On July 8th, Hello Games will run a radio advertisement on at least one of Howard Stern’s Sirius channels, stations 100 and 101. The radio spot won’t be promoting the company’s game of interstellar exploration, No Man’s Sky…at least, not directly. Instead, if past ads are any indication, it will serve as a signal to the game’s fans that the website of yet another fictional company has unlocked, delving deep into the game’s lore as part of the alternate reality game Waking Titan.
From Hype Machine to Stealth Launches
When the video game No Man’s Sky launched last August, it was prefaced by over three years of hype, showcasing the game’s flexibility in creating an entire universe of procedurally generated worlds, promising an unprecedented sandbox for exploration and discovery. The game’s bold promises encouraged half a million players to load up the game on launch day, although many fans left disappointed when comparing the promised release against its reality. Pre-release hype promised gamers the moon, the stars, and everything in between, and the version of the game that shipped failed to measure up to those expectations.
Over the next year, Hello Games took a considerably more measured approach to the No Man’s Sky‘s major updates seeking to bridge the expectation gap for the game’s dedicated fans. News of the game’s free Foundation and Path Finder updates were only announced a week before the versions went live, helping to add greater depth to the game’s almost zen-like gameplay of planetary hopping. The communications strategy around the game’s relatively frequent updates fit well with the overall tone of the game, with its gradual discovery process.
As a game, No Man’s Sky is a plodding journey of revelation, as the player’s character gradually builds a vocabulary to understand the three other intelligent species that populate the game’s universe. Understanding the Gek, the Korvax, and the Vy’keen and their troubled history with the enigmatic planetary guardian Sentinels only leads to the game’s broader mystery: what is Atlas, and what is your character’s relation to it? The game provides partial answers to these questions. It’s here that Waking Titan makes its entrance.
Cassette Tapes and Radio Broadcasts
Last month, Hello Games reached out to the moderators for the game’s subreddit to distribute a series of six numbered cassette tapes– installments in a 16 cassette series. Messages hidden in the spectrograms of each tape spell out the word “PORTAL”, hinting at one of the game’s main enigmas: a series of monoliths located on certain planets within the game with portals reminiscent of Stargate, with no Daniel Jackson to activate them.
Around the same time, project-wt.com started directing people to listen for something on a series of global radio stations, with broadcasts. Starting on June 8, a series of radio stations all aired a radio spot declaring, “We are the mystery hiding in plain sight. You will find us. This broadcast is the first clue.” As with the cassette tapes, examining the commercial’s spectrogram led to a website that would serve as the hub for the alternate reality game, WakingTitan.com.
Future radio spots introduced a series of fictional companies. Echo Software is a company that specializes in bringing back voices of the dead using home video recordings as source material. Multiverse Technologies focuses on topological mapping technologies. Myriad provides satellite-based storage solutions, while Superlumina specializes in temporal communications, sending messages through the past.
Exactly how these companies fit together is a mystery, but poring through the websites has slowly revealed a loose web of connections tying the four companies together.
HAM Radio Enthusiasts and Regularly Scheduled Programming
The Waking Titan website itself is deceptively simple: it features six triangular sigils arranged in a hexagon along with a series of sixteen glyphs lined up along the bottom of the screen. Solve a sigil, unlock a garbled message and the next sigil in the sequence, along with information on where and when to listen for the next radio ad. Solving glyphs doesn’t currently do anything beyond changing the glyph’s color from white to red, but additional puzzles on the assorted websites will often unlock PDFs of internal communications between the various companies.
The link at the center of the hexagon leads players to a “Getting Started” guide on the Edison Township Amateur Radio Club, a HAM radio enthusiast’s site that has been co-opted to serve as a platform for exploring these strange radio broadcasts. The site is run by Emily Warren, who provides weekly updates on the alternate reality game’s progress on her YouTube channel. ETARC’s forums also serve as the in-game hub for discussing the investigation’s progress.
Bringing Waking Titan into the Real World
While the WakingTitan.com site offers a straightforward route to submitting puzzle solutions, the paths to cracking puzzles can vary greatly, focusing as much on site exploration and social engineering as they do on ciphers and encryption. To solve the puzzles, you need to learn something about the companies. For instance, successfully reaching out to Multiverse about their job opening for an expert in Algebraic Topology triggered Hello Games to send a seventh cassette tape to CobraTV, a YouTuber covering the Waking Titan saga. Tones recorded on the B side of that tape provided the encoded password for one of the glyphs.
Calling the phone number for Superlumina provided instructions for a live deaddrop, where a player went to The Cumberland in London to meet up with Agent 59, who handed off a handwritten note that unlocked the fifth sigil, confirming the next radio broadcast on Howard Stern’s network. Agent 59’s exchange also serves as an example of one of Waking Titan‘s most fascinating quirks: sometimes, puzzle solutions aren’t black-and-white.
Ambiguous Puzzles with Ambiguous Answers
Every puzzle solution submitted on WakingTitan.com is either right or its wrong, and the website provides very clear feedback to let players know where they stand. Bright colors and futuristic sound effects let players know when an answer is right, and when it’s wrong. But some of the intermediary steps can get a bit muddier, and it’s increasingly looking like that’s a feature of the gameplay, not a bug.
At various points during the alternate reality game, the player base has been asked to choose between options by popular vote. The first time it happened, players were asked to select one of six different numbers. While the number 16 was an early favorite because of its repeated use in the game, “80” eventually came out ahead as players pointed to numerous references to Mercury (element #80, which shares the initials Hg with Hello Games). As a reward for “succeeding”, 80 Steam keys for No Man’s Sky were distributed at random to the playerbase.
For the second vote, players received a series of five emails referencing the Battle of Hastings, Joseon, the Royal Society, and Turing, paired with a math equation that solved for 256. Players then had to choose between numbers representing the RGB values for green, purple, pink, blue, or red. One theory argued that each phrase in the emails could be associated with the color red. The theory that won out argued that the 256th galaxy in No Man’s Sky is pink. Players were rewarded for “succeeding” with another 100 Steam keys for the game, distributed at random to the playerbase.
Agent 59’s London meetup was the most open-ended question of all, with the player heading out for the drop asked to provide the passcode answering, “what was the first”. The community decided the first password of the game was the correct answer, leading to the following exchange:
Agent 59: Do you have a passcode for me?
MoulesMariner: I do
Agent 59: What is it?
Agent 59: 16? Why did you decide on 16?
MoulesMariner: It was the first passcode for Waking Titan.
Agent 59: Alright. Were there any other answers you considered?
MoulesMariner: There were. Orion, Hyperion. I need to look. Bear with me.
Agent 59: Alright.
Agent 59 goes on to ask, “How did you decide on that answer versus all of the other answers…why did you trust their decision over your own decision?”
More than anything else, the No Man’s Sky alternate reality game delights in this balance between certainty and uncertainty. The game provides a clear feedback loop on puzzle solutions on its main site, but delights in flaunting in ambiguity outside the primary structure of the Waking Titan hub. It provides a rich tapestry of fictional companies with near future technology that may well have contributed to creating the world of No Man’s Sky, but dodges almost every opportunity to tie that narrative together and explain itself, more than a month after launch.
The Once-a-Week ARG, and the Community That Sustains It
Hearkening back to I Love Bees‘ Update Tuedays, Waking Titan has run on a set schedule, with new content releases every Saturday. That gives players the weekend to devour the new puzzles and narrative tidbits, with the rest of the week to regroup and discuss. As a result, the community is well-organized even for alternate reality games, making this one of the easier experiences to get caught up on the story.
In addition to the in-game resources of ETARC’s forums and Emily Warren’s vlogs, The Game Detectives manage a wiki providing a linear walkthrough of Waking Titan‘s puzzles, along with dedicated Discord channels for discussing the game’s puzzles and its meta-narrative. YouTubers like Orbit TV and Cobra TV have created their own videos with frequent ARG updates, theories, and even interviews.
And with only one sigil left to complete the hexagon that has been the centerpiece of Waking Titan since launch, now is a good time to skim through the many resources available to get caught up.