Inside the Development of Gaming's Biggest Mystery, 'Frog Fractions 2'
For several years, designer Jim Crawford has been promising a sequel his bizarre (and beloved) 2012 game. It's finally here.
Note: There are some very light spoilers for Frog Fractions 2—specifically, how it is accessed—in the piece.
"I'm trying to ship a game," remarked an exhausted-sounding Frog Fractions designer James Crawford during a Skype conversation recently. I joked that I didn't believe him, but after players used a mysterious key found at the end of an escape room on an equally mysterious box labeled "launch FF2," Frog Fractions 2 exists.
You can play Frog Fractions 2 right now, though to tell you how might be considered a spoiler in and of itself. So here's your second warning. Don't read further if you don't want to know where on the internet Frog Fractions 2 is hiding.
If you want to buy Frog Fractions 2, head to Steam and buy Glittermitten Grove, where you must build a, um, fairy village. Underneath this elaborate, SimCity-inspired misdirection is what Crawford has been working on since he raised $72,107 on Kickstarter in March 2014, where he did little more than vaguely promise a piece of software called Frog Fractions 2.
The original Frog Fractions is tough to explain and better understood through experience. Luckily, it's still free to play, and within a few minutes, you'll have an idea of why it took the Internet by storm a few years back. (If you're scratching your head at what to do next, dive underwater. Trust me.)
It's also the culmination of seemingly endless red herrings, two elaborate alternate reality games, thousands of hours spent by Internet detectives piecing the mysteries together, and Frog Fractions 2 becoming a meme on Twitter.
Oh, how far we've come.
The framework for the sequel, which I don't spoil because the reveal is part of the fun, is radically different and likely to be divisive among fans of the original. It's much more of a proper "game" this time, and goes beyond clicking from one joke to the next. It's still funny, referential, and subversive, but we're talking about a game that might take you eight hours to beat.
Frog Fractions was, in some ways, an accident, a stream of consciousness slice of absurdist humor whose central design philosophy was whatever made Crawford laugh. He didn't give individual decisions about Frog Fractions much thought, trusted his gut, and simply moved on.
"I knew at the time, to some extent—that I know to a much more visceral extent now—how lucky I was with every decision I made during that game's development," he said. "That game just came together miraculously easy for me, and it was just the most obvious decision at every junction point."
Frog Fractions 2 wasn't obvious. How does one create a follow-up to an accidental viral hit? Crawford decided to take a break, instead teaming up with Necrosoft Games to produce Gunhouse, a mixture of puzzle and tower defense, for PlayStation Mobile. (Sony shut down the PlayStation Mobile store in mid-2015, but the game's been ported to iOS and Android.)
"We had a contract with Sony and it said 'We're going to pay you such and such amount of money" but it didn't say anything in the contract about it being a good game," he said. "We could have just given them what we had at four months and they would have had to pay us, but we made a good game instead. [laughs] After that, I was like 'OK, I want to do a follow-up to Frog Fractions.'"
"I knew at the time, to some extent—that I know to a much more visceral extent now—how lucky I was with every decision I made during Frog Fraction's development."
Crawford started by writing a script for a Kickstarter video, having friends read it, and being surprised at how much people dug it. Conceiving and launching the Kickstarter was proof of concept for Frog Fractions 2, even if he didn't know what the game would be yet. When the crowdfunding ended in April 2014, Crawford has $72,107. Now, he had to build something.
In Crawford's mind, there are multiple ways to interpret "what" Frog Fractions 2 actually is. The Kickstarter project was Frog Fractions 2, the elaborate ARGs playing out the past few years have been Frog Fractions 2, and the game now on Steam for $20 is Frog Fractions 2. And if you search in your heart, it's possible that you, dear reader, are also Frog Fractions 2.
The ARG part, though, is what's fascinated me for several months. When I first reported on a set of sigils appearing in various indie games, I cracked wise about Frog Fractions 2, but it wasn't until recently that it seemed possible that was more than a joke. The sigils were first found in May 2015, though later discoveries suggested the symbols were being secretly placed into games as early as 2014. What also happened in 2014? Crowdfunding for Frog Fractions 2.
Running alongside this ARG was another ARG that was explicitly connected to Frog Fractions 2. For the past year and a half, however, the sigil people had no idea the two were connected.
"That all started as 'Let's make these two separate ARGs and have them come together at the end,'" he said. "It was mostly that I'd meet someone at GDC [Game Developers Conference, an annual event in San Francisco], I'd like them, and bring it up in conversation. Almost every one of them was that. The way I pitched it to them was 'I'm doing this thing where I put a small piece of Frog Fractions 2 in every indie game, are you interested?'"
A handful of sigils have yet to be found, but when Firewatch was updated and allowed people to find a map, they'd found enough to solve that part of the ARG and move to the endgame.
Crawford wasn't writing, building, and executing the ARG on his own, though. He was joined by Justin Bortnick for the first two years, and a trio of creatives—Erica Newman, Justin Melvin, and Micah Edwards—largely ran the ARG in the final two months, as development on the game was finishing up.
"One of the most challenging things for me was how to stay true to the aesthetic of Frog Fractions from the original game and the early part of the ARG," said Newman. "Both of those had sparse and disjointed narration, while still managing to being funny, occasionally mildly offensive but harmless, and yet totally wonder-inspiring."
Newman, a PhD ecologist and artist, hadn't worked on an ARG before. It was a massive undertaking, and Crawford gave them enormous creative freedom to do their own thing.
"Before I joined the development side, I had been sad about a recent lack of content, and the narrowing of what could have been this huge, full universe of Frog Fraction-y things," she said. "When Jim encouraged me to start developing content, I realized I got to be the ARG I wanted to see in the world. I don't think Jim really knew what he was getting with me, as I am not a well-known game designer, but rather an academic ecologist with an enthusiasm for video games. But I do think we were all really happy with the results."
The team started developing the ARG backwards, in case players progressed faster than they expected. This also meant developing content nobody would ever see; it was impossible to know how people might solve or interpret puzzles, so the team remained agile. They had a plan, but that plan was always in flux.
"I couldn't figure out how to do this on a whiteboard, so everything was just in my head for a really long time," she said.
The endgame, what actually summons Frog Fractions 2 into the world, has been in flux for a while.
"To create the end of the ARG," said Newman, "I had to write enough narration, mostly through the puzzles themselves, that made all of the threads tie back together and make sense without spoiling the weirdness and mystery of it all."
When I first spoke with Crawford, he was still mulling how to have the ARG finish off. Crawford describes his process as "seat of the pants stuff." His original idea, where players would use a map from the sigil ARG to unlock Frog Fractions 2, was scrapped because it would prevent the average person from discovering the game. The game couldn't go viral.
"I definitely err a lot on the side of not planning, on the side of chaos," he said. "I probably would do better if I didn't, if it was a little more planned out. But you don't want to plan ARGs completely because so often, the best ideas come from the community. When you look at what people talking about—"What if it's this? What if this is a clue? What if I put these two things together?"—so often that stuff is better than what you had planned. If you're running a live game, where people are reacting to it, you can take that idea and say 'OK, that's canon now. Of course that's what I intended all along.'"
It was time to put up or shut up, though, even for Frog Fractions 2.
"We have, what, three weeks or so to figure this out?" he said. "It's plenty of time. For me, it's really just like... I gotta ship this game. I gotta get it out the door because I'm out of money at this point."
Here's what happened.
Not long ago, folks met up with a man dressed up in a bee costume, describing himself as a "beesness analyst" who was inspired by Jerry Seinfeld's (awful) Bee Movie. The "beesness analyst" handed over a bucket full of objects and two blocks of beeswax. The objects require folks to decipher 42 crossword-style clues and a bunch of other puzzles that ultimately point them towards a book—Slithy Toves by Sally Haines—at a California library. Inside the book was a note from an alleged time traveler (time travel has been a running theme/joke of this ARG), and directions to a Google Drive folder with 3D models of Frog Fractions 2-related objects, including the infamous sigil map.
Reader, greetings to you. Please, let me confess my tale. Your timeline will be the only one to contain this artifact, unless there are other versions of myself whom have gotten the same idea. I cannot, of course, vouch for their actions. They are… it hardly matters. Forgive me; I am getting too far ahead of myself. I will try not to get bogged down in details. [...]
Reader, make your decision. Travel without care and let the universe decide your fate, or plan the safer route. I cannot tell you that my way of journeying is the better way. For some of us, we do not end where we think we should. We end at a time and a place that once felt wild and infinite, and suddenly feels quite lonely, or halts unexpectedly. In that, I see no difference in how we choose.
I am leaving an artifact here, and in every timeline I visit. If Gustav should find one of these, he will know that I think of him, often.
At the same time, another group of people were solving a room escape game in Portland that resulted in finding a frog keychain that came with a piece of paper, bearing a password. It wasn't immediately clear what the password (or key) was for, but that changed when folks found Unboxing Story, a riff on last year's murder mystery adventure game, Her Story. Unboxing Story contained different clips of a man unboxing things for his video channel, Phil's Cool Stuff Corner. There were, again, references to the infamous sigil, which lead them to use the password as a search term, loading up a complex sigil maze.
Solving the maze—yes, this keeps going!—unlocked a YouTube video bearing a mysterious message:
The person who first solved the maze promptly sent off their address, which resulted in this:
For something that's been a mystery this long, that part seemed surprisingly straightforward. The box, when used in conjunction with the key from the Portland escape room, would launch Frog Fractions 2.
That is, of course, both true and untrue. What actually launched on Steam was Glittermitten Grove, the game hiding Frog Fractions 2 inside of it. Crawford laid the groundwork for even more misdirection with this part; ahead of the game formally launching on Steam, he sent keys to YouTube video creators.
There's nothing in that video that suggests Glittermitten Grove is related to Frog Fractions 2. In fact, it appears the video creator has no idea they've been turned into a puppet in a larger scheme.
A few days back, the key was shipped to the person with the launch box. In the meantime, the batteries inside the box managed to corrode, but the device was salvageable. Finally, after years of "Is this Frog Fractions 2?" it was time for Frog Fractions 2 to show up. The key was turned.
After revving up, the box shouts "launch sequence activated," which prompted the release of other congratulatory markers related to the ARG, including a Facebook page declaring "What you want already exists and it's just a question of finding it, somewhere out there!"
They weren't lying. It took a few days, but eventually, people figured out the connection with Glittermitten Grove. (Kickstarter backers were explicitly told what was going on, but asked to keep it a secret, so as not to spoil it for everyone else.) Perhaps the clearest indicator was a long-running Twitter account, Is The Jig Up Yet?, taking a break to tweet something mysterious.
The jig is, indeed, up.
What if players hadn't turned the key, though? What if people, for some reason, decided they didn't want the jig to be up, to let Frog Fractions 2 into the world?
"There were a number of factions introduced [to the narrative of the ARG] early on, and [we] wrote a very complex story linking all of them," said Newman. "Most of the characters we met were involved in 'The Resistance,' who were manipulating timelines to prevent an existential threat called the 'Decay' from destroying their world and our timeline. They believe that the release of the Decay follows from the release of Frog Fractions 2. I structured the ARG so that the players had this information and were faced with a choice to use or destroy a key and box that would launch Frog Fractions 2, and the Decay, into the world. And I did not have a backup plan for them destroying the box and key, because I knew they would launch Frog Fractions 2, no matter what the cost."
It's unclear how people are going to respond to Frog Fractions 2, a question that's haunted Crawford during the game's development. By its nature, Crawford's been forced to keep his cards close to his chest, unable to float anything about the game and see what people think.
But he's already prepared to piss some people off, both for failing to deliver an unsatisfying conclusion to the multi-year ARG saga and because Frog Fractions 2 is a total curveball.
"It's a long game and it's a hard game, which is something Frog Fractions wasn't at all," he said. "It's really demanding, both of their time and they actually have to get good at some of this gameplay. I think, as a result, a lot of people who backed the Kickstarter are going to really not like it. A lot of people who loved the first game are going to really not like it. [...] It is a really good game for the right audience. That's something. I'm really proud of this really weird fucking piece of software I made, and I don't think I have anything to apologize for there."
When Crawford launched the Kickstarter, he'd promised Frog Fractions 2 would show up by August 2015. When August rolled around, the game wasn't done. Fortunately, Adult Swim stepped in and agreed to fund 18 months of additional work. Had the Adult Swim deal fallen through, he could have released the game, but it would have been without a huge amount of original art, and shoved into someone else's game, rather than one he built with a designer.
"I'm really proud of this really weird fucking piece of software I made, and I don't think I have anything to apologize for there."
"Part of what I wanted to do was get my friends paid, you know?" he said. "The people who helped me with the Kickstarter. Both of the people that money went to did a lot of work for me for free to make that Kickstarter happen. [...] It's not just that it's going to be a better game with that money, but how about I actually give my friends a job for a year and a half?"
It seems to have paid off.
His favorite moment during this whole journey was when the deliberately Frog Fractions 2-focused ARG released a video where Crawford is kidnapped by time travelers and drops some floppy disks on the ground. When people found the disks, he expected they'd unlock a series of files encrypted in the now-ancient ARG format—yes, a real thing—instantly. Instead, it took six months and someone with a math degree to break into the code and figure it out.
In another world, Crawford took people's money, planted a bunch of questions across the Internet, and called it a day. But he promised people a video game and so, he's made one.
"If I could get away with," he said, "ethically, not delivering an actual product and inevitably disappointing people... [pause] I can't tell you how often I fantasize about 'What happens if I get hit by a bus?' and it was just a mystery forever. For the world, that would be the best thing."
Maybe. But Frog Fractions 2 is a pretty good consolation prize.