Strange things are afoot at the Steam Store. A murder mystery. Hidden password prompts. Glyphs within images of nefarious penguins. This can only mean one thing: a new Valve ARG is upon us.
It's unlikely to have passed your notice that Valve are once again running the Steam Winter Sale, alongside the now traditional 'page-a-day' comic and Trading Card collectathon. It appears however that another part of this years sale has been a subtle Alternate Reality Game (ARG), a series of hidden puzzles which when deciphered point to the next point in the chain.
The first clue was a minor update to the Steam Store site performed on December 24th which you can easily check for yourself. Simply point your web browser to any game page on the Steam Store and type in "search", followed by pressing enter. You'll be prompted for a password, but that's as far as you might have gotten.
Enterprising members of /r/SteamSaleDetectives noted that Page 1 of the Winter Comic Gingerbread Jake in "Northpole Noir"* included a barcode (which has since been 'torn out') that, when scanned using a suitable Code Reader, redirects to Hitman: Code 47's store page. The barcode number itself is also a reference to Agent 47's neck barcode, but with three characters changed. Inputting the comics barcode number 94050999014715 in the password prompt (exposed above) returned the result ic/4f21ca7. So far, so confusing.
Appending 4f21ca7 to the end of the winter comic url http://store.steampowered.com/wintercomic/ resolves to a .wav file where a gruff voice states "I was on the right track, I could feel it. Tomorrow, I was going to search again." Perhaps this is a reference to Gingerbread Jake's investigation? From there on the leads in this chain have dried up, for now at least.
Meanwhile, another comic reference is 'blitzen', a past case for Gingerbread Jake. Searching for blitzen in the Steam Store links to the Grim Fandango Remastered page, which seems like an odd result given the game makes no reference to a blitzen in either content or Steam tags. The plot thickens however: by once again opening the password prompt dialogue box and inputting "hot toddies and maseratis", a password referenced on page 6 of the comic, you're redirected to the Undertale store page. Thus far that's the end of this chain.
Other clues uncovered have been strange codes and images in the Winter Sale trading cards. Two have been found: a alphanumeric code on the bottom-left of Sending A Message, and faint old-school Dungeon Master glyphs on Taffy's trading card. The Detectives are currently stumped on the meaning of these clues.
The big question is where this ARG is going. Previous Valve ARGs have pointed to content updates to Team Fortress 2 and major news such as the announcement and release of Portal 2, but it could be months before there's any real clarity. It could also be a few simple easter-eggs for puzzle-solvers.
The next page of Northpole Noir is due to be revealed this evening at 6pm GMT (10am PST).
SOURCES: /r/SteamSaleDetectives, Original vs Modified Northpole Noir