Shortly after the big Steam Winter Sale kicked off, intrepid users started sleuthing around, believing that they'd latched onto some kind of alternate reality game (or ARG, for short). Surprisingly, they ended up finding a secret search bar within Steam, as well as other hints. But... that's it. And now it's over. When I first wrote about people's efforts to decode a convoluted mystery at the heart of Steam's Winter Sale, I conjectured that they'd stumbled across a loosely connected series of Easter eggs — not a full-blown ARG. I was wrong! Kinda. In the following weeks, dedicated users — with their eagle eyes, anteater snouts, and sweet wolverine claws — uncovered a special input box by typing "search" into Steam. Not into the search bar. Just while on pages. They then uncovered special code words meant to be typed into said input box. It was pretty wild, and it confirmed that something was going on.
But what? And did Valve intend it from the get-go, or was this breadcrumb trail added after the fact — once people began to grumble about the rotten rote-ness of this Winter Sale? In time, users found voice clips suggesting they were on the right track.
Shortly after, they unlocked a Steam badge titled "Red Herring". Again,it was proof positive that Valve had put effort into some manner of Steam sale side game — even if this was probably the incorrect route, given the colloquial definition of red herring. Haha, Valve. Good one.
But then the trail ran cold again. Players kept grasping at various threads — more search terms, random game store pages, possible hints within the Steam sale comic, and numerous false starts, some of them Half-Life flavoured — but nothing took. Today, the Steam Winter Sale closed up shop, and players were left scratching their heads. What was the point of all that?
Some speculate that the red herring badge was the end of it — that the whole thing was a joke on Valve's part, a commentary on how these games are just distractions. Perhaps, others have suggested, the red herring badge was meant to suggest that this whole mystery was a distraction from something else Valve has cooking.
Others, though, think it might not be over yet, and they're determined to turn up more leads. The special search function has been removed, but the comic — another key source of possible clues — is still available. Some have pointed out that the comic was not particularly conclusive, suggesting that there's more to uncover, more pages to find. A few are entertaining the possibility that the ARG will end with an announcement from Valve during this week's CES 2016 convention in Las Vegas, hopefully of a new game. Odds are, though, Valve will just use CES to talk about previously announced hardware stuff.
It sure seems like the ARG — or at least, what little of one there was — is over, but who knows? Valve works in mysterious ways, and they have done elaborate ARGs before. For now, there are still some big question marks hanging over this whole... whatever it was. Maybe answers are just around the corner. Or perhaps we've already seen all there is to see, and well, that's it.