Overwatch's Sombra ARG continues to irritate players

Update 10/19/2016: Almost two months after this story was originally posted, the Sombra ARG still hasn't made significant progress, and it's making fans even angrier. The ARG came to a standstill in August when players discovered a website with what was effectively a countdown timer that many estimated would lead into October. Yesterday, that countdown timer finished, and after months of waiting, Overwatch fans were excitedly hoping that Blizzard would finally unveil Sombra. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be the case.

After the countdown completed, the website updated with another cryptic message in Spanish. When translated, it reads:

Connecting ...
... Shadow v1.95 Protocol starting ...
... Finished Transmission - ending loading ...
... Charging complete. Bastion Unit E-54 committed ...
... Terminating connection ..

The popular theory suggests that, in some way, Bastion has been compromised. While some fans immediately began swarming Bastion's page on playoverwatch.com, others discovered what appears to be some kind of code hidden in its victory pose in-game. 

While some are committed to deciphering this next riddle, the Overwatch community at large is extremely fed up. Both the subreddit and the official forums have filled up with angry threads criticizing Blizzard. With such a long countdown, players expected a big reveal but instead have another disappointing twist in an ARG that many feel is losing momentum. 

Not to mention that Sombra's appearance might have already been spoiled earlier this month when a Russian Overwatch group leaked what appeared to be internal documents that included the first image of Sombra. Without any major teases to keep fans going, Blizzard's Sombra reveal is definitely proving more frustrating than fun. Here's hoping something worthwhile happens soon. 

Original Story 08/30/2016: Blizzard has been teasing its next hero, Sombra, since it first launched on May 24. It started relatively harmlessly—a little wink here or there—but over time it gradually spun up into a full-blown 'alternate-reality game' (ARG) that has a crack-team of internet sleuths determined to figure it out. They're the Game Detectives, a band of Sherlock Holmes's who pry open the baseboards of the internet to find all kinds of nutty secrets and unravel various game-related mysteries. But after Blizzard's latest twist, which took a disappointing turn some players are throwing in the towel.

"A lot of people are disappointed with how much we're having to wait," a player by the name of 'Crash' tells me over the Game Detective's Discord chat. "I am too, to an extent." Crash is one of the admins over at the Game Detectives discord channel and has been a member of the community for about a year, helping coordinate efforts to solve a multitude of video game ARGs. While he's no stranger to the massive effort it can take to solve these series of puzzles, there's no denying that Blizzard's latest effort might have left a bad taste in the community's mouth. "It's mostly just the fact that a countdown was hyped up and anticipated to lead to another trail, but instead just led to another countdown," he says, clarifying that it's the community of fan-detectives who wound themselves with excitement over the riddles, not Blizzard. But even so, is Blizzard's never-ending game of cat-and-mouse headed in a disappointing direction?

Smoke and mirrors 

Up until now, the hunt for Sombra has been a wild chase through a series of increasingly difficult clues that, from an outsider's perspective, is almost impossible to believe anyone could solve. Like the recently released Ana, Sombra has been an Overwatch hero whose identity has been heavily speculated over for months as players teased out little clues present in both Overwatch itself and what its developers had to say about it. The first signs of Sombra began appearing as innocuous details in-game like a manilla folder with the name "Sombra" printed on it and have since gradually piled up to form a puzzle with a few crucial pieces still missing. 

One of the first clues that Sombra existed was this folder found in-game.

Earlier this month, those hints and teases began spiralling into a rabbit hole of cryptic messages and riddles that have thousands of Game Detectives and members of Overwatch's various communities scrambling to solve. This all started months ago when two hex codes were discovered in Ana's origins video that, when translated to ASCII and then filtered through a 'XOR Cipher' (don't worry, I don't know what that means either), translated to the phrase "She who has the information, has the power…" and "Sombra."

Since then, players have followed a trail of clues that involved everything from breaking encryption keys, peeling apart screenshots to reveal hidden messages, and assembling a compass using screenshots that pointed toward a map in the night sky above one level. "The level of engagement that Blizzard has shown has been commendable," Crash says. "They're committed to creating well-designed puzzles, monitoring our progress, and even interacting with us through Sombra's messages. The puzzles have been really engaging thus far—when there are actually puzzles to solve, our entire community just pounces on them and tears them apart."

My hype died when the countdown revealed another countdown that moves slow as hell.

The problem is that as fans solved one incredibly demanding puzzle after the next, they believed that they were quickly chasing Sombra into a corner. Soon, she would have no choice but to reveal herself. The next clue, a "glitchy" post on the Blizzard forums, was originally shown to be posted 23 hours ago (23 being key as Sombra is assumed to be the 23rd hero in Overwatch) and began ticking backwards as time went on—becoming a countdown. As it reached its final hours, the community was mad with anticipation. 

Except the subsequent clue provided after the post reached zero hours didn't lead to Sombra or another branch of clues, it led to another countdown that many estimate might take months to complete. What was thought to be a climactic reveal ended up being another long wait and players weren't happy about it. Over the past few days since the recent development, as the Detectives still tinker to try and discover the nature of the countdown and if there's anyway to speed it up, the Overwatch forums and subreddit have been home to posts lamenting the recent turn—so much so that the Overwatch subreddit has created a way to remove Sombra-related posts altogether.

A crazy string of text that players were able to translate to form Sombra's ASCII skull.

"My hype died when the countdown revealed another countdown that moves slow as hell," writes Reddit user 'Vector7707.'

"The problem is that Blizzard isn't giving any kind of reward for solving the puzzles except more puzzles," another user, 'Waterwish,' comments. "They haven't given anything of substance. Can we have a blurry picture of Sombra? A tiny bit of info about her kit? Anything other than a string of code which translates to some vague and cryptic message in Spanish? At this point we may as well just give up on the puzzles and wait until the official announcement inevitably happens. It feels like there's no point in solving them."

Designing the puzzles behind the Sombra ARG is obviously a ton of effort, but many are tired of how little the ARG seems to relate to Sombra outside the few Spanish messages she's left as clues. The recent twist has put the community on edge, and Blizzard might need to rethink how it’s approaching its Sombra strategy.

"I think the 'time gate' puzzles, as they are regarded by many, are annoying to people who want progress," another Game Detective admin named 'imnotgoats' tells me. "A lot of people don't mind long ARGs, but want to feel like they're solving something, not just waiting for the next piece of the puzzle." Imnotgoats adds that, because the Sombra ARG might've been designed to coincide with a specific release date of something (most assume Sombra herself), these 'time gates' might be a way to artificially control how fast the community works through the ARG to prevent them from beating it before Sombra is ready to be revealed. 

For now, all we can do is wait. Speculation continues wildly across all of Overwatch's communities, with some hoping that the sluggish countdown will end early once it reaches 23 percent because of that number's significance to Sombra. While many are tossing their hands up in frustration and feeling burned by this most recent twist, others like Crash and imnotgoats are eagerly awaiting the next riddle and enjoying a brief moment to catch their breath.

"There's been a huge amount of activity in Game Detectives recently, and to be honest, it was getting exhausting keeping track of all of it," Crash admits. "Blizzard has done a great job of designing their puzzles and keeping us on track—they even did the best thing that you can do when you run an ARG, which is to actually interact with the community. Sombra literally referred to us, the Game Detectives, in one of her messages, and I can't even put into words how cool that feels. Like, are the Game Detectives canon in Overwatch now?"

"It's clear that this ARG is an event leading to a release—possibly Sombra herself," imnotgoats says. "The difficulty is doing that somewhat transparently, maintaining a sense of mystery, and not reducing it to a somewhat Pavlovian clue-solve-wait cycle." 

Steven Messner

With over 7 years of experience with in-depth feature reporting, Steven's mission is to chronicle the fascinating ways that games intersect our lives. Whether it's colossal in-game wars in an MMO, or long-haul truckers who turn to games to protect them from the loneliness of the open road, Steven tries to unearth PC gaming's greatest untold stories. His love of PC gaming started extremely early. Without money to spend, he spent an entire day watching the progress bar on a 25mb download of the Heroes of Might and Magic 2 demo that he then played for at least a hundred hours. It was a good demo.