Post news RSS And Now For Something Completely Different - Making a Demo for Subtext

How do you demo something without giving any of it away?

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Subtext is an ARG that plays out through real text messages, phone calls, and emails that the player receives. While Subtext isn't the first game to work this way, it's a format that many people won't be familiar with, so I wanted to create a demo to give players a chance to try it out (and also make sure that their phone is compatible). Traditionally a developer would simply cordon off the first few minutes of a game to serve as the demo, but this would not have been ideal for Subtext for several reasons:

  • The first substantial puzzle doesn't happen for a while after the start of the game
  • The whole idea is that the events of the game should feel like real life, so it would be a bit strange to have the action interrupted by a message saying you have to buy the full game to continue

So, I decided I would make the demo an entirely separate experience. The main qualities I wanted to communicate about the full game were:

  1. Personalization: Subtext feels like it is about you specifically
  2. Conversation: You interact with characters in Subtext the same way you do in real life

Note: Spoilers for the Subtext demo puzzle are up ahead. If you haven't already played the demo, consider doing so first.

For this I decided to take a page out of Majaestic's book and go meta. If you sign up for the demo, the first thing that will happen is nothing. For about 3 minutes after you get the "Registration Complete" screen, you won't get any contact whatsoever from the game. This gives you time to click over to another tab and half-forget that you even signed up, but it also suggests that maybe, just maybe, something has gone wrong. Eventually, you'll get a text:


It's not so much that the fourth wall has been broken, but that no one ever bothered to construct it to begin with. Many players don't even realize that they're talking to a bot at first. At this point, you'll be sent a puzzle image that looks a bit like this:


The letters will not be the same, however. This photo is dynamically generated because the puzzle involves the player's own phone number. To get the solution (the four letter word that goes in the blanks at the left), a player needs to first convert the letters into numbers using the key (4892 in this case), and then realize that those are the last 4 digits of their phone number. From there, hinted by the drawing of the tin can telephone, they can look at the last 4 digits of the number that sent them the puzzle in the first place, and convert them back into letters to get the answer. This is a short puzzle, but hopefully it shows the out-of-the-box nature of the game, since most of the information you need to solve it is in fact not in the image itself but already on your phone by the time you receive it.

While some people have found it confusing, I'm very pleased with how the demo came out overall. It communicates the strengths of the full game without tipping any of the actual plot, and throws players for a loop as they debate whether they're talking to a real person or not, a theme which returns throughout Subtext.

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