Twenty Years of Halo: I Love Bees

Artwork by Usbaia

The Halo franchise is owned by Xbox Game Studios

I Love Bees was created by 4orty2wo Entertainment

Alright, I’m gonna be honest here.  We’re one game, three books, and a fan made web series into this retrospective, so I thought I had a good handle on things… but then I started researching this I Love Bees thing, and I’m in WAY over my head.  I’ve never participated in an ARG and simply trying to find out what happened after everything has already has been solved has proved to be more than my patience can normally sustain, so I’m not going to be able to give you a full breakdown of this experience or will fully appreciate it the way that many people still do to this day.  I can only try and come in here as the layman trying to get a complete picture of the Halo Universe and what makes this series tick, but trying to unravel this mystery and extract the relevant details kind of reminds me why I even felt the need to do this retrospective in the first place.  The Halo narrative always washed over me even when I was enjoying the games and some of the other content around it, and in trying to fix that problem I just end up feeling that way all over again with this ARG game that took place prior to the release of Halo 2.  I put in the time though and I have what I think is a reasonable approximation of what this was, so let’s take a look and see what this whole I LOVE BEES thing is all about!

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One of the things I didn’t want to do when trying to understand this series is to troll the Halo wiki and just get my information there, but I spent about ten minutes perusing the I Love Bees website and just threw my hands up as it’s just a collection of nonsense obscuring tiny fragments of things that may or may not be relevant to the upcoming game, and the Summary on Wikipedia does a good job of telling me what the point of this is.  I Love Bees is an ARG game developed by 42 Entertainment as a promotional device for Halo 2 and to expand on the lore of the franchise.  The story is that back in the novel First Strike, the big inciting incident to kick off the third act is that The Covenant somehow managed to find out where Earth is and The Masterchief along with the rag tag crew of soldiers who survived both Halo and Reach have to stop them.  What I love Bees reveals is HOW The Covenant found Earth via strange messages on the site, cryptic data, and eventually an audio drama which has been collected into a twelve episode series that I listened to from beginning to end.  Right around the time of the Fall of Reach, a UNSC shipped called the Apocalypso found an alien artifact and was taking it back to Earth.  The artifact is some sort of lost Forerunner tech that the Covenant wanted (from the sound of it, it was a mini-Halo?) and so they sent an EVIL AI called The Seeker to infiltrate the Apocalypso and corrupt it’s AI called Melissa.  It seems to have worked because Melissa caused the ship to explode just outside of Earth’s orbit, and Melissa was broken more or less in half; one half found its way to some teenager’s computer named Jersey in New York City who named this fragmented AI Durga, and the other half was sent back in time to the year 2004 along with the remnants of The Seeker.  This is where the AR Game comes into play; the part of Melissa in the past (itself getting split into The Sleeping Princess and The Operator) as well as The Seeker are the entities who were running the game and took over the I Love Bees website.  Everything we learned from I Love Bees and its related stuff (including phone calls to payphones that players had to be at during specific times on specific dates) are supposedly fragments provided by these two corrupted and fragmented AIs.

Say what you will about these B Drops, at least they aren’t telling people to overthrow a leftist cabal of baby eaters.

The Wiki helped me piece together the in-universe Halo narrative, but for the ARG itself and the story of people solving the puzzle I turned to a video by Rocket Sloth about the topic and frankly I may go back to his YouTube page in the future considering how much Halo content he has on there.  A lot of people know I Love Bees from the Halo 2 trailer that no so subtly dropped the website link at the end of it, but this wild story started way before that with 42 Entertainment sending jars of honey filled with random letters to known ARG enthusiasts.  For a while, people in the ARG community were trying to unravel the mystery via data stored in corrupted photos, messages left by the site’s admin, and all sorts of line by line decoding, and I applaud those who had the patience for it, but it’s just not for me.  Funnily enough though, it ALSO wasn’t for a lot of the Halo fans which I found to be one of the more interesting aspects of this story.  During this period of time where I Love Bees was just known in the ARG community and didn’t have any clear connections to Halo it was working as best as 42 Entertainment could have intended it to, but when that game trailer dropped and a bunch of twelve year old FPS fans went to the website to find a bunch of nonsense about bees and mysterious characters like The Pious Flea, well things kind of devolved.  Not in a SIGNIFICANT way as I Love Bees continued, the ARG fans were still making progress, and there were certainly enough Halo fans jumping on now that got into the spirit of things, but there were a lot of people who weren’t playing along and just wanted Halo news or whatever prize they assumed were at the end of all this.

Halo fans vs ARG fans has to be the nerdiest slap fight since Sonic the Werehog…

The next leg of this story is perhaps the most famous one where coordinates and times were secretly uploaded to the site for people to decode.  These would reveal time and location of phone calls on payphones (look it up kids) that someone would have to be there to pick up and answer I Love Bees trivia to get another clue.  How many clues did they have to unlock?  SEVEN HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-SEVEN!  That’s right; payphones across the US (and a few in London) were ringing at random times for weeks with one of SEVEN HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-SEVEN CLUES that sure enough fans were there for and pieced together.  A lot of these locations were swarmed with up to fifty or so people who wanted to be a part of the experience, and the most notable story from this is when someone was at a payphone in Florida during Hurricane Ivan where the operator on the other end just broke character and told them to find safety.

I Love Bees Game a Surprise Hit – Wired Staff, Wired.com (2004)

So after all of that, after weeks of decoding message, answering phone calls, getting snippets of audio (out of order of course), what we’re left with is the radio drama which as I said before reveals how the Covenant found their way to Earth; the biggest secret the UNSC has been trying to keep since the war began.  I remember in The Fall of Reach that they had very little trouble putting a tracking device on a UNSC ship which is how they found Reach, and there’s even a part in First Strike where one of the surviving officer’s from Reach used shortcuts to come back to Earth so I assumed just tailed him, but Instead it has to do with that alien device the Apocalypso found.  The radio drama, which takes place in “The Present” (meaning 2552), was still kind of mess even after people have gone to the effort of putting it all into something of a straightforward order.  It’s one of those stories where they start you off in about ten different places before bringing them all together at the end and I just found it very confusing until they got to that point.  I’ll admit that I have a hard time remembering character names and voices, so perhaps someone else wouldn’t have a problem with the characters jumping in and out in each episode, but for me it was tough as when we start a new scene halfway through a conversation with new voices, my only hope is for someone to use a proper noun before the scene is over, and even then I rarely understand the importance of this one scene in the grand scheme of things.  It’s not that it doesn’t all ultimately make sense when you get to the end and the put the pieces together; it’s that it feels like there’s so much filler to pad out the five hour run time.  There’s a very convoluted backstory for the AI Melissa, there’s a conspiracy within the UNSC seemingly spearheaded by ONE DUDE, and one of the characters Kamal gets involved in casino security and even a celebrity cloning scheme.  Again, it’s not like all of this doesn’t come together EVENTUALLY, but it’s about ten miles of road to simply get across the street.  For example, the AI Melissa was built off of the brain of Yasmine Zaman; a child who was recruited by The Spartans but died during the augmentations which were covered in The Fall of Reach.  She was replaced with a clone who died so that her family never knew she was part of the Spartan Program (again, this was covered in The Fall of Reach and was one of the things I rolled my eyes the hardest at), and her brother Kamal eventually realizes this scheme that was played on his family after some dude name Aiden (who by the way is dating Sophia who Kamal is in love with but apparently she’s got some sort of immigration issue that is not well explained at all) asks him to look into the viability of cloning celebrities which is where he learns about the drawbacks of Flash Cloning that mirror the experience he had with his sister’s death.  I guess if you’re into ARGs and were drip fed these chapters rather than trying to absorb them all in one or two sittings, the information can marinate for longer and there can be enjoyment in mapping it all out.

Okay, but where’s the part where the big green dude punches the goofy smack talking aliens?

This is what I was able to get out of it that will be relevant to future Halo stories.  First, our rag tag group of humans infiltrate the UNSC facility that is keeping the artifact and turn it off.  In doing so they save the planet, but it also sends out some sort of signal that allows The Covenant to locate Earth.  The best part of the radio drama for me was the final chapter where we hear everyone’s stories getting wrapped up but at the end of each of their scenes an alarm goes off; alerting them of the arrival of The Covenant to Earth.  For all the struggles, interpersonal drama, and losses that these characters incurred to get to the end of the journey and find a measure of peace or at least closure… well none of that is as big or significant as the alien invasion, and that’s what we’re gonna have to deal with when we finally get to play Halo 2.  It’s kind of brilliant because it’s the most overt connection to the games themselves and it does a great job of making the stakes feel THAT much bigger; by putting a human face on whatever landscape of destruction we will be working our way through in the game itself.  The only other thing in the story that I think MIGHT be significant to future entries in the Halo canon is the character of Janissary James who was one of those kids that they tested the Hal version of the Super Solider Serum on before developing the proper Spartan program and she as well as a bunch of other Spartan 1.1s ended the story hopping on a ship to face the Covenant directly.  Then again, the canonical status of I Love Bees is slight at best as the earliest interviews with Bungie indicated that it was not canon, but later on they said that it was.  As for the story of the ARG itself, the final clue was to tell people to go to various different locations on a specific date with a code word.  Those who went to those locations got an I Love Bees DVD that collected and organized the audio drama, and some of those locations had demos of Halo 2 that people could play inside movie theaters. 

“Down in front!”

For something that took months for those at the time to decode and experience, I basically had to crunch this in a few days so perhaps that’s on me for trying to absorb all this content so quickly and not taking the time to really let it simmer or to really appreciate the scope of it all.  For the purposes of this retrospective, I guess the biggest takeaway is that despite Halo still being in its earliest of stages that there was something about it that connected with enough people for this project to be not just viable but a surprisingly big success, and I’m not sure what other game series nowadays could engender this kind of reaction from people.  Sure ARGs are still popular enough even outside of promoting other properties, but even as big of a Nintendo fan as I am I couldn’t imagine spending days or weeks unlocking the mysteries of I LOVE MUSHROOMS to find out about the next Mario game!  Even if I was ultimately nonplussed by the content itself, it was at least an interesting journey to go on to try and find out what the heck this even was and how it affected people back then.

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And with that, we’re FINALLY ready to play the second game in the Halo series!  Join me next time as I play Halo 2 for the first time and find out what all the fuss was about!

Next: Halo 2
Previous: Red vs Blue Season 2 & 3

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