'True Detective' proves the genius of Frog Fractions, and the power of secrets

Opinion

“What if Rust was a vampire?”

This was said in a serious tone, but the evidence, which was mostly based on True Detective's use of crucifixes, didn’t add up. Rustin Cohle ages. He gets drunk and he watches himself in the mirror. It’s possible they were going for a "modern" form of vampirism, but ultimately the theory never really added up. (Warning: This post contains spoilers for True Detective, Frog Fractions and The Secret of NIMH)

That didn’t keep many of us from thinking that the last episode of True Detective would include some aspect of the supernatural. Hannibal gets away with its dark and brooding images by putting us into the mind of unreliable narrators. We see their hallucinations, and True Detective uses this trick as well. But the door was always open for a great old one to claim responsibility for these murderers, or to find some form of ... something that couldn’t be explained purely by reason.

Thinkprogress even wrote a piece about why the show needed supernatural elements to fully explore its theme. "If Hart and Cohle catch their human killers, only to be frustrated by the monstrous force the villains serve, the story becomes much more interesting." the article stated. "Hart and Cohle’s tough guy shtick become pathetically inadequate; evil of that magnitude demands a systematic response, something well beyond the ken of two rogue detectives."

Whether or not True Detective was, or should be, an exploration of the supernatural is beside the point. What’s amazing is that we were heading into the last episode and didn’t know. If a show has vampires or exists in the Cthulhu mythos, we understand the mythology going in. The rules and scope of the show’s content are laid out like a map, well-worn and rarely surprising. It’s rare to watch an episodic drama with no real knowledge of the stakes.

Were these men fighting other bad men, or was there more at play here? It gave the show an edge that most modern dramas lack, and something that video games are almost incapable of providing.

That is, until games like Frog Fractions.

The rabbit hole is a flat circle

Frog Fractions is a free game you can play online, and it starts as a rather plain, if irreverent, send up of educational games. You earn money, you buy upgrades, and it goes on for a while. But then you figure out that there’s a crack in the experience, and you begin to go deeper.

Remember that rush before you find the first warp pipes in Super Mario Bros.? The moment when you busted through the ceiling and began running on top of the level? Frog Fractions is constructed entirely of those moments, and anything more descriptive would take away part of the fun for first-time players. In fact, you should play it if you have not, and then finish this article when you're finished.

That sense of discovery and oddity used to be much more common. "Back in the 80s and 90s, every game was a weird artifact in which anything might happen around the next corner," Jim Crawford, the creator of Frog Fractions, told Polygon.

"In part, of course, this is because I was a kid and everything was more mysterious, but in part it's also that nowadays we're inundated with previews and strategy guides and forum chat — even if you consciously value mystery, it takes significant force of will to not go read everything available about a game that you're looking forward to. In the 80s, games were just super mysterious for free, with no effort required on the part of the developer. Nowadays you have to work at it."

Frog Fractions worked on it. What looks like a goofy edutainment title becomes a reality-spanning adventure that doesn't even pretend to play any set of rules, much less its own. The game began as a sort of Missile Command clone, but Crawford began piling on ideas once it became clear that there wasn't much to be done by way of perfecting an already nearly perfect game.

"Once I reached the point of it becoming a vertical scrolling shooter, I realized that the sky was the limit, and adding in Dance Dance Revolution arrows was the obvious next step," he said. "So in a very real sense, making the game was like falling down the rabbit hole in the exact same way that playing it was."

It sounds boring and almost expected when you lay out the game's development as a linear path, but most players who stumbled upon the game began by thinking it was a one-note idea ... and then suddenly they're playing a text adventure and wondering what the heck was going to happen next. The game gave very few clues to its actual nature, and it put the players into an odd state of vulnerability.

You had no idea where it was going, or where it would take you. That almost never happens in the modern world of gaming, and the concept came from another game designer refusing to read the game's tutorials. Crawford's response was to simply celebrate a lack of clear path.

"That was when I realized I could do something really special, and I started putting a lot of effort into not telling the player what's going on, but instead subtly guiding her into a mental space where she is pushing at boundaries and discovering the game's inner workings on her own," he explained.

Keeping that secret is easier on a free online game since you don't have to convince anyone to give it a shot, and there was never an attempt to monetize the game or capitalize on its online success. It remained a sort of weird haunted house left online, a rabbit hole that anyone could discover and fall into. There will be a sequel that's less linear but preserves the sense of discovery of the first, and the funding for the game is currently taking place on Kickstarter, where the project is halfway to its $60,000 goal.

That being said, we don't even know what that game will look like, and it won't be called anything recognizable. "I will not be putting my name or the name Frog Fractions on the final product. I will not be announcing its release, even to the Kickstarter backers," Crawford said. "I wasn't sure this would come across because it's a very weird thing to do in a Kickstarter, but people do seem to mostly understand what I'm doing and why I'm doing it."

The Yellow Frog

True Detective was interesting in part because we didn't know where the show as going, and that mystery was maintained through the majority of the first season. The sense of dread was strong enough, and Rustin's metaphysical ramblings arcane enough, that no one would have been surprised if the show introduced vampires, or zombies, or a doomsday cult worshiping the old gods ... who may or may be real in the show's mythology. There was always a sense that the characters could discover that their reality contained things of which they had only dreamed.

The ending was much more banal, though no less satisfying, and Cohle's hallucinations were just the results of a brain traumatized by experience, years of alcohol abuse and the unnamed drugs taken while undercover. He was a broken person in a world that more or less conformed to ours, and the show's possibilities were lessened dramatically. The symbol was just a symbol, and the rich and powerful got away. The show's last lines may have even been cribbed from a comic book.

Frog Fractions 2 has the possibility of breaking out of that rut, and becoming something that is able to invite the player into a world where the rules are completely unknown. The first season of True Detective played with this idea a bit before drawing back into standard anti-hero tropes, but that slight stumble shows just how rare true surprise has become in pop culture.

Crawford's favorite example is, oddly enough, the Secret of NIMH film adaptation.

"It uses the widespread trope of cartoon talking animals and puts them into a plot where scientists are trying to boost their intelligence in hopes of teaching them English, only to discover that all the animals already speak English," he explained. "I thought that was brilliant, hiding the major plot point of intelligent, talking animals in plain sight, relying on your assumption that this is just the stylistic conceit of a cartoon."

"I started putting a lot of effort into not telling the player what's going on"

Secrecy and surprise are audacious things in gaming, and Kickstarter is the only way this would work. People aren't often willing to pay for something they don't understand, and games like Frog Fractions wouldn't exactly survive the standard preview and endless interview cycles of most gaming PR.

Or maybe True Detective is only disappointing in this respect due to the show being over, and Frog Fractions 2 only exciting because it's still an unknown. The idea of surprise, and the mysteries behind things, are always more powerful than whatever secrets are ultimately revealed.

"I do think people want this stuff," Crawford said. "Humans love mysteries much more than they love answers, and it's much easier to create a compelling mystery than it is to create a satisfying answer."

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Polygon as an organization.

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