That Badass Portal ARG

So, you’ve probably heard about the glut of crazy Valve news that’s popped up in the past week: Portal 2, Steam for Mac, all that jazz. When the alternatereality game announcing Portal 2 came up, I heard about it within half an hour or so and spent the whole night camping out on the Steam forums, watching people with actual tech skills solve it while I pretended to do homework. Fantastic times. Later, when I had the chance to describe the scope of the ARG to a few of my friends, I found time to reflect on what Valve actually did with that stuff. And it was still pretty astonishing to me, even after seeing it all come out.

Change the ending to a game you released three years ago to build hype on a sequel? If they’d done it badly, people would have been pissed, but since Valve are digital wizards whose fantastic PR and mastery of our fanboy/girl brains amounts to some kind of crazy blood magic, and because they’re effin brilliant, everyone was excited about it. It’s a new kind of game marketing. How often does that happen? Some people in the Valve forums were suggesting that Valve’s hiring of super-skilled MINERVA: Metastasis creator Adam Foster, who used to like to do his releases and updates in the style of ARGs, had something to do with this. Even if they hired him just for his crazy-good map design, they would have been justified; hiring a smart-as-hell mod designer for his self-promotion techniques is a bit more than that. It’s yet another example of how much Valve know what they’re doing.

Apparently some people hate ARGs. But I am not these people, and I have never met any of them. I actually prefer it. Television advertising for games is usually a bit condescending, when you think about it: all that prerendered video, all the absurdly-brief in-game footage, clipped down to just the finishing moves and the glitter, as if they’re trying to hide something. And the enormous quantity of advertising they do on game review sites, which are ostensibly there to provide consumers with unbiased opinions, can actually be unethical.

But stuff like the Portal ARG is special. It treats consumers with a certain amount of praise and consideration that traditional marketing techniques don’t: it’s an intelligence-stimulating, community-flattering kind of thing. If Valve thought we were all dumb as bricks, it would never have decided to do the release as an ARG. If Valve didn’t give a shit about its community, it wouldn’t have done an ARG. The other kinds of hilarious advertising they do, like the TF2 updates, are drenched with an exuberant irony that also grants intelligence to the consumer, but without being exclusive, or telling jokes meant to leave anyone confused. It doesn’t take much brainpower to appreciate the Saxton Hale comic, but it’s dumb in a current, conscious kind of way. AN APE WILL DIE ON EVERY PAGEThere are plenty of cultural references in there, such as the fake comic covers, for anyone who has the context to understand them. It speaks of extraordinary care on Valve’s part. But this is what we’ve come to expect from Valve, so even though we’re excited, surprised, and appreciative, we’re not as surprised as we would have been if, say, Ubisoft pulled this.

But if this kind of thing catches on elsewhere, what could happen? Will it become typical for game studios to produce, say, mid-season DLC designed to link games with their sequels? That would be cool, but it would be coolest if the DLC was free. Will more companies start putting the attention and care into their fanbases that Valve already has? I bet a lot are trying, but they don’t have Steam, so it’s harder for them. Or is this a sign that games as products could become more fluid, that auto-updates to official game plot could become a typical phenomenon? Maybe, but there’s a lot of danger in that: mishandling such a thing could be seen as an invasion of player experience, a breach of trust. Or will this inject more energy into PC gaming as a platform experience—the only platform where games and the internet lie so close together? PC games have always been particularly creative in comparison to console games, and today we’ve got an indie community with a lot of energy and innovation—a community Valve draws from. It would be nice to see more developers get excited about PC gaming again because of that innovation, but we’re always going to have to deal with the hobbling millstone of piracy, too, won’t we?

Ambiguous situations and troubling questions aside, I see the ARG as a good sign for PC gaming. People still care, guys. There are a million bajillion of us out there, and not everybody thinks we’re idiots. It’s awesome.