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Aliens built the pyramids and all I got was this lovely translation puzzle

In early 1995, when I was a tiny ickle thing and had only written one major interactive game (not a text adventure), I played a web game.

...That sentence requires a respectful pause, because, you remember 1995? Vas you dere, Charlie? Were there games on the toddler World Wide Web?

Okay -- there were; quite a few by then. Not so many that a person couldn't play all of them, or try. I gathered some young fame as the maintainer of Zarf's List of Interactive Games on the Web, and if you were a Mosaic user in those early years, you remember me. Hi!

1995 was the last year of The List, because that summer is when everything went zoom and there were more web sites, and web games, than any human being could shake a stick at. But one of my favorite additions of that January -- really, of the whole list -- was David Levine's Contact Project.

Because he posted it on sunsite.unc.edu, which became ibiblio.org, the original Contact Project web site is still available. Kai the historians!

The format was straightforward. A message was posted -- notionally a sequence of musical tones received from Tau Ceti. (The creator politely transcribed them into letters for us, but no other hints were provided.) The challenge: translate the alien message. As players made progress, more messages appeared, with more symbols (tones) to translate.

So, to begin with -- if you enjoy a translation puzzle challenge, go look at the messages. It's completely fair, and both creative and clever in its use of familiarity (the aliens want their message to be translated, like our golden tablet) and foreignness (they are aliens nonetheless).

Levine set up a web forum (undoubted the first web forum I ever used!) for players to post messages and share information. Looking back on it now, I startle myself: I had completely forgotten how involved I was! I posted frequently, contributed some source code for decoding tools, and maintained a web page of all the information we discovered. (My page is unfortunately lost, but you can reconstruct everything by reading through the archived posts.)

I was also more of a tone-deaf Internet jerk back then. Heya, youth.

That's not what this song is about.

A couple of days ago, David Levine posted a long article about the Contact Project, its origins, and its consequences.

At the end of March 2010, I found out that I was apparently a central figure in a conspiracy theory regarding aliens and a government cover up. This is perhaps the strangest thing that has ever happened to me.

-- from I am a one-man conspiracy, apparently, David Levine

He works his way around from "bible codes" and hidden-message crackpots, to conspiracy theories, to alien messages in fiction and then in puzzle games. It's a slow build, so I hope he's not offended if I jump to the cool (or frightening) part:

I also firmly believe that people like Wes Bateman, Rod Davis, and Jerry Pippin probably cannot be convinced that their supposed conspiracies are not real. No matter how often I could say that I really created these messages myself for fun; no matter how often I explain whatever inconsistencies they question; no matter how often I could say that I'm simply not involved in other matters they think are connected - won't they just say "of course you would say that - you don't want us to know the truth!"?

In short, some folks out there insisted, for several years, that Levine was lying about having invented the messages -- that he actually received them from Tau Ceti. They claimed proof of this, in the form of better translations -- unrelated to the stuff we puzzle-solvers came up with. Their translations were based on the "mathematics" of the Great Pyramid, crop circles, and the Face on Mars. Also, there were UFO sightings.

Ever hear the phrase "You can't make this stuff up"? You can't make this up: people thought David Levine couldn't possibly have made that stuff up.

I won't reiterate the story; you should read Levine's whole article. He (and I, and presumably all of us erstwhile solvers) were entirely ignorant that this conspiracy theory was evolving; he only stumbled across it a couple of months ago.

But imagine you're Leonardo Da Vinci -- and you wake up one morning to discover that Dan Brown has been living down the street for the past decade. Writing his books, and plastering his walls with angry demands that you admit the truth about Jesus's love-life.

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