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The Incredible Release of Portal 2: Extrapolating from the ARG

Updated on April 18, 2016

Valve Software's been having some problems when it comes to releasing new things. Their attempt to merchandise game mods for Skyrim went sour faster than you can say "Gabe Newel". Valve's Greenlight and Early Access programs have attracted derision for a long time. Games in both programs have a tendency to end up being horribly unfinished. Valve's Half-Life series hasn't had a release in so long a new game has become a joke, as the last game ended on a cliffhanger.

It wasn't always this way. One of the most surprising game releases occurred in April 2011 with Portal 2. Valve could have given the game a standard launch, with a press release and putting it onto their storefront. It would have still sold thousands of copies. A regular release would have been boring. Portal is a puzzle game, and they wanted to make a puzzle. Someone in Valve decided they could do something to build more hype and fan interest: make an Alternate Reality Game.

Alternate Reality Games Explained

It appears the video phrased the information about the hurricane phone call too vaguely. From what I can tell, the hurricane was getting close when the call went through, and the creators told the person answering to get to safety. Valve didn't want to have a scandal on their hands.

A What?

An Alternate Reality Game, or ARG, is a game that presents players with puzzles that seep into the real world. For example, players could e-mail or phone a character in the game to uncover puzzles. Sometimes the puzzles are even more real-world focused. They could tell players to search a city for symbols. Most ARGs are not marketed, with only subtle hints to suggest the games exist. These games are usually created with the purpose of getting people invested in projects, from movies like A.I. and The Dark Knight to games like Halo 2. With the crowds that these games draw, ARGs appear to work.

There are two things to take into consideration before we go forward. First, I did not participate in the Portal 2 Release ARG. My information comes from an official forum talking about the game when it was active and a wiki that has been locked and is now defunct. Second, there is no official name for the ARG. While the names "PoTaTOS ARG" and "Portal 2 ARG" are common, I will be using the name "Portal 2 Release ARG."

It Starts with Potatos

The Portal 2 Release ARG began with a collection of thirteen independent games. These games, made by thirteen different development companies, were bundled together under the name "Potato Sack". The games were updated with strange potato-themed items and levels. It was released on April 1st, 2011, also known as April Fools Day.

Players assumed the Potato Sack was a prank on the part of Valve. They laughed about it and tweeted about it. The event was nicknamed "Potato Fools Day" by fans. While the fans were laughing, Valve was laughing harder. There were things the fans didn't know. The Potato Sack was the gate to the entire ARG. Embedded within the Potato Sack's games were special glyphs and user interfaces that could be discovered through play. They did not appear in regular copies of the game, so players had to buy the Potato Sack to be involved.

The glyphs found in the Potato Sack games and the games associated with each.
The glyphs found in the Potato Sack games and the games associated with each. | Source

A Glyph In the System

When April 2nd arrived, players discovered the developers had hidden glyphs in the games. These glyphs were created months in advance by Valve and the thirteen developers. The glyphs were connected in a circle. Players found the glyph in Amnesia first, but they could have found any glyph first and still uncovered all of them. The glyph in one game would lead people to the next game. For example, the glyph found in Super Meat Boy featured a character from Audiosurf. Someone, probably a Valve employee, coordinated which glyphs would go to which game. They also tossed in a few extra glyphs in for good measure. These gyphs were a question mark, a potato, and a dot. They were red herrings, but they kept players on their toes.

Cryptic as Usual

Players soon found codes to crack. A trailer for Portal 2 included codes in certain frames. One connected the glyphs to letters. Another had 13 cyphers to solve. Valve knew players could decrypt these cyphers together. Additional cyphers with phrases like "Lo-fi wave tossed! It is a sad hoop game," which had sixteen consonants, fit in a 16-by-4 grid. So far, these were things any ARG would have. Codes were hidden using Morse code and Braille, which are easy to decipher, and the WWII Enigma cypher, which is more difficult. These were all decoded.

Later, the ARG team added password-protected files to the Potato Sack games on April 7th. These files would have to be opened in order to solve other puzzles hidden in the update. Link shortening tools and login screens were intertwined with the files to create a complex mess of codes designed to confuse everyone. Valve and the developers would need to be careful to not confuse themselves. It took a week for the codes to be solved.

Jake_R's Video

Two Tribe's Responce

Welcome to Reality

One of the first codes decrypted was a coordinate to Two Tribes Studio in the Netherlands. A participant in the ARG, Jake_R, went there and found several clues. This was the first use of real life in the Portal 2 Release ARG. Someone at Two Tribes Studios had to set the clues out in advance and hope nobody would mess with them or see them from the street. This was the first use of reality in the ARG.

The tech company Razer provided the next clue. People owning mice made by Razer could access additional codes. Later, they gave out some password-protected files. It is unlikely Razer wanted to market their mice using the ARG, but their involvement probably gave them a publicity boost.

Near the end of the ARG, links were found between pictures in the password-protected files and locations in Seattle. These were a red herring from Valve- nothing was there.


Please Contact Us

On April 7th, Valve CEO Gabe Newell sent e-mails to an ARG participant. News sites Joysiq, MacRumours, Kotaku and others also received e-mails. They contained images with more codes. More e-mails were sent by a person known as "everythingisfinehere". This e-mail was used by Valve to give players more information when they needed prompting. Valve had to assume players would take the bait. They had been tricked many times before. They also assumed news sites would share the images they were sent.

Thinking with Portals

What did it all lead to? On April 14th, players found the final screen. It was a simple screen with thirteen bars and a countdown timer. The bars would increase when games in the Potato Sack were played. The timer counted down to the release of Portal 2. Using the bars, players caused the game to be released nine hours before the timer ended.

Valve Software used thirteen developers, one technology company, many e-mail addresses, and several ARG players to create an entertaining game. Their game required plenty of intricate coordination, but they pulled it off. Portal 2 was very popular, earning a 9.5 on Metacritic. The ARG was a great way to get people to think laterally, or as the series itself puts it, "thinking with portals."


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    • Molly Layton profile image

      Molly Layton 2 years ago from Alberta

      I figured I'd surprise people with this one, and I left a bunch of stuff out. (There' a sentient racoon named Steve. No joke.) Hahaha. Thanks for the visit. I'll check out your answer soon.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Oh Molly, you just did a fly by over my head with this one. LOL That's okay, though, I owed you a visit. I answered your question about HP Ads in case you want to take a look.