A spoiler-free explainer of the weirdest, most brilliantly surreal game of the decade
Released in October 2012, the bizarre browser-based Frog Fractions was a memorable – even life-changing – experience for many gamers. Die-hard fans of that mindbending edutainment spoof knew from cryptic statements made by its creator Jim Crawford that a sequel could eventually appear anywhere, at any time, and in any form. It had even become something of a punchline in the gaming community. Whenever anything absurd or unusual happened, fans would jokingly suggest that maybe this was just part of Frog Fractions 2.
After a lead up that unfolded like nothing else in the history of video game launches, the sequel received a surprise release on Christmas Eve, and immediately created a frenzy of activity on Twitter and Reddit as the news went viral. Frog Fractions 2 wasn't so much released as it was unleashed. Like the bellyburster xenomorph from the movie Alien, the game had been lurking inside of another game, biding its time and waiting for the perfect moment to erupt and unleash chaos and confusion on an unsuspecting world.
If you play the innocuous PC strategy sim Glittermitten Grove for a few hours, you’ll stumble upon a portal that leads you to Frog Fractions 2.
So what is Frog Fractions 2?
Where to start? It’s a simple text-based RPG in which you interact with letters and numbers instead of graphics, but in which everything is slightly...off. But it’s also a version of Flappy Bird with the flying toasters from old 1990s screensavers. And it’s also a game in which you have to shave off Barack Obama’s thick bristling beard before he can give a speech. All the while, pop-up messages barrage you with surreal gameplay tips and strange untrue facts about the band Korn.
Everything in Frog Fractions 2 is shot through with tongue-in-cheek self-awareness, a desire to undercut your every expectation, and a burning desire to satirize every stale trope and convention that has grown up around video games.
In a nutshell: It’s the strangest game you will ever play, by a very wide margin.
The multiple alternate reality games that led up to the release of the game were events in and of themselves
The unveiling of the game was the culmination of a multi-year campaign of clues and hints and misdirections. The fact that it is inside of Glittermitten Grove was revealed through a coded message derived from a series of strange symbols embedded in dozens of other indie games, from Firewatch to Quadrilateral Cowboy to Crypt of the Necrodancer.
Meanwhile, access to the Frog Fractions 2 content was unlocked via an entirely separate alternate reality game, one that required an army of amateur sleuths to decode messages hidden on fake websites, in Gameboy ROMs, and on floppy discs full of low-res illustrations of scantily-clad lady insects. Solvers found hidden messages in a book at a college library, applied a spectrograph to an audio file to uncover a secret filename, met up with some time travelers at preset GPS coordinates, and on and on and on. The rabbit hole went incredibly deep, and thousands who did not directly participate followed every fascinating twist. The ARG culminated with one of the players receiving a mysterious gizmo with a giant red button and a Post-It with "Launch FF2" scrawled upon it.
What was so memorable about the original Frog Fractions?
The best way to explain the Frog Fractions 2 phenomenon without spoiling it is to tell you a little bit about the original game. The first Frog Fractions is a free browser-based title that appeared in late 2012. You can play it here, and you should probably do so before you read any more and have the experience ruined by a synopsis. It takes 60 to 90 minutes to plumb its depths, but you’ll begin to get a sense of its uniqueness very quickly.
At first glance, Frog Fractions resembles an uninspired, cheesy educational game for kids. The splash screen shows a cartoon frog on a lilypad. An annoyingly catchy theme tune plays. There’s a blurb review: “Revolutionary! The absolute best way to teach your child about fractions!” says Annabelle Santorum, editor in chief of Didactics UK. (There is no such publication.)
Hit the play button, and you encounter something that’s somewhat similar to Missile Command. You control the titular frog, or rather the long tongue of the frog. Wave after wave of bugs appear, intent on gobbling up your stock of fruit. Every time you snag an insect with your tongue, the foe is replaced by a fraction: one-seventh, three-fifths, one-half, etc.
After each wave of insects, you can spend the fruit you have accumulated on upgrades: a Static Cling Tongue that pulls foes towards it, or a dragon that you can ride, which allows you to steer left and right as you gobble flies and moths.
After a few rounds, the game inexplicably shifts to a typing tutorial mode, in which you destroy bugs by tapping certain words into the keyboard. Then it shifts back to the tongue-projecting game. Eating bugs now produces decimal fractions instead of integer fractions. Around this point, you begin to notice that the upgrades you can’t yet afford are incredibly bizarre. There’s a work visa, a PR department, dance shoes, and a presidential swimming pool.
You can go on steering your frog left and right and wolfing down bugs indefinitely. But if you happen to steer downwards, you discover an entirely different screen full of an enormous stockpile of fruit. Gather it, and you can purchase the warp drive upgrade. The game then morphs into sci-fi mode, in which you dodge asteroids while bugs fire weapons at you.
Then things really go off the rails. You are arrested and put on trial in a bug courtroom, and you must choose between different dialogue options as the charges are read out to you. Then you are navigating through an endless subterranean cave system while a voiceover narration lays out a completely false history of the sport of boxing. Then, you’re playing a Zork-style text adventure. Then Frog Fractions becomes a rhythm game. Then it’s a business sim in which you are mass-producing bug pornography.
We swear to you, this is a real thing. We are not making any of this up.
Who is responsible for this and what did they hope to achieve?
Frog Fractions was created by Jim Crawford, a game designer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He gave a talk at the Game Developers Conference in 2014 in which he explained that his purpose was to reintroduce the sense of discovery and mystery that he feels is sorely lacking in today's games. "Stumbling on an unexpected secret makes the world feel more like a real space, and less like a crafted amusement park ride," he said.
Crawford believes that we’re living in “the age of spoilers,” in which we know exactly what every new bit of media we consume will be like before we sample it. Everything nowadays seems to come to us pre-chewed and semi-digested. Look at how many blockbuster video games never stray from the mechanics and tropes and formats of things that you’ve already played. Think about how movie trailers tend to give away the entire story arc, spoiling all of the best jokes and moments along the way. The rapturous response to those everything-you-know-is-wrong plot twists on TV shows like Westworld and Mr. Robot suggests that we live in a culture that is starved for surprise.
Crawford successfully Kickstarted his sequel to Frog Fractions in April of 2014, and completed it with additional assistance from Adult Swim Games – the quietly successful indie game publishing arm of the TV network – who are listed as the publisher of Glittermitten Grove.
So is this anything more than an elaborate put-on?
Underneath all of the craziness, it’s an honest-to-god playable game that’s longer and more ambitious than the original Frog Fractions. Even though your progress is constantly interrupted by non sequiturs and absurdities and completely unconnected minigames, each more unusual and hilarious than the last, there’s a core game there that unfolds over the course of six to eight hours.
There’s never been anything quite like Frog Fractions 2. Some claim to be underwhelmed by the totality of the experience but nothing could really live up to the level of anticipation that Crawford skillfully created. The real end point of this jounrey wasn’t Frog Fractions 2 – it was walking around for several years with the sense that anything and everything around you could be part of his game.