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With his 2012 browser game Frog Fractions, developer Jim Crawford created a nested series of interesting surprises, hiding a increasingly bizarre genre-scrambling minigames beneath what appeared to be an unassuming piece of educational software. Players responded well to it, seeming to enjoy the mystery and mystique that it reinfused into games. (He spoke about that topic in a well-received 2014 GDC talk, "Preserving a Sense of Discovery in the Age of Spoilers.")
Crawford's name became synonymous with mind blowing hidden secrets, and he was happy about that. "After Frog Fractions became really popular and I became 'the mystery guy,' it really solidified for me that I love this stuff," he says.
But after the game's release, Crawford faced what might be dubbed the M. Night Shyamalan Dilemma: When you become known as the mystery guy, how do you follow that up? When people are expecting out-of-left-field, fourth wall-breaking material for your follow-up game, how do you exceed expectations and catch them off-guard again?
That's what Crawford was grappling with when he began conceptualizing Frog Fractions 2.
[BEWARE: Spoilers follow. Many, many spoilers.]
"I spent 2013 thinking about, 'How do I do that?'" says Crawford. "The solution I came to was the one laid out in the Kickstarter: I would not put my name on it. You'd just have to find it."
Instead of merely making another series of games-within-a-game, he would broaden the scope. The sequel would be dispersed throughout the entire world of gaming. Players found bits and pieces of the game in a variety of works, as well as in various real world locales. The clues would eventually lead players to a commercially released game on Steam that had no apparent connection to Crawford. After playing that unassuming game for several hours, players could uncover Frog Fractions 2.
The original Frog Fractions
Frog Fractions 2 is an honest-to-god game, with its own crazy logic and a series of delightful and absurdist intrusions by other completely unrelated games and interactive experiences. But the leadup to the release of the game was a brilliantly designed interactive experience in and of itself.
"I called the sequel Frog Fractions 3 in the credits, because in my head-canon, the executable itself is the third game, and the Kickstarter campaign and the ARGs that preceded that were the second game," says Crawford.
If the discovery of the hidden depths of Frog Fractions was its own mystery, so too would be the discovery of Frog Fractions 2, only spread out over the entire internet, all of Steam, and across the globe. Crawford accomplished that by using a silly Kickstarter to kick off the mysterious narrative, and then followed that with several ARGs that would lead to the game's release (or not).
Many of the ideas around the ARG, Kickstarter, and release would build on Crawford's original ideas on how to make his game mysterious as well. One aspect was the use of sigils, coded symbols used in some of the ARG's clues. "I was thinking about things that are hard to Google," he says. "It was hard for people to put the pieces together because you can't just search for that symbol."
Hidden sigil in Firewatch
To make it even more challenging, though, the sigils which contained clues for the Frog Fractions 2 ARG were hidden not just on Kickstarter pages or within Crawford's own work, but were buried within dozens of other games. Sigils were hidden in Firewatch, Crypt of the Necrodancer, Duskers, Quadrilateral Cowboy, and many more. "I had a special thanks section in the credits for all of the people who participated in the sigil ARG. If I remember right, there are 31 names in that list." says Crawford.
Hidden sigil in Moon Hunters
The sigils were so spread out that the answers to Frog Fractions 2 could have literally been anywhere. For a period, people interested in what Crawford was doing had a sense that any released game could have offered some clue. Given that they could have been anywhere, this allowed Crawford to use the entirety of gaming to hide Frog Fractions. It allowed him not just to bury a needle in a haystack, but to bury pieces of a needle within thousands of possible haystacks.
Having clues hidden in any game that released made for a wide-spread mystery, but there was an extra layer of confusion and mystique around it. This came from the fact that the sigils could have been put in any game by anyone.
"I found out about a couple of these after the fact. While I was doing the sigil ARG, I didn't know of any indie devs just putting the sigil in their game without talking to me first. But, I heard that it happened in a couple of cases, which is neat. And certainly, anyone could have done it. It's not like I would have issued a press release saying 'That's fake.'" says Crawford.
Games Crawford may not even have been aware of could have been spreading misinformation, or misdirecting players just to join in the fun. Given that his players had already developed a taste for mysteries from Frog Fractions, they would be itching to dig into any new potential clue. Since the nature of a mystery is to give little information, any one sigil in any game could have been a valuable clue - one Crawford couldn't identify as true or false without ruining everything.
Not that Crawford could have denied it, even if he wanted to. When a game he worked on, Gunhouse, released before Frog Fractions 2, people began to mine that title for the game. "Even after I said, explicitly, this is not Frog Fractions 2, I heard stories about people playing this game just to find Frog Fractions 2," says Crawford. He could deny them all day, but doing so would only lend weight to the belief that they could be important, and that he was misleading players.
The made-up sigils became an unintentional boon, one born out of kindling the love players have for mysteries, and drawing upon the kind of schoolyard fibs and folktales children told about glitches and secret passwords and hidden levels back when Crawford was a child. "That's fun. Looking back on that, it's fun that there was space for those mysteries, and for that sort of stuff to be plausible." says Crawford.
"It's something that everybody who played games in the same era grew up with," he says. "Kids would make up stories of secrets for Super Mario Bros, Metroid, and more. Most would be false, but with the discovery of the Minus World, Justin Bailey, MISSINGNO, and other secrets, it loaned those lies a bit of truth. Anything could have been true, lending every tantalizing story a hint of adventure in the discovery of its truth."
Given that Crawford couldn't deny the relevance of phony sigils without tipping his hand, he was given an accidental, beneficial misdirection that boosted to the mystique around his game. "Humans want that sort of thing. We want a good mystery," he says. "It's a really powerful draw for a potential player to hear that, in the age of spoilers, here's a game that actually has some mystique to it."
This absurdist project required some serious secrecy. "The internet is about dissemination of information, and mystery can only exist when information is deliberately withheld now," says Crawford. "It's something you have to make a priority."
He worried that the one thing could have forced him to tip his hand before he intended to was data mining. Industrious players can often go through the data for a game, seeking clues and buried hints that will tip them off to secrets within it. It's simply something curious players do. The same curiosity that draws people to Crawford's mysteries also gets players to poke at game files to see what's inside.
This message was hidden in the source code of Twinbread.com, which figured in a Frog Fractions ARG
If Crawford was to release his game buried in the code of another game, it wouldn't take long for data miners to find it, spoiling the surprise. "My plan for a time was to release Frog Fractions 2 encrypted. Then, the decryption key would actually be the maze people were putting together in the ARG. So, you would not be able to play the game until somebody solved the maze." says Crawford.
"I ended up not doing that because it was really user-hostile to force people to look for art information in order to play the game." says Crawford. He would later use encryption within the ARG itself to add to that puzzle, but as for the game itself, he would have to come up with another way of keeping it concealed.
"Another way to protect from data mining is to just not have part of the game exist yet," he says. In the end, to preserve the mystery, he kept Frog Fractions 2 from detection by hiding its release as an update to an existing game. He teamed with the creator of Glittermitten Grove, an assuming fairy game released on the Steam store once players of the Frog Fractions ARGs passed a certain threshold, the content would be added to Glittermitten Grove.
"Glittermitten Grove released without Frog Fractions 2 in it, and it was only through the actions of the players of the ARG that that stuff came to exist." says Crawford. This would keep it safe from data mining, as those players would likely have already looked at the game and dismissed it.
Simply by the nature and scope of the project, Frog Fractions 2 would require the involvement of many different people. Developers from around the world were hiding sigils. Friends were helping Crawford run the ARG to keep it from distracting him from developing the game. The game itself was to release inside the work of another developer. All of this would require silence from all of them, something difficult to maintain among so many people.
Crawford was fairly confident that no one would want to spoil the mystery. After seeing how much people enjoyed the discovery of Frog Fractions, he felt that his secrets would be safe in order to preserve the fun. "When you talk about people doing leaks, they're either doing it to get traffic to their website or they're doing it for social cachet," he adds. "There's no cachet to be had for being the guy who ruined Frog Fractions for the world. I guess there would be traffic, but everybody would be so mad. I can't imagine it working out well for them. I kind of just implicitly assumed that everyone worked that way, and it worked out."
Still, if anyone had let slip, that was another tool that Crawford could potentially use. "I didn't have any problem telling any individual person any one fact about the game. It only becomes a problem when any one person knows too many facts." says Crawford.
For a mystery to start, seeds need to be planted. Hints dropped. Crawford could play with this, letting several people in on the mystery, but even among his close friends, he made sure that no one person knew too much. In doing so, even if someone talked, the incomplete info they divulged could only help to build mystique.
"Probably my favorite thing about the Frog Fractions 2 project, the thing I'm most proud of, is the idea that the game could be anywhere. That any game you play is now imbued with this additional sense of possibility that maybe this is the game where I'm going to find Frog Fractions 2." says Crawford.
This legacy, far beyond hiding a game within a game, opens the doors for other developers to do the same. To make up secrets. To bury clues in hidden places. To orchestrate enigmas for the curious and dedicated to crack. Through his work, Crawford has made the entire industry just a little more mysterious.
When asked whether Frog Fractions 2 is the end of the line, or whether a followup might be in the offing, Crawford is characteristically enigmatic. "It doesn't make any sense to have two of something," he says. "It's either one, or an infinite number."