The Portal 2 ARG Postmortem

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On Saturday morning, the 11th December, I came across a strange mail as I did my early inbox checking. The email in question was an invite from Valve, asking us to visit them on the 17th, merely 6 days away, for reasons that were quite obscure. The only thing we knew was that it had to do with Portal 2 and that it might involve other game developers. We were of course intrigued, but at the same time a bit reluctant as we had to travel, a not short journey, in only a few days. However, after a few minutes of deep introspection, we thought “what the heck” and decided to go.

Having come to this decision we were not sure if we would be able to travel though. Two years earlier it had become mandatory to have a visa in order to enter the US. Remembering the trouble we had with visas for our trip to Moscow, we feared that we would not receive them in time. Luckily, it turned out that that as soon as you pay for your visa, you are free to go. No wait or anything like that. And thus, Jens and I were ready to cross the Atlantic!

Guess what time of the year we visited…

Seattle (or Bellevue to be more exact) lies at the western American coast and it takes about 24 hours of travel, from door to door, for us Swedes. Needless to say it is quite an exhausting trip. Added to this is a nine hour jet lag, that caused us to lie fully awake in the middle of the night (sleepless in Seattle, har har,…). And as if that was not enough I also managed to blow my left eardrum, forcing me into the weird habit of turning my right ear to face whoever spoke to me. I digress though, enough of our troubles and on with the fun stuff!

The morning after the arrival we went to the Valve headquarters, situated at a 15 minute or so walk from the hotel. At the lobby we were greeted by an automated gun turret which we barely managed to sneak past, only to get ambushed, caught and forced into a meeting room full of indie developers and a few Valve employees. Everything started out with nobody, not even the Valve people, seeming to have a clue what it is all about. It was all quite ominous to be honest. At this point Gabe entered and explained the master plan, which finally made us understand the purpose of our visit. The gist of the idea was to make the community release Portal 2 and do so with the help of a bunch of indie games. Basically, a nice way to make the users take part in the release of the new Valve game and a boost in publicity for the other developers involved.

By throwing a can we misdirected it and had time to slip past…

The two days planned at Valve HQ were then all about figuring out how to go about doing this. Here Valve had no clear guidelines and just basically wanted us to brainstorm all kinds of weird ideas that could be used. My and Jens’ crucial question to this was of course: “Do we need to worry about age rating?”. When answered with a negative, all kinds of strange ideas started brewing in our evil heads. For instance, one early idea was to have live-footage of someone being tortured (all acted of course, promise!) and make that into massive Milgram-kind-of experiment. This was scrapped for some other ideas though, which I will get back to in wee bit!

The view from Valve’s office is quite nice.
Somewhere out there Bigfoot roams…

An important note here is that all these meetings took place without us having to sign a single NDA. This is pretty much unprecedented when dealing with big companies, who all normally require all kinds of soul-selling documents to be signed in blood before anything can be talked about. Valve also gave us full access to their IP, usage of assets for Portal and whatnot. During the visit they also allowed us to roam around the office (no ep3 found, sorry), try out an early build of Portal 2 and let us in on some other secrets (no ep3 there either, again sorry).

In one dark corner a strange ritual seemed to be in process.

When meetings were done on Friday, there were tons of ideas on what to do, a very basic outline of the event flow, but still nothing very concrete. The plan was instead to let everybody think about the things discussed and to set up a wiki and mailing list where the discussions could continue. Now all what was left for us was to go home the next day. Except that did not happen. Instead Heathrow got overwhelmed by some flakes of snow and canceled all flights. We were now officially stuck and had worries whether we would make it home for Christmas or not. Fortunately, we contacted Anna at Valve who put pressure on the booking agency and got us new flights home for the very next day! In business class! Now all was good except that my ear started leaking some strange liquid (and continued doing so for the following two weeks), which I was forced to wipe off every ten minutes. Despite this we managed to get home somewhat alive on Monday night.

After some rest and ear-drainage, we started to lay out plans for our part in the ARG. As we were in a tech-development phase of the next, super secret, project, the artists did not have that much to do and we figured we could let them focus on the ARG instead. This led to us coming up with the idea of a Portal game set in the universe and style of Amnesia, with the addition of a juicy perma-death mechanic. The main reason simply being that we wanted to see how it affected the level of scariness and had high hopes we would mess people up.

With the above set, I threw together a basic design for the game; a sort of Saw-like trial run orchestrated by a, Báthory-inspired, mad young lady. At this point we did not worry too much about of the ARG puzzles, mainly because there was nothing decided, and figured we could just add it later on.

My design of the add-on story “Justine” started out very basic (and honestly quite dull), but through great efforts by the rest of the team it managed to get really nice. For instance the puzzles, especially the first one, were not all that great at first, something that Jens managed to fix when scripting. Mikael, our writer, added quite a lot of depth to the initial plot and our artists, Marc and Marcus, created very nice levels and graphics out of my crummy sketches and often non-existing descriptions. Because of their endeavors me and Luis managed to stay focused on the tech most of the time, only chipping in a bit at the end.

Design sketch for first “Justine” Level. This is all the artists had to work with basically.

The ARG really picked up pace once Jeep from Valve put together a document outlining the basic steps of the meta game. It was here that the guidelines for each of the three updates were set and now we started contemplating how to add the clues to Amnesia. Our first idea was to release the “Justine” expansion at the start of the ARG and then add new elements to it at each update. Mikael was put on designing these puzzles.

As the ARG was getting closer, we started to realize that we would not have “Justine” ready until the meta-game’s start date. This forced us to re-think how the different hints were added in our game (meaning the puzzle work done by Mikael had to be thrown out). Amnesia being a serious game that is all about atmosphere, we did not want to add cheeky out-of-place stuff scattered here and there; instead we wanted all hints to fit the game. The idea was now to have all of the updates in Amnesia, but to have them as elements that an unsuspecting player would take for a part of the game.

In this new design, we had all three clue updates in the normal Amnesia: The Dark Descent and then for the final “crescendo” event we would release the “Justine” expansion, with the goal of having X amount of people complete to unlock our final part of the ARG. Our, somewhat sadistic, hope was the people would reluctantly force themselves through the game to complete the final part of the ARG.

However, it turned out I had missed that this part of the ARG had changed (which Dan of Dejobaan pointed out to me), and was now just all about playing games instead of achieving certain objectives. This forced us to release “Justine” a bit earlier and also moved a hint, meant for the normal game, into “Justine” instead. Again Mikael was put on the task of creating the puzzles needed.

The day before the ARG started, I put together a cryptic blog post, with the intent of introducing the community to a character that might help and confuse them during the ARG. Our initial plan was to keep everything “in-character” according to our own sub-story, with forums posts complaining about escaped animals and the like, hopefully with people wondering what was true and what was not. Unfortunately, it was figured out very quickly that the whole thing was an ARG for Portal 2 (or at least the general Internet-consensus was this) and instead we just used the character to hand over some hints.

The potatoes emerge from the darkness!

Finally the ARG arrived and people threw themselves over our update. This first update was really just meant to contain very little of interest, essentially only displaying a special glyph, a letter and peculiar sentence. To pad out the update a bit, and to hide the hints from people searching the new files, we added some un-exciting assets from “Justine” and a few fake hieroglyphs that were only visible to those not looking for the glyphs in-game. It turned out that almost no attention was paid to the important content though, instead most people were extremely excited about the “Justine” assets, some even convinced that a new secret level was hidden somewhere (and found several plausible locations for this lost place). The hieroglyphs also turned out to be more interesting than the correct glyph, and people even started to decipher their meaning. I actually felt a bit bad about this, and even though no ancient Egyptian expertise would be needed, we decided to use the glyphs somehow in later updates.

14 hieroglyphs, 1 ARG glyph, and one strange Marc:ian sign.

This brings us to the second update, in which we were supposed to have some minor Portal hints. Our choice of hint was to project the shadow of one of the Portal 2 robots onto a wall in the start menu. My hope was that people would take a screenshot, and make photoshop-enhanced images, ala Bigfoot footage, with heated discussions on what it look like ensuing. That did not work out as planned of course, and instead someone found the actual texture, where the portal 2 robot was clearly visible, even before it was spotted in the menu. Our evil plan was spoiled. Lesson learned: always hide the fun stuff!

The shadow of a robot was not all that was part of the second update though. We had also added some clues, that lead up to a special steam overlay and a password for Rush. At first these clues where all simply in a note and a clear voice message. But as we thought it was so fun to watch people trying to crack the riddles and search our files at the first update, we decided to add more content and make the puzzles a bit harder. This was accomplished by encrypting the (already cryptic) text with a non-standard substitution cipher and by adding some noise and effects to the voice message. Along with this we also added four rar files, one of which could be opened by solving a puzzle involving the previously mentioned hieroglyphs and some knowledge of the Cthulhu mythos. The first rar then contained a password to the next rar and so on. Each rar file also contained a text and image that would tease about the soon to come “Justine” add-on story. Unfortunately, pretty much nobody bothered about discussing these bits. Either people were too caught up in solving the puzzle (only seeing the texts and images as means to an end) or they were not that interested into solving the puzzle and did not pay attention to what was uncovered.

One of the hidden pictures that nobody cared about.

As we added these new stuff, especially the hieroglyph-related puzzle (that was written on a wall) and the encrypted note, I think that we might have disturbed the atmosphere a tiny bit too much. The encrypted note uses a cipher that could have been used in the 19th century, but still feels a bit out of place. The (hidden) writing on the wall is even worse as it does not really makes sense in the game’s world. I think they did not interfere with many (if any?) people’s experience in the end though. Still, it is worth thinking about the impact that this kind of stuff has on the normal game, even if it is just a for a limited time.

A few days later it was time to release update 3, which meant putting “Justine” online. As the ARG hint was unlocked by making a perfect run through the game, some precautions were put in. First of all, the maps and script files where compressed and encrypted, thus not allowing any editing or peeking. This together with some other safe-guards also ensured that the maps could not be chosen individually and needed to be played in the set order. Finally, some important assets like the game config and enemy files were given CRC checks to make sure they were not meddled with. Even so, someone figured out that enemies could be disabled by renaming their folder after the game was booted (when the CRC checks had been made). Tricky bastards…

Bug testing in progress…

With update 3 out and us having checked that it ran okay (we added some fixes the day after release), we could relax more and did not take as much part in the ARG as we had earlier. A few days later the final crescendo part of the ARG started, where all the games taking part in the ARG needed to be played in order to awaken GLaDOS. It was really fun to see how our game’s bar went the slowest. People afraid to play = mission accomplished!

It has been great fun taking part in the Portal 2 ARG. Being on a project together with other indie devs and Valve, trying to figure out tricky riddles, lurking in IRC channels, etc, have all been awesome. Apart from all the jolly good fun, there have also been financial rewards to this. Amnesia sales alone went up a lot during the ARG, and we were on the Steam 20-top for quite a while. The first two days of income pretty much paid for all work put into the “Justine” add-on story. Now as the ARG and sale is over, our daily sales have almost doubled, so not only did we get boost during the event, it also had a lasting effect on people’s awareness of Amnesia.

If you are interested in reading more about the puzzles that were part of Amnesia or any other game’s updates for that matter, head over to the ARG Wiki.

Also make sure to check out the other postmortems written by some of the developers that took part in the event:

Tripwire (Killing Floor)
Two Tribes (Toki Tori and Rush)
Teotl Studios (The Ball)
Hidden Path (Defense Grid)
Gaijin Games (Bit Trip Beat)
Lazy 8 Studios (Cogs)

Here be indies!
(photo cred: Dan Brainerd)

A final note: For those that do not have Steam, “Justine” is coming… soon… and there will be surprises!