v1.0: october 2001 – march 2002
A Brief History of the Alias [v1.0] Web Puzzle
by Avery Vincent
Entertainment Weekly was able to conduct an interview with the creator of Alias, J.J. Abrams, and here's what he had to say about his online plans for the show:
"What's fun about this show and the site is that there's a detailed mythology to [Alias]. We're able to address things on the Web that we don't have time to address on the show. We have the official site, at ABC.com, which is going to be an entertaining wealth of information about Alias. And then there's an alternative secret Web presence that I don't want to give any details about. It's a very cool and very compelling, unadvertised project that I think is going to be, ultimately, the most exciting part [of the campaign]. There are certain things we're doing that, if I were a fan of the show, I would find to be as interesting and compelling as the series itself."
The web puzzle was originally discovered when people who visited the official Alias site at ABC.com noticed this email address: email@example.com.
From that address the first site of the game was found at the creditdauphine.com site. Players were prompted to send email to firstname.lastname@example.org that over the course of the game issued certain auto-responses that occasionally included hints and clues leading mostly to documents that corresponded with events occurring within the television series. On that site was a link to the Find-Whatever faux search engine. All the links were mouse-overs except one–a little symbol that viewers had seen in the show: <0> Clicking on the symbol led to www.the-followersoframbaldi.org. This site did much to enrich the background of the fictional historical figure Milo Rambaldi, a key element in the Alias world. This site featured drawings of inventions by Rambaldi, links to other sites the followers found interesting (numerology, cryptology, etc.), a message board and a message submission form that opened chat bot named Alisha.
At times Alisha could be given clues from the analysis emails and the show itself that prompted her to respond with information that gave the players documents and photos from the television show. One of those documents listed an FTP site that was accessible for about a day that had further information.
Fairly early on the concept of Steganography was introduced to the game. In this context Steganography or steg as it came to be known is the practice of using a software program to digitally 'hide' documents inside (some prefer the term behind) JPEGs and GIFs. Two programs were shown to the players: JPHIDE/JPFIND and Camouflage. When a picture was suspected of having something embedded in it, the software was used to extract the file by using the correct password or passphrase to find the hidden information.
Periodically individual players were sent emails from what can loosely be termed in-game characters. These characters were never developed or used in any plot. They were simply vessels for passing along information to the players in a somewhat cloak and dagger fashion. One such character was Rulerfrog. He had a website that was loosely based on the Drudge Report…a news item site that featured mostly conspiracy theories. This was an advertisement-suppressed geocities site that was initially challenged for it's in-game validity. It was eventually proven to be very much in-game and the primary conduit for the rest of the game's duration.
The Rulerfrog site's first contribution to the game was perhaps the most intriguing element of the game. A picture that required de-stegging provided a url and password that led to a yahoo briefcase (when they could still be used for file sharing). Inside that briefcase was a zip file of a telephone conversation between two people. Overheard was the telephone number dialed. A tone decoder was used to find the telephone number. Dialing the number yielded a series of numbers spoken and in the background Morse code was heard. The numbers and code were clues to an upcoming development in the shoreline of the television show.
The Rulerfrog site suffered a fictional Federal Shutdown and was replaced with a site run by The Watcher (the Rulerfrog site re-incarnated) geocities.com/rulerfrog/sources/index2.html that required a login (thewatcher) and password (bypass) to continue. Some creative click-throughs and de-stegging revealed a mirror site for the heavily circulated SpyCounterSpy documents that teach spycraft and a 'briefing' document that instructed players to conduct surveillance in the Yahoo Chicago chat rooms at designated times to witness an exchange between two 'characters'. The 'spoken' bona fides and transcript were to be sent to an email "drop box" and then players were to wait for further instructions. Eventually the PMs shifted these twice-weekly surveillance missions to the Yahoo politics chat rooms because the players complained so much about how awful the Chicago rooms were. The politics rooms weren't as bad.
Surveilling the chat rooms required team work and cooperation among the players because there were upwards of 8 of them at any given time. After about a week, the conversation took place and the instructions were followed. In the Yahoo profile of one of the contacts was a link to another free site neverhome.camarades.com.
The camerades site had more links and some 'personal' information about the creator of that site. The game's most resourceful player used that information to find an in-game personal ad on Yahoo. The ad had a stegged photograph. Using a clue from one of the conversations witnessed in the politics chat, the photo was de-stegged and more instructions were found. The players were instructed to wait for a 'call signal' on the camerades page and then supply specific information. Cryptic messages, often in Russian (in keeping with the story line), were left on the guestbook of the page (including warnings that the end of the game was at hand), and a bogus call sign was given that was either a player prank or done purposely to cause confusion in the game. At any rate the call sign system was abandoned and individuals were privately messaged during one of the surveillance missions with further instructions. This began the 'recruitment' phase of the game.
The Watcherz site (the final version of the Rulerfrog site) got an updated link to a self-extracting file vault that players could download to their hard drive and try to open using a password. The password was found by clicking on a mailbox icon on Neverhome and solving the elaborate puzzle that utilized some beautiful images made up of numbers. One of the images had a clue that was hidden within the numbers. Solving that part of the clue required visiting two off-game sites linked from the Neverhome site. Put together, the password for the file vault was found.
The contents of the file vault was a bi-directional vigenere matrix/tableau. An mp3 file was also found on the off-game link that when listened to gave a series of letters in military-speak (alpha, bravo, etc.) that formed the plain text. The codekey came from the random list of letters collected from the highlighted letters in each episode from week 4 to week 16. The solution to the vigenere was a URL:
www.redrival.com/dropsite/inbox/final.html. At that location was a mildly disturbing debriefing questionnaire for players to fill out and submit to the PMs that was meant to mimic the Alias world debriefing one of the characters had to undergo.
The Alias Web Puzzle was primarily a supplement to the Alias television show and a spycraft tutorial. It didn't have an independent story line or in-game characters. There was no final solution to find or mystery to solve. Many of the puzzles were solved individually and simultaneously. Others required the collective effort of several people to solve.
Resources used included:
AOL Instant Messenger
Yahoo Chat rooms
Yahoo Personal Ads
Geocities (advertising suppressed)
A.L.I.C.E chat bot
Morse code [visual (a blinking icon) and audio]
Static message board
Real world telephone number/voice mail
Number to letter straight substitution
Email drop box
Clues from the television episodes
Surveillance by players
Out of game links
The primary group of players congregated at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/aliaswebpuzzle/
For more information please visit the Alias Web Puzzle FAQ: http://alias.unfiction.com/s1/