Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Portals Within Portals: Valve Releases ARG

It's times like these that make me love the Internet and its people.

As of yesterday (March 1st), Valve gave Portal a minor and cryptic update: 'Changed radio transmission frequency to comply with federal and state spectrum management regulations' along with a new achievement, 'Transmission Received' who's description was merely '?'.

This was just the beginning of a sprawling, exceptionally complicated ARG (nicknamed the Dinosaur Mystery after the name of certain audio files) which the gaming community turned all its power towards solving, with astonishing and ingenious methods. Read below for the full story so far!

So, from the top. Starting up Portal to see what had been changed, those who had already completed the game once found that the radio in their starting chamber had changed slightly: it now had a red light on its front, and followed the player's angle of view when picked up (as opposed to remaining parallel with the ground). A little extermination revealed that carrying the radio to an invisible, unmarked spot in the first level (in this case on top of the Big Red Button) resulted in the radio picking up a morse code message! It is far too fast for anyone but the most expert naval officers to pick up. Some more exploration revealed each a radio in each and every test chamber of the game and several in the 'escape' levels, each of which returned either a morse code message or an unintelligible mechanical hissing sound when brought to specific locations.

Some industrious fellows waded into the Portal game files and dug up the audio for the radio signals. Slowing down the Morse code a steam forums member by the name of Klusark translated the messages, revealing messages such as 'interior transmission active external data line active message digest active' and (after a little MD5 hash translation) 'The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog'.

SSTB Images

But things really started to get complicated when Darth Tealc realised the 'noise' was something called a Slow Scan TV signal (an audio-to-image signal often used by amateur radio operators. With this knowledge, he decoded the signal into a collection of images: close-ups of individual computer keys, (often wrong) physics equations, photos of abstract items like a skull or a hula-girl doll. Many of these images also had numbers out of 34 in the corner. So, arranging the conspicuous numbers and letters in ascending order of their labels, the community was left with: 9459C6CAC9C203B8128B7CC63068D4FD. Steam forumite zpr23 resolved this to a Seattle phone.

BBS Connection

With some fiddling, explorers managed to connect to this number using BBS, a pre-internet networking system that just makes me think of what Matthew Broderick uses in WarGames. They are asked for a username and password. Using a hint from one of the Morse code messages, they entered 'backup' and 'backup'... revealing a slew of relatively high-resolution ASCII-art images! - LINK

Along with were some Aperture Sciences memos, including one from founder Cave Johnson announcing he is memoing from beyond the grave. Another examines the relative pros and cons of using (in turn) the 'hoboes', orphans and the aged as test subjects.

Who Did It?

Now this did not just occur on the Steam Forums, where there are two main threads operating in different styles devoted to this event. There are reports of teams on 4Chan's /o/ board, the SomethingAwful forums and elsewhere. At various times through the night people would post updates on what the other teams had learned on the other sites across the web, each team often building off of each other's work. 

As for who made this, I am not alone in thinking this has the distinctive style of Adam Foster (aka Cargo Cult) who used to play exactly this kind of obscure, museum-level technology easter-egg hunt with the 'acolytes'; fans of his MINERVA: Metastasis mod for Half-Life 2. Foster was eventually hired by Valve, perhaps as much for this sort of thing as for his masterful level design abilities.

What Does It All Mean?

Obviously this is all ramping up to the (re-?)announcement of Episode Three and/or Portal 2. The current speculation is that these are in-fact one in the same; that Episode Three will involve a serious amount of Portal-style puzzles amidst the Borealis. If this is the case, it seems likely that the Cave Johnson AI is part of the ship as well.

There is also a hint as to when this announcement may come. The GlaDOS system reached through the BBS connection has a version number of 3.11. It seems likely to much of the community that this in fact is a reference to March 11th (in American date notation), one of the days of this year's Games Design Conference.

So keep your eyes and ears open. After three years of waiting, we might just be on the verge of the concluding part of the Half-Life 2 story.

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