For the uninitiated, Portal is a first-person puzzle shooter. Rather than guns and ammo, the player is armed with an experimental “handheld inter-spatial portal device” that can fire two connecting gateways at a time onto (almost) any flat surface — floors, walls, ceilings. Pass through these moveable gateways to clear obstacles, thwart enemies, and skirt the ire of GLaDOS, the murderous artificial intelligence run amok in the testing facility.
The game’s unsettling plot and jaw-dropping mechanics have earned it critical acclaim and a loyal fanbase. It’s even found a place in college curricula as a way to get students thinking about spatial relations, physics, and existential philosophy.
Anticipation of a sequel has had fans drooling over proposed features (such as multiplayer support) and teaser videos (including the one below) for some time now. And while Valve has made a traditional marketing push in the form of web videos, billboards and TV spots, its final and more subversive campaign has had online gaming communities in a tizzy for weeks.
The campaign began April 1, when a collection of indie games collectively dubbed “The Potato Sack” was released on Steam (Valve’s cloud-based delivery system — sort of an iTunes for video games). Players began noticing strange symbols and coded messages appearing in the games. Savvy users began to connect these “glyphs” to other games — which were receiving new content from Steam — as well as to external websites and real-world locations. A wiki and IRC channel were created by gaming forum denizens to start pooling information about what has come to be known as the Portal ARG (alternate reality game).
Coded messages appear during static-filled transitions in Portal 2 promo videos.
While it’s only been in motion for a few weeks, the ARG is exceedingly complex and tended to unfold in real time, with clues hidden across the web, gaming forums, podcasts, YouTube videos, and the Potato Sack games themselves. Highlights include cryptic blog posts that were deleted soon after discovery, messages in Morse code, clues encoded in the waveforms of audio files, and a handful of interconnected images sent from Gabe Newell, the co-founder of Valve himself, to a few prominent gaming blog editors.
An audio file run through spectrogram analysis reveals the hidden message: WhyMustThereBeSiblingRivalry.The scope of the campaign cannot be overstated, but you can get the blow-by-blow on the Investigation History page of the wiki.
In the last few days, mounting clues were indicating that GLaDOS, the exceedingly creepy AI villain defeated in the original Portal, was attempting to reboot herself on the Internet and release Portal 2 early with the help of fans engaged in the ARG. A new website appeared, titled GLaDOS@Home, and featured a countdown clock and progress bars for all the games in the original Potato Sack. The more fans played these games on Steam, the faster the clock would tick down, with the promise of an early release for Portal 2.
At the time of this writing, however, the countdown is on track for the original release date of April 19 — in fact, it may even be a few hours late. After countless hours searching, decoding, compiling, purchasing and playing other Steam games, the most dedicated Portal fans essentially get nothing. And some of them are pretty upset.
So has Valve created some of the most epic buzz in gaming, only to shoot itself in the foot by punking its most loyal fans?
“Valve missed an opportunity to craft an ARG that actually let gamers ‘alter’ reality,” says Matt Peckham, a gaming journalist who covered the Portal ARG for PC World. “Instead, they got gamers to pay for their marketing stunt.”
But has that damaged Valve’s image? “I suppose it depends how good (and bug-free) Portal 2 is,” Peckham notes. “You follow a negative event with an overwhelmingly positive one, and people tend to forgive (and forget) their grievances.”
Despite some of the negative sentiment, the ARG may be remembered by fans as a unique an enjoyable experience, despite falling short of the end goal. “While the idea of the game getting an early release is cool, the ARG really is a way for fans — those kind of die-hard fans who actually take the time to figure out these sorts of things — to interact with the game in a different way,” says Andrew Webster, a writer who covers gaming for Ars Technica. “And in that I think it’s a success no matter what. Valve has built up so much goodwill amongst the gaming community that it would take a colossal screw up for something like this to damage its brand.”
Both Peckham and Webster agree that despite the depth and complexity of the ARG, the most ingenious aspect of it was that it got fans to buy and play 13 additional games they might not have on their own volition. “Somehow, while promoting its own game with a massive campaign, Valve still managed to come out the good guy by supporting indie games at the same time,” says Webster. “Not only did the ARG try and get players to play more indie games, but it likely sold a few as well, which is good for the developers for sure, but also for Valve, since it owns the Steam distribution platform.”
“It’s one of the most clever cross-exposure schemes going,” Peckham added.
Fans will likely rejoice around the actual game once it has been released to the masses. But whether enough goodwill remains for future Valve marketing efforts like this is yet to be seen.