As previously written here, the recent Steam Holiday Sale was done with an overhaul of changes. Or cuts. Or…possibly something more? While traditionally accompanying the seasonal sales, the former “minigames” and community events had been cut out this go-round. However, consistent with its noir theme, it appears Valve had indeed continued an event for the sale, only this one was hiding behind yet another ARG (Alternate Reality Game, prior example explained here for the Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth launch).
To begin, Valve released comics during the Sale, chronicling a murder mystery. These simply appeared to be comics consistent with Valve’s other comics used during sales. However, some intrepid sleuths over at r/steamsalesdetectives manage to uncover a critical clue – the bar codes on each of the pages remained the same. Not only that, but the bar code matched the bar code on the back of Agent 47’s head from the Hitman series.
The next step was to input the bar code number into the prompt and see what happened. The prompt accepted the number, and spat out “ic/4f21ca7.” This phrase was then added to the end of the comic’s URL (store.steampowered.com/wintercomic) with the “ic” overlapping with the “comic” at the end. This began a download of a file called 1fceB2a72c633.wav.
When the sound file is played, a man’s voice is heard, saying: “I was on the right track. I could feel it. Tomorrow I was going to search again.” Ominous.
After getting this far, many more people hopped aboard the hype train. Is this a reveal for a new a game? What is Valve hiding? …Half Life 3…?
Several more leads were discovered. When a user typed “Blitzen Incident,” a common reference in the comic, the Steam store led to Grim Fandango Remastered.
When the password “hot toddies and maseratis,” again from the comic, is typed into the aforementioned hidden prompt while on the Grim Fandango Page, Steam redirects the user to the store page for Undertale.
Another user found that increasing the brightness on one of the Steam Holiday Trading cards (obtained via using the Discovery queue), revealed a code “794E2CEA991.” This code was then added to the comic URL like the first code above, and another .wav file was discovered.
The audio file is another male voice, this time saying: “I’ve been to Lima Four times. Stayed at all the best Hotels. I used to go to dance halls and Tango with Marie Carmen until the sun came up. The Bravos and accolades would Echo and Echo until the boys in Uniforms shut us down.”
The words in the file reference the NATO phonetic alphabet. The NATO letters used in the audio are an anagram of the phrase “Bullet Hell,” a game tag used on Undertale’s store page.
When the phrase “Bullet Hell” is used on the secret prompt on the Undertale page, you get redirected to the page for Ikarugu, a Japanese bullet hell game.
When you increase the brightness on the Day 7 card, a set of dungeon master symbols are revealed. The symbols translate to the phrase “Loyagorku.”
When this phrase is added to the comic URL, yet another .wav file is downloaded. This time the audio is in Japanese, and the translation matches to: “The Forgotten road leads to hindrance and recompense.”
When the audio file spectrum is analyzed the phrase “fv7531” appears. Entering this phrase on the Ikarugu store page secret prompt grants a certain badge – a Red Herring.
Finally, one user blew up another one of the pictures from the comic and found a tiny pixelated lambda. The lambda is used in the Half-Life logo.
So what does this all mean? There are three main schools of thought:
- Valve noticed people snooping around and added the ARG as an afterthought, with no end goal, hence triggering the cache problem on Christmas. Thus, the badge is the final goal, telling everyone it was ultimately nothing.
- Valve added the ARG purposefully, but never intended its scope to be greater than the sale itself, and used it as a substitute for the typical community events. The badge is the final prize.
- Valve intentionally implemented the ARG, its conclusion has yet to be determined (the red herring being exactly that – a red herring), and the ultimate prize is some game reveal (Half Life, Left for Dead, Portal)
Now, Valve has used such ARGs in the past, notably with the Potato ARG for the reveal of Portal 2. So it is not entirely out of the norm for Valve to use an ARG for a game reveal. However, they have made no formal announcements regarding the ARG.
Only time will tell what all this means (I hope that its #3!). Valve has remained mum but rumors suggest that the ARG may continue on to other sales or events on Steam. With all the whirling rumors, what do you think the result will be?