It's been almost a year since I started reporting on a mysterious door in the online MMO Tibia, whose secrets have remained out of reach for 12 years. Since 2005, this door has quietly taunted: "You see a gate of expertise for level 999." Beyond the door is a portal, but no one knew where it went—until now. Last week, someone finally answered a riddle that's vexed hardcore Tibia players and curious outsiders. Here's what happened on Twitch, as 15,000 players watched with bated breath:
On the other side of the portal was a tiny island, full of sandy beaches and palm trees. There are characters to speak with and vendors to exchange currency with, but at first blush, it doesn't hide anything extraordinary. The long wait has lead to a mixed reaction from some, who may have understandably expected more from something they'd mused about for more than a decade.
"This whole thing is somewhat disappointing," said Mathias Bynens, the owner of TibiaMaps, a blog about the ongoing changes made to Tibia. "Lots of players had expected the teleport to a hard boss monster to defeat (on the island or not) or to a reward room with otherwise unobtainable but useful items. Instead, it seems the island only contains a few NPCs that hand out a golden goblet with a special inscription, congratulating the player for reaching level 999."
It's lead to speculation that maybe players haven't really seen what's beyond the portal, and the stream was an elaborate ruse. There's precedent for this; a search around YouTube brings up plenty of views claiming to have footage of the portal's secrets, but they're all fakes, with folks creating their own Tibia maps offline.
The player in question, Dev onica, does have a sketchy history. But all that said, the game's developers confirmed to me Dev onica did, in fact, walk through the portal.
"We won't comment on anything content-related but Dev onica has passed through the door," said a spokesperson for CipSoft, the developers behind Tibia.
It's still possible that Dev onica did find a way to trick people, but it seems unlikely. Most, including Bynens, fall in the category of Those Who Want to Believe.
As is, what Dev onica revealed actually confirms a theory Tibia players have had for a little while now about a place called Schrödinger's Island, a piece of land that appeared in a map that privately circulated amongst the message boards of Tibia fansites. It was strongly implied the island was meant to become part of the game, but later versions of the map showed the island had disappeared.
(For my fellow Lost fans out there, now's the time for a good donkey wheel joke.)
CipSoft was in a tough spot. This door started as an elaborate in-game joke, one that wasn't expected to deliver any payoff; the developers never expected anyone to reach level 999. But when the game remained popular long past its heyday— Tibia originally launched way back in 1997, largely unchanged since then—it slowly began to dawn upon CipSoft that their joke might not actually be a joke.
"The main motivation [to add the door] clearly was to tease players because the creators honestly did not think that anyone would actually reach that level," said Tibia lead project manager Martin Eglseder to me last August.
But only a handful of players will ever reach the 999 milestone. It demands years of concentration, hard work, and deaths that regularly erase hours of playtime. It makes sense to try and reward players for their effort, but without making others feel crappy over the utterly unachievable.
"A secret that has existed and been nourished by players for so many years cannot be lifted without disappointment," said Eglseder last summer. "You cannot fulfill all the different hopes and expectations that players have attached to it. No matter what you do, you cannot satisfy everybody."
For a while, there wasn't anything behind the door. (Players cheated and checked.) That later changed, and after nine years of meticulous grinding, a player named Kharsek opened the door. The problem? Kharsek walked through, but refused to reveal its contents. He disappeared beyond the veil, and despite all the attention, he remained silent. The developers honored his request and stayed silent, too. The door's secrets remained.
Months later, a controversial and far more public player hit level 999, the aforementioned Dev onica. In the leadup, Dev onica promised what Kharsek had not: showing what's behind the door. But realizing their newfound power, Dev onica started asking for donations in exchange for information. This pissed off a chunk of Tibia's community, and most figured Dev onica was milking the situation for a few bucks, and had little interest in ultimately delivering on their promise.
"After all the stunts he's pulled so far," said Bynens, back in May, "why should anyone trust [them] to reveal the secret even after reaching his donation goal? It's one thing to keep the secret to yourself. It's another to promise to reveal it for months, and then go back on that promise when the time comes."
This proved not to be the case. Dev onica, now level 1001, went through. Granted, Dev onica was still trying to raise money for a vacation, but still. (As Dev onica crossed over, they'd raised $1 of a proposed $500. Good luck with that!)
Dev onica did not respond to my request for comment on this story, which has been the case ever since they started jockeying towards level 999.
In 2008, filmmaker J.J. Abrams gave a TED Talk called The Mystery Box, where he discussed his oft-criticized approach to storytelling, where tries to keep as much hidden away from the audience as possible, especially before his film (or TV show) comes out. During the talk, he tells this story about a tiny box he bought at a magic store—"15 dollars buys you 50 dollars worth of magic"—a few decades back. He still hadn't opened the box up, preferring the concept of "what if?"
"It represents infinite possibility," he said. "It represents hope. It represents potential."
The portal in Tibia, locked behind a door requiring a player to be level 999, was a mystery box. Now, inevitably, the box has been opened, the mystery solved.