It starts with an image of a VHS tape, hovering on your desktop. Click on that, and the game begins, with a sketchy MS-DOS-style menu screen. You're given a multiplayer server list, and they're all empty. Click on one, and you enter a CTF game of a Quake-era FPS. Return the flag once, and strange things start happening: Twin Peaks-esque music will blare from a record player that appears in one part of the map. You spot a dark figure watching you, which flickers away as you get closer.
The dark figure reappears. You discover the server is keeping someone alive. Its creator joins the game, and begs you not to return the flag for a third and final time. When you do, this short, free narrative game called No Players Online ends. An empty multiplayer map, it turns out, is a fantastic setting for a horror game.
"For me it started because I was doing a course in level design, so we were building a level for Unreal Tournament," says designer Adam Pype, who made No Players Online with sound designer Viktor Kraus and Ward D'Heer, a fellow student at the Digital Arts and Entertainment game school at Belgian university Howest. "When you make a level, you spend a lot of time just walking around empty maps, and observing the environment and checking the design. I thought it was a real cool atmosphere, just walking around multiplayer-designed maps all on your own. I thought this would be a good premise for a horror thing." Pype made the game and submitted it in the Haunted PS1 jam in November 2019.
That should've been the end of No Players Online, but as the game grew in popularity, it became something more. What came next was an elaborate, unsettling ARG that involved a real Belgian phone number, a real-life note hidden in a forest, and an entirely different game that hid clues to unraveling the true ending of this novel horror experience. This would capture the imaginations of amateur internet sleuths—and create a spooky metagame that Hideo Kojima would envy.
No Players grew into an ARG simply because people were overthinking what was already there. "You'd play for ten minutes or something, that's what we made in the first four days to put in for the jam," Pype says. "I added a small Easter Egg that if you quit out of the game and played it again, there was one line [of dialogue] that was different. But after the game launched and got attention, I saw videos of people finding that Easter Egg and being totally obsessed, thinking there's more to it. And I thought I'd screw with them, and add a little extra part to it, so that something would happen. And we kept on adding stuff to it until we accidentally made an entire ARG."
Its developers would gradually build on the game, hinting on No Players Online's itch.io page that entering the Konami code would let players see other endings. Players discovered they could make an eye eerily appear in the sky. Shooting the eye with your gun cuts to a video of a person's hand drawing arrows with a pencil. Entering those arrows with your keyboard made a png appear on your desktop, with a date in the corner. On this date, the developers added an email address to the game's itch page. Emailing that gave you a spooky autoreply from a fictional developer. In his signature, there was a link to a Geocities-esque itch.io page for an unknown game called 'EYE'.
This is where the ARG gets really interesting. EYE is about walking a dog down a dark path, but you never see the dog. After a minute of walking, you come to a pier. When you walk off the pier's edge, a nasty sound effect plays and the game closes. Another image of a VHS tape appears on your desktop, mirroring the start of No Players Online. The ensuing video offers another clue that leads to the real finale. The idea of using an entirely different game to help solve the mystery is very cool, and it makes you buy into this fiction of long-abandoned game projects that have taken on a sinister life of their own.
EYE actually started as a different game. "The inspiration for EYE came from a totally different hook," says designer Ward D'Heer. "Adam was staying at my place when we were making it. In the beginning, we were working on a totally different project, and we had writers' block. We were kind of stuck. And we went for a long walk with the dog. He ran away, and it was dark. And we felt if we were able to capture that atmosphere in the EYE game, which is about walking a dog, we thought we'd have something unique and special."
"Then while we were making it, we decided, 'what if we did something extra for No Players Online?'" Pype adds. "So that's how that happened." The game was made in four days and the ARG was made in six. "I think we were just very motivated," D'Heer says.
An entire community formed around solving the game's many mysteries. "They set up a Discord server, where they were solving the riddles," says D'Heer. "And I joined it, because my name wasn't in the credits for No Players Online itself back then, and they didn't know I actually worked on the game. And I saw them solving everything. We thought they would solve it in a week, and they solved it in an hour or something, it was amazing."
"It was really made up on the go," Pype says. Not all parts of the ARG were solved by players—an automated phone message hiding Morse Code had to be published on Bandcamp because the audio quality was too poor through a traditional landline. In one instance, too, a code was found by datamining the game rather than solving it as intended. It didn't always pan out perfectly.
"It was really difficult to balance it as too easy or too hard," Pype says. "It was either too easy that they solved it in an hour, or it was too hard that they didn't solve it and datamined everything. I feel like that's definitely a big problem with ARGs, just getting the difficulty right." The finale of the game takes place in a hidden developer room, where entering the right number makes the credits roll.
The final element of the ARG involved figuring out coordinates that, when entered onto Google Maps, gave you the location of a forest in Belgium. Someone actually went there, and found a poem written on a piece of paper, which represented the end of the game's journey. "I eventually, for the very last part where they had to go to the woods and stuff, did help them out a bit with very cryptic Discord status messages," Pype says.
No Players Online's basic premise is clever, making me wonder what a horror game set in Halo's Blood Gulch or Unreal Tournament's Facing Worlds would be like. But this extremely detailed metagame, and the effort people made to uncover the truth behind it, makes the whole thing a bit mythical. This horror game is actually two connected horror games, surrounded by a universe of supporting materials that add to the lore of No Players Online. "Through the ARG, we also get the chance to put more question marks behind a lot of things," says D'Heer. "The mystery makes it scarier."
I ask the developers why the game and subsequent ARG resonated as much as they did. "I think it really captured people's imaginations because it's something you can keep talking about," Pype says. "It's a real community event. But the game itself, what's really interesting for us about the initial reception of the game, is seeing people who could relate to being alone on a server. I think we tapped into this very specific nostalgia that a lot of people have."