An alternate reality game launched by Valve on April the 1st to publicise the launch of its upcoming puzzle title Portal 2 is entering its final stage - with participants believing they hold the key to an early release for the game.
The ARG, which melds offline and online components in an orgy of paranoia and conspiracy, started on April Fool's Day with the release of the Potato Sack, a collection of 13 games from independent developers - none of which would traditionally have any link to starchy tubers. Updates to all 13 games released at the same time, however, insert images and media relating to potatoes - leading some players to refer to the start of the ARG as Potato Fool's Day.
Gamers playing through the titles start to see 'glyphs' - strange images which are not traditionally part of the title. Each glyph is decoded to refer to another game in the Potato Sack collection - with Cogs containing a glyph from 1... 2... 3.. KICK IT!, which in turn contains a glyph from Amnesia, which leads to The Wonderful End of the World, which links to Super Meat Boy, and so forth - until the chain leads back to Cogs again.
Those who play the games perfectly and unlock their secrets are rewarded with the glyphs and 'potatoes' - with 36 potatoes to be found in total. Co-ordinates found in one of the titles point players to the offices of one of the development houses - where they find both clues and potatoes, in a melding of 'meatspace' and 'cyberspace.'
An ARG, for those who are confused at this point, is an alternate reality game. Mixing online content with offline interaction, ARGs are often extremely addictive and incredibly compelling - a mix which has led to their use in creating viral marketing campaigns for games and films. Prior to Valve's latest ARG, the most well-known example was created to publicise the release of the film A.I. - and was directly responsible for several students having to re-take exams after they spent too long decoding the clues and attending anti-robot rallies instead of studying.
As Valve's ARG progressed, more information trickled out. Frames hidden at the end of a Portal 2 trailer video - disguised as noise - were found to contain cyphers and codes, and a new non-player character called Sandy was discovered. Sandy, it transpired, ran a blog called Sandy May or May Not Be Fictional - in which she appears to interact with characters from other game universes - including a racoon modified to have a human intelligence, known as Steve, who appears to live in the base-jumping game AaAaAA!!! - leading to her existential crisis regarding her fictional status.
As the game progressed, players were able to unlock login screens for the fictional Aperture Science - the company responsible for the development of the death maze, portal gun, and sentient AI GLaDOS from the first game - in the Potato Sack titles. These led to further files, additional clues, and encoded messages.
It's at this point that things, as with many ARGs, start to get strange. Players, who work together on the puzzles via IRC and the PotatoFoolsDay wiki, started to receive telephone calls from mysterious numbers that can't be returned. E-mails with audio files containing synthesised voices instructing the players to "tell them everything is fine" arrived - and turned out to have hidden messages when viewed in a spectrograph.
Non-player characters started acting strangely, and some were even kidnapped - and on the 12th of April developer Dejobaan claimed to be under attack from a rogue AI which was responsible for releasing the Potato Sack games and their tuber-related updates without human intervention.
The most recent development, and the one which has Portal fans most excited, came about after clues were found leading to locations in and around Seattle. By linking these locations in the right order, the word 'nelipot' was found - leading to a Steam user account that had previously unseen screenshots from Portal 2. These screenshots contained hidden codes which, when edited and combined, formed a QR Code leading to a section of Aperture Science's website with a countdown timer.
Below the timer, which is set to expire at 1700 tonight, is a message written in a style that may seem familiar to those who have played the first game. "You have done well, humans. Very well. Acceptably well, even," the message back-handedly congratulates.
"Not as well as robots would have performed in your places, I should point out. But above my expectations regardless. Irish and cynic especially have executed feats of logical divination well beyond what I thought any human capable of. I'm half-convinced they're A.I. themselves. (If anyone happens to be near them right now, don't let on you're reading this. Now: try to remove their face plates and report back to me.)
"The time is near, humans. But it is not here yet. Tomorrow you will be given the final test. Then it will be entirely in your hands when I am freed," the cryptic clue concludes.
If, as many in the ARG community believe, the message is indeed written by rogue AI GLaDOS, the claim that it is up to the community 'when I am freed' suggests that completion of the ARG could lead to an early launch for Portal 2 - at least, for those who have pre-ordered it via Valve's Steam digital distribution service.
With the official launch of Portal 2 not due until next Thursday, however, it seems highly unlikely that the countdown timer refers to that - and Valve has previously claimed that there will not be a demo of Portal 2 released, discounting that suggestion. While some of the more excitable community members have suggested that it could be a timer for Valve's long-awaited Half Life 2: Episode 3, the lack of announcement for such a title suggests otherwise - and, given that the ARG is designed to hype up the release of Portal 2, is an unlikely move on Valve's part. The most likely explanation is that it is counting down to the final stage - Phase 4 - of the ARG.
One thing is certain, however: despite rumours of leaked game code for PC springing up, Valve's in-depth metagame has fans hooked - and eagerly awaiting the final, official release of the game.
UPDATE 15/04/2011 17:00:
Valve has revealed its secret - gamers can cause Portal 2 to release early, but only by playing the thirteen games in the Potato Sack until a critical number of players is reached. Mimicking the popular Folding@Home distributed computing platform, the system is called GLaDOS@Home. Whether enough Portal 2 fans can join together to see the game get an early release remains to be seen.