The Story So Far...

This is an unfinished work in progress. If you are seeing it now, I probably accidentally rsync'ed it to the live site. You can safely ignore it until it is complete.

Overview

This document serves as an attempt to bring newcomers to the Metacortex ARG up to speed on the state of the game. Even though many people agree the game is still in its infancy, quite a lot has happened rather quickly. This information is not here to provide a comprehensive list of sites, passwords, etc. There are plenty of other sites that do that (see the Links section, below). It is simply here to provide a narrative of current progress. Keep in mind that a lot of work has gone into solving things in the game. An event that spans a single sentence in this document might have consisted of thousands of man-hours by people worldwide!

Everything in this document is in more-or-less chronological order. There is quite a lot of overlap in events. Instead of constantly jumping from event to event, this document attempts to group related occurrences in sections. Keep in mind that this doucment goes over every puzzle we have run across. If you simply want a quick primer of people, places and things, check out joebrent's primer.

Get yourself a cup of coffee, sit back, relax, and read through this document. You will be glad you did--as will the people on message boards and IRC channels who constantly hear the same questions and [previously found] "discoveries" over and over again. ;)

Note to people already involved in the ARG: if you find a mistake or think of a new FAQ item to include, drop me a line at enigma [-=at=] netninja [-=dot=-] com. I joined in shortly after Oct 1st and have a horrible memory.

ARG Background

So what is this Metacortex ARG??? It is an Alternate Reality Game, loosely based on the Matrix storyline. How loosely is left for debate. So this may or may not be an official Matrix franchise, but what the heck is an ARG??? Well, taken from Unfiction's welcome:

After a long day of surfing the web, you crash hard and sleep soundly. But suddenly you are awakened by the persistent ringing of your phone.

You answer it, and the voice at the other end speaks sinisterly, "If you know what's good for you, you'll back off. You don't want this, you really don't."

You're sitting in the dark at 3:00 a.m., staring at the now-dead phone, thinking to yourself, "What have I gotten into?" Then you remember the strange web site you signed up for earlier that evening on a lark. You realize that whoever they are, they already know a lot more about you than you do about them.

You'd better get cracking.

Welcome to the world of Alternate Reality Gaming.

Or more specifically, from their history page:

Alternate Reality Gaming (also known as beasting, unfiction, or immersive fiction) is an interactive fusion of creative writing, puzzle-solving, and team-building, with a dose of role playing thrown in. It utilizes several forms of media in order to pass clues to the players, who solve puzzles in order to win pieces of the story being played out.

Clues can be passed through web pages, email, voicemail, snail mail, television advertisements, movie posters, campus billboards, newspaper classifieds...really, in any way that information can be passed.

Many times, the puzzles that must be solved cannot be solved alone. This genre of game almost requires participation in a group or community that works together to win past the more difficult hurdles.

Beasting is unique in that it wouldn't be possible without the community-building and networking power of the Internet. Besides the obvious fact that there would be no web pages or email in which to hide clues, it would be nearly impossible for the diverse audience to coordinate the sheer amount of data, speculation, and solutions among players.

First Contact

It all started with a single site: Metacortex. Before October 1st, it consisted simply of a counter--counting down to zero. It also had a popup window with a message from David Regenhardt in the Human Resources, IT Division stating:

***Attention MetaCortex Employees***

Please contact
Dave Regenhardt in I.T. (ext. 2335)
for instructions on upgrading your system
and receiving your new login information.

Of course, viewing the page source shows some extra XML that would typically get ignored by your web browser:

<MCEmp name="Regenhardt, David" id="0280339" office="Redland" tel="206.202.2335">Dave Regenhardt</MCEmp>

The phone number is an actual phone number in Washington state with the following voicemail message: "Hey, you've reached Dave Regenhardt in HR. Sorry I can't take your call, but leave your name and number, I'll get back to you as soon as I can. If you're calling about your employee login info, leave your Employee ID as well. Thanks."

We're Live

When the counter approached zero on October 1st, the Metacortex site went live in a state very similar to what you see now. This first update provided a wealth of information. Within the site itself, we learn of the September employee of the month (Beth McConnell), the new CEO (Steven Walsh), the previous CEO (James Avery) retiring in a rather unconventional way (through his lawyer), a beta test signup for a new virtual reality gaming system, screen savers, a mysterious login page, and an employee directory lookup system. We also learn of a partnership with a company named Underscore Hosting as well as a partnership with a hotel called The Aquapolis.

Punching Beth's information into the employee directory gives us a link to a biography on a site called MetaDex as well as her phone number. It would appear MetaDex is an R&D project in development that Beth is involved in. Her bio then leads to her personal site, Little-Boxes. Links on her personal site lead back to Metacortex, MetaDex, as well as to a new site The Paranormal Research Journal. This last link notes that she is friends with the editor, Phillip Gairden.

Both of the two new sites were hosted by Underscore Hosting, according to badges at the bottom of the pages. This is important, as all sites officially in the game carry the Underscore logo. If you check the image properties of the logo, you should see the domain name of the site you are viewing in the file path. Several fake or hoax sites appeared that pretended to be part of the game, but they were quickly dismissed as hoaxes because of incorrect Underscore logos. (The news on the Underscore main page goes over this in more detail.)

Underscore Hosting has a client login page--with name and password checking entirely in JavaScript. The name was irrelevant, as only the password is really used. Some brute forcing was performed to obtain the correct password: f9dds33. Unfortunately, that path leads to a dead end: http://www.underscorehosting.com/f9dds33.htm

Going back to the Metacortex employee directory, most every other name we know at this point turns up generic data. The only one of note is the former CEO, James Avery. This name brings up a flashing, distorted picture, and some binary code. The binary code translates to "Na e: Aver , J esD pt x c iv," which is probably a corrupted version of "Name: Avery, JamesDept: Executive."

We also note that the background wallpaper available for download at Metacortex contains binary that can be translated to a quote by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World: "The machine turns, turns and must keep on turning--for ever. It is death if it stands still. A thousand millions scrabbled the crust of the earth. The wheels began to turn. In a hundred and fifty years there were two thousand millions. Stop all the wheels. In a hundred And fifty weeks there are once more only a thousand millions; a thousand thousand thousand men and women have starved to death."

Connected Sites

It is interesting to note that Beth's website is one of many virtual hosts running at the same IP address. It is not the default site, which can be seen by pointing a web browser directly to the IP address (http://http://66.135.36.145/) or to a domain that does not have a virtualhost entry (http://mail.little-boxes.net/).

This new site is one of a pair: She Is Missing and He Is Missing. You can get to either one by clicking on the image. It is also interesting to note that the pictures are served elsewhere: PaintOver.net.

Paintover, at this point has a mysterious image:

The characters down the right side of the picture turn out to be the Wingdings font and translate to "ALWAYS TO HAVE LESSONS TO LEARN," a quote from Alice in Wonderland. To this day, this "puzzle" remains unsolved.

Beth's Life

At this point, we know Beth has an account on MetaDex, but we do not know the password. We also know she runs a website about paranormal research, but part of it is password protected because of recent hack attempts.

Somebody discovered that the music playing in the background of Beth's voicemail (we have her phone number from the employee directory) is a tune by Evanescence--which is discovered to be her MetaDex password! This gives us information: Phil has a MetaDex account named pgairden. We can extrapolate the link to his bio based on Beth's. His bio has a quote from Plato's "Timaeus and Critius." Of course, it turns out his MetaDex password is critias and his little-boxes password is timaeus.

The hAx0r Philes

A week later, a new image appeared at PaintOver:

The meaning of this image was not immediately obvious, but it was later changed to enhance the "@" by the police man and the Rolodex letters "F", "P", and "T." It turns out the quote in the picture is from Shakespeare's Caesar...more or less. It was spoken by Cassius, but was actually missing the word "carelessly."

This eventually led someone to try FTP'ing at TheAquapolis.com (because of the Aqua Police man in the picture). The username "cassius[@theaquapolis.com" with the password "urchin" granted access to a hidden directory. Unfortunately, this directory did not allow listing files. (The Unix-heads will understand when I say it had the "eXecute" bit set, but not "Read" or "Write.") Trial and error brought up the file "carelessly.txt," then "carelessly.jpg."

Shortly thereafter, something broke. The generally accepted theory is that the same username and password accidentally allowed access to FTP on other in-game sites...other sites that should not have allowed it. FTP was completely shut off. Then, a rather strange thing happened in IRC. The actual validity of the event is still debated (i.e. was it some random bozo that knew more than us, or was it really characters controlled by the people running the game?). At any rate, it gave us a pair of clues: a URL that maps to the very same FTP directory we were using and a new file with a wacky extension (carelessly.graffle). The search for filenames was on again. Quite a few were found. See the complete listing. These files appeared to map out a conversation between hackers. It all basically amounted to greetings.

A few days later, a new set of pictures appeared:

The first one seemed to be a simple pat on the back for a job well done. The second one was more interesting. It contained the following text, steganographically hidden:

Slight change in plans.
Second verse, same as the first.
The blind transit's been plugged to the oafs
Let's view it from the top
Blindly, still, but climb those stairs carefully
dub dub dub, hack and slash
You'll find the way!

This ended up being not enough data for us to figure out the puzzle, so another image was posted a few days later:

The multiple "stairs" signs, the speaker of the quote (proteus), the missing/changed word (silvia) and the image of the door led us to a special URL at Little-Boxes: http://www.little-boxes.net/stairs/stairs/stairs/, with username "proteus," password "door," and base filename silvia.*. There was also a twist in this one, in that several silvia2.* and silvia3.* files also existed. See the complete list. This set of files started to show a little hostility in the group along with concern that something big is happening.

A little later, we got a new PaintOver picture:

This very quickly (we were becoming experts at decyphering the images) led us to the location http://underscorehosting.com/magnify, with the username autolycus, the password scale, and the base file unjust.*. You can see these files for yourself. This round of chatting consisted of people showing hard evidence that servers across the country were getting heavily loaded (pointing back to the nebulous "something big" from the previous round of chatting). It also brought about some more in-group bickering.

A little later, we got a new PaintOver picture. While all of the previous ones were posted by Caesar to rally the gang, this one was posted by Scratch--one of the more vocal hackers, not too pleased with Caesar.

While the other pictures were Shakespeare references, this one turned out to be a Mystery Science Theater 3000 reference, leading us to: http://www.metacortechs.com/boring/yeah/huh/, with a username of mike, a password of sky, and a base filename of bigmclargehuge. See these files for yourself. This one ends up being much more of a fight in the group. It looks like Caesar is no longer their leader.

The Wacko Contingent

An update to the The Paranormal Research Journal led us to Dr Leo Kane, which in turn led us to Wongmo, which finally led us to Leiphe.

By reading Phil's emails to Beth, we learn that Phil is not to happy about Kane. It seems that Kane might be responsible for Phil not getting the most recent Paranormal Journal out on time, but there is something else there, too:

"This trip has given me as many questions as it has answers and it would be great to sort this out with you. Have found no concrete evidence of Kane here; how can a man that was born and raised in Hawaii have no ties to the place aside from a rather “touched” spiritual guide? Going to try to meet with Kane again tomorrow."

Phil takes some pictures of what is presumably Kane's desk drawer and two ripped up letters (which were reassembled by us: letter 1 pic, letter 1 txt, letter 2 pic, letter 2 txt), which seem to show that Kane might handle Wongmo's correspondence. It also shows multiple passports and some Hawaiian lease paperwork. We also see a new name: Arnold Quentin Niehoffer. Is this Wongmo's real name? Are the passports alternate identities?

One of the songs available to download in MP3 format from the Wongmo site says "wongmore" at the end, which leads us to http://www.wongmo.org/wongmore. This is a "secret" page for fans of Wongmo. It contains answers to fan email (quite a few of the emails were really from players of the game!) as well as media to make your own stickers and t-shirts.

Wongmo has a showcase of music, art, and poetry on his site. Featured throughout this showcase (and, in fact, the winner of his student art contest) is someone by the name of "Dina N." The ID3 tag within the MP3 music file mentions "The Nekodas." Similarly, Beth posts an MP3 file to her site when she is feeling sad and upset with the same information in the tags. Hitting thenekodas.com brings up what is basically a welcome page, but no other links. This page consists of simply a picture of the sky.

Eventually the sky image changes to that of two leaves, with the text ".thenekodas.com." below. This sparks off the idea of trying various {something}.thenekodas.com combinations. Dina.thenekodas.com was found. Ethan.thenekodas.com was also found immediately after. More on the blogs later.

The Plot Thickens

Beth is a little obscessed with something. In fact, she skips out of a company dinner to sneak into her boss's office to find some information. "I went into his office, knowing that he would have superuser access to the latest Labyrinth build." While in the office, she found an entire folder on James Avery, the ex-CEO. She does not understand why he has the file or what is going on, but she seems to be seeing signs of Avery. "Why is James suddenly everywhere?" In the process of snooping, she gets caught by Katherine, but she explains it off and they end up going to the company party together. From this point on, they seem to be new best friends.

We eventually learn that Katherine has a Metadex bio ("katgirl") with links to various snapshot galleries. The common thread among them all is a "no trespassing" sign. Bingo! We have her password (notrespassing)

Of course, Katherine seems to have an entirely different agenda from Beth. It would appear, based on notes in her Metadex, that she is spying on Beth for someone (Marcus?). She has an entire dossier on Beth, including tick-marks next to several items...presumably "+" for good and "-" for bad. It seems that Kat is happy that Beth is going off on a wild goose chase related to plagues, but is not too happy about her mistrust in Marcus

TODO: The plot thickens...
Beth gets caught by Katherine looking at files
Phil takes a trip and is inaccessable
Phil photographs pictures from a (Kane's?) drawer and garbage
Phil writes a nasty-gram to Beth
Kat is pleased that Beth is following the plagues (wild goose chase?)
Beth takes a camping trip

MLO's photos
CDs

Ethan and Dina

Frequently Asked Questions

The FAQ is now in a separate document. See the available sections:

Links

This document was compiled with data from a variety of sources. After you have finished studying the game's history, it would be a good idea to check up on what has happened since this was last updated. I find the following sites useful:

There are also a number of in-game websites you might want to visit: