"20xx_@3!1#3@2#2!1#3_v4.zip" is a game created along with The Coolmath Games ARG - a two-week social media campaign revolving around the story of an employee at Coolmath Games finding a strange, canceled game. From October 17 to October 26, the employee would post the findings from their investigation on Twitter and Instagram. These included messages from a co-worker and puzzling text to decipher. On the final day, the game was published on Coolmath Games and was only playable from October 26 to October 31 until removed from the site entirely.
The game follows a young boy lost in the forest. He's looking for his friends and must travel various paths. On some paths, clicking on a strange object will have the player solve a Hangman word puzzle. Once they complete the puzzle, they will receive a red balloon. The player can leave the path or click on a glitched bug to solve another puzzle. Solving this second puzzle gives the player a glitched, black balloon.
There are three possible endings:
- Bad Ending: The player collects no balloons. At the end of the path, a beast eats the boy.
- Neutral Ending: The player collects all six red balloons. At the end of the path, the boy floats out of the forest. However, this is not the end.
- True Ending: The player collects all six red and black balloons. At the end of the path, the boy meets the beast. This time, the beast doesn't eat the boy. The two float out of the forest together, but did they escape?
Once the player has reached the True Ending, they cannot play the game again.
The Ideation Process and Lore
I created this project with the director of Coolmath Games' social media, Maddy Marcus. With a love of horror and ARGs, I suggested the idea to Maddy in late May 2023. She loved the idea! Together with our product team, we worked to craft a narrative surrounding the ARG.
The ARG was about Coolmath Games' version of Hangman. The game would focus on the two main characters: Balloon Boy and Beast. We wanted to create a fake backstory for these characters and the creation of Coolmath Games' Hangman.
In the spirit of Halloween, we injected little bits of horror. The narrative focused on a solo developer contracted by Coolmath Games to create a Hangman game. After approving the character designs and mechanics, the developer got to work. However, while developing the game, strange errors would appear. The puzzles could only have specific answers since using anything else resulted in an error. The developer had a worrying thought: what if the game was alive?
The game then began to take a darker turn with darker routes being created. The team reviewing the game immediately cut ties with the developer and worked with a new one to create what is now the current version of Hangman.
But a curious employee found a suspicious, misplaced folder in the office one day...
Puzzle & Post Creation
I worked with Maddy to create social media posts to promote the narrative. The posts would be from the employee who found the files as they documented their journey in trying to find this game. These posts would include emails with the original developer and strange messages found.
Along with these posts were puzzles for the player to solve. On October 20, an image of a hole would appear on the right side of the Coolmath Games homepage. When clicking this hole, players were taken to a glitchy 404 page with tap code in the URL, morse code on the browser tab, and binary code on the page itself. When users translated all the puzzles, they deciphered the following:
URL and tab - I'M LOST
Binary code content: Hello? Can you hear me? I'm looking for someone. I hear strange noises. Please, help me.
The next puzzle was posted on October 24. The game zip file would be found and included in the zip was a file called "READ ME.txt" At the bottom of the file were six sentences that contained a glitched word. This glitched word was tap code that was converted to symbols on top of the keyboard. These words, when translated, were the answers to the second set of puzzles in the game.
I developed the "prototype" in Unity from June to October of 2023. The game went through various iterations and debugging before becoming what is today. The game was meant to be polished enough to play but a little buggy enough to feel like a lost prototype.
The story puts players in the shoes of Balloon Boy trying to find his friends. The player can explore side paths with Balloon Boy commentating on the creepiness of the forest and feeling things were not as they seemed. There are two texts on the bottom of the game: one that says "found" and another in garbled text and symbols (which deciphered to "found"). Exploring these side paths gave the player a puzzle to solve. Once this puzzle was solved, Balloon Boy received a red balloon. The player can then go back to the main path or click on a glitched bug to solve a second puzzle. Solving the second puzzle gave Balloon Boy a black balloon.
Depending on the amount of balloons collected, the player got one of three endings. The endings were meant to be vague to allow players to interpret what actually happened. The concept I created was to show that Balloon Boy and Beast were trapped in this game and knew something weird was happening. The True Ending results in them trying to escape the game together, but alas, that could never happen.
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