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Since getting a translation of the binary code I found on the Nine Inch Nails (NIN) CD “Year Zero,” I’ve been investigating NIN’s alternate reality game (ARG) by following the numerous websites involved.  The binary code translated to exterminal.net, which tells the fictional story of a group of people (The Spiders) who call attention to a glut of cameras spread throughout an unnamed city.  The website shows a bunch of “exhibits” through which the story unfolds.  One of the exhibits is surveillance camera footage.  There are also notes, newspaper articles, and letters.  All of the exhibits leave the impression that everyone involved in The Spiders is captured, interrogated and killed by a government group that doesn’t like citizens to speak up.

One especially freaky exhibit is of an interview of a character named Jonathan Markakis.  (When you go to the site, select his name and a link will drop down for the interview.)  Jonathan is being interviewed by a woman I’m calling Sinister Cosmo Girl.  She is forcing Jonathan to drink and drink and drink water until he dies of water toxicity, all while she is reading a fashion magazine.  What bothers me about this interview is that Jonathan just takes it.  He keeps drinking the water without doing anything to fight back.  At one point he asks to use the bathroom and Sinister Cosmo Girl won’t let him, indicating he should pee where he is.  Let me tell you, if I had been him, I would have pissed myself, especially after it becomes apparent that she’s not going to let him go.  Here he is, part of a group that has fought excessive camera use in public, but he barely puts up a fight while under interrogation?  That seems odd to me.  Out of character.  He could have done any number of things to delay his death, buy himself some time to try to escape – dribble water down his chin, spill it, splash it or spit it on Sinister Cosmo Girl.  Pissing himself, while not necessarily getting him out of the situation, would have at least given him the satisfaction of having Sinister Cosmo Girl deal with his sticky, urine-soaked corpse.  A final act of defiance.

The whole story covers me with a pall of hopelessness.  The message communicated through these exhibits is that if you speak up, you die.  For as moody and dark as some of NIN’s music can be, I’m sure this wasn’t what the band wanted to leave us with and I have a couple of ways to prove this.  First, making music is not an activity of the hopeless, no matter what kind of pain that music expresses.  True hopelessness is inactive or self-destructive.  Doing something as creative as making music requires at least a shard of hope to carry out.  Second, another of the many websites associated with the NIN ARG states what NIN is actually trying to get us to do, which is to band together and not be steam-rolled by those who’d like full power over us in a military state.  The site is freerebelart.net.

With all of the work that went into creating the story behind the exterminal.net website, the Free Rebel Art site breaks the first rule of storytelling.  You are supposed to show, not tell when writing a story.  Free Rebel Art is all tell.  Those who’ve read the exhibits at exterminal.net are emotionally invested in the story.  NIN’s ARG message would have been much more effective if the storyline of exterminal.net had been expanded to show us a character escaping to continue working on the cause.  Or by having Jonathan demonstrate a stronger survival mechanism – sheesh!  Courage, man!  As it stands, his death just makes me mad because he didn’t even try.  And the Free Rebel Art message leaves me cold because it is disconnected from the story.

Although I have that gripe about the story, I have to say, the NIN ARG is a fascinating exercise that piques the curiosity.  It plays to our inherent love of mystery and takes some deep thinking to figure out.  Even though it appears as though the game is played out, it’s worth looking through the websites to see how everything is put together.  It also makes me wonder if NIN will pick it up again in the future.

If you’re interested in learning more about the NIN ARG, check out the following sites: