The seemingly-massive Valve ARG that started with a mystery update to Portal could be teasing either Portal 2 or Half-Life 2: Episode 3 - or both.
On Monday, a surprise patch to the three-year-old fan favorite Portal spawned a massive Alternate Reality Game that had internet communities from Steam to Something Awful racing to figure out the puzzles. Two days later, we may not have the puzzle solved, but we have a lot of very interesting new information - frustratingly, there's very little that's concrete; everything that the intrepid puzzle-solvers have uncovered seems to be just designed to tantalize and tease.
The original post in its entirety is below, and while I'll attempt to recap the new information, it really does help to go to the Steam forums themselves.
Most of the new stuff seems to have come from the ASCII images - a cleaned-up version can be found here, and a colorized version can be seen here. There are plenty of fan theories bouncing around the forums: For instance, some fans are speculating that what I called "Vortigaunts holding hands" in the original post (second column, at the bottom) are possibly Combine super-soldiers as seen in the Half-Life 2 games.
More interesting, though, is this image, which appears to show what could very well be an ASCII-ized screenshot from a hypothetical Portal 2. And then there's this, which is unmistakably a human female holding what could be the iconic Portal Gun - perhaps the game's protagonist, Chell?
The mysterious ASCII images aren't the only things fans have uncovered, though. There are also some "confidential" Aperture Science documents that offer some insight into the workings of the secretive laboratory - ideal "Low Risk" candidates for testing include "hoboes [sic] and tramps, orphans and foundlings, psychiatric patients and seniors" - as well as its founder, Cave Johnson.
"A lot of you have been raising concerns about the so-called "dangers" of what we're all doing here. The beancounters told me to tell you that as of today, testing will no longer be as mandatory or as dangerous. That's not gonna happen and here's the reason.
Science isn't about why, it's about why not. You ask: Why is so much of our science dangerous? I say: Why not marry safe science if you love it so much. In fact, why not invent a special safety door that won't hit you in the butt on the way out, because you are fired.
Plus, in the event of your death, I personally guarantee that, thanks to the form you were required to sign this morning, your family will not suffer the indignities of a prolonged and costly legal battle against Aperture Science. Trust me, I am rich, and it is a burden I would not wish on anyone."
It's clear that much of this is white noise, designed to mislead as much as it is to inform - but how much of it is made up of red herrings, and what does it all mean?
The immediately obvious answer is that this would all seem to be pointing towards a reveal for Portal 2, but the presence of main-series Half-Life imagery leads some to believe that there could be an Episode 3 unveiling in the works as well. Perhaps Portal 2 will bridge the two series together, leading to an epic conclusion?
We'll probably find out on March 11th.
Update: The game now has a new ending. Shock!
The original post is below in its entirety:
A surprise content patch to the three-year-old Portal yesterday has spawned a feverish race on the internet to decode an ARG that seems to be teasing... something big.
There's something lurking behind the scenes in Valve-land.
It all started yesterday when owners of the beloved physics-puzzle FPS Portal discovered that the game had a new content patch - which was odd, given its age. That innocuous little patch has since spurred a massive race on the internet between communities like Steam and Something Awful, as they scramble to unravel an ARG that appears to be teasing a new Valve game. (An ARG, by the way, is an Alternate Reality Game - something that asks gamers to figure out real-life puzzles; arguably the most famous example of which is Halo 2's ilovebees. It could also stand for the noise you make when you can't figure out the puzzle).
There's a ton of dizzying information about the game so far, and we're still learning more, but I'll attempt a recap: The Portal update included a new mystery achievement, and people who loaded the game up again found that the radio in the starting chamber now had a green light. If players stood in certain areas of the Aperture Science test chamber while carrying the radio, it would start to emit strange static interference.
While they could have done things the hard way, it was much easier to just rip the .wav files from the game itself. The static turned out to be a code
when fed through a steganography program (*I have been corrected on this - more below*), a code that resulted in numbered images which - when fed through another program - led to a land line in Kirkland, WA (near Valve's HQ). Only it wasn't a land line at all, but a data line for an encrypted BBS. On said BBS, people found strange data which turned out to be interesting ASCII pictures.
Some of the pictures are unmistakable: Vortigaunts holding hands, an Aperture Science door, the defense turrets (turn your head to the right), and of course nefarious AI, GLaDOS herself. This is where everything stands right now, because the internet is still trying to figure it out.
One interesting little tidbit of information: The ASCII information identifies the crazy AI antagonist as GLaDOS v3.11 - and as it happens, 3/11 (that is, March 11th) is the day on which Valve head honcho Gabe Newell will be receiving the Game Developers Choice Pioneer Award at GDC. Could the man be planning on making some sort of surprise announcement or reveal?
And if he is, just what would he be revealing? We've already been told that Half-Life 2: Episode 3 won't be coming this year, but there's always Portal 2.
Update: 7r3nd has written in to inform me exactly what happened regarding the .wav files and the information encoded therein - and how no steganography was involved. I'm going to be honest and say that this is a bit beyond me, so rather than try to offer another explanation that'd only end up muddying the information, I'm going to just copy/paste it below.
There's some information noted in the "Crazy Valve ARG Teases ... Portal 2?" posting which is incorrect.
Several of the dinosaur wav files that were extracted from the new portal gcf that were not morse code sound files, were actually SSTV transmissions, and not steganography as reported in the posting.
SSTV is just an audible way to transmit an image.
Essentially what is required is to play the audio back and pipe it to SSTV software which reads the data from the audio stream and in turn displays the actual image is is contained in the data.
More about SSTV can be read here:
There was not steganography involved.
It sounds very much like listening to the audio noise generated when you listen in on a modem.
The resulting images were analyzed and noticed that certain characters where cricled.
The circled characters where collected and ended up making a 32 character string which turned out to be an MD5 hash.
More on MD5 here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Md5
The MD5 hash ended up being a hash for the phone number for the BBS.
The BBS itself was not encrypted. It was just necessary to use the correct terminal settings to display the content properly.
Once the content displayed correctly, a username and password was required.
The username and password was provided trough the transposed morse code that was extracted from the dinosaur wav files.
It still sounds like techno-voodoo to me, but glad to know that the people working on this know what they're doing!