Tech

Ghosts in the Machines

My favorite video game mysteries.

Illustration by Allegra

Illustration by Allegra

In 1979, the video game programmer Warren Robinett slipped some text into an invisible wall of his Atari game Adventure that, when unlocked, said “created by Warren Robinett.” Atari called his addition an “Easter egg,” a term that is now used to describe the hidden content in everything from TV shows to computer programs to DVD extras. Though Robinett wasn’t the first person to add a personal flourish to his work, his rogue move is now credited with inspiring a generation of programmers and designers to do the same, thinking, perhaps, that no one would ever notice—although these days they are almost certainly hoping that somebody will. And by now some clever players have taken advantage of this secret messaging to float mysteries of their own. Behold, a few of my favorite clues, legends, and flat-out hoaxes:

Polybius

Legend has it that when this game showed up in Portland, Oregon, in 1981, lines of eager players snaked around the arcades. On the surface it was a simple shoot ’em up, but there were rumors that embedded messages could control the minds of the players and cause nightmares, amnesia, insomnia, and suicide. Then there were stories of mysterious “men in black” showing up at the arcades to collect the names of the highest scorers. But here’s the weirdest part: there’s no evidence that this game ever even existed. No one has been able to find one, nor to track down the source of these stories. Multiple websites and magazines have tried to dig up more information on Polybius, but none has come up with anything concrete, so it remains a fiction, or else one of the strangest gaming mysteries of all time.

The Wolfenstein 3D contest

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In a maze in the first-person shooter Wolfenstein 3D, there is a sign that reads: “Call Apogee say ‘Aardwolf.’” What does this mean? wondered children in 1992. Was it an incantation for magic? A tongue-twister that could get you free games if you said it three times in the mirror with the lights out? Apogee Software’s Joe Siegler offered a solid explanation in the Apogee FAQ: “The sign was to be the goal in a contest Apogee was going to have, but almost immediately after the game’s release, a large amount of cheat and mapping programs were released. With these programs running around, we felt that it would have been unfair to have the contest and award a prize. The sign was still left in the game, but in hindsight, probably should have been taken out. To this day, Apogee gets letters and phone calls asking what Aardwolf is, frequently with the question ‘Has anyone seen this yet?’”

The haunted Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask cartridge

hauntedmajorasmask

OK, this story is kinda nuts. In 2010, a gaming website published a blog post about a college sophomore going by the name Jadusable who had picked up a Nintendo 64 cartridge with the word MAJORA Sharpied onto a blank label. He brought it home and popped it in, and it was a pirated version of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, with one saved-player file called BEN. The guy started his own file under the name Link, but found that characters in the game would still call him BEN. He erased the saved file, thinking that would fix things. Then it got weirder. Characters would float around menacingly in the sky or in the water or other places they weren’t supposed to be. Sometimes music would be playing backwards. Jadusable wrote that playing the game filled him with an intense dread. He said that Link would sometimes grab his head and scream in pain. Jadusable went back to the guy he bought it from to ask about the cartridge and was told that a kid named Ben had died in an accident eight years ago. Jadusable became consumed by paranoia and described it on his blog. Here’s a sample:

I’ve stayed in my dorm room with the windows closed and the blinds shut. That way I know he can’t watch me. However, he still gets to me when I play. When I play, he can still see me. The game is scaring me now. It talked to me for the first time, not just using the text already in the game, but literally spoke to me. It referenced Ben. I don’t know what it means or what it wants. I never wanted this. I just want my old life back.

That’s from the last post written by Jadusable. After that, his college roommate posted to say that he was going home and taking the rest of the semester off. Are you terrified? This story scared me to death. But don’t worry—it turns out that it was all a very clever, long-winded hoax created by a guy named Alex Hall who had manipulated gameplay in Majora’s Mask and posted videos of it. Far from being angry, most of the internet was pretty impressed.

Monkey-people in the Halo series

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Hidden throughout two different Halo games there is an odd-looking, frozen family of three monkey-people that have absolutely nothing to do with the gameplay. They basically look like chimpanzees with the same human face. You see them in the first level of Halo 3—they don’t move and can’t be killed, but if you shoot at them, blood spurts out. There’s another monkey-man hiding by the bushes in the same level, and if you get to the end of Halo 3: ODST, sit through the credits and you’ll see them again. Why are they there? Are they a reference to Halo’s original code name, Monkey Nuts? Are they planting the seeds for a later storyline? No one knows.

Minecraft’s Herobrine

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You can play Minecraft in multiplayer or single-player modes. As a single player, you start out with an entire world that is yours to collect and build on, but a player named Copeland started claiming on a Minecraft forum that even when he was playing alone in a brand new world, changes were being made. Trees were cut down, houses showed up, and dungeons would appear. Even scarier, he claimed to regularly encounter a nameless character with empty eyes who would run off every time he was spotted. When Copeland posted about this online, he says he received a personal message from someone in the forum with the username Herobrine that just said “STOP.” Copeland later claimed he’d discovered that the character, whom people were calling Herobrine at that point, was based on the brother of Notch, Minecraft’s developer. Copeland tracked down Notch and emailed him to see if he had a brother, and his response was “I did, but he is no longer with us.” So what gives? Is the developer’s brother haunting the game?

Nope. Notch himself insists that he doesn’t have a dead brother and that there is no such thing as Herobrine. At one point he slyly joked that he might add Herobrine to the game himself one day, but as the popularity of the stories grew, he backed off from those claims. To this day, some players still think he’s lying.

World of Warcraft: The Goldshire Children

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World of Warcraft takes place in a truly massive universe, so there’s tons of room for weirdness in the dark corners. In the town of Goldshire, for instance, if you’re standing in the right spot at 7 AM, you’ll see six children running around in a pentagram formation before fleeing back into their home. If you follow them, you’ll hear some spooky, ominous music and find the kids standing completely motionless, still in their pentagram configuration. They apparently disappear at 8 PM each day, only to reappear the next morning. When asked, WoW makers Blizzard said that the children are an homage to the Diablo games, a popular series also from Blizzard.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 and the Shadow People of Hell Valley

supermariogalaxyhauntedhellpeople

Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a colorful, lighthearted Mario game, but if you play in first person on the Shiverburn Galaxy and you look up to the left, there are people-like shapes silhouetted against the night sky, staring at you. A guy hacked into the game files and found that the coding for the sky in that level is called “BeyondHellValley,” and the shapes are called “HellValleySkyTree.” Half of me hopes that the Shadow People of Hell Valley was an in-joke created by a disgruntled programmer, and “hell valley” is what they called working on Super Mario Galaxy 2. The other half of me wants every programmer on that game to be polygraphed and swear that they didn’t insert the weirdness into the game. Please, let the truth be an insanely creepy mystery. ♦

24 Comments

  • Emma March 11th, 2013 11:21 PM

    THAT LINK THING? NOT COOL. GOD I was terrified! SO GLAD it’s a hoax. whew.

  • moonchild March 11th, 2013 11:21 PM

    I’m actually so scared right now.
    I’m home alone and I just read the BEN one and then the phone started beeping loudly and then the people gorilla picture filled the whole screen. I swear to god I just jumped out of my skin

    Gwen
    http://under-a-bridge.blogspot.com/

    • Emma March 11th, 2013 11:30 PM

      ME TOO! I am terrified by that story, even if it isn’t real. ROOKIE, why did you have to post this one AT NIGHT?!!

      • Maggie March 12th, 2013 1:42 PM

        ME 3! I shivered for real. Has anyone seen Stay Alive? BEST MOVIE

  • artobsessed March 11th, 2013 11:31 PM

    my brother maintains that majora’s mask is the hardest zelda game, the only one he has never beaten. its pretty creepy stand-alone.

  • dottie March 12th, 2013 12:11 AM

    I’m not a gamer so I don’t know a lot about this kind of thing, but I really like this article. Very creepy stuff. Good job, Emily!

  • Domenic March 12th, 2013 12:49 AM

    I used to hate like game posts but this is actually awesome -_- <3xxxxxxxx

  • Jasmine March 12th, 2013 12:56 AM

    the story about polybius was my favorite, so eerie and mysterious c:

  • Abby in the Sky with Diamonds March 12th, 2013 1:09 AM

    MY HEART IS POUNDING ARRRGH SO CREEPY UGGHGHGHGH

    I WATCHED THE GRUDGE WITHOUT BEING SCARED AT ALL AT LIKE 2 A.M. WHAT COULD THIS MEAN

    p.s. somebody needs to make horror movies about these

    • hiraari March 12th, 2013 11:26 PM

      YESSS. I would watch those movies!

  • ivoire March 12th, 2013 3:24 AM

    so creepy! i love weird things and glitches and stuff like this

  • Lila Gracie March 12th, 2013 5:29 AM

    have you guys seen the beating heart in the staue of liberty in GTA 4?? it’s so cool

  • abby111039 March 12th, 2013 7:30 AM

    OH GOD THIS WAS LITERALLY SO TERRIFYING. Seriously, I’m not going to be playing Super Mario Galaxy 2 for a VERY LONG TIME.

  • ijustreallylikebands March 12th, 2013 12:33 PM

    The Majoras Mask one scared me the most, I ended up reading all of the guys blog posts and watching some of the videos – so glad to find out it was a hoax! A very, very well-done hoax

    http://www.glitterycatqueen.blogspot.com

  • flocha March 12th, 2013 2:10 PM

    Wow, this is both creepy and incredible at the same time

  • JillianYvette March 12th, 2013 7:59 PM

    I love reading about easter eggs! I pretty much spend a lot of my free time researching them. They’re so creepy and interesting mmmmm.

  • hiraari March 12th, 2013 11:26 PM

    I got scared when I start reading the Link one, so I played some happy songs on itunes AND IT DIDN’T WORK OUT

    I’M REALLY SCARED NOW OH MY GOD

  • lau March 13th, 2013 3:50 AM

    oh wow i loved this article. for some reason horror movies never freak me out but i find creepy video game mysteries like these mega-spooky! especially in really innocent-seeming games like animal crossing or minecraft.

  • Koko-chan March 13th, 2013 1:40 PM

    I tried reading this at night. I got to the Link entry when I got too freaked out and hid under my blankets. Rookie, Y U publish this at night?

    Then I tried reading it early this morning. I got to the Halo entry before I got scared and tried putting on some happy Harry Potter music. Didn’t work, because I just happened to click on the soundtrack for the Final Battle at Hogwarts. NO.

    So now I’m reading it in broad daylight, with the vacuum running and my baby cousin cuddled up in my lap. OH BABY SARA, PROTECT MEEEEE

  • Ella March 29th, 2013 11:43 AM

    I love these! A good one to add would be the Lavender Town Syndrome “creepypasta”. If you’ve never heard of it, look it up: it’s scariest video-game story I’ve ever heard!

    Ella
    http://asaccharinesmile.blogspot.com/

    • BritishFish March 31st, 2013 5:27 PM

      Ah, I just saw your comment after I posted mine! haha.

  • BritishFish March 31st, 2013 5:26 PM

    I love these kind of stories! I’m a huge gamer and fan of creepy stories. haha. Have you heard about the Lavender Town story? my boyfriend told me that one.

  • Devon Wolf Sings June 12th, 2013 10:36 PM

    OH MY GOOOOOOOD YESSSS BEN DROWNED I AM SO HAPPY. Majora’s Mask is literally my favorite thing of all time and I have “consumed…everything” (hahaha) related to it. BEN Drowned made me not be able to sleep for a week. Soooo perfect. I love this kinda thing!

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica June 21st, 2013 2:59 PM

    This is delightful. And quite creepy. But mostly delightful.