The Secrets Behind Kotaku’s Stranger Things Puzzles

It’s been a fun few weeks here at Kotaku. We’ve been hiding some sneaky puzzles in our posts, and they weren’t easy. Solving them, and the metapuzzle looming over it all, could get you $6,000 for a home entertainment system — but it was as hard as defeating a Demogorgon. Now that it’s all over, we can take a look at each puzzle solution in depth.

When we started this promotion, the first trailer of the show was just being released. It looked interesting, but it’s all we had to go on. As time went on and the show came out, it was great to see the thing we were promoting was legitimately one of the best shows out there. Anyone who’s seen Stranger Things gushes over it, and for good reason.

We also had a fun time watching you all solve these puzzles. It turns out hints weren’t needed, because despite being an individual prize, this community just can’t help but help each other. Faith in humanity restored, and all that. That said, there were a few little connections here and there that you may have missed. Let’s go through all the solutions!

Puzzle 1: Bigfoot in GTA V



The final paragraph contains a deliberate misspelling of “Norse” to “Morse”, which is a reference to Morse code, a way of communicating using dots and dashes. Commas throughout the article are also highlighted in red to provide the extra suggestion that the punctuation throughout the article is important.

Extracting the relevant punctuation from the article provides a series of dots and dashes separated by commas (which isn’t part of Morse code). Converting these to letters as is would provide some errors but the suggestion of some words forming. Players would then need to recognise that the paragraph breaks provide the final separator for letter combinations, and translating each group would then lead to the solution SAM AND MAX HIT THE ROAD.

Notes: To kick off the competition, we wanted to have a fairly straightforward puzzle that didn’t involve too many steps, but would still introduce players to the concept puzzles being hidden or embedded within articles rather than presented to them on a platter like a crossword or riddle.

Additionally, the plan was to publish the first post BEFORE the announcement of the competition, so with that in mind, we settled on encoding a simple message within the text of the post itself to be as subtle as possible.

So if you have a web article, what do you have to work with? Lots of words and sentences, and with that lots of punctuation! So we thought that we could encode a simple message in morse code using the punctuation available.

The trickier part was representing breaks between letters and words, but with Jeremy’s slick wordsmithing we used commas to break up letter combinations, and paragraphs to denote words. The word Morse was snuck in as a misspelling and commas highlighted in red (which was most visible of available highlighting colours, so apologies to those who couldn’t discern the red due to colour blindness). And a reference to the Underwater Hatch in GTA V was also included with its links to Tap Code, which is in some ways similar to Morse.

So why Sam and Max Hit the Road? Well the article was all about finding Bigfoot in GTA V. Sam and Max HTR is another game where you can also find Bigfoot – and not just him but a whole clan of Bigfeet:

Puzzle 2: Polybius

With the theme being about a mysterious arcade game, we thought it would be appropriate to also put our puzzle out in the form of a classic arcade game. Everything for this puzzle was contained solely within the Space Invaders style game.

The first clue to solving the puzzle lies in the coloured aliens. In each wave (except wave 6) there’s one alien coloured red, and another coloured yellow. The other thing to notice is that unlike regular Space Invaders, there’s a glitch in this version, with an alien missing from the formation to leave a bit of a gap, but more importantly 26 aliens in each wave, corresponding to the 26 letters of the alphabet.

Taking the position of the red and yellow aliens respectively and reading left to right, the coloured aliens spell out the message “CAESAR SHIFT”. This is a useful instruction for the leaderboard that is displayed upon death, which has four three-letter combinations each followed by a score. If you perform a simple caesar shift on the letter combinations according to their score, you end up with the letters DOU-BLE-DRA-GON, referencing Double Dragon, another arcade game.

Notes: The Double Dragon solution was chosen also because of the appearance of the Demogorgon in the Stranger Things trailer. Although not quite a dragon, the Demogorgon is a double-headed reptilian, so just about close enough. As an additional signpost to play the game, a fake developer quote was included from the creator of Tempest about hiding codes for his friends in the games he made as a kid. Though players can accrue a score value in the game, after the 6th wave players are dumped onto a locked high scores screen — both to preserve the code, and to deter them from thinking the answer is simply playing better.

Puzzle 3: Trials

This puzzle was presented via a hyperlink in the article. Players were presented with a simple graphic showing a series of Pokemon with ordinals such as 5th, 6th, 5th, etc. under each presented Pokemon. The first step is to identify each of the Pokemon, which could be done by looking at index sites such as Bulbapedia, a reverse image search or even doing something as simple as googling “Blue pokemon spiral shell”. Once the appropriate Pokemon is found, it’s simply a matter of taking the letter of the Pokemon indicated by the ordinal, eg. the 5th letter of Omanyte is “Y”. The picture would then spell out a message which would be a motorcycle manufacturer.

This would then lead to another picture URL, which could be solved in an identical manner. Going through the extensive list of pictures would then lead to a final message, with an explicit instruction to repeat the process after undergoing “Evolution”.

Of course, the defining characteristic of Pokemon is their ability to evolve. So, going from the start, if you repeat the same mechanic on the evolved forms of the Pokemon another message becomes apparent, which states “Trials Evolution bike option not referenced by Ekans Carvanha Skorupi or Moltres”.

Trials Evolution has 5 bikes to choose from, being the Rattler 125cc, Piranha 250cc, Scorpion 450cc, Phoenix Evo 250cc and the Micro Donkey Bike. Comparing them to the listed Pokemon in the message, we can see that Ekans is based on a rattlesnake and thus is referring to the Rattler, Carvanha to the Piranha, Skorupi to the Scorpion and Moltres to the Phoenix Evo. This leaves the only one not referenced as MICRODONKEYBIKE (and we also accepted MICRODONKEY). Up until about a week ago, no donkey-based Pokémon existed – but Mudbray was coincidentally revealed soon after this puzzle was!

Here’s a full list of the used Pokemon and their evolved states:

Notes: This puzzle was mechanically quite simple (once you recognised the indexing steps there wasn’t much else that needed figuring out until the end), but quite long with the actual solving and working out. We could justify that by saying that players needed to go through their own set of TRIALS, but in actual fact it was simply the product of creating a clear and unambiguous message for the evolved phase that drove the length of the puzzle, as well as running out of time before the submission deadlines to create a tighter version Nevertheless, although it’s a slog this puzzle is solvable. And at least Pokemon are topical right now, so all that Pokemon research might not go to waste!

Puzzle 4: Killswitch

Players are presented with a series of Killswitch screenshots littering the article, with bars similar to those on a digital display represented on each with light and dark tones. The screenshots are also attributed either to Porto (dark shading) or Ghast (with lighter shading).

Clicking on each screenshot presents a picture of a video game character. The filenames can help identify some of these well known characters such as Mario, Donkey Kong, Rayman, etc. and it becomes apparent that the characters are all from prominent video game pairings.

Taking each pairing then, it’s possible to extract either the dark elements or the lighter elements to form numbers.

Using a similar method to that in the previous Trials Evolution puzzle, using the numbers as an index for each of the respective names allows the extraction of letters. However, without any order they become a bit of a mess. So in order to address this, the next step is to look at the way that the images are presented on the screen. The screenshots are deliberately arranged in pairs, and further examination of each column reveals that only one character from each video game pairing is present. So, if we arrange each of the video game pairings according to the left column we get the following:

The message revealed has two names: Jodie and Aiden. The lower half of the message below the line break asks for the “Game name”. Taking these together, the video game with the pairing of the characters of Jodie and Aiden is BEYONDTWOSOULS, another video game like Killswitch featuring a pair of characters including one invisible character. At least it doesn’t delete your game upon completion!

Puzzle 5: Halo Ghosts

This puzzle is found in the comments section of the article, but the article does contain the first clue. When players are killed by the Halo Ghosts the kill is sometimes attributed to “The Guardians”, and lo and behold the first comments on the article are also attributed to The Guardians. Each of the five comments by The Guardians includes a snarky sentence, followed by a hyperlink to another Halo themed article on Kotaku. If you follow the link there’ll be another snarky comment there with another hyperlink, and so on and so forth creating a chain of comments.

The other characteristic that becomes apparent when looking at the comments left by The Guardians is that each comment also contains a number of some sort (sometimes explicitly, sometimes in more obscure forms such as emoticons). Unlike previous puzzles, the numbers aren’t used as an index to extract letters from the comments…but more on this later.

The first thing to do is to follow each of the comment chains and list them all down, starting with the first comment in the original article and following those hyperlinks, then after that moving onto the second comment and following all those hyperlinks, etc. Looking then purely at the comments, if you take the first letter of each comment you can extract the message “NUMBERS ORDER THE TITLES”.

This is an instruction to then look at each of the titles of the actual articles that are being linked in each comment. Conveniently, the Kotaku website structure places the titles of the article in each URL so you can read it off each hyperlink or you can click through to each one. Then, looking at each chain it becomes apparent that the numbers that we identified earlier in each chain set are consecutive – they represent the order in which we should be ordering the titles.

Once we rearrange the titles of each article according to their place in each chain sequence, we then get the following message (taking the first letter of the reordered titles from chain 1 of the original article, then chain 2, etc): “NAME OF DANA AWBREYS SITE”. A quick google search will reveal that Dana Awbrey is a character created for an ARG that ran to promote Halo 2. Her website in the ARG, which also became the title of the ARG itself, was “I LOVE BEES”, the solution to our puzzle. And in that ARG her website was hijacked by a mysterious entity – just like our own Halo ghost.

Notes: When we were first looking at ways of constructing the puzzles, we looked at each of the aspects of Kotaku articles – the titles, text, embedded images, and underlying code – and these formed the basis of some of the other puzzles. The one other feature that we picked up for this puzzle was the comments section below each article, so the idea was to have a bit of fun using not just the comments section (and seeing if players would pick it up that the puzzle started there) but also to lead onto other sections of Kotaku. The other neat thing that worked well for the theme of this puzzle was the idea that The Guardians would often pop up in games unannounced and troll players, so having our own little comment troll here was a fun thing to do.

Puzzle 6: Haunted Majora’s Mask

The puzzle was themed around Majora’s mask, with the words Up Down Left Right and A provided as clickable links, thus giving players the same controls as an ocarina in a Zelda game. Clicking on any of the links would emit a sound. The other clue to be found within the article was the reference to the Song of Healing being played backwards on the in-game ocarina.

So by playing the various ocarina songs found in Majora’s Mask (including a backwards Song of Healing), various glitches would start to mess up the page (such as changing the webpage name in your browser tab). Most notably, some of the letters in the paragraphs immediately above and below the controls would be highlighted. Upon entering each of the requisite songs, you would be left with a collection of letters that when rearranged spell out the message “GHOST DANCER”.

Of course we’re not interested in any old ghost dancer – we are within the world of Zelda after all. A quick search for “Ghost Dancer Zelda” or “Ghost Dancer Majora’s Mask” would lead you to our solution “KAMARO”, another ghost found in Majora’s mask and who would actually respond properly to having the Song of Healing played to him.

This was the last of the regular puzzles, with a story about a haunted version of Majora’s Mask. The concept for this puzzle started less with the puzzle elements but rather the idea of screwing around with the players as they interacted with the puzzle to instil the same sense of dread felt by jadusable and his haunted game. So the implementation of the javascript behind the article was focused on ways the page could be messed up, coupled with the creepy sounds triggered by the embedded links.

Or did we put that code in? Maybe that’s what Ben wants you to think…


The Metapuzzle

Upon solving the regular puzzles, players would be rewarded with a pair of cards (or in the case of the final regular puzzle, two pairs) with 14 cards in total. The cards have two areas of text along with a still taken from the first Stranger Things trailer, or a picture of television static instead. All of the 14 cards are required to solve this puzzle.

The first thing to notice when tackling this puzzle is to recognise that the cards have been designed to fit together in pairs, with the text boxes lining up when cards are placed side by side. Some pairs are more obvious than others, for example “Scottish” goes well with “Lake Monster” which is a reference to the Loch Ness Monster. This then also provides the pairing of “Irish” with “Hoarder” on the same cards, which refers to a Leprechaun. Other pairings such as “Trick” and “Treat” for Halloween are also straightforward, but the other pairing on the card between “Ionosphere” and “Research Program” may need some research to come up with HAARP. In fact most of the solutions should be the first results after plugging in the words into Google.

At this point the other aspect to notice is that both Loch Ness Monster and Leprechaun start with the letter “L”. This can be used to help confirm some of the other more obscure pairings. Here is a full list of strange things pairings:

Hobby | Lantern → Will O’ The Wisp
Doctor Who | Blink → Weeping Angel, terrifying statues that come to life when no-one is looking and made famous in the Dr Who episode “Blink”

Ionosphere | Research Program → HAARP, a research program frequently associated with government conspiracies
Trick | Treat → Halloween

Ghostly | Residue → Ectoplasm
Gnomes | Sylphs → Elementals, as classified by Paracelsus in the Renaissance era mythology

Draconis | Humanoids → Reptilian, with a conspiracy that they secretly rule over humans
UFO | Crash → Roswell, the most famous of purported UFO crashes

Bavarian | Secret Society → Illuminati
Hawkins | State → Indiana, as per the show, not the real life location!

Demonic | Seductress → Succubus
Navajo | Shapeshifter → Skinwalker

Scottish | Lake Monster → Loch Ness Monster
Irish | Hoarder → Leprechaun

Another way to confirm you’re on the right track is that each still contains the letter extracted from its word pairing, so for example the letter “W” can be found on the “Hawkins student drop off” sign as well as the Upwords boardgame in the background behind the kids.

While the letters are clearly useful, they are difficult to process in this form with no apparent anagrams falling out. The next aspect to look at after the extraction of the letters is the images provided on each card pairing. As mentioned in the instructions, the metapuzzle is based off the first Stranger Things trailer, and each of the stills have been taken from this trailer. Their significance comes from their ability to provide order by using their relative appearances in the trailer timeline. Therefore the final step to complete is to order the stills and for each card that the still is taken associate it with the letters extracted earlier. This then provides the message “WHERE IS WILL” which is the final solution to the metapuzzle, and the premise of Stranger Things.

SPOILER for Stranger Things season 1:

With the answer to the metapuzzle being posed a question, we also accepted solutions submitted which referred to the location of Will as put forward by the show itself. So if you submitted “The Upside Down” or “Upside Down” you would have also been in the running for the prize.

Notes: When coming up with the overall design of the competition, we were told that it would be for the promotion of the new Netflix show Stranger Things. However when we started our design there was scant information to go on with what the show was about, except that it was an 80s style homage to old mystery shows like the Goonies and more modern ones like the X-Files, with allusions to the supernatural and conspiracies.

Luckily not too long later the first trailer was released, giving us a little bit more information on the show, particularly with the overall premise being based around Will being missing. But otherwise we were a bit in the dark as to what the show was actually going to be about. So using the title, the first thing that we latched onto was the title “Stranger Things” and we dug up a whole list of stranger things on this theme, but the initial versions of this puzzle threw up issues of being guessable without all the pieces.

Upon the release of the trailer we created another version of the puzzle encouraging players to make links between the timestamps of screenshots and corresponding letters (such as a screenshot at 2 seconds equating to the letter B, a screenshot at 4 seconds being letter D) but this presented problems with ambiguity. So the final version uses elements of both – references to plenty of strange things, and also images taken from the show itself which are used to solve the puzzle.

Finally, the design of the cards was also inspired by old movie trading cards popular back in the 80s (and well before then too!). I think it’d be neat if Netflix produced some official cards for Stranger Things, it’d be fitting!

It’s been a pleasure reading all of your comments under each puzzle, and it was great to see the Kotaku community helping each other out throughout the process for what we assumed would be an individual exercise with the prize at stake. Whether you successfully solved our puzzles or not I hope that you enjoyed the experience, we certainly did 🙂

Your puzzle masters were The Enigma Room, Junglist, Gritfish (who just released a nifty game), and Sean Gardiner at SUMS.

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