Art is Resistance’ website were the participants would be notified of the ‘Art is Resistance’ meetings. The physical ‘Art is Resistance’ meetings are very important in the desire step. Fans would receive ‘Art is Resistance’ kits and would be completely involved in the storyline of the album and, as a bonus, would WANT to individually promote the album further as an almost ideological matter.  

  • Action

The action step consists of both the ‘Art is Resistance’ members promoting the Year Zero ’cause’ out of their own initiative and the increasing tendency to eventually buy the Year Zero album or buy tickets to live shows.

Identity and visual design

The identity of the ARG is supposed to make it look like an ‘underground’ operation. All the websites have a ‘hacked’ and distorted appearance, as if blocked by the government or possibly sent back through time from the future. In effect, this gives the ARG an eery, serious and somehow realistic feel. The realistic feel of the ARG stems from the use of the various media. A USB drive left on a toilet for example, is plausible enough to be ‘genuine’ and not part of another reality, so are the phone calls and automated e-mail responses. The promotional video for the album examplifies these distorted effects well on both its visual and auditive content.

So, “distorted”, would be a good description of the visual appearance of the websites. Printed work was supposedly from the ‘Art is Resistance’ organisation and had its own identity, more graffitti-like and street-wise.

The telephone numbers were mostly automated records playing, such as this one, other telephone calls (those that the ‘Art is Resistance’ members received) were performed by live actors but they all had the same distorted effect that the websites had.

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