Untangling Year Zero's tangled web

By Mark Millan for Diamondback Online on April 16, 2007

If you happen to see posters or graffiti around campus of a black-and-white flag with a lone star, there may be a member of the Open Source Resistance nearby.

Members of the OSR - including some students on this campus - are devoted players in an "alternate reality game," a new marketing technique that drives interest for a product by creating a fictional story for participants to experience first hand. The game, which is being executed by the marketing firm 42 Entertainment, coincides with the release of Year Zero, the latest album from Nine Inch Nails.

Through a series of web sites, players discover and piece together clues telling the story of the game - and of Trent Reznor and co.'s first album in almost two years.

"Essentially, I wrote the soundtrack to a movie that doesn't exist," said Reznor in an interview with Kerrang magazine.

From what fans have uncovered, the album - "not a particularly friendly" one, Reznor said in a December blog post -is set in a dystopian society 15 years in the future, a time when the federal government has abolished political elections, outlawed free speech, integrated church and state and is drugging the drinking water to sedate citizens. The album's title comes from an international organization that has established a new calendar starting in 2022 with the year zero B.A. (Born Again), fans say.

Game participants have various roles. Some wade through more than 20 web sites, finding bits of information and discussing them with fans through Internet message boards. Others analyze the information and compile it into a comprehensive database.

Andrew Beard, a software engineer and 2005 alumnus, maintains NinWiki.com, an online encyclopedia of everything Nine Inch Nails. Beard, 24, collects information scattered across discussion boards and arranges it comprehensively to help understand the story.

"There were a couple [clues] that I helped with. ... It was mostly just finding background information," Beard said, who has been a fan of the band since the mid-'90s. "I haven't been finding out terribly much stuff, but I've been trying to compile it."

The game doesn't stop at the computer. One website called "Art Is Resistance" encourages members to "create artwork" relevant to the album and hang posters around cities to create hype for Year Zero.

The album's marketing team is trying to keep the experience as immersive as possible, but the 42 Entertainment company web site never once mentions the Year Zero project. And in an e-mail sent Sunday, a company representative declined to comment, saying, "We're unable to talk about or confirm anything surrounding NIN at this point."

Even the game's discovery was a riddle.

"A couple people had realized that there were some characters on the back of the [band's European tour] T-shirt that had been bolded out and when you put them together, it led you to 'IAmTryingtoBelieve.com,'" Beard said. "And somebody had connected the dots somehow that it was actually an alternate reality game based on the new album."

The project already appears to be a success, with the band's first single from the new album, "Survivalism," hitting No. 1 last week on Billboard's list of top modern rock charts.

And while all of the songs from the album have been leaked digitally through some form of marketing, fans like Beard, who has a pirated copy of the album on his computer, are still going to shell out the money for the album.

"I was trying not to [download the album], I really was - willpower, you know," Beard said. "But I'm planning on heading Tuesday on my lunch break to buy it."

Transcribed by Lt. Randazzo

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