Back in the summer of 2004, an alternate reality game called ilovebees took the internet by storm. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before (or since, for that matter) and it wound up building a community that still feels like we were all part of something singular, co-storytellers in a uniquely involving storyline, each contributing to something real. A genuine, shared experience between the players and the creators, as much as a fictional one between us and characters five hundred years in the future.
Frankly, it’s hard to explain to anyone who wasn’t involved at the time, and I won’t try to deconstruct the event here (a group of the developers got together in Portland to look back on the creation of ilovebees and the impact it’s had on the last ten years of viral marketing and art in the age of the internet. The recording of this panel is here, over at StoryForward, accompanied by a conveniently-compiled list of links to help you catch up on what all the fuss was about (or to push those feels if you were lucky enough to play along).
From my own blog entry in November 2004:
Melissa was the central character in a massively interactive online puzzle game that played itself out over the several months leading up to November, all as a sort of underground marketing campaign for the release of Halo 2 on November 9th. Space here simply does not permit me to go into a detailed explanation, so just know that she's an artificial intelligence construct from the Halo universe (about 500 years in the future), the communications AI from a military spy vessel. Something happened in her time which caused her to be sent back in time to crash, badly damaged, onto a modern-day Web server (ilovebees.com - an innocuous page about honey and bees). So, by degrees, she enlisted the aid of thousands of real people (we called ourselves beekeepers) to help her put herself back together again so she could recover and return home.
Anyway, that fall, I was contacted by Gabriel over at Penny Arcade, asking me if I would contribute a piece of art for a charity auction for Child's Play. I seem to recall it was the first time they did the art auction, and he was reaching out to artists – we knew each other through online online art forums and conventions – to get things kick started.
I knew he and Tycho had been involved in playing ilovebees and the game was massively popular, and I wanted to come up with something that would get a decently high bid at auction, so I decided to render my concept of the AI at the core of the game, Melissa, the Operator. After a week of work on it, I wound up with a 24x36 inch print that I shipped up to Seattle, and to the auction, which wound up raising a bid of $800 for Child’s Play.
I also produced archival prints of the art myself and raised another chunk of money for the charity. So, pretty successful, all around!
Due to the popularity of Halo, and the signal boost from Penny Arcade, the original image wound up all over the Internet, eventually becoming the de facto "official" image of the character, and getting me my own entry in the Halopedia. Kristen Rutherford, the actress who voiced Melissa, even tracked me down when the image came to her attention, and we wound up becoming friends!
Well, 2014 is the tenth anniversary of ilovebees and the art I did for the auction. I got it into my head that since 343 Industries has released an Anniversary edition of Halo 2, I should update Melissa and give her the same treatment. What a difference 10 years makes, to technology (I never could have done an Illustrator piece this complex on the 12-inch PowerBook I had at the time), and to my own abilities.
And so I present to you Melissa, the Operator, communications AI of the UNSC Apocalypso, Anniversary Edition.