Welcome to the Game

Genre: Horror, Puzzle, Simulation

Original Release: Jun 15, 2016

Developer: Reflect Studios

Publisher: Reflect Studios

Platform: Steam

The dark web is a strange and terrifying place.

I mentioned in my piece on Broken Age that I was thinking about playing through Welcome to the Game, despite how badly it messes with my ability to sleep. I’ve played it on and off for years, but never got very far. And finally, I was determined to fix that no matter how tense I got. Before we move onto the game itself though, I need to correct one thing:

The Deep Web is really just any webpage that isn’t indexed by a search engine. Your email inbox or bank account pages are part of the Deep Web. The Dark Web is more what this game deals with. It’s part of the Deep Web, but a very specific part of it. Here’s a handy iceberg diagram I found on google that might help sort things out:

I saw another one years ago that said “either use a proxy or say hi to the FBI” but it seemed a bit tasteless.

That is literally all I know about the Dark Web, other than that it exists. I have no interest in browsing it myself, nor do I have the knowhow to suss out random strings of characters that somehow become TOR addresses.

With that in mind, let’s now discuss Welcome to the Game. Your objective from start to finish is to find your way to a Red Room, a (justifiably) well-hidden service on the Dark Web where viewers can participate in torture and/or murder. Think of it like a really dark game of Crowd Control on Twitch if it helps. In order to find the Red Room, you need to gather keys from all over the Deep Web and assemble them in the proper order. There are eight keys to find, each a string of four characters, and some can only be found at certain times of night because that’s when the sites they’re hidden on will be open.

You have two tools at your disposal: A.N.N. for browsing, and Notes for taking notes. Also I’m called out in this confession. Rude.

This seems pretty mundane, yeah? Do a thorough check of all of the available sites to try and find keys to watch a livestreamed torture session in-game. What’s so scary about that other than the fact that you’re looking for this at all? Well, the dread/tension/threat/whatever you want to call it makes itself known in a few different ways. One is a kidnapper, one is a serial killer, and my personal favorite of them all is just how truly twisted some of the stuff you look through is. The Doll Maker’s site in particular gives me the heebie-jeebies like nothing else. But let’s talk about those first two.

If you choose to go through the tutorial (which I recommend for first-time players for obvious reasons), your friend Adam warns you that as you dive further and further into the deep web, you risk attracting the attention of kidnappers who track your location (referred to by one of the confessions on the above site as “Dark Russian Santa”) in an attempt to do what kidnappers do and abduct you. It’s supposedly just an urban legend, but this was what first set off my anxiety so badly that when I went to bed that night I put my phone on silent, turned on airplane mode, and laid it face-down on my nightstand in case there was a kidnapper right outside of my home. There aren’t a lot of games that send my lizard brain into that kind of lingering panic even among horror games. The only other game that I can think of that managed anything remotely similar was SCP: Containment Breach. For days after I played that one, I slept with a light on and was afraid to open doors. Even the slight motion of a piece of paper taped to my door as my ceiling fan worked through a hot summer night would cause my heart to stop and leave me wide awake. I knew it wasn’t real, but my brain would constantly respond “But what if it is?”

Sure enough, Dark Russian Santa is more than just an urban legend.

And then we have the matter of the serial killer. Just like with the kidnapper, Adam warns us of the existence of The Breather. The kidnapper is supposedly an urban legend with not a whole lot to verify it, but The Breather is indeed real. He’s a serial killer loose in the area of the game where we play and he hunts for his victims on the Deep Web, calling them before he tries to break into their home. Usually he just breathes heavily into the phone, but sometimes he’ll say something ominous like “I found you” and it sets you on edge. From what I understand (and I’m taking this directly from the trivia section of his Welcome to the Game Wiki page), his MO is based on Richard “The Dracula Killer” Chase, who saw his victims’ unlocked doors as an invitation. The first time he got me, I screamed loud enough to peak my mic on stream and scare my sister. It never gets easier, the jump scares in this game are intense.

So, how are you supposed to keep yourself safe with a kidnapper and a serial killer hunting you down in your search for a Red Room? Well, Adam has an answer for that too: There’s a light switch directly behind your computer. If you think someone is in your house (signaled by various sounds like footsteps, leather stretching, or even a chair scraping across the floor), turn the lights off and sit quietly until you think you’re safe. I usually count to 30 or so before I turn the lights back on and it works for me. As for The Breather, the answer is a bit more straightforward. Once he starts calling you, he has a chance to start showing up at the front door. According to a number of guides that I read through, he usually starts showing up after his second call. I found it a good idea to check periodically after the first call, but your mileage may vary. If he does show up at your door, you need to hold the doorknob to keep him from getting inside. He’ll look through the window at the top of the door periodically to see if someone’s inside and if he sees you he’ll start trying to break the door down and you’ll have to brace yourself against it to keep him from getting in. Holding the doorknob is slower, but makes a lot less noise. Bracing against the door is faster, but once he knows you’re there he’ll be back to try and get in time and again. The key here is apparently to juggle the kidnapper and The Breather while digging around for keys.

As funny as it was to hear him shout “I can see you in there” as he tried to break in, it’s understandably scary when he does get in and kills you.

Those are the two big threats, but there are two more issues to contend with: hackers, and a time limit. You have a total of thirty days to find the Red Room before it goes offline. If you can’t find it by day 30, it’s game over and you have to start fresh. If you know what you’re doing, it’s not that bad and I was able to find my way there within about two in-game weeks. The problem is that some of the sites you visit reveal your IP address and hackers will try to stop you with one of three attacks: a Denial of Service (DOS) Attack, a Kernel Attack, or a V.A.P.E Attack. Failing any one of these will eat into your available time (I’ve lost as many as six days at once) and you risk losing your notes. Fortunately, Adam has also installed some countermeasures to deal with these nuisances. The DOS Blocker tool has you redirect the attack through a series of nodes to the exit node at the end. If you can feed the data through all of the nodes and get it through the exit (three arrows pointing downward) in the time limit, you’ll be fine. If the data reaches the exit node before it passes through all of the nodes you have to fill in, you’re hacked.

It’s actually pretty tricky, but I’ve never been good at these kind of puzzles and I don’t do well under pressure.

Kernel attacks are a bit more straightforward: once the Kernel Compiler is up and running, you’re given anywhere between five and seven lines of code that vary in length and you have to type each line exactly as you see it. Completing a line rewards you with a little more time, while botching a line obviously eats into your available time. This one’s a bit luck-based since some lines are as simple as “do{” while others have you write out for loops with a lot of extra guff. I’m kind of grateful that I’ve started making my own games as some of these particular keystrokes are coming naturally to me, but you need to be fast without making mistakes and it can be brutal.

I don’t like you either, Line 4. Though arguably it’s stuff like Line 1 that always trips me up.

And then we have V.A.P.E. attacks. This one’s probably the simplest in theory, but the tutorial explanation’s a bit wonky. After the CloudGrid tool starts up, you’re given a grid full of memory blocks that you need to sort out. They can’t be touching each other to the left, right, top, or bottom, but you can line them up diagonally no problem. I don’t know how many of you use the word “adjacent” but I always think about the battery boxes in Mega Man Battle Network’s power plant dungeon and how the correct boxes would never be connected.

Blocks aligned properly will be a bright green and have a white cloud in the middle. Like I said, diagonals are fine. You can also move a block anywhere on the grid.

Each of these hacks gets progressively more difficult as you successfully block a hack of that type, and there’s an achievement for reaching the master level in each, but I lost track of how many hacks I needed to block for the respective tools. These achievements aren’t all that bad in theory, but in practice it’s a bit of a headache. You have no control over which hack you’ll get hit with when you get hacked, so if you’re going for one particular kind of attack (in my case it was DOS attacks), you might get a lot of V.A.P.E. attacks or find yourself dealing with kernel attacks ad nauseam in the hopes that you get to direct a bit of data where it needs to go. There are ways to grind it out, but it gets really tedious really quickly. Fortunately, you can also stop or at least slow the hacking attempts by resetting the modem right next to your computer. It takes about twenty seconds to reset from start to finish and you can’t do anything while you’re working on that, so try to time it well if you feel it’s necessary.

And that’s all of the threats you’ll have to deal with. A serial killer, a kidnapper, a legion of hackers, and the unwavering march of time. Sounds almost like the lead-in for a bad joke, doesn’t it? And yet it’s totally manageable and the game wouldn’t be the same without any one of these factors. In fact, there’s a casual mode that takes them out and turns the game into, and I quote, “A glorified web browser.” This is great if you just want to read through some of the sites without panicking or having to get up to check the door or anything like that, but you also can’t beat the game in this state. There are no keys to find in casual mode, and you’ll have a small baby icon in the bottom left corner of your screen. Still, this can be handy! Trust me, as twisted as some of the stuff you’ll read can be, you’ll want to take notes on it. It can make a big difference.

Baby is good learner. Baby is good note taker. Baby is relaxed. Funnily enough this also harkens back to games like Wolfenstein and the difficulty selection menu.

So how do you find keys to the Red Room anyway? They’re hidden and some sites are only open at certain times, so it feels like a crapshoot to locate them. Well fortunately, the version 2.0 update added a subtle cue to help you find them: If you visit a site that contains a Red Room key on one of the pages (some sites have more than one pages, you’ll have to look around on each page to find the key), the blue loading bar in the URL will hang around for a couple of extra seconds after the page has finished loading. Some keys will be out in the open among the rest of the text on the screen, others will appear either somewhere on the site or in a text document on your computer with a “ping” sound when you click on their hiding place. Don’t worry, the cursor will change from the usual pointer arrow to a hand when you’re over something hidden or a link to another page. It might take a bit of time, but after a few tries you’ll know where to look if there’s a key on a site.

If I had to give some basic tips for enjoying Welcome to the Game, I could offer a couple: Take your time to find each of the keys and put together the URL legitimately at least once. There’s a way to beat the game in under five minutes if you know where to look (there are guides on Steam to walk you through that), but finding all of the keys and putting them into the right order is such a rewarding feeling. Further, take copious notes, either on paper or in-game. Or both. There’s a bit of charm to only having the notes in-game because it adds a bit of risk vs reward, but I can understand if you just want to get to the end without having to backtrack if you lose your notes. I will never judge someone for that, especially considering some of those later kernel and DOS attacks can get brutal. Further, wear headphones. There are a lot of subtle sound cues that signal whether or not the kidnapper is nearby. They’ll happen from the start of the game, but the kidnapper isn’t active until the white van shows up on the other side of the street when you look out the front door. It can mess with your head, but keep calm and you’ll be fine. Trust me, if I can do it, you can too. It’s a tough game, but it’s doable and I really like how much it scared me.

And that’s more or less what I have to say about Welcome to the Game proper, so let’s talk about some free DLC that came out to bridge Welcome to the Game with its sequel. Here are my thoughts about The Waiting Room.

The Waiting Room

You’ll probably see this a lot, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find it a little bit cool at least.

The Waiting Room is a shorter experience than Welcome to the Game in some respects. The events of the game take place over the course of one night and you don’t need to find nearly as many keys, but the trade-off here is that if you make too much noise or aren’t in your cot when your host comes to check on you, it’s an immediate game over. This is more of an escape room along the lines of Resident Evil VII’s Bedroom minigame, but it’s not as readily apparent that the executioner is coming in as it is when Marguerite is headed to check on you. I can’t give it too much flack though, this was made by one person and Resident Evil VII was done by a full team with a lot more experience under their belts.

So the game begins very much in the vein of Homestar Runner’s “Thy Dungeonman” except that there are no obvious exits in the form of North, South, and Dennis. Rather, you have a room with a folding chair that makes a ridiculous amount of noise when you scoot it across the floor (why can’t I pick it up? It’d be so much safer!) and a loose vent cover in the wall.

This game can also hear your microphone. It’s tough, man.

The goal here is to make your way to the computer in a room next door, find and decrypt six hashes after unlocking a terminal program, and line up the key accordingly in order to unlock the doors and escape before 3:30 AM when your captor shows up to collect you for what I can only assume is your Red Room debut. I wouldn’t know because I would either manage an escape or get caught and lose before I got all of the keys. Everything you do makes noise, be it walking around on the floor, clicking around on the computer, or even typing in notes. As with the kidnapper and The Breather, it’s a balancing act. Unlike the main game though, when your captor comes to check on you, you need to mash the left mouse button to keep your eyes closed. I had to pull a trick from Fahrenheit: Indigo Prophecy and hit it with my left and right index fingers alternating to keep them shut. You can imagine what happens if you fail.

Fortunately, you’ve got a familiar friend who left behind a few tools from their escape, one of which is the terminal, the other is a very well-hidden note that serves as the tutorial.

It’s like Where’s Waldo, I swear.

The A.N.N. browser makes a return, but you don’t have to worry about getting hacked this time. However, the browser itself is also different, probably due in part to the fact that you’re using a different computer. The loading bar isn’t your signal that a hash is tucked away somewhere on the site. Rather, the little globe icon at the bottom left of the browser will flash once the page is loaded if there’s a hash somewhere on that page. Not per site, but per page, so you’ll need to be thorough. It’s a little more devious this time around though, some of the hashes will appear in the game files on your actual computer and you need to open them in a text editor. I want to say that you can use notepad, but I used Atom because I had it on hand from recent adventures in trying to learn how to dive into SNES game code to better understand how Home Alone works. It was a whim, I swear. Anyway, some of the hashes will show up in the game files along with the terminal key that you need to unlock the darn thing in the first place and even beat the game. It’s clever and Adam even says it’s in a hidden file on your computer, but if I hadn’t been following a guide, I would never have thought to look in my own files. Escape rooms and ARGs are weird man.

That said, I have a lot of gripes. The biggest for me is that at least one of the hashes appeared in white text on a gray background overlapping other white text. Behold:

Good luck reading that.

I feel like this is justifiably infuriating. Because of random luck, I wasn’t able to read or decrypt one of the keys I needed to beat the game. I typed in what I thought it was as best as I could, but I was told it was an invalid hash, and as soon as I left the computer to sneak back to my bed, guess who was right next to me? Yup. That was a game over.

It’s not the only problem I have with The Waiting Room though, the other big one is the fact that, like the main game, the sounds don’t seem to have any meaning, or if they do it’s very hard to tell which ones are important. I found myself getting caught a lot because I thought I was fine but I actually wasn’t. And when you pause the game the sounds keep going. I managed to beat it purely through trial and error and I don’t feel any smarter or have a deeper understanding of how the game works. I liked hunting through the Deep Web to hunt for more keys and trying to survive, but the rules were really unclear. It wasn’t as much fun as the main game because the threat wasn’t clearly defined. Even the guides I consulted didn’t say much beyond “get back to your bed when you think he’s coming.”

I can say I didn’t care for The Waiting Room, but I’m not going to say it’s garbage. It’s functional, and if you’ve ever made a game yourself you know just how hard it can be to pull that off without missing anything important. The worst I can say is that it feels unfair, and yet it makes sense in the context of the game. At the end of the day I still had a lot of fun with both the main game and the DLC, despite all of my frustrations. So I can safely say that I’m willing to make a recommendation here.

I will admit that I haven’t heard very favorable things about Welcome to the Game II, but it is in my library and as such I will eventually cover it. Which in turn means that I’ll give it a fair shake and try to form my own opinion on the subject. For now, happy hunting friends! I’m off to watch some horror movies. At least those don’t terrify me into putting my phone into airplane mode at night.

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