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The Bleeding Edges: The Stone Retrospective

One of best online games you never played

The Bleeding Edges are a series of articles on games that blur reality and fiction.

In 1997, when the world wide web was barely spun, a game came along that was unlike anything else before it, and with few bold enough to follow it since. It was called The Stone [tribute site], and - incredibly for the time - played exclusively through a web browser. Even more peculiarly, your access to the game was made possible by purchasing a real-world black pendant, emblazoned with six symbols - a pattern of symbols only you, and one other person in the world, had. With this code, you could reach a diagram of a three-dimensional cube, each segment containing a white dot, each dot representing a puzzle.

And each puzzle opened your eyes to something you never knew before, sending you off on a journey of research. On returning to the game, I got hold of one of its original creators, Rod Bruinooge, to find out a little more, and once again sunk into its peculiar puzzling.

1997 was a year before Google, four years before Wikipedia. I believe I played the game primarily between 1998 and 1999, most especially one Summer holiday home from university. I would go through fits and starts of it, ploughing through five or six puzzles in a day, then not playing for a couple of weeks. Maybe I'd spend an afternoon working on puzzles alongside my chum Martin via ICQ. Play time became especially focused when my friend David came over, and we'd work together on the challenges like a pair of teenage sleuths, surrounding ourselves with my parents' volumes of Collins Encyclopaedias, books on history from my dad's shelves, and open window after open window of Internet Explorer.

Let me give you an example of a puzzle. This one's called Enlightenment:

I choose this one because it nicely exemplifies how minimalist your starting point could be, even for the simplest puzzles (of which this is certainly one). It's nearly twenty years since I played this, and I've long forgotten what it was about. In every puzzle you have to assume everything is a clue, from the puzzle title to every detail you can see in the image, and then slightly deeper, looking for mouseover tooltips, potential hidden animations, reactive elements, and so on. But not this one - it's just a jpeg. So what do we have?

Well, it looks like a map outline underneath - maybe a US state, maybe an island. Research point number one. Second, something astronomical perhaps? A pattern of white dots, possibly stars, and something that looks like a brighter star being stabbed with a light sword. Let's start with the outline. To someone in the US this might be immediately familiar. To an outsider, it's perhaps not. But yup, checking an outline map of the USA, that's New Jersey, its top right section being erotically teased by Long Island. We have a starting point.

Googling (or at the time, Altavistering, as it was never called) "New Jersey" and the puzzle title, "Enlightening", and scrolling down past some peculiar sites and businesses, I notice repeated mentions of the Statue Of Liberty. Or, as Wikipedia informs me (gosh, if only we'd had Wikipedia back then), "Liberty Enlightening the World" (La Liberté éclairant le monde). Are we getting somewhere? That light appears to be in NJ's Middlesex, nowhere near the islands New Jersey and New York once quibbled over. At this point, in Stone lore, it was traditional to start putting in any words seemingly associated into the answer box, to see if it'll offer you either its "close" message meaning you're on the right track, or its "Clever, too clever" response meaning it sees why you went that way, but it's a red herring. So far, I'm getting neither.

It's nothing to do with the Statue of Liberty. Opening Google Maps and taking a much better look at New Jersey, I spotted from where that beam of light is actually emerging.

Edison, enlightening. It must be about him then. In later puzzles in the game, this would just be the starting point - for this first tier puzzle, Edison is the answer. Far, far more quickly discovered with today's internet, maps and so on than it was back then, when I would have resorted to poring over an atlas.

I got in touch with Stone co-creator Rod Bruinooge, who went on to become a Canadian politician for nine years in 2006, and is now the CEO of a startup lift-share company called Eventride. As you do. "The Stone was a very long time ago," he told me, before asking what I'd like to know. I'd like to know everything! His answers, however, were those of a busy businessman aware twenty years have passed since he launched his esoteric project.

I wanted to know if it had been a success, more than anything. I think just about every ARG owes its existence to The Stone, and all the games I'm covering in The Bleeding Edges borrow from it directly whether consciously or unconsciously. And yet it still feels so unique, such a one-off, even ignoring the peculiarity of (at first, they later changed it) having to obtain an actual stone to play. Why haven't others jumped on it, I guess. "It was a success on a few fronts," said Bruinooge. "It sold about 200,000 units at retail, which was a modest success at the time." I remember I'd picked up my Stone from a very new Firebox when it was still a physical brochure in 1998, and I remember that later you could get "digital" stones - it's not clear if those later sales counted toward that figure. Bruinooge added, "I would say that its success was shown through the people that cared about it... still to this day."

He's not wrong. While The Stone's official site closed down in 2007, a year after the game had been successfully "won", it didn't disappear from the internet. Fan sites have kept it alive, and it's still completely playable via the (dreadful-looking) Scarecrow's Field. The forums still receive posts, people still providing "nudges" (I feel fairly sure that The Stone was the game to popularise this term for hints). You can, right now, play The Stone from start to finish for free.

And yes, it really did take a decade for anyone to finish the game. That seems impossible now - it seems like a Reddit community would get together and blast through its entire content in a couple of weeks, discovering the real-world buried prize before most people had gotten started. According to Bruinooge it was intended to take a few years, but even back then they'd not foreseen even dedicated players taking a full ten years to unravel it all. Of course, going on this long without getting new players coming in at the bottom didn't exactly see the game churn out continued cash. "In the end it was not a business, more just a passion," explained Bruinooge.

Let me tell you about my very favourite puzzle in The Stone. It wasn't the fish tank image that ended in my reading about the extraordinary and somehow actually real Coral Castle - "To this day, no one knows how Ed created the Coral Castle. Built under the cover of night and in secret, at a time when there were no modern construction conveniences, Ed would only say that he knew 'the secret of the pyramids.'" It was a wordsearch.

Most Stone puzzles were images, some of them interactive in some ways. But this one - I forget its name - was just a wordsearch. In green, with a background that looked like a couple of golf balls. So, David and I did what you do with Stone puzzles. We scoured the wordsearch for words we could put into a search engine and spot a pattern. Words tucked away in there included, "PRESIDENT", "BOMB", "TERRORIST", "ASSASSINATE"... And yeah, as you can imagine, we suddenly hesitated. Even in the late 90s, pre 9/11, there was much discussion of the lack of privacy online, of how ISPs could report people, of how you didn't want to be searching the internet for guides to how to make bombs to kill presidents. We didn't want to solve the puzzle! And in that, we realised, we were on our way to solving the puzzle.

We researched why we didn't want to search those words, what could possibly really happen, who was actually watching. And then we found out what those golf balls were. ECHELON.

This was where The Stone shone. Lots of ARGs and similar reality-blurring games have heavily relied on conspiracy theories, suggesting kernels of truth within. The Stone instead picked topics that were either enormous breakthroughs in science, philosophy, technology, put into the context of their discovery, or even more peculiar moments in history that were, well, probably true. The Coral Castle - that's a real place, built by a real guy, and people really don't know how that poor broken man was lifting two ton blocks of coral. You can go there, pivot the gate, climb the tower. While the game certainly suggested a darker unknown, oftentimes it was shining a light on the murkier parts of reality.

ECHELON then was, and still is, a US surveillance base located in Yorkshire, England. The golf balls are utterly enormous satellites monitoring mobile communications. As Wikipedia now puts it, "a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications". ECHELON is, it seems, reading everything. Your email, your IMs, listening in to your phone calls. And doing that is, some believe, a program called DICTIONARY - scanning everything for keywords. "DICTIONARY" was the answer to that puzzle, the thing that had meant we didn't want to solve it.

It's still tremendous fun to play now. When I encounter puzzles I think I remember, inevitably it turns out I remember the wrong paths, the red herrings, and have to do the research from scratch. And goodness me, life is easier with a right-click and choosing "Search Google for this image". So, a puzzle called The Call: A picture of Thomas Edison and his phonograph, either side of a more modern electric telephone keypad - the keys on the pad light up in a pattern, 3,2,1,2,3,3,3 2,2,2 3,3,9 3,2,1,2,3,3,3. Dial it on your phone, or just hum it to yourself... Recognise it?

It's Mary Had A Little Lamb, right? Which were, of course, the first words Edison recorded on his phonograph. So we've got another puzzle about Edison? Nope - put in his name and you're told that's the wrong direction. Huh. It's a picture of him, it's the tune he's famous for having recorded... but he wasn't so prominently involved in telephonic communication, was he? That was Bell. And "Bell" gets you a 'close'. So what does Bell have to do with Edison? Well, quite a lot you'll start to discover if you google their names together. They even formed companies together to protect their creations. Both had been racing to work on recording devices in the late 19th century.

I never knew that Bell was based in Boston when he invented the telephone. I guess I'd always imagined him in some stone-walled laboratory in Scotland. (And did you know about Elisha Gray? Bell totally nicked his watery idea! What a dick.) Bell later bought Edison's patents for the carbon microphone, which allowed the ever-growing number of people with a telephone not to have to shout to use it. A fact my dad apparently never learned. Bell also used his increasing wealth to fund research and endowments, including projects to help deaf people hear that are still running today. What a not dick! The Volta Laboratory that he funded went on to improve the phonograph (weirdly by reverting back to tinfoil from wax, the opposite of the direction Edison went in), in ways that Edison then used himself. The two were deeply intertwined. But nothing yet for this puzzle.

I've also found out that "Hello" as a way of answering the phone came from a suggestion by Edison, and as any fan of Danny Baker knows, Bell had previously suggested the use of "Ahoy-hoy!" when receiving a call. Please let us all bring this back.

Oh, the answer? Turns out everything I was researching was completely pointless, and the Bell direction wasn't close in the slightest. Which is kind of annoying, until I realise just how much I learned in that wild sidetrack. However, the explanation that appears once you've entered the correct solution is further enlightening on the relationship between the two.

I most of all remember a weird darkness about the original game, a sense that while being educated, it was all in a strangely spooky way. It pushed at doors, questioned authority, pondered the impossible, and blurred the line between fact and conspiracy. It had its own mythos, something about which Bruinooge was reluctant to comment on. Where had the tone come from? "The Stone came about from a kernel in a Pink Floyd track." Right. And the darkness, the troubling topics it raised? "The Stone was a vehicle for these discussions," he told me. "Pointing out that there is always another layer beneath the surface." And that was as far as he'd go. When prodded he only added, "The Stone’s ideas seem more relatable as each day passes."

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