Jim Crawford, the man who just released the most well-hidden video game of the last two years by smuggling it inside another one, misses a time when video games had more secrets.
"One thing that's been lost about games since the '80s is that they're no longer particularly mysterious, because of marketing, because they're cheap or free, because there are always let's-plays or FAQs or super-fans with decompilers doing nitty gritty breakdowns if you wonder about something," he said. "In the '80s, games got secrets for free. For a game to have secrets nowadays, you have to really work at it. "
He's right. It's not easy to keep secrets, but that's what Crawford, with great success, has been able to do leading up to the release of Frog Fractions 2, a game that was discovered on Monday to be tucked inside Glittermitten Grove, a $US20 ($28) fairy-themed management game that went on sale on 13 December 2016. Today, Crawford is proud of how successfully he surprised people, but he's also surprised that he pulled it off.
The original 2012 Frog Fractions came out of nowhere. It was an unassuming browser game that presented itself as a single-screen edutainment maths game starring a bug-eating frog. People dug deeper, however, by making the frog swim down, leading to a bizarre journey through genres that ranged from text adventure segments to Dance Dance Revolution minigames. At one point, the frog was put on trial. Its secrets weren't telegraphed, and people who played it felt like they'd joined a secret club. That's what Crawford wanted, and that's also why he had to take a radically different approach with Frog Fractions 2. When your strange little secret becomes a sensation, how do you bury it again?
In April 2014, Crawford kickstarted Frog Fractions 2 without saying what it'd actually be. "It will not be called 'Frog Fractions 2'," read the Kickstarter. "It will probably be called something like 'Lost Kingdom: Reckoning,' by Fork Bomb LLC or 'Turbo Finance 2015' by Vespenta Holdings." The Kickstarter also marked the beginning of an alternate reality game (ARG) that involved sigils hidden in more than 20 seemingly unrelated indie games, as well as goofy Obama-shaving web oddities and a live action vignette in which Crawford was "kidnapped" by "time travellers". It ran for two years. For most of that time, people didn't even know the sigils they were uncovering in various indie games were related to Frog Fractions 2.
The thing about announcing your plan to keep the lid on a secret, though, is that people become hyper-vigilant. Frog Fractions 2 turned into a meme. If something weird blew up in geekier corners of the internet, you could bet at least one or two people would ask, "Is this Frog Fractions 2?" Many had their tongues planted firmly in cheek, but a few bands of hyper-dedicated fans were constantly searching.
Despite that, Crawford had the courage to rope other game creators in, even as the risk grew that one of the studios putting the sigil in their games would spill. As a guy who adores secrets with all the parts of his heart not dedicated to frogs and maths, he knew how to keep people from talking. "It's pretty effective to bring people in on something so they feel like they're part of the secret," Crawford said. "I only made people sign NDAs if I didn't know them. The rest, I just trusted that they didn't want to annoy me, and also that being the person who ruined Frog Fractions 2 wouldn't actually gain them any social standing."
Crawford had to rein some people in, though. One developer was going to place the sigil in their game close to a sign that had the word "fractions" on it. "'Don't do that!' I told them," said Crawford. "That would have been way too much of a clue."
It took people ages to concretely connect Frog Fractions 2 to the sigil ARG, despite some clues Crawford hadn't bothered to hide. "What I was expecting people to do this whole time is look at my Facebook friends list and realise all these people who have sigil games, they're all on it," he said. Only toward the bitter, soupy end of the sigil ARG did people actually start to do that, however. And by then, it was too late for that to derail the ARG.
In August of this year, Crawford tweeted a joke about the sigil ARG, and he thought for sure that would give away that it was tied to Frog Fractions 2. He linked to a comic and called it "a simpler explanation for that eye sigil thing". "The comic was of people asking what crop circles are," said Crawford. "Then it showed an alien in the shower, and its penis was the shape of the crop circles." Crawford thought that acknowledging the ARG, even jokingly, was a dead giveaway. He panicked. But nope, everything turned out fine. "I just got people saying stuff like, 'Wait... your penis is Frog Fractions 2?'" he said.
Crawford wanted the sigils to form a map that could be used in Frog Fraction 2, but by the time people assembled most of the sigils, the game still wasn't ready. Crawford instead opted to reward people with a video of him and another developer (who, disclosure, I consider a friend) eating soup as purposefully disappointing pay-off. "Part of my style of humour is to set up expectations, then undercut them," said Crawford. Plus, the whole point of the ARG — the real payoff — was supposed to be the game. Ultimately, the ARG succeeded in pointing people to Frog Fractions 2. Mission accomplished.
As the ARG was happening, Crawford also hatched the plan to put Frog Fractions 2 inside another game. He chose Glittermitten Grove, a game in development by fellow developer and friend Craig Timpany. Together, they pitched the idea to publisher Adult Swim. "It was a game that Craig wanted to make," said Crawford. "I thought it sounded cool. It's his passion project. We pitched it to them and they agreed, with the knowledge that Frog Fractions 2 is inside of it." Crawford's Kickstarter paid for Frog Fractions 2. Adult Swim paid for Glittermitten Grove.
In December, a person who finished an ARG challenge was sent an actual, physical launch button that would bring Frog Fractions 2 into the world. When they put a key from another ARG challenge into it and pressed the button, it made a noise like a car starting. At that moment, Crawford made Frog Fractions 2 go live inside Glittermitten Grove. A group called The Game Detectives discovered it shortly after. You have to play some of that game to find a door that gets you into Crawford's no longer secret creation.
I asked Crawford how he's feeling now that Frog Fractions 2 is finally out in the open, and he confessed that it's "weird". He is, however, relieved that the stress of it all is finally off his back. He's looking forward to working on smaller projects for a bit, or perhaps getting paid to work on other people's games. That doesn't mean, however, that this is the end of the Frog Fractions saga.
"I'm certainly not going to rule out Frog Fractions 3," Crawford said. "I don't think I'll want to do it for a while, but I think I'm always going to want to make weird, subversive games."