At some point, you may have been browsing through your installed games on Steam and watched the occasional update occur. ‘Just routine maintenance,’ you might think. Well, the vast majority of the time, you’d be right. Developers will be sending tiny janitors made from 0s and 1s to buff, polish and bug fix.
Yesterday however, an update happened that wasn’t so routine. It was something special for Portal fans.
Valve applied a semi-surreptitious update to its much-lauded Portal. The company is well-known for sending out press releases for immediate release, revealing such banalities as how many sandwiches were eaten for lunch and how the punctuation in a subtitle was fixed. The new Portal update though landed stealthily, with only a small update on the product page mentioning a new achievement and changes to meet federal regulations governing radio transmission.
Achievement whoring, finally put to good use!
Everyone was confused and, worse, intrigued. Hardcore fans booted up the game to find out just what the Sam Hill was going on.
Upon firing up Portal, everything seemed normal though and it took a fair few hours of disappointment before someone noticed the lights on the radio props had changed colour. Someone decided to pick one up and try and carry it through the game, like the Gnome in Episode 2. That plan failed when people ran into the forcefields that close off each room, which destroy any props you try to carry with you. Nothing new there. The game has always done that – but post-update there was a new burst of static sound when a radio went through the portal.
It was quickly discovered that moving radios into certain positions in the game provoked a similar response. It turns out that there are 26 of these locations dotted around the game to find and a radio is provided when a particular room or puzzle has a location to find. Once you’ve found a location, the radio’s light will turn from red to green to denote that you’ve finished that part of the achievement. Baffling, but that’s just the first layer of the conundrum.
Some of the first unscrambled images!
The plot thickened when a bunch of nerds of notable acuity started pulling the .WAV files from the game folders and tried to figure out what the relevance of the static was. Why would Valve issue such an odd update that contained only random noise? The answer was simply that the noise wasn’t random at all.
It turned out that the sound bites contained hidden messages in the form of images that would only reveal themselves when the files were run through a Slow Scan Television (SSTV) application. The rabbit hole ran deep and fans found themselves involved in an elaborate treasure hunt or alternate reality game (ARG) You can check out the decoding process and see exactly what was uncovered here.
While this is exciting in itself, the images themselves only serve to thicken the mystery further. Keyboard buttons, skulls, documents and what appear to be robots (or possibly chicken skeletons – the debate rages on on that point) all appear and often with the Aperture Science logo somewhere in the shot.
There are equations which appear hidden in the code too, from a range of scientific fields, such as this one from basic wave mechanics, for example.