This article contains spoilers!
Late 2010, December to be precise, we were approached by Valve to participate in a strange secret thing. We flew over to Valve's office just days before Christmas, and found out what it was all about.
The ARG and accompanying Potato Sack was a massive ARG game. Spread over 13 indie games and 4 rounds, the idea was to set the scene for the arrival of Portal 2 in a nice and original way. The whole thing started on April 1, and ended with the release of Portal 2 on April the 19th. Here is what we did in the first three updates, and how it all came to be.
Just like all other games involved we hid a letter, a sentence, and a glyph into the game. Into the Oztoc I large secret area, in the large low gravity room to be specific.
This got discovered fairly late unfortunately. Given that we had all three at the exact same place, if people would have discovered ours sooner they would have immediately realized that they were looking for one of those in each game. Instead, they spent the majority of time hacking our files and going way to deep into everything. A problem that hit most of the games. People spent more time looking at the files than actually simply playing the games. We deliberately placed the glyph and such fairly deep into the game to make sure that people wouldn't just discover it on their first play session. We wanted people to actually play and experience our game.
People were thrown off and a bit upset by our huge update too. This actually had nothing more than a technical reason. Since we embedded new textures into the game we were forced to redistribute the general texture pack and shader caches, and those simply were very large files.
We continued with that principle in Update 2. In order to get to our secret password and the Aperture Science login page you had to actually play the game, for 26 minutes 37 seconds to be precise. Within the game you had to achieve:
EXACTLY 26:37 Time Played (1597 seconds)
EXACTLY 13 Monster Kills
EXACTLY 3 Monkey kills
EXACTLY 5 Secrets Found
EXACTLY 2 Deaths
BE EXACTLY 233 feet from the ball
EXACTLY 89 health
These aren't just random numbers, they are Fibonacci numbers
, in fact they were Fibonacci Primes
even. Our idea was that if people figured that out, it would help them in their search for the missing value(s). To our knowledge no one actually figured out that system though.
When all values were correct, the secret password "death traps" and the Aperture Science login page would pop up. After a while someone figured out the console commands to set all these values directly. That was a bit unfortunate and unplanned, but luckily that was only discovered fairly late into the round 2.
Given that we have always wanted to extend our game with more level content, and that within our team we have a lot of level designers making a Portal level for Phase 3 was an easy decision. We have always felt that our game shared some similarities with Portal, and this opportunity was the ideal moment for us to further strengthen those similarities.
At first we wanted to build just four or five test chambers, but as work progressed so smoothly and as we had so many people working on this we changed our goal to nine chambers instead early on in development, only to eventually fall back to seven chambers. We felt the level got maybe a little too big, especially without saving available, and that we should rather go for quality than quantity.
The whole level was made in pretty much just one month. Production went very smooth. There were no serious problems or delays, everything just went pretty much by itself. Level design wise, we worked on the level with three level designers/environment artists full time for a month, further backed up by another three part-time level designers.
As usual, we divided up the rooms between the various designers. Each room was built independently of the other rooms, and once done we pasted all the rooms together to form one large level. A lot of people worked on various things in various rooms but in general the rooms were done by the following people:
- Start area and Test Chamber 1: Sjoerd De Jong.
- Corridor between 1 and 2: Marko Permanto.
- Test Chamber 2: Design by Joachim Holmér and Marko Permanto, execution by Marko Permanto.
- Monkey Corridor between 2 and 3: Kevin Cytatzky.
- Test Chamber 3: Mario Marquardt.
- Test Chamber 4 and the corridor after it: Dan Shannon.
- Test Chamber 5: Design by Joachim Holmér and Marko Permanto, Marko took care of blocking it out and setting up the gameplay, Joachim handled the visuals.
- Corridor between 5 and 6: Dan Shannon.
- Test Chamber 6: Design by Joachim Holmér and Marko Permanto, execution by Joachim Holmér.
- Test Chamber 7: Kevin Cytatzky, gameplay redesigned by Sjoerd De Jong.
- End Room: Sjoerd De Jong.
Nearly all environment assets and effects were handled by Sjoerd De Jong, as was the polish and optimization pass of all areas of the level. Markus Palviainen did the terminal at the end and the turret was programmed by Markus Arvidsson. Valve supplied us with most of the textures and the most complex models (button, turret, door, etc.), and most of the sounds.
Most rooms were designed and built on the fly. A few sketches were made prior to the start of production but most of the work was decided as we progressed through development.
Two designs from Marko and Joachim for Chamber 2 and 6:
Some Work In Progress screenshots that show the progress of Test Chamber 5:
The decision to mix our The Ball art with Portal was taken because we felt that if we would have just straight copied Portal it would have come across as a cheap rip-off. We wanted to give it our own twist and identity, plus by being able to reuse our The Ball art assets we also kept production up to speed.
Marko and Joachim presenting the level at Future Games
in central Stockholm:
The level ended with the terminal at the end. The computer gave the player a URL where a number of pictures could be found. The idea was to rearrange these pictures back together to form the following image, made by Lukas Arvidsson:
The image was divided into 4 golden spirals
. Once the image was reassembled the solution was into looking up the meaning of the four main symbols: rain, water, movement, death. Or in other words:a flood. "Flood" was the password to the computer.
As usual people made it much more complicated for themselves than they really had to. They tried to find a system in the random filenames we gave the pieces of the image, or in the random characters that were spewed out by the terminal. In reality these were really just random and were only there to throw the ARG gamers off course.
That is not to say there was nothing in the terminal screens though. There were some small things hidden in the boot up screen.
...loading KECADRV... stands for CAKE DRV (driver)
...loading RTOPLACONFIG... stands for PORTAL CONFIG
...loading BHLTLAE... stands for THE BALL
RAMDISK: E.U.R.O.H.E.C.N.S stands for H.O.U.R.E.N.C.E.S
We hope you enjoyed our ARG entries! This has been an absolutely amazing thing to have been part of, and we'd especially like to honor Valve, not only for their great support to the indie scene, but also for letting us infringe on their IP and with so much creative freedom! Our Portal level will remain in the game, but the other ARG related changes we have done will be reversed back to what they were.