A few years ago I stumbled upon a website with the curious address of thisisnotporn.com, which unfortunately no longer exists. The site drew me deep into a bizarre secret world, and along with dozens (maybe hundreds) of others, I was captivated for months. Thisisnotporn turned out to be a puzzle game, although this wasn't immediately evident. Even when it was clear, many of the people working on the puzzle felt something far more sinister than a simple game was going on. The site was full of references to death and suffering, and the discovery of a clock counting down on one page frightened at least a few people. In the end, everything was revealed as totally harmless, but thisisnotporn's success at creating puzzles was overshadowed by its effectiveness at fabricating a compelling air of doom and fear.

YOU CAN'T ESCAPE THE STORM

The forum at thecellar.org began working on it in June 2004, and quickly became the definitive source for thisisnotporn developments. People searching for answers on Google would find themselves at The Cellar, and subsequently register to help out. The forum thread still exists (though thisisnotporn does not), and has nearly 1200 posts spread out over three years. The thread can be found here, if anyone is interested.

My Eyes are Burning Hel

The front page of thisisnotporn was a photograph. Taken from the side of a road, the photo depicted an old stove sitting at the edge of a field full of browning grass. An audio file played in the background, composed of faint singing and a sound like a crying baby, drowned in static. It was eerie. The picture was actually a flash animation, and after a few seconds two white glowing eyes would appear inside the stove. This effect wasn't scary in the least, but that made the whole page even more bizarre. What was the intent here? In large white text in the lower right corner was written "Taken By: Kristian Boruff January 7th, 2003". For a brief moment, a popup would appear saying "HELP I'M DROWNING". Future page titles would have similar messages.

HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME

Clicking on the stove door would bring you to page two. At the top left corner, the words "Asia Awaits..." were written. The rest of the page was full of red zeros and ones on a black field. Each line was identical to the one before it. Looking in the source code of this page revealed a riddle: Alexander cut me/An oracle predicted me/A future king tied me/Say my name to clear your path, to which the answer is the Gordian knot. A username/password prompt would come up after clicking the "Asia Awaits" text, and the combination of Alexander and Gordian would bring you to page three. The second page was the only non-photo page; the rest were always very unsettling pictures, always labelled with the name Kristian Boruff, and never including any people in them. A few had sound, perhaps most notably on the third page, which featured a female voice speaking in Phonetic alphabet.

a moth flew into the room when i di4d

The riddles got steadily more difficult as the game progressed, incorporating messages hidden in ascii, literary references, anagrams, song lyrics, Navajo code, and manipulated images. The jump from page three to page four required people to manually type in another URL, but most pages used a password prompt or a simple click in the right area. By the fifth or six page, the pages began to branch out. One page, referred to as "the room with the lights," was of a ceiling in what looked like a hotel hallway, with six or seven lights. Each light brought up a different password prompt, and as different passwords were unearthed, separate paths began to develop. Some paths were followed three or four pages deep as others remained closed for months. If someone arrived at a dead end, investigating other current dead ends on the site would lead to a clue to the first one.

shovel that good snow

The puzzles made frequent references to sheep, a Dolphin Hotel, shoveling snow, and someone named Kiki. Fans of Haruki Murakami will recognize these as elements of the novel Dance Dance Dance, and The Cellar users quickly discovered that the book would be required reading to progress in thisisnotporn. Someone found a Russian website that had the English translation of Dance Dance Dance, and everyone spent an all-nighter reading it. Many users were introduced to the author by the game, including yours truly. Other frequently referenced works include Frankenstein, Paradise Lost, Death of a Salesman, and The Wizard of Oz.

How would you like it if someone came along and picked something off of you?

The game occasionally diverged from its usual image/audio format. One video was found on the site, of a face in a gas mask, although nothing ever came of it. Kristian Boruff, the ubiquitous name on thisisnotporn, posted clues a couple times on The Cellar, which made users feel slightly relieved (and disappointed) that it all was a simple game. There was some early speculation that Boruff was a murderer who was leaving hints about his past or future crimes. In order to protect his privacy, Boruff was forced to make it known that he was a real person, and not some part of the puzzle to be investigated.

the eyes that C the Claws that CatCh

Thisisnotporn ultimately failed, though it provided months of entertainment to many people. Kristian Boruff had never completed the game, and soon found that dozens of people working against him formed an unbeatable adversary. Dead ends were not necessarily difficult puzzles to crack; some were simply unfinished. While he attended film school, the site was put on hiatus, and he lost ownership of the domain. It went up later as stoveinafield.com, but that was lost as well. The site now currently exists at thisisnotapuzzle.com.

what comes after we tire of chasing wild sheep?

Kristian Boruff has a Youtube video here called Invasion Of The Puzzle People, that serves as a short documentary of the website. It was very interesting for players to see the site from the creator's perspective, after spending months at the mercy of the puzzle without knowing what any of it meant. It's unlikely that the players will enjoy the fervour they once had with thisisnotapuzzle, even when it does fully come back up. It is possible that Kris Boruff will be able to pull off a comeback, but it's going to take a lot of work to meet expectations and attract interest again. For most TINP fans, I believe the heyday has passed, but maybe, hopefully, I'm wrong.

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