Mr. Robot’s Alternate Reality Game at San Diego Comic-Con
At San Diego Comic-Con last year, the offsite marketing event for USA Network’s Mr. Robot cleverly blended a physical environment with a virtual reality experience. This year, Mr. Robot eschewed the virtual in favor of physical constructions and encounters with live actors. Some aspects of the experience were clearly visible. Other elements were revealed only to fans who participated in a complex alternate reality game (ARG) to solve clues scattered around downtown San Diego.
Clearly Visible: The Bank of E and the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ
While the climax of the experience was cleverly hidden, much of this year’s Mr. Robot activation (as these marketing events are termed) was apparent to anyone strolling around San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.
On Fourth Ave, a short distance from the Convention Center, fans could see the storefront of the Mr. Robot Repair Shop. Last year, the shop was the entrance to an elaborate reconstruction of the fictional retail establishment from the TV show, complete with old mid-1990s computers. Moving down a hallway, fans then entered a recreation of the apartment of Elliot Alderson, the show’s protagonist. From there, participants donned VR headsets and entered a 13-minute virtual reality experience written and directed by showrunner Sam Esmail. [For more on the 2016 marketing experience, see: “The Mr. Robot VR Experience, Storytelling, and the Future of Immersive Media.”]
This year, the repair shop was abandoned. The closed storefront displayed a condemned sign and a notice for eviction. An ad for the E Corp Online, the AOL-like online service of the show’s mega-conglomerate E Corp, could also be spotted. (More on this ad later.) Graffiti was splattered over much of the storefront.
Next door, the Bank of E had a small branch office where fans could sign up for an account from the fictional bank and receive a charge card loaded with 20 Ecoin, the Bank of E’s cryptocurrency. People could also sign up online on the Bank’s website, e-coin.com. While the bank may be fictional, Ecoin worked as an effective pseudo-currency throughout much of the Gaslamp during Comic-Con. Signs declaring “Ecoin Accepted Here,” where fans could use their newly-acquired Ecoin card to purchase souvenirs and snacks, were scattered around downtown San Diego.
Next door to the Bank of E was the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ, where Bank of E customers could receive a complimentary pulled pork sandwich (supplied by local favorite Phil’s BBQ) along with chips and a shake.
While the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ appears only obliquely in the previous season of the show — appearing briefly as a takeout menu in one episode — it will reportedly play a larger role in the upcoming third season.
These physical recreations of locations from the show allowed many fans at Comic-Con to enter the world of Mr. Robot. There was, however, a mystery hiding in plain sight.
Following the Clues
While many people were blithely enjoying lunch at the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ, observant fans noticed clues to something deeper behind the Mr. Robot activation. [For many of the details in this section, I’m indebted to the redditors in the /r/MrRobot/ and r/ARGsociety/ subreddits, particularly B-Cipher, Cornelius55555555, and britter2]
At the Bank of E, a video screen running promotional ads for the bank would occasionally glitch and display a black screen with red lettering saying:
Removing the Is and unnecessary spaces, gives: SEARCH EVERYWHERE
Some of the Ecoin Accepted Here signs included the following text at the bottom:
The gibberish at the bottom is an anagram for:
USE PROMO CODE ENLIGHTENMENT
Entering ENLIGHTENMENT as a promo code on the Ecoin website showed a black screen with white text that read:
When asked, staff at the Red Wheelbarrow would hand out a job application form to prospective hires. Applicants were told to be observant and look around both inside and outside the Red Wheelbarrow. Staff also pointed out the application number at the top right of the form: 619. This is the area code for San Diego.
A number of letters were missing from words in the application form. Listing the missing letters gives: “find and assemble the pieces enlightenment calls.”
At the top left of the application, above the Red Wheelbarrow logo, were three circles, the first of which was filled with the other two empty.
On a chalkboard at the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ was written the William Carlos Williams poem from which the establishment takes its name:
Underneath was a speech balloon saying “follow us!” above one of a pair of stickers of white chickens.
A white chicken sticker could also be seen on the closed Mr. Robot Repair Shop.
Looking closely at the shop’s E Corp Online ad revealed additional clues. At the upper left, three circles could again be seen. In this case, the middle circle was filled with the two outside circles empty.
The first sentence of the text read: “A world of enlightenment is just a click away with E Corp Online!,” with the bold “enlightenment” harking back to the earlier clues.
Elsewhere in the text, a number of words, representing numbers, were in all caps:
This text thus adds to 619 three numbers: 431.
White chicken stickers led down 4th Avenue and across the street. An abandoned building displayed a street art poster with four marionettes on strings. In the upper left were three circles, with the first two empty and the final circle filled.
The text of the poster one day read:
The work was signed “Enlightenment.”
Another day, the poster read:
A representative from Civic Entertainment Group involved in the production of the activation explained that since the text was key to entering the final stage of the experience, the poster was changed each day to reduce instances of sharing the text with people who had not solved the earlier puzzles.
In one hand, each of the figures was holding an object: a noose, a white rose, a cell phone, and a knife. With the other hand, each of the marionettes displayed a number of fingers. In order they were: 2454
Putting together the three sets of numbers gives a San Diego phone number.
A number of people reportedly had problems calling the number, receiving a busy signal or a recording telling them to call back tomorrow.
When the call was completed, the person on the other end said, “If you pull the right strings…” A wrong response would be answered with “Your journey is not complete. Follow the chickens.” If the caller answered correctly with the correct response for that that, such as “A puppet will dance any way you desire,” they were congratulated on following the correct path, asked their name, and given the time and location at which to appear. (In some accounts, they were told they could bring one friend.)
At the appointed time and place, the participant was met by someone who asked their name and led them to a doorway for the final segment of the experience.
The End of the Journey
It turned out the entrance to the final chapter of the Mr. Robot Experience was located next to the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ. A glass doorway was covered with newspapers which, in a clever bit of misdirection, appeared to be more relevant to Superman than to Mr. Robot. A Daily Planet newspaper placed in multiple locations on the door trumpeted the headline “Mysterious Crisis Strikes City!” and discussed shocking developments in Superman’s home town of Metropolis.
The newspaper included a crossword puzzle with odd clues:
Although I didn’t see this when I was there, apparently at one point the crossword puzzle on one of the pages was filled in with a series of backward and forward words:
Unscrambling and rearranging these gives: “Find The Right Number to Unlock Enlightenment Behind That Door.”
The door led to a dimly lit hallway with graffiti on the walls. A woman in a hoodie was standing midway down the corridor. I was told I needed to turn over my cellphone before proceeding. I objected. As a compromise, I turned off my phone and promised to keep it in my pocket.
The door at the end of the hall led to a darkened room — one that looks virtually identical to the interrogation room encountered by Angela (Portia Doubleday) in the penultimate episode in season 2 of Mr. Robot (titled “eps2.9_pyth0n-pt1.p7z”).
As in the show, the room contained a dimly lit table on which sat an ancient Commodore 64 computer along with a few 5-1/4-inch diskettes. Also on the table was a red telephone. The only other object in the room was an illuminated fish tank, whose glow provided ambient light in the room.
While the physical environment closely matched the room seen in the show, there was one striking difference: While Angela was interrogated by a young blonde girl — looking much like the Angela would have looked at that age — in the room at Comic-Con, you were facing a person wearing the mask of the ominous Dark Army.
After being directed to sit down, the questions began.
“How many times have you lied today?”
“Animal, vegetable, or mineral?”
The series of questions apparently varied somewhat. One account reported being asked “At what age did you realize you are alone?”
The final question was:
“Are you afraid of the dark?”
At that point, the masked figure slid forward a mechanical light switch. When switched on, the lights went off and the room turned . A black UV light revealed graffiti scrolled on the back wall that included the phrase, “What do all those in darkness seek?”
To avoid the obvious I initially answered, “Truth.” The masked figure shook his head. I then responded, “Light.”
At that point, the black light switched off and the dim room lighting returned.
One account reported that the fish tank began to slowly drain, echoing what happens during the similar sequence in show. When I spoke with one of the developers of the activation, he told me the original plan was to drain the tank, but it was taking too long to refill between sessions, so this was dropped.
The red phone then rang. When answered, the distinctive voice of Whiterose (BD Wong) began to speak. “No, no. Please don’t talk. I have allotted precisely one minute and twenty seven seconds for this conversation.” The character then went on to provide hints about the upcoming season of Mr. Robot, the main thrust of which (as well as I can recall) was that things were in motion that were much deeper than E Corp president Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) and others currently realize.
After replacing the receiver at the end of the call, my interlocutor said I had earned the right to see something. He handed me a manila envelope and said I had 30 seconds to review the contents. Inside were a series of photos from season 3 of Mr. Robot.
After viewing the photos, I returned them to the envelope and handed it back. I was then told I could leave and was shown the door.
Once in the hallway, participants who turned over their cellphones had them returned. I exited the hallway to return to the bustle of San Diego’s 4th Avenue and the crowd blissfully dining at the Red Wheelbarrow.
Worlds Within Worlds
The final phase of this elaborate marketing activation was a haunting experience. Being placed into a bizarre situation from the show — not as a digital simulation, but a physical environment interacting with human performers — is an eerie experience.
It’s striking how much effort went into the hidden elements of the marketing experience that would be seen by only a few fans of the show. A representative from Civic Entertainment Group, the company that helped to develop the activation with USA Networks, told me the final act of the experience took about 8 minutes. Allowing for buffer time between each session, this implies that only six or seven people per hour could go through the experience. As mentioned above, draining of the fish tank was dropped in order to decrease the time to cycle between each session. And some people were reportedly told they could bring a friend, which would double the number of participants. Even so, it’s a large effort for a limited audience.
Of course, the Mr. Robot presence at Comic-Con extended beyond the obscure clues that led to the final experience. The closed Mr. Robot Repair Shop, the Bank of E, and Red Wheelbarrow BBQ were readily apparent to anyone who strolled by.
In a way, this echoes the structure of the Mr. Robot TV show itself. Many viewers simply watch each hour-long episode. Others pick up on the obscure references and hidden “Easter eggs” that reveal additional story details or lead to other websites or videos for a deeper experience.
The Comic-Con Mr. Robot Experience was a rich interactive component to the show’s layered, transmedia content.
- Marketing at Comic-Con Gets Real (Again)
- The Mr. Robot VR Experience, Storytelling, and the Future of Immersive Media
- Marketing at Comic-Con: Virtual Reality Melds with the Real World
Updated with additional details on why the posters were changed each day.
The images from Mr. Robot are from a copyrighted television program, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the program’s production company and/or distributor and possibly also by any actors appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law. All other photos on this page are copyright © 2017 Kendall Whitehouse.