This article is part of a new initiative on IGN where we spend a whole month exploring topics we find interesting in the world of video games. July is Launches month, where we take an in-depth look at the soaring highs and frustrating lows that come with debuting a new console, movie, or video game.
You certainly didn’t need to know anything about the “Why So Serious?” marketing campaign — or even know what an ARG was — to enjoy The Dark Knight when it hit theaters on July 18, 2008. But for 11 million people in 75 countries across the world, certain scenes in Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster played a little differently. When the Joker capped off his bravura bank robbery by fleeing in a school bus, those who played the ARG could say, “I helped him steal that!” When the Joker kidnapped Batman-inspired vigilante Brian Douglas, players could say, “Hey, I know him!” And when Harvey Dent vowed to stamp out organized crime and police corruption in Gotham City, players could say, “That’s why I voted for him.”
This is the unique joy of an ARG (short for “Alternate Reality Game”): The ability to break through the traditional barrier that separates a franchise from its fandom and feel, in a very real way, that you’ve entered the story. In an age where Hollywood measures success by not just how big an audience is, but by how passionate an audience is, “Why So Serious?” is a key example of what can happen when there’s a concerted effort made to cultivate a uniquely engaged fanbase.
Even now, that kind of experience is rarely conceived or executed. For more than a year before The Dark Knight’s release, a team of people at the Burbank-based agency 42 Entertainment were working behind the scenes, engineering a series of elaborate, Dark Knight-themed experiences, both online and offline, for an ever-growing audience of Batman devotees. Beginning online with the first image of Heath Ledger as the Joker — but quickly transitioning into a series of immersive real-world experiences — “Why So Serious?” grew to encompass everything from Harvey Dent campaign rallies to scavenger hunts that led players to Joker-themed treasures in bakeries and bowling alleys, with a climax that saw the Bat Signal projected across several urban skylines.
Thirteen years after its original launch, “Why So Serious” is an experience that would be impossible to replicate; ARGs, by definition, are ephemeral, and need to be experienced in real time. (Though there are some incredibly comprehensive Wikis recapping the whole thing if you have a whole day to kill). We spoke to three of the people responsible for designing and executing the “Why So Serious?” campaign. Here’s the inside story of how — for a brief, magical time — Batman fans were invited to play along as Gotham City seeped into the real world…
Batman… Year Zero
Alex Lieu (Chief Creative Officer and Director/Experience Designer for “Why So Serious?”): It really started with “Year Zero”, and the “Year Zero” project started with an email from [Nine Inch Nails frontman] Trent Reznor. It was like, “My name is Trent, and I’ve got a band, and I’m working on this new album, and I was wondering if you guys might want to collaborate.” It was kind of crazy.
“Year Zero” started getting written up in all kinds of different media. One of the big post-mortem articles that came out was in Wired. And the Nolans — both Chris and Jonah — came across that, somehow. And they reached out and said, “Hey… Do you think you guys could do something like this for Batman?”
Susan Bonds (CEO and Producer of “Why So Serious?”): We came in secretly, in a very secure room, and read the Dark Knight script. Which is, of course, an amazing script. All of us had seen Batman Begins, so we knew that the Nolans’ take on the world of Batman was really realistic and grounded. But that script was just brilliant in terms of introducing new characters. The Joker, obviously. And Harvey Dent. And really dealing with some themes that were super relevant. Really interesting, very deep ideas.
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With a little more than a year until The Dark Knight’s release, the team sat down to figure out how they could bring Gotham City into the real world.
Alex Lieu: We weren’t sure what it was going to be. These things can take a lot of time to design, and there was not a lot of time. We’re thinking about structure, and we’re thinking about what it’s going to take. There’s a lot of flexibility, and fun stuff that you can do — but there’s a lot of work to do.
Michael Borys (VP of Interaction and Game Design): [We focused on] giving the players ownership. Making them responsible by giving them meaningful things to do within the city of Gotham.
Alex Lieu: Sometimes people miss the point. We’re not Jigsaw, trying to outsmart everybody. What we’re trying to do is say, “You’re part of this world. Play with us. What you do matters. And your story — your participation in what we do — is actually part of the story.”
Introduce a Little Anarchy
The team’s first major task was coming up with a clever way to debut the first picture of Heath Ledger as the Joker.
Alex Lieu: The Nolans had an immediate issue: Heath Ledger had been cast to play the Joker. And it’s hard to remember this now — but he’s following up Jack Nicholson, and he had just come off Brokeback Mountain. And people are like, “How can the gay cowboy from Brokeback Mountain be the most iconic, most evil villain?” There was all this noise that was just, like, uninformed fandom. You’ve got this director who’s amazing, who has a vision. But none of us knew yet what Heath Ledger was bringing to the table.
So what they said was, “We’re about to film principal photography, and we’re really afraid that people are going to, like, jump on set and snap a picture [of the Joker] on their phone. An overzealous fan is going to get a picture, somehow. And it’s just going to feed this conversation in the wrong way, and not the way we want to present it.” So they gave us the iconic image that you’ve seen. It’s just Heath Ledger with Joker makeup on his face. And they’re like, “Look, we want to get this image out in some cool way.”
So on the day they announced that Aaron Eckhart was going to play Harvey Dent, they put up a little teaser site, and we made one of those cheesy campaign posters for Harvey Dent for district attorney. “I Believe in Harvey Dent.” And we had gone to the biggest comic book shops across the nation and spread out Joker cards all over the front doors and the floors. We were going inside, secretly shoving Joker cards into new Batman comics that were being released, and old graphic novels. All over the place. And the cards said “I Believe in Harvey Dent Too.”
Michael Borys: It was completely us [sneaking the Joker cards into stores]. We would just fly to wherever we needed to be.
Alex Lieu: And that was it. Literally, people just found these cards. They started taking pictures and posting them on boards. Digg was a really big thing at that time. There was no URL, nothing like that — but someone went to IBelieveInHarveyDentToo.com, and there was a picture of the same Harvey Dent poster that had been tagged by the Joker. And the website said, “Hey… if you want to make your vote really count, give me your e-mail.”
Fans quickly realized that every email submitted to the website unlocked one pixel of an image that turned out, in the end, to be the first-look picture of the Joker.
Alex Lieu: We never underestimate what happens when millions of people get together and try to solve something. It took 97,000 e-mails [to unlock the Heath Ledger Joker photo]. The first, like, 20,000 or 30,000 were immediate — and then it slowed down, and then people were trying to run scripts and stuff, which we blocked. So they had to Digg it, and go to all comic-book forums and movie forums to get enough people to crowdsource. During the 20 hours [it took to unlock the image], people were Photoshopping what they thought it was going to look like. And it was so incredibly accurate.
Alex Lieu: We actually took the image off of the site and made it a black page with an error message on it. But there was black HTML text over a black background, and if you highlighted it with your cursor, it just had a bunch of HAHAHAs in different fonts. In between were some random letters, and if you picked them out, it said, “See you in December.” At that time, we still didn’t even know what the next thing was going to be.
Next Stop: Comic-Con
After the success of the Joker reveal, the team plotted the next phase of the ARG: A surprise, on-the-ground event at San Diego Comic-Con.
Alex Lieu: Comic-Con is coming up, and Susan and I are in a meeting [with the Nolans]. And they go, “Look. We don’t want to show any footage of the movie. We don’t want to have any of the actors come. We don’t really want to talk about the movie. In fact, we don’t want to go at all. Can you make us the biggest thing at Comic-Con?”
It all started with dollar bills.
In an effort to generate some organic buzz, the team got a massive stack of one-dollar bills and “defaced” the George Washington portrait to look like the Joker, intending to distribute them at Comic-Con.
Michael Borys: There were 11,000 [dollar bills]. That’s a crazy amount. And we sat at a table and we hand-cut all of this stuff. It was so blazing hot in our office. And we’d leave the doors open, and people would walk by, and it just looked like Scarface.
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Alex Lieu: The air conditioner was broken, so everybody is walking by, and there are just stacks; 11,000 one-dollar bills is a lot more money than you think. It looked like that scene in The Dark Knight where the Joker burns all the cash.
With the Joker dollars ready to go, the team just needed to figure out how to get them into the hands of unsuspecting Batman fans attending Comic-Con.
Alex Lieu: There was the scene with Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s Batman, where he’s throwing out money and everybody’s rushing to get it. So the original idea was: We’ll go to the third floor concourse, with 10 grand in Joker dollars, and we’ll just start throwing out money. I was like, “This is gonna be awesome.” And then Susan decided to let Comic-Con know that was the plan, and they were like, “…Are you kidding?”
Susan Bonds: For Comic-Con, obviously safety was a concern when you’re, you know, throwing money off three levels. As fun as it might be, somebody might get hurt. So they said, “We actually have a whole banking system here, with change we provide to the vendors.”
So we gave them 10,000 one-dollar bills, and they worked it into all the different vendors’ change. So during the day, when you’re buying a t-shirt or buying a soda, you get change — and you may not realize it til you look at it, but you’re getting a Joker dollar. People had no idea. Where did this money come from? Where did I get it?
Michael Borys: For the remaining $1,000, we’d make sure that the right people got the bills in a very sneaky way. If we saw someone in a great Batman outfit, we would sit by them and just sort of… hang out, make sure they weren’t looking, and then maybe slip it half under their butts.
And the great thing is that the dollar doesn’t have a website or anything on it. At the bottom, it just says, “Why So Serious?” And that was all that was necessary. They would go online and type in “Why So Serious?” and there was that iconic image of Uncle Sam asking them to join the Joker’s army, with a GPS location and a time.
Alex Lieu: At 9 a.m., we dragged a bunch Batman fans to a little park across the street. We assumed — and we were pretty close — that, you know, a couple hundred people would show up. But we thought we would have maybe a couple thousand people online. And it ended up being 650,000 people.
Michael Borys: So [the people in the park] are told to look up as soon as they get there — and of course, five jets fly by, writing a phone number [in the sky]. And when they call it, they hear this recording of a hostage situation. They’re told to meet us, and in SWAT vans pretty much across the street, we’re waiting for them with makeup cases for everybody. It didn’t matter how old people were, or what they were wearing — they would put on this makeup and turn into the Joker. Within minutes, we had hundreds and hundreds of these people. Babies in Joker makeup. Now it’s a scavenger hunt, and it’s the biggest thing ever at Comic-Con, and Nolan isn’t even there.
The newly-formed “Joker Army” was given a series of mischievous tasks to prove their allegiance to the villain, including popping balloons and “stealing” cookies from Gotham City Girl Scouts. (Don’t worry, they were planted.) But the team saved the biggest twist for the end, when one person was selected to be “kidnapped” and push the story into its next phase.
Alex Lieu: The whole time this is going down, all of us are on walkie-talkies and phones and stuff, looking for the most die-hard Batman fan. We identify him, and he has no idea. He’s there with his friends. And at the end of the scavenger hunt, we pull up this big black SUV, and these two “mob guys” come out and pick this guy out of the crowd. He gets in and the SUV goes tearing down the street. We were all kind of like, Whoa. That’s some real-world acting right there.
And inside the car, we stayed in fiction the whole time. The idea is that police have spotted the Joker, and he’s started to get some heat from both the police and the mob. So he was crowdsourcing people to pick a new “Joker” they could dispose of.
So the guy gets into the SUV and we’re like, “Look, our boss wants you dead. We can do it the easy way or the hard way.” And we convinced this guy to lay in a ditch, and we took all these photos — like crime-scene photos, as if he had been killed by the mob. And we make a website in real time, with a police report that says the mob caught up with the Joker before the police could, and now he’s deceased.
What we were trying to do is set up the core narrative motivation of the Joker, which is: He’s going to use you, and make fun of you, and discard you. Always. You’re just a means to an end.
When ARGs Get Too Dark
With fans eager to find out what was coming next after Comic-Con, the team looked to the comics that had inspired The Dark Knight for inspiration.
Alex Lieu: The Killing Joke is standard required reading for the Joker. But the other piece that the film was really inspired by — especially the Harvey Dent stuff — was The Long Halloween. Originally, the plan was that the ARG was going to mimic The Long Halloween [in which a mysterious villain is on a crime spree, with each crime taking place on a different holiday].
What happened was that some of our holiday ideas were a little dark. Warner Bros. didn’t like it when we pitched Joker Santas in malls, because they thought we would ruin Christmas for everyone. They also weren’t keen on — and I’ll take credit for this horrible idea — putting caskets filled with chattering teeth out into the real world on Mother’s Day. Which was, you know, making fun of Bruce Wayne for his parents being dead. There were things like that that didn’t work out. For good reason. You know, there was a sanity check there.
So [our idea] ended up evolving into playing with the three different characters. It’s Joker first, because he’s so iconic, then transitioning to Harvey Dent, and then ending with, “Let’s be on the side of Batman.”
With plenty of internet buzz around the wild, unexpected event at San Diego Comic-Con, the team sought a way to expand the “Joker Army” to include anyone with an internet connection. The solution was a second scavenger hunt, taking place across all of North America, that required players to go out in the world with their cameras.
Susan Bonds: I think there were 49 different locations in North America where someone had to go and get a picture of a letter to fill in this “ransom note.”
Michael Borys: The Joker would really cryptically describe this area of a town, and the angle where the player would have to go and take a picture. And they’d realize, Oh, that is isolating the letter ‘G.’ And they’d send it back to us and fill in the ransom note. It was ridiculous [to set up], because it was a matter of two days. And we’d be in like, four or five cities, and driving as fast as possible, and scouting, and going “Yes! That is the perfect ‘Q’!”
Alex Lieu: The next logical step was for us to have people show up in Joker makeup all over the world. The ransom note was really a transition that unlocked a website where people could dress up in Joker makeup, take some pictures, and submit their photos. For some people, it was the Taj Mahal, or the Brandenburg Gate, or the Eiffel Tower. And some people were like, we have a farm in Missouri, and we’ve got the barn, and we’re gonna paint the golden retriever as the Joker. We ended up printing and sending out The Gotham Times [an in-universe newspaper] to everybody who sent something.
As the ARG picked up steam, the team was tasked with finding ways to integrate products from the corporations that had branding deals on The Dark Knight.
Alex Lieu: So: Warner Bros. was in negotiations with Nokia. By this time, so much buzz was already happening that all of the major sponsors of The Dark Knight were having these meetings. We had to figure out how to integrate phones, and I think we had less than two weeks to figure out how we were going to execute it.
We get this idea, and we go into Susan’s office and say, “We need to call some bakeries.” And she’s like, “What are you talking about?” “We’re gonna hide phones in cakes.” And she’s like, “That’s never gonna happen.”
Susan Bonds: I’m like, “Oh, yeah, that’s gonna get past Homeland Security. ‘Here’s some wrapped electronics. Can you put them in a baked good for us?'”
Alex Lieu: Susan’s like, “Look, I’ll call three bakeries just to humor you guys.” And every single one was like, “Oh, yeah, we can do that, no problem. We hide stuff in cakes all the time.”
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The team planted 22 “Joker cakes,” containing cell phones, at 22 different bakeries around the country, and set an online bread-crumb trail for players to follow.
Michael Borys: From East Coast to West Coast, a set of unlocks are happening — but players don’t know what’s going to happen. They just know that, in this general location, at this time, something is happening. And as soon as the wave hits a particular part of the United States: bam. There’s a GPS location and a little instruction: Go to this location and say that your name is Robin Banks. You go to the place and you realize it’s a bakery, and go in and say “I’m Robin Banks,” and they hand you a cake with the most awful clown decorations, along with a phone number. And they’d take the cake outside and call the number, and the darn cake would start ringing. You’d dig in, and pull out a Gotham City evidence bag with a phone from the Joker. We asked them to keep this phone charged for the entirety of the campaign, because the Joker might be calling at any minute.
Alex Lieu: What’s interesting, as word gets out, is that people try to game the system. The coordinates come up, and someone in New York was like, “Oh, there’s no way I’m going to get to this bakery before other people.” He goes on Google Maps and finds that there’s a coffee shop across the street. He calls the coffee shop, and talks to this 17-year-old girl or whatever, and says, “Hey, I need you to do this for me. I’ll give you 20 bucks. All you have to do is go across the street, say that you’re getting a package for Robin Banks, bring it back, and call me. That’s all you have to do, and I’ll come pick it up.” And she did.
There was this other guy who was working or something, so he sent his wife out to go get the cake — but it was literally the middle of a blizzard. And she was off the grid for, like, an hour. And people were like, “Where’s your wife, man? Are you lying? Did you really get the cake?” And this poor woman is on the highway, in a snowstorm, with this Joker cake.
The elaborate scavenger hunt eventually led players to an early screening of The Dark Knight’s opening robbery scene in IMAX, which also revealed that their actions in the real world were actually tied directly into the movie’s story.
Susan Bonds: The story behind the Joker cake escapade was that players were trying to find something for the Joker. What he was looking for was a Gotham City Unified School District Bus Driver badge. Someone was actually able to get to a locker, and unlock it, and get that badge. And then — when you saw the seven minutes of footage in IMAX — you noticed that that badge was for the school bus that the Joker used to escape the bank robbery scene. And you could go, “Hey, we helped the Joker steal that bus!”
Enter Gotham’s White Knight
The Joker-centric ARG was a hit with fans, but some at Warner Bros. were concerned that the campaign’s emphasis on the sadistic villain was too grim.
Alex Lieu: They were right to feel like, “Hey, this is dark and scary.” It’s sort of this twisted thing, right? This relationship that we have with the Joker as fans. I mean, he’s like a maniacal, cold-blooded sociopath. And yet we’re like, “Well, let’s make that fun!” I think it was unexpected to them, because they didn’t necessarily understand… not that they didn’t understand, but engaging fans on that level is new. Nobody knew what to expect.
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But [as the ARG continued], we also purposely started doing things that were lighter and more casual. When the unfortunate thing that happened — Heath’s death — we were already about to transition out of that period. We did have a couple of beats we were going to put out, but instead we paused for a little bit, and then came back hard with Harvey Dent and the election.
In a stark contrast from the Joker’s anarchic tasks, the next phase of the ARG encouraged players to support Harvey Dent, a District Attorney who vowed to snuff out corruption in Gotham City.
Susan Bonds: This was in early 2008. It was during the Democratic primary, where Obama and Clinton were campaigning very hard. The studio was worried that people didn’t even know who Harvey Dent was, and we’re introducing this new character to a lot of people who hadn’t necessarily read the comics. And we thought, “A way to be one step away from what’s really going on in the world is by having an election like you’re a citizen of Gotham City.” So we actually created a campaign with real contenders — not just Harvey Dent.
Alex Lieu: We actually did have the election, and we did not rig it. There was a possibility that Harvey Dent might not win, and [if that happened] we didn’t know what we were going to do. So we started making campaign signs, and stickers, and magnets — everything that you would see in a campaign.
Susan Bonds: We actually send out “Dentmobiles,” with people from our team, to meet up with players in 33 cities.
Alex Lieu: Susan was the one with the idea that — if we’re having people come out anyway — why don’t we just, like, write petitions for people to sign, or chants for them to say? And if you look at the videos… at most, there were two people from our team, and 100 or 200 people marching down the street. There’s footage of people in a blizzard in the snow, “campaigning,” and they stay there for hours.
This woman in New York had taken lunch, and she was getting back to her office. In front of her building was this massive Harvey Dent demonstration. She gets into her office, and she’s like, “Who is Harvey Dent?” And she goes to her computer and looks this up and goes, “It’s all fake. It’s, like, this Batman character.” And she wrote on the boards that she got sucked into this because of the fandom. And she was like, “If only we were this excited about the actual primaries that are happening, and campaigned this hard.”
He Gave Us a Signal
In the months that followed, Harvey Dent was elected by players roleplaying as citizens of Gotham, while another phase of the campaign involved a sting operation featuring fan-favorite Jim Gordon. But it wasn’t until the ARG was nearly finished that the team unleashed one of their most dramatic flourishes: an actual Bat-Signal, projected at night in two different cities.
Susan Bonds: It was always a wish of the filmmakers to see the Bat-Signal projected [in the real world]. So we did it in Chicago and New York. Players had to gather together, and the instructions for how to activate the signal were actually delivered by pizza.
Michael Borys: It was just the most fantastic thing. I’ve got shivers thinking about it. The joy of flipping that switch, and seeing that happen. It felt like the city stopped.
Alex Lieu: We needed to do it, because everyone wants to see the Bat-Signal in their city. So we had the Bat-Signal up for a while — and then it got “tagged” by the Joker. And when that happened, every single website, and every single piece of media that we had put up until that point, was taken over by the Joker. That moment, to me, is the bigger idea. This whole thing was just this giant joke by the Joker. I see it all as this long prequel to the movie.
The ARG ended with the release of The Dark Knight on July 18, 2020. The movie sold out midnight screenings across the globe, went on to gross more than $1 billion, and eventually netted a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Heath Ledger. But despite the breakout success of both the ARG and the movie itself, some fans were disappointed that the experience was over.
Susan Bonds: The next week, everyone was on the boards, saying, “What happens next?” And it was a big missed opportunity to not take that very engaged, tens of millions of fans, and transition them into something new in the Batman world.
“Why So Serious?” was definitely something, and an experience, that can’t be replicated. I think that that’s why people still talk about it today. It was this perfect storm: A great IP, with a new take by a really talented filmmaking team, and this invitation to participate in their world.
Alex Lieu: The Nolans, and their team, understood. Like, they fought for this to happen. They went to Warner Bros. and said, “Look, we want you to take X amount of the marketing money, and take it out of TV or whatever, and let’s play around.”
It was an interesting time in marketing. An interesting time for the web. You know, I wouldn’t even want to replicate that today. Look, this was 10 years ago. At that time, things were far more guerrilla than they are now. The world has changed, and we are very sensitive to privacy — and not wanting to send, you know, 6,000 people to a location that wasn’t expecting it. But at that time, we were charting new territory, and so we were able to do some unusual things.
When asked about future projects in the vein of “Why So Serious?”, the team hinted that something else — and maybe even a return to the world of Batman for a new campaign — could still be a possibility.
Alex Lieu: I do know a team — if they were going to do, like, the next chapter of this — who would be pretty amazing at it. Who knows?
Susan Bonds: That’s something that we are definitely thinking about. How do you keep that audience that’s engaged in your fiction? How do you maintain that momentum in different ways? And so… so you’ll definitely see something new from us on that.
Since the conclusion of the “Why So Serious?” campaign in 2008, fans have seen two new Jokers and one new Batman, with Robert Pattinson currently slated to make his debut as the Dark Knight next year. But whatever the future of the Batman franchise — both on and off-screen — players can look back at “Why So Serious?” as a unique opportunity to experience, even briefly, what it might be like to exist in the same universe as the villains and heroes of Gotham City. It remains one of the most memorable movie marketing campaigns in the history of Hollywood.