Category: News (page 1 of 172)

Spycraft and Sundaes with the Stranger Things ARG

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 34.68.105.48 -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.

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Global Crypto Hunt Tracks Down “Satoshi’s Treasure”

On April 16th, the first three keys to a global scavenger hunt with a million dollar prize were released. To win Satoshi’s Treasure, players must chase after 1,000 keys with clues scattered across the world. The first individual or team to assemble 400 of these keys will be able to stitch them together using Shamir’s Secret Sharing Scheme to claim the private key to a Bitcoin wallet, and control over the hefty sum.

Finding the First Keys
The first three keys were released in dramatic fashion: on the SatoshisTreasure.xyz website, the following clue was posted on April 15th:

The first of one thousand, they are hidden in locations around the earth, in places where many dwell and one with only a small number of inhabitants. These locations can be discovered by monitoring the output of the primitive orbitals known in your time as GALAXY18, EUTELSAT 113, TELSTAR 11N, and TELSTAR18V at 1PM EST, APRIL 14th in the year 2019.

Searching for those “primitive orbitals” turned up Blockstream’s Satellite network, which provides a service that lets users pay to send messages via satellite to receivers trained to listen to them. A good Samaritan posted the message to an encrypted PasteBin alternative, revealing a series of GPS coordinates for locations around the world, and instructions to appear at noon, local time on April 16th. When I went to the Times Square location, the first key was wrapped around a QR code on a sandwich board a man was wearing.

Scanning the QR code leads to a page asking for the passphrase, and entering the phrase unlocks the first key fragment, along with puzzle-themed quotes.

In a recent newsletter post, Satoshi’s Treasure co-creator and face of the game Eric Meltzer notes,

People showed up to the 10 spots we indicated around the world where keys would appear en masse—some drove over 3 hours to get to a spot. Others figured out how to brute force the encryption we used and solved the clues without having to travel (something which we hoped would happen, but thought would take weeks—in reality it took 30 minutes..)

People are forming teams, talking strategy, speculating on the value of keys and where the next clues will show up… and our hypothesis that Bitcoin and cryptography enable a new type of online/offline game experience seems to be getting validated. Subreddits are being created. Telegram groups are forming. Our poor mongoDB is getting hammered with signups. We’re all a bit exhausted after this first day, but we’re also incredibly excited to see what people do with the next set of clues.

The Times Square location had one player travel from Virginia to find out what was going to happen, and one enterprising team got to the location early to post flyers with QR codes driving to a recruitment page for their particular crew. As for the brute-forcing, John Cantrell released a write-up of his process solving the first three keys without needing to travel to the locations, making the initial set available to everyone committed enough to read through the post.

A Game of Trust, and Hints of Things to Come
The first three keys were released publicly with little fanfare. But in an interview with the Citizen Bitcoin podcast, Meltzer explains one of the challenges of Satoshi’s Treasure that will likely unfold as the game progresses, explaining “there’s a really tricky problem with this…if you want to join a team, you actually have to prove that you have keys they don’t, but you don’t want to reveal the keys.” Rather than relying on players to develop tools to manage this verification process, Meltzer and the team behind the hunt will be releasing a tool in the coming weeks that will let players prove that they have keys without revealing the keys themselves. However, since this challenge is as much about collecting people capable of finding future keys as it is about collecting already uncovered keys, that will only solve part of the challenge here. During the podcast, Meltzer also provides a brief explanation of two test hunts conducted on the MIT and USC campuses to work out the more obvious gameplay bugs before going global. Vestiges of these hunts remain on the @ToshiTreasure Twitter account, for those who are curious.

When DARPA ran its Red Balloon Network Challenge in 2009, the MIT Media Lab won by creating a referral-based incentive structure reminiscent of pyramid schemes for the first person to find the locations of 10 red weather balloons scattered across the country, with smaller payouts made to individuals who referred them into the system. The winning team explained that additional manual analysis was needed to separate the wheat from the chaff by identifying patterns in how multiple parties submitted location data from real locations versus faked attempts at throwing the team off their trail.

The hunt is still young, so it’s almost impossible to say what types of challenges will be thrown at players: however, the game’s rules page provides a few hints of what’s to come, with a strong focus on conduct in public places implying the trend of location-specific key drops is likely to continue, although “the general public will never suspect they are in the presence of a Key”. The Rules do instruct players that clues will never be hidden on private property, and that finding clues in publicly accessible locations will never involve breaking or destroying objects. Should players be caught destroying clues to interfere with other teams, the Satoshi’s Treasure team may make that key public, along with any other keys the clan or player has gathered along the way.

Help Finally Solve a Satoshi-Themed Challenge
In 2005, the alternate reality game Perplex City released a card named “Billion to One”, asking players to track down a man named Satoshi with only a first name and a photograph from his vacation in Kaysersberg, France as clues. That mystery remains unsolved, almost 15 years later. Five years later, a different Satoshi played a formative role in developing Bitcoin, before retreating further from the public eye. His location and identity has also remained secret for over a decade. Neither of these Satoshi-related “puzzles” are likely to be solved in the near future. But with a sizable prize on the line and hundreds of clues designed to be found, Satoshi’s Treasure is likely going to find its way into capable hands.

To sign up for updates when new clues to Satoshi’s Treasure drop, go to the game’s website and follow @ToshiTreasure on Twitter. Multiple groups are playing this online, including the “Secret” Escape Room Enthusiasts Slack channel (the link to join can be found on The Codex).

The Kickstarter to End All Maze of Games Kickstarters

In 1897, Colleen and Samuel Quaice discovered a mysterious book in the Upper Wolverhampton Bibliothèque. As soon as the two siblings opened the book, the skeletal Gatekeeper emerged and pulled the pair into The Maze of Games. In 2014, readers discovered copies of The Maze of Games, documenting the sibling’s passage through that labyrinth. Readers were tasked with squaring off against each of the puzzles the Quaices faced along the way, with every solve unlocking the next page of the story. This “interactive puzzle novel” format added a welcome twist to the gamebook genre without infringing on the litigious Choose Your Own Adventure franchise’s intellectual property.

After four long years, the first group of readers successfully completed The Maze of Games‘ puzzles, finally freeing the Quaice siblings and unlocking one final Maze of Games Kickstarter campaign, The Maze of Games Omnibus and Escape Room Experience. The campaign allows backers to obtain an in-universe answer key, as well as a chance to buy in for the full experience, with components including a soundtrack composed by Austin Wintory, an audiobook narrated by Wil Wheaton, a radio show, and even a Maze of Games themed escape room in Seattle.

How Exactly Does The Maze of Games Work?

The Maze of Games prologue starts off like a traditional book, with a brief introduction to the Quaices and their plight. Once the pair encounter the Gatekeeper, they are charged with solving an initial puzzle to gain entry to the Castle Maze. The Maze of Games is themed around a deck of cards, with each suit representing a “chapter” of the story.

With standard Choose Your Own Adventure novels, players are given multiple choices. However, The Maze of Games only has one correct pathway through its pages, determined by the four mazes contained within. Figuring the optimal path through each maze will provide each chapter’s intended reading (and solving) order, with each suit getting increasingly difficult.

Even readers tackling the book alone should be able to make it through the initial Castle Maze of Diamonds…it’s the Cloud Maze of Spades and its final meta-puzzle that had readers confounded for the past four years. Lone Shark Games even released The Theseus Guide to the Final Maze, a chapbook that offered hints to see Colleen and Samuel through to the finish with yet another series of puzzles. And while audio-inclined readers couldn’t solve the Maze of Games audiobook, Wil Wheaton’s acting quickly made the audio edition my preferred way of experiencing the story, showing off an impressive range as he embodies the host of helpful (and somewhat less-than helpful) characters the siblings encounter along the way. Conveniently, the audiobook comes in “solved” and “unsolved” ordering, so listeners can appreciate the narrative in the style of their choosing.

The Maze of Games wiki has hints for every puzzle (including the final challenge) to nudge readers on to the solutions should they find themselves stuck. What Lone Shark Games’ 2019 Maze of Games Kickstarter campaign is adding to the mix is The Keymaster’s Tome, a reproduction of the journal the Quaice siblings might have used to navigate The Maze of Games, with “answers, conversations, and tidbits hand-written in the margins”. The campaign also introduces an audio recording of The Theseus Guide to the Final Maze and a radio play, The Gatekeeper’s Variety Hour, featuring both musical and puzzle guests.

The Maze of Games: Now a Physical Escape Room?
Readers of the newest edition of Puzzlecraft may already be familiar with the concept of a Maze of Games-themed escape room, as Gaby Weidling used the idea to illustrate the process of escape room development in the book. Lone Shark Games partnered with Epic Team Adventures to transform that idea into a reality, with a themed escape room in Seattle that opens up…today, March 14th. The room’s construction is a bit atypical for escape rooms, with four different rooms all making use of the same space. As with all Maze of Games productions with an audio component, Wil Wheaton is reprising his role to narrate the escape room.

All backers who contribute $15 or more will receive a $35 discount code for the room in which Selinker and Weidling find themselves trapped. Which brings us to the Kickstarter campaign.

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Going Beyond the Text with the Subtext Game

Jonathan is in trouble. After receiving a phone call warning that his apartment wasn’t safe and needed to be evacuated, a guy in a black ski mask kidnapped him, and the next thing he knows, he finds himself locked up in an office building. There’s a list of phone numbers there…and yours is one of them. Can you help him escape, and figure out why you were looped into this slightly menacing predicament? That’s the open question of Subtext, an SMS-driven experience that comes off as equal parts alternate reality game and virtual escape room, with a healthy side of paranoia.

In Subtext, players take on the role of Jonathan’s off-site support squad, serving as his virtual assistant in escapeology by completing tasks ranging from conducting research on fictional companies, solving light puzzles to help Jonathan navigate the building, and using social engineering to smooth the path. In terms of gameplay, Subtext is similar to its single player ARG counterpart The Black Watchmen, with the narrative guiding players through a string of linear challenges in service of a larger narrative. Where it differs is in its framing – by using chatbot functionalities to power Subtext, the hero of the story is the writing. While The Black Watchmen has a strong narrative focused on players joining up with a secret organization and climbing through the ranks by completing tasks, its strongest point is translating ARG style challenges into a single-player video game experience, with the narrative serving as an added bonus. And while mobile apps like Simulacra and Another Lost Phone place more of their focus on the narrative, those stories’ framing focuses on the phone as found object, making gameplay feel like an exercise in digital archaeology. Subtext taskes advantage of the low fidelity nature of the text messages that form the backbone of the story to create a more active immersion, and the experience has numerous moments of clever writing that makes it all too easy for players to fall into the conceit that they’re chatting with another honest to goodness person in need.

The full Subtext experience takes a few days to complete, but is designed to work around the player’s life. Since Subtext‘s forward momentum is fueled by successful solves, inactivity allows players to put the game on pause at any time – and if players get stuck, continuing to text with Jonathan will often yield hints which range from helpful to practically essential on one or two of the more frustrating tasks. There are a few developer-imposed breaks in the narrative so it would be a difficult if not impossible game to competitively speedrun on the first pass, but that doesn’t stop me from being curious about whether players are rushing through, or taking their time to savor the experience.

The full Subtext experience is sold as pay-what-you-want-as-long-as-you-want-to-pay-at-least-$6, although there is a free demo that will give you a 5-minute taste of the experience that has quickly become my favorite introductory example of alternate reality games in action. The delightfully creative challenge perfectly encapsulates what makes Subtext special, both in terms of writing and tone. And while none of the moments in the full experience exceed the rush of adrenaline at finishing the demo puzzle, there were one or two moments that were on par. Subtext asks players to imagine “what if the game was real”, and it lives up to that promise – especially if you opt in for the full experience, which opens up the potential for phone calls or even physical mail to round things out. Those additions aren’t necessary to the story, but they do contribute to the world-building, particularly when it comes to bringing closure to the story.

If you’re interested in learning more about Subtext, play the demo. Even if you don’t think you’re interested in the full experience, play the demo: it’s that good, and will help you decide whether the full game might be up your alley, at a negligible investment of time.

Literally Give Your Heart Away on Tender This Valentine’s Day

Happy Valentine’s Day! Are you single? Interested in not being single? If so, you should consider signing up for Tender. It’s an AI-driven dating site designed to help you find your soul mate, and it almost certainly hasn’t been co-opted by vampires looking to hunt down suitably compliant blood bags at the click of a button. Just answer a few completely innocuous questions about your emotional state, loneliness levels, interests, and blood type, and Tender will procedurally generate a profile guaranteed to find you that special someone who, again, is probably not a vampire. Even if it is part of what looks to be an official Vampire: the Masquerade alternate reality game.

Let’s take a step back. In early January, a handful of established YouTubers and Twitch streamers started tweeting about their good buddy Knox coming out of the woodwork and asking them to check out this new closed beta dating site, Tender. In between jet-setting around the world, Knox released a series of puzzles on his Twitter account that led to a website, Trust No More. Posts on that site from a writer going by the pseudonym “Manchuria”  In parallel, he started receiving messages from the user “BetrayedMind1”, warning that something was amiss with Tender. Players helped Knox solve a series of puzzles left by the person, leading to a meetup at Griffith Observatory where players laid claim to a conspicuously guarded briefcase. The contents alluded to Tender’s experiments with gamification and operant conditioning to get users hooked on the website. Even more foreboding, documents allude to a secret “Regent Dashboard” known only to select employees at the company. An unidentified Tender engineer’s notes indicate the Regent Dashboard is actively manipulating its users:

Weird. The conditioning reminds me of the effects of the Toxoplasma parasite on rodents. Doesn’t completely change them. Doesn’t make them suicidal exactly. Just a subtle shift. Less afraid of open spaces. Inhibited risk judgement. Willingness to step into danger. Behavior that makes them easier to catch for predators.

Soon after, players unlocked access to the Tender Beta app, allowing them to interact with the perfectly innocuous dating site that’s probably not conditioning its users to be more trustworthy and docile. Under the guise of finding a soulmate, users are rewarded for completing “quests” with experience points, to level up. Some tasks ask players to complete basic research tasks, while others ask users to share simple fill-in-the-blanks status updates about their plans.

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Back to Earth Makes Its Microtransactional Debut With an ARG Short

StarFate Corporation is in the business of making mankind a better version of itself. The company’s flagship product, the StarChip, allows its owners to record and analyze every experience they ever had, capturing details unassisted humans couldn’t dream of securing. Just implant a simple little chip into the back of your neck, and the ability to tap into the network is unlocked. It’s really a damn shame someone figured out how to hack the chips.

In the coming months, Back to Earth will describe what happens to the world in 2023 when presumably unhackable chips become compromised, as told through a short film, a graphic novel, and a television show in development. Our introduction to the storyworld of Back to Earth starts before the cataclysm with StarFate.Tech,  a short immersive experience that lets players ride shotgun with StarFate Corporation engineer Jono Walters as he investigates a train derailment that shouldn’t have been possible.

The short immersive story plays out across StarFate Corporation’s internal systems, with an unidentified assistant guiding players in unlocking Jono’s chip-enhanced memories through a series of nine “Mindchain” blocks. Each block contains clues to unlock the next in the sequence, leading players to hunt down file IDs, timestamps, and user IDs using contextual cues in the text, audio, and video files that document Jono’s investigation in addition to the occasional research task requiring players to hack into the occasional voicemail box. There’s something to be said for an ARG that can be completed in less time than it takes to watch a movie, and Back to Earth‘s debut starts off with an experience that packs in enough surprises to whet the appetite without the time investment of a AAA video game.

Due in part to this brevity, the StarFate.Tech immersive experience has the feel of a finely crafted tutorial mission, gradually introducing players to the skills necessary to unlock each new block, with new complications added every few rounds. It also serves to introduce the game’s StarCredits, a blockchain-based digital currency that exists both in-world and out of world to provide a micro-transaction based backbone to the free-to-play experience. Upon registering, players receive 1 StarCredit. Fractions of a credit can be used to ask “SysOps” for hints along the way, or to unlock a short video that provides a graphic end to Jono’s tale.

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