REPORT

This countdown clock has the internet excited

By James Cook

Morse code, private domain registration, hidden pages, coded lines of text… The Survivor 2299 website has everything it needs to get the internet fired up. There’s no denying that video game fans are excited about what might happen when the clock reaches zero, but there’s a growing group of doubters who claim that the site isn’t all it seems.

The Fallout series of games takes place in a post-apocalyptic universe that has players eagerly awaiting every new instalment. Its themes of nuclear war, 1950s futuristic fashion and a ruined America sit well with video game players seeking something more cerebral than Call Of Duty.

Fallout’s developers, Bethesda, have previously hinted that their next project will be the fourth Fallout game. They recently trademarked Fallout 4 in Europe, adding weight to the rumours that an announcement is imminent.

One of the biggest hints that the Fallout series would return comes from, bizarrely, the Twitter account of a voice actor who plays “Three Dog”, the host of one of the games’ radio stations. After his revealing tweet, he mentioned that he was “given permission to release that”, perhaps signalling that Bethesda are keen for fans to speculate on the return of the Fallout series.

It’s real

It’s not clear exactly who first discovered thesurvivor2299.com. However, it was discovered on 15 November, one day after the trademark filing for Fallout 4. It grew to prominence on Reddit, reaching the front page of the Fallout and Gaming subreddits. From there, the “hype train” well and truly picked up speed.

The website includes a countdown timer, a Fallout logo, as well as Morse code that translates into messages related to the Fallout series. With the timing seemingly right for a Fallout 4 announcement, fans became excited. The countdown timer seems to end on the same day as the VGA video game awards, an event that Bethesda previously used to announce the blockbuster Elder Scrolls game Skyrim.

A look at the WHOIS record for the domain seemed promising. The site was listed as being registered to Bethesda, so that set fans’ minds at rest. A deeper look at the site’s data revealed that it belonged to a Polish man named Wojciech Perez. A Google+ profile associated with his email address revealed that he works for AKQA, the same company that created the interactive marketing campaign for Fallout 3.

Days after his email address was discovered, the Gmail account was closed, taking the Google+ profile offline with it. The Kernel contacted AKQA, as well as a Polish marketing professional sharing the same name as the Google+ profile, but received no response to our queries regarding the Survivor 2299 site.

The deleted Google+ account that seems to tie Survivor 2299 with Bethesda's favoured marketing company.

The deleted Google+ account that seems to tie Survivor 2299 with Bethesda’s favoured marketing company.

Intrepid amateur investigators dug deeper into the site and found hidden pages that contained yet more codes. As soon as the pages were discovered, they were taken down. A telephone number was discovered. When rung it played music from the third Fallout game. After it was discovered, the number was disconnected and the text removed from the site.

One developer created a web page to check Survivor 2299 every minute for changes. A Twitter account was created by eager fans to help keep track of the rapid changes to the site.

Whether Bethesda is behind Survivor 2299 or not, they are certainly aware of the site. Calls to their headquarters about the site have been met with the same reply: “We are not commenting on it at the moment.” Previous fan-made websites have seen either legal action from Bethesda or explicit denials.

… maybe

As the hype mounted, more canny internet users cautioned against the growing excitement. For, even though the site seemed real, growing evidence suggests that it is actually a very well-made fake.

Take, for example, the hosting company behind Survivor 2299. The relatively small site is hosted using GoDaddy, a company that Bethesda never uses for their websites. Even more damning evidence comes in the form of the server that the site is hosted on, which belongs to a small web hosting company in Poland.

There have been various mistakes spotted in the site’s HTML: Broken Google analytics links, plug-ins that don’t exist, entire chunks of code copied from unrelated websites. As Reddit users point out these mistakes, they’re quickly fixed.

After Reddit users pointed out that the date format used on the website was European, rather than the American format used by the Fallout series’ developers, it was quietly changed on the site. A line of HTML code was also inserted attempting to make it look like the site had always accounted for regional differences. Whoever is behind the site has been closely watching what internet commenters have been saying about their creation.

So is Survivor 2299 really a countdown to the reveal of what may be one of the biggest video games of all time? At the moment, it’s impossible to say. Nobody associated with the site, or with Fallout, will give us a definitive answer. As internet sleuths trawl through the site’s HTML and hidden pages, more clues and developments come to light, but fail to prove the site’s authenticity.

There are two likely explanations. The first is that, yes, the site is really a piece of clever marketing for Fallout 4 created by a freelance web developer associated with AKQA. This would explain the inconsistent HTML and the Polish server.

The second, and perhaps more likely, explanation is that Survivor 2299 is a fan-made project for a piece of media related to the Fallout series. The video game series has long attracted a passionate fan base, especially in Eastern Europe. One group of Russian fans even created their own post-apocalyptic wasteland using an abandoned bunker and used it to showcase their homemade outfits.

Russian Fallout fans go that extra mile in a bunker.

Russian Fallout fans go that extra mile in a bunker

Perhaps Survivor 2299 is simply a digital fan-made homage to the Fallout series. Whatever the origin of the site, the countdown to the coming nuclear winter has the internet gripped, making it a viral marketing success for the inevitable release of Fallout 4 whether or not it originates from Bethesda.