Ahoy! Last July, Netflix released a teaser trailer for Stranger Things season 3…by releasing a period-appropriate commercial for Starcourt Mall, a recent addition to the town. Why worry about multi-dimensional portals to hell dimensions that might lie dormant under the town when thriving businesses like Sam Goody, Waldenbooks, and Chess King are just a stone’s throw away? The only direct reference to prior seasons of Stranger Things that appeared in the trailer was the reluctantly chipper appearance of Scoops Ahoy ice cream parlor employee Steve Harrington, forced to cover up his signature hair for the sake of American capitalism. With Scoops Ahoy featuring so prominently in early marketing for the show, it was only slightly surprising to learn that Netflix partnered with Baskin Robbins to create Scoops Ahoy pop-up locations in Burbank and Toronto to bring back a taste of the 80s for fans of the show. The fact that these pop-up shops served as the trailhead for a binge-worthy alternate reality game that mixed spycraft and ice cream? That was the real surprise.
The Rocky Road to Scoop Snoop: All Aboard the USS Butterscotch
The new season of Stranger Things premiered on July 4th, but Scoops Ahoy was open for business two days earlier – so when Buzzfeed’s Crystal Ro went to the Burbank location, Ro knew enough to be suspicious of the morse code appended to the tub of U.S.S. Butterscotch ice cream and the Russian cipher wheel innocuously placed on the plexiglass. Players extracted the password CEREBRO from the phone call and received the instructions ‘SSH 18.104.22.168 -p 1985’, but were asked to return on July 5th. Once the first episode dropped, players realized that the password to get through to the next stage of the game was the name of Dustin’s communications system.
Outside of the brief mention of CERBERO and thematic similarities, the Stranger Things ARG is something that runs in parallel with the new season of the show, so players didn’t have to binge-watch the full season before diving into the show’s companion game. However, the rest of this article will dive fairly deeply into an experience that is still available as a single-player experience, so be warned.
A Daily Dose of Scoop Snoop: The Game Takes Shape
Starting on July 5th, players who visited 22.214.171.124 through a Secure Shell app were asked to join the Operation Scoop Snoop, a collective “band of sleuths that track down the mysterious, the multidimensional…the dangerous.” Their fear? The same portals that threatened Hawkins are opening up around the world. Since successfully logging into the SSH connection is potentially the hardest puzzle of the game, the below screenshot of logging in with root access is here for new players’ convenience.
Once players finished the registration process, their personal Scoop Snoop handler Shpion7 assigned daily missions to help track down these portals, and close them. New missions were released at 12PM EST every day, although players who arrived late can still catch up by playing through all previously released missions in a single session.
While early missions focused on research assignments into Cold War era nuclear testing sites and satellite launch records, the game soon transitioned into a game of parsing through documents for relevant information. In order to identify active portals, players skimmed through email archives of fellow Scoop Snoop members to locate GPS coordinates. Shutting down one of the portals requires sifting through additional Scoop Snoop emails to find information on four rings from the fictional Darkness Risen tabletop game.
Things Turn Pear-Shaped: A Shpion Our Midst?
While players took on a pivotal role in shutting down the first portal, Scoop Snoop agents deployed to the second portal location, only to find it was beset by “strange men in white suits”. Scoop Snoop supporters successfully shut down the portal before the men could interfere, but it spooked the team prior to their final assault on the portal at Three Mile Island, the Stranger Things ARG’s crowning achievement.
Up until this point, Operation Scoop Snoop missions were fairly simple and straightforward: sift through information, and report the answer back. For the raid on Three Mile Island, the mission transformed into a remote-assistance text adventure, with players guiding strike teams through a heavily guarded facility, relying only on their wits and a virtual stack of operational manuals.
Presented with a map of the facilities, players had to learn the appropriate commands to hack keypads, flood rooms with gas, and activate nuclear reactors to guide their team through the facilities. But with different model numbers requiring slightly different responses and instructions spread out across a half dozen different files, entering the appropriate command was surprisingly challenging. Going through this portion of the game felt like a higher stakes version of Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, where one missed detail hidden away in technical documents could have deadly consequences.
After navigating the team through the virtual maze of challenges, players realized Shpion7 was the Russian spy all along, just like the Russian translation of his username suggested. Players would have to repeat the incursion the next day, to unseat the Russians and take down the final portal once and for all. This final assault leveraged all the same game mechanics as the first round, but ramped up both the difficulty and the spectacle as players confronted the likely Demo-dog, Lucy.
The ASCII art fed through the lab’s “security cameras” did an admirable job of capturing the spirit of the show’s often Cronenbergian horror, particularly given the self-imposed restraints the team placed upon themselves.
I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream For Effective Marketing Tie-Ins
Every good Netflix binge is punctuated by at least one moment where Netflix asks the dreaded question: “are you still watching Stranger Things?” Clicking on the ‘Continue Watching’ button often comes with a twinge of guilt. Is Netflix suggesting that we should slow things down? Break up the marathon and spread the enjoyment out over a couple days?
The Stranger Things alternate reality game is vindication. The main thrust of the game launched less than 24 hours after the 8-episode season dropped, and based on the narrative arc, it’s likely the daily missions concluded with the second act of the Three Mile Island adventure on July 14th, less than two weeks after the show premiered. While the ARG didn’t offer spoilers for the show, players couldn’t have known that going in. This was a game designed for players who marathoned the show in a single session, designed to draw out that narrative dopamine hit for a couple more days. And that recognition took many forms: some of the game’s most active players saw their online handles receive in-universe mentions as the game progressed, calling out their achievements and contributions to the game.
Baskin Robbins wasn’t the only company to collaborate with Netflix on Stranger Things related promotions, but it was ultimately the most satisfying. Nike released a line of sneakers by reporting that several shipments of shoes from 1985 went missing, and Microsoft offered a series of Camp Know Where STEM workshops in their stores as in-universe tie-ins, and Dungeons and Dragons capitalized on nostalgia to bring back its iconic red box starter set under Stranger Things branding. But the Baskin Robbins let players live in that world, earning the message that will live in my mind as the conclusion of the experience, whatever else may follow:
SUBJECT: Ice cream anyone?
Anyone else need to just sit on the couch and eat a pint of ice cream after all that?
After all that? Heck yeah, Sweet Tooth McGee.
The Stranger Things ARG is still available online to play, with an added benefit: now that both Netflix season and ARG are likely complete, both experiences can be binged. To assist in that task, you can read up on the game on Reddit or join the conversation in the game’s Discord server, both of which were immensely helpful in compiling this article.