Portal 2 ARG Puzzles

Unless you've been living in a cave, you probably already know that Valve's hit game Portal 2 launched last week to universal acclaim. What you may not know is that Cogs was one of the 13 indie titles woven into a massive Alternate Reality Game (ARG) that led up to the April 18 release. You may have heard of this ARG referred to as #PotatoFoolsDay or the Potato Sack.

The ARG was one of the most enjoyable projects I've ever worked on. Valve gave us complete creative freedom and nearly unlimited access to Portal 2 art assets. The result: An astonishing variety of puzzles and challenges released to the players in three waves of new content, starting on April 1, 2011. The fans created a wiki to help them solve the tough puzzles and track their findings in the games.

For those who missed all the action, I figured I'd give a run-down of the puzzles in Cogs. At the end of the post are links to similar articles that talk about the puzzles created by other teams. Spoiler alert: I plan to leave many of these puzzles and rewards in place after the ARG is over, so if you want to be surprised, stop reading now.

Phase 1: For the first batch of content, almost all of the developers who were involved included the message "Happy #PotatoFoolsDay" in the release notes. For Cogs, I also include the message, "Don't forget to say the magic word." If you launched Cogs after the update, everything looked exactly the same, but if a player typed the word "potato" in the main menu, a new puzzle named <Test> appeared at the end of the list.

The <Test> puzzle is incredibly difficult. It's a 4x4x4 cube with pipes on five of the six faces. The last face of the cube has a piece parchment that scrolls a message if the puzzle is completed. It looks like the image shown above and the score appears to change every time the puzzle is solved.

Eventually, players figured out that the "score" is actually a timer that decrements its value by one every second. If someone solves the puzzle in the ten-second window near the time when the counter would reach zero (which only happens once every two hours), then she gets this message instead:

These two glyphs and the nonsense sentence are part of a bigger puzzle that included all of the games. Each game revealed a sentence with 16 consonants. When those 16 consonants are arranged in a 4x4 square and replaced by their glyph equivalents, each sentence revealed an image of a single letter. Taken together, those letters spelled the word "COLLABORATION," which would be needed later.

Phase 2: In the second round of puzzles, the release notes for Cogs included this message: "Due to a change of management, the previously instituted magic word has been replaced by that to which you are more traditionally accustomed." This time around, the players could access a new puzzle by typing the word "please."

In the new puzzle, each of the 13 movable tiles contained one of the glyphs from the previous set of puzzles. The title of the puzzle was "Best Laid Schemes...," in reference to a Scottish poem that is often translated as, "The best laid schemes of mice and men go 'oft awry." If the tiles are arranged in the same order as the 13 consonants in the completed phrase, then an Aperture Science login window opens, asking for a password. Here's what the puzzle looks like in its completed form:

The password "movable panels" was hidden in another game. Meanwhile, Cogs hid the password that was needed for a similar login screen for the game Wonderful End of the World by Dejobaan Games. We encoded their password in the two jack-in-the-box puzzles, shown here. Do you see it?

Each jack-in-the-box has one word in Morse code written around its left eye. Put together, the complete password is "every piece."

If players entered the correct password into the Aperture Science login page for any game, a .zip file was downloaded to their computer. These files contained tons of cool Portal 2 concept art. Hidden in the alpha channel of the images were black-and-white scenes of distinct Seattle locations that would become important for Phase 3. Furthermore, inside the .zip file was an extra chunk of binary data. If every game's .zip file was found, then these chunks could be sewn together to create yet another .zip file that could be unlocked with the prevously obtained password, "COLLABORATION." This file had even more cool artwork and photos of Seattle more locations.

Phase 3: In the third round of puzzles, I put the new challenges right in the menu without any need to type a password. The accompanying release notes included the notice: "Stripped away the thin veneer of politeness by removing any requirements to speak magic words... But don't think I didn't consider abracadabra." I also replaced some of the game's sounds with Portal-themed versions.

The new puzzle, appropriately called "Portals" introduced players to a new mechanic in which steam can be teleported from one moving tile to another. This two-sided puzzle, shown in the left image below is incredibly difficult. If a player completes the puzzle with a triple-gold rating, then another puzzle called "WCC" is unlocked, where WCC is an acronym for "weighted companion cube." This puzzle is shown in the center image below.

If the player completed this puzzle with triple-gold, then an Aperture Science window opened and GLaDOS recited a peculiar phrase referencing two of the aforementioned Seattle locations. This also added yet another puzzle, called "In the Box" to the end of the list.

Under most circumstances, upon completing "In the Box," the crank turns and the familiar jack-in-the-box character pops up. Some may have recognized the eerie jack-in-the-box tune as an excerpt from the song Still Alive from the Portal credits. If the player earns triple-gold, then GLaDOS appears instead, as shown in the last image above. This also opened an Aperture Science window and revealed yet another pecular GLaDOS phrase.

When the phrases from all of the games are used to connect pairs of Seattle locations, the word "nelipot" is spelled out. It didn't take player long to figure out that this is the name of a Steam group. Digging even deeper led to a screenshot with a QR code which pointed, in turn, to a webpage with a count-down timer. We referred to this final phase of the ARG as the crescendo.

During the crescendo, also referred to as glados@home, GLaDOS claimed that she was using the processors of Steam users to help reboot her system. By spending time in each of the 13 participating games, players could cut time from the Portal 2 launch clock. With the assistance of tens of thousands of players, Portal 2 finally launched at about 9:29pm PDT on Monday, April 18 — nine and a half hours earlier than the originally scheduled Tuesday morning launch.

What next?

Needless to say, we spent a lot of time making some fun, challenging new puzzles for the ARG, so I'll probably leave a variant of most of the puzzles in place when we get rid of the other ARG content.

If you're curious about puzzles from other games, just follow the links here:

Thanks to the ARG players for an amazing three weeks of fun!