I’ve been obsessed by in-game mysteries since Mario 64. I’ve played games since elementary school and the NES, and surely those games had their own, more fruitful, mysteries. However, Mario 64 came out at exactly the right time: when the part of my brain that had long been tickled by aliens, and cryptozoology, and “the unexplained”, could finally latch on to a tangible mystery, whose investigation I could personally participate in.
The N64 was the first console for which I turned to the internet for tips and tricks, rather than the magazine, Tips & Tricks, and so I was immediately exposed to a ton of totally made-up bullshit. Chief among Mario 64’s greatest secrets was how to unlock a playable Luigi. I had scoured many an AngelFire page replete with horrible Photoshops of Mario in paintbrushed-green overalls, and directions that were often so complex as to be impossible (lest you actually complete them and discover they were incorrect!) Fortunately for me, the communal effort to unlock this hidden knowledge and reveal the architect’s secrets was more compelling than the secrets themselves. How much different could Luigi actually be? Who cares, I want to see what happens along the way!
This fascination with in-game mysteries has stayed with me to this day, though I have long since ceased to participate in the hunt. Games have gotten many orders of magnitude larger, and the mysteries they may hold have grown more complex. I just don’t have the time, really. I have, however, followed these hunts, and of all that I have known, there has been no more fascinating, complex, deeply-hidden mystery than the Chiliad Mystery in GTAV.
It starts on Mount Chiliad, the largest, tallest mountain in the game. Chiliad is a national landmark, and attracts a good deal of tourist foot traffic to its peak, which offers a spectacular view of San Andreas in all directions. Driving to the top is an arduous task, and so there is a cable car lift from the foot of the mountain to the top, which lands at a large platform. Beneath this platform, there is a crudely-written message: “COME BACK WHEN YOUR STORY IS COMPLETE”. Not far from the platform is a short excavated tunnel, in which there is what appears to be a freight elevator, which does not open. adjacent to the elevator is a cryptic map, which appears to depict Mount Chiliad. From the mountain’s peak, there is drawn a network of paths, like a flow chart, all leading down into the mountain, and at the bottom of the ‘map’ are three glyphs: a small UFO, an egg with a crack, and, most importantly, a stick figure with a jetpack. And at the top? A larger, glowing UFO. The mountain itself is surrounded by incoming thunderbolts.
This message and this map kicked off what has turned into a five-year hunt for the Chiliad Mystery, which has long been assumed to end with the player getting a jetpack. A jetpack is pretty cool I guess, but that is not what attracted me to this mystery. What attracted me, and what seems to have attracted most to this mystery, is the density of it all. It appears to have been woven into so many aspects of the game as to make it an intrinsic part of GTAV’s world. Throughout GTAV, there are subtle, similar allusions to conspiracies and doomsday events that have kept hunters pushing forward. It’s a testament to Rockstar’s dedication that these allusions are so numerous, as this is a fucking huge game, and Rockstar’s dedication indirectly implies to many that the mystery CAN’T be bullshit. Why would they spend so much time alluding to it if it was?
When the player beats the game, it becomes possible to view UFOs in three specific locations in San Andreas. A classic flying-saucer UFO with FIB markings (GTA’s FBI) appears over the hippy camp, the in-game simulacrum of California’s own oddity, Salvation Mountain, but cannot be interacted with. Above Fort Zancudo, the military base, a UFO appears which looks like a military prototype vehicle. It, too, can’t be interacted with, though it will zap you if you get too close. Notably, it bears a message on its exterior: “SEGREGATE AND REARRANGE”. Lastly, under very specific conditions - 3AM on a rainy night - a UFO will appear directly in front of the peak of Mount Chiliad. It, too, features FIB markings, and it, too, cannot be interacted with.
These UFOs have driven much of the speculation around the Chiliad Mystery, particularly the Chiliad UFO. It appears over Chiliad just as a UFO appears over Chiliad in the map. Additionally, the Zancudo UFO’s message, “SEGREGATE AND REARRANGE”, suggests that there is an anagram to solve. Where is this anagram? Does it tie into the mystery somehow? And what of the elevator on the base which descends into the earth, but cannot be used? Additionally, the hippy camp features a ton of graffiti depicting aliens having sex, and around it are symbols which look like a secret language to be decoded. How does one decode it? Can it be decoded at all? Does the hippy camp itself hold secrets related to the mystery? And what’s up with the FIB symbology? We see men in black outside of the massive satellites in Sandy Shores, and a single standalone building surrounded by outward-facing security cameras. What’s going on?
Additionally, the two cults in the game, the Altruists and the Epsilonists, suggest that they each hold secret knowledge about the universe and the fate of San Andreas’ populous which can be unlocked by achieving their goals (as is true of any cult, of course). The Altruists offer side missions in which you can pick up specific hitch hikers and drive them to the camp for sacrifice. Can you give them the people they need in some specific order to unlock a secret outcome which relates to the mystery? As for the Epsilonists, they specifically to refer aliens in their religion, which (as with most of GTA’s attempts at parody) is a weak, unfunny send-up of Scientology. Since the Epsilon side mission path is so obtuse and strange, could IT have something to do with the mystery?
Lastly, there are numerous references to a doomsday event in radio conversation, street conversation, and depicted in photos and environmental text throughout the game. Specifically, there are references to an asteroid, and a flood. These references are loose, fast, and it’s entirely possible most players never even noticed them. Given the stark imagery in the Chiliad map, is it possible these, too, relate to the mystery? And hey - what’s with the unmentioned, unused underwater hatch at the bottom of the ocean?
Outside of the story content, hunters have found anomalies in GTAV’s sound and lighting design which have raised still more questions. The sacrificial cave beneath the Altruist camp makes a strange humming noise. The underground tunnel found beneath Mount Chiliad has a mysterious door which can’t be used. A mineshaft in the hills makes strange sounds. Whispers can be heard is certain places. In a recent update, developers added two specific designs of spiderwebs that bear a resemblance to friezes in some mural designs; these have been placed very sparingly throughout the game. Why? The Space Docker, a reward for completing The Truth’s side quests to retrieve UFO parts, has a special horn sound. Can it be used to activate something? In specific circumstances, strange lights are projected down onto the roof of the structure in which Fort Zancudo’s underground elevator is located. Does a UFO have something to do with this elevator?
It’s important at this point to recognize how many of these questions are rooted in wild, unfounded, wishful speculation. I, personally, don’t buy all of this stuff as being intentional, nor do I believe that much of it is related to the Chiliad Mystery (which I do believe existed at one point - I’ll get to this in a sec). “SEGREGATE AND REARRANGE”? An anagram of “segregate” is “easter egg”. Most of the things people believe tie into the larger Chiliad Mystery are, like this, probably just an easter egg unto itself. And this is to Rockstar’s credit, in a way. I think Rockstar has, if nothing else, a phenomenal sense for detail. The amount of work that goes into individualizing the sounds, lights, and textures throughout this game are just unparalleled. Each playable character even sees the sun differently.
To look on these details as intentional parts of a larger mystery is, in my opinion, to conflate extremely careful environmental design with game design. Developers tend to make interactive objects more detailed; they make the faces of player characters more lifelike; they reuse environmental dialogue and sound effects as a reality of the costs of game development. I think Rockstar just puts more money and work into every little thing in their games than the hunters expect (save for the writing, but that’s another essay entirely), and they are looking at GTAV as being developed like any other game by any other studio. In a Rockstar game, sometimes a weird sound is just a very fine, unnecessary, neat touch, not a mystery.
However, I do believe Rockstar is largely responsible for the lengths to which these hunters have gone in pursuing this mystery. It’s plain as day that there is a larger mystery here. There is a cryptic map, and a specific request: COME BACK WHEN YOUR STORY IS COMPLETE. Now, if there was no map, then this message is already solved: when you complete the game, you can come back to the peak of Mount Chiliad see one of the three UFOs. But in the context of the map, which is still unsolved, and the many allusions to aliens and conspiracies throughout the game, it makes sense that players are seeking to connect every loose thread. Unfortunately, five years have now passed, and the investigation has stagnated. Many have lost hope. Is the Chiliad Mystery even in the game?
Some believed it would be too brazen, too cruel of Rockstar to put all this shit in the game, and none of it leads anywhere. It MUST be in here somewhere. Sunk cost fallacy, I guess. Others thought it would be single-player DLC, for which you’d need to meet base-game requirements before you’d be able to access it. Since Rockstar came forward recently and announced that, yes, they had been developing single-player DLC at one point, but had shifted focus to GTA Online, those who believe this would be completed one day were hit with a sinking feeling. They wouldn’t really move this stuff to GTA Online…would they?
And so we arrive at today, December 12th: the release date of The Doomsday Heist, GTA Online’s newest DLC. Mount Chiliad houses a massive secret, which will save San Andreas from a doomsday event, and it’s up to the player to get in there and get to work. In the trailer for the DLC, players are shown strapped to jetpacks, soaring through the skies. We are introduced to a supercomputer AI called Clifford - a name referenced in GTAV’s source code since 2015, alongside the jetpack, found long ago by hunters who have been dubbed by the hunting community as “codewalkers”. Yes, there is a conspiracy, and yes, Rockstar moved it all into GTA Online, and no, none of the hunting has mattered at all.
GTAV’s Chiliad Mystery is, to my knowledge, the longest, most intense, most complex and well-reasoned in-game hunt for a mystery in a AAA game. While other games have allusions to mysteries that were removed from the game (the bird that can carry the Wanderer to potential new lands in Shadow of the Colossus comes to mind), I don’t know of any where the fruits of the hunters’ labor were actually redirected in a way that wholly nullified the hunt in the first place. It was both fascinating and increasingly sad to watch the hunt dry up as it became more and more obvious to the hunters what was going to happen to the Chiliad Mystery. There are still players who insist that the hunt is still on; they are in denial that Rockstar would have embeded clues that don’t lead to anything. For some, the communal effort of the hunt itself is as much a game as whatever GTAV was actually designed to offer.
For me, I’m saddened by this result. I didn’t actually want a jetpack in GTAV. I don’t even play the game, and haven’t in years. I just wanted to see a conspiracy revealed, a riddle solved. I wanted to see what was beneath Zancudo, and what the shaft of the elevator in Chiliad looked like. I wanted to meet the aliens, know the government’s secrets. I will see that stuff, I guess, if I play the DLC (I’m considering it), but that it wasn’t earned in the way that I had envisioned robs the experience of its intimacy.
In my eyes, solving a mystery in a game is to commune privately with a developer. They whisper a secret in your ear as you enter these forbidden spaces they designed just for you, the intrepid, ever-curious explorer. Now, I’m just another tourist, standing in line to see the prescribed view.