Alex Bellavia was a big fan of the rhythm roguelike Crypt of the Necrodancer. When the developers updated the game, he would poke around the files to see what changed, and when Crypt of the Necrodancer was patched in May of 2015, Bellavia stumbled on a strange file called "eye.jpg."
The above symbol was weird enough that Bellavia posted it on Reddit. "I thought it meant something," he told me. One of the more popular theories centered on Crypt of the Necrodancer's alternate character, Coda—which, at that point, no one had beaten the game with. Not long after, though, another user opened eye.jpg with a hex editor (a piece of software that shows a file's mathematical internals) and noticed a reference to a GIF inside of eye.jpg's raw data. By copying that small selection of data, the user produced another image—a glyph—displayed below.
"Looking at the image itself, it looks like some sort of pattern that is enclosed in a circle," said the user who discovered it. "I'll keep looking for things I suppose." What no one knew yet was that Crypt of the Necrodancer wasn't the only game to feature these cryptic symbols. In fact, people had already discovered other hidden sigils in other games, but no one had connected the dots.
Where there was a sigil, however, there was also glyph. The sigils were merely an indication that people needed to seek out a glyph in the game.
Kingdom of Loathing, a browser-based RPG launched in 2003, is thought to be the first game featuring the sigil, first discovered in October 2014. In February 2015, the puzzle game Mini Metro quietly added a sigil revealed by quickly flipping between the main menu and the credits screen; no other sigil was discovered until early 2016, more than a year and a half later, in Crypt of the Necrodancer. This latest sigil kicked off a game no one even knew about yet.
Image courtesy of Game Detectives
As it became clear that a larger metagame was taking shape, fans congregated at places like Game Detectives, a subreddit that's become famous for decoding such puzzles. Through careful experimentation and data mining (a process through which players examine a game's code), diehards have discovered 19 sigils. The most recent one was found in You Have to Win the Game, a retro platformer released back in 2012. The sigil was presumably added through a patch at some point, but no one's quite sure, really.
Here's what things look like right now:
Image courtesy of Game Detectives
Each colored circle is a glyph taken from a different game, and when they're laid on top of one another, they combine to create this larger symbol. It might be a map, but it might also be… something else.
Either way, the sigils and glyphs have all the makings of an alternate-reality game (ARG), where players collaborate on solving a mystery spread across the digital and physical world. Some of the most famous ARGs, like Halo 2's "I Love Bees," had participants standing at pay phones waiting for secret messages to push them one step closer to answers. Other clues have been known to be spectrographically hidden in audio files. (Read VICE's piece on the the Jejune Institute to see just how wild this can get.)
To wit: One sigil was found by decoding the morse code hidden in another sigil found in the otherwise innocuous mobile game Slide the Shakes. The morse code spelled out a set of coordinates in Los Angeles, California, which led someone to find a hidden USB drive. On that drive was—of course—another sigil.
I emailed a number of the developers whose games featured sigils; most of them didn't respond to me, while another developer said they "gave my word I'd keep a lid on it."
A few, however, were willing to speak—sort of.
"Patrick, you're not trying to put me in a JAM or a PICKLE, are you?," said Crypt of the Necrodancer designer Ryan Clark. "She'd pulverize me!"
"As you might expect, I don't have much to say on this subject," said Moon Hunters designer Tanya Short. "But I'm glad Moon Hunters can continue to entertain players in the years to come."
It is definitely leading to something. I really can't say anything about where it's all going. I know this must be frustrating. —Zack Johnson
Duskers designer Tim Keenan claimed that he doesn't know what's going on—and that when he was approached to take part in the game, he sought assurance from other developers that it wasn't anything he'd live to regret. "Honestly, I'm a little embarrassed to say that I don't know exactly what it's all about," said Keenan, who also told Kotaku something similar. "For me, it's kinda like an ARG-in-an-ARG in a way because how Duskers got involved is sorta cryptic too. Whatever it is, it sure is weird!"
Not much to go on, obviously, and when I talked to people who'd been involved in solving some of these mysteries, they expressed concern that it wasn't actually leading to anything. There's a tiny ray of hope, however: Zack Johnson, a designer behind Kingdom of Loathing was willing to give me a little bit to chew on. "It's definitely leading to something," said Johnson. "I really can't say anything about where it's all going. I know this must be frustrating."
But that might be enough for folks like Alex Bellavia, the guy who helped kick things off with his discovery in Crypt of the Necrodancer earlier this year. "There's this constant warm sense of 'Hey, this is real,'" he said. "This is a big mystery, just like all the books you used to read, and you have a part in it, even if only a small one."