The big winter Steam sale sure appears to be Just Another Steam Sale, doesn’t it? A handful of Steam users, however, think it’s all a ruse. They believe they’ve found evidence of a secret Valve alternate reality game.

It begins with the theme of the Steam sale comic: it’s about a detective named Gingerbread Jake. Taken in collusion with item names like “Follow The Clues,” some Steam users think Valve is subtly pushing them to play detective. There’s already an entire subreddit dedicated to the cause.

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The evidence so far? Thin, but... existent? Sorta? Most compellingly, people have discovered weird words—or perhaps letter jumbles—hovering almost invisibly, like the ghosts of your high school English lessons, in the backgrounds of comic pages. Here’s a zoomed in bit of page three, courtesy of ekim_gaf:

Nobody’s sure what these words mean—or if they even mean anything. There are theories, though. As recounted by geman220:

There are a number of theories surrounding “nesse”/”ncssc”/”nesser”.

-One is that there is a swedish crime novel writer by the name Håkan Nesser. The theory was that maybe this story could be one of Håkan’s books but very dumbed down and shortened. The theory is unlikely because it would be very weird for Valve to let someone have a watermark in this sort of scenario. A Swedish member of the discord chat (Sam) read through the summaries of all Håkans books and none was remotely similar to either 2014’s or the beginning of 2015’s comics.

-Another theory is that Valve added words/letters around the comics to make it look like the recycled paper that comics was printed on back in the day.

-A theory is that NESSE might stand for “Network of Early-Career Sustainable Scientists & Engineers”. A group like that would stand for something very similar to Black Mesa’s motto: “Working to make a better tomorrow for all mankind.”

Steam users also think there might be clues hidden in sale-specific Steam profile backgrounds, cards, badges, and emoticons—many of which are still hidden. For instance, there’s a coal badge and emoticon. Coal was an important part of the 2014 winter Steam sale’s game. Perhaps that signals some kind of tie-in? There certainly seem to be callbacks to characters from 2014’s sale; elves named Zippy, Sage, and Clementine all appeared in 2014, and now they’re back (and/or murdered).

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There’s also a mysterious bar code on the comic’s cover. Seems ARG-y as hell, right? Thing is, it’s just Agent 47’s (of Hitman series fame) infamous bar code, as seen tattooed on the back of his head.

And that’s kind of where this whole thing falls apart for me. So far, this series of clues seems more like people drawing red lines between easter eggs Valve sprinkled throughout a goofy holiday web comic. The background words in the comic? Probably just an attempt to ape the paper pulp detective comics were printed on back in the day. The backgrounds, badges, and whatnot? Extensions of the theme/comic and (rather brilliantly) incentives for people to click through their discovery queues and find new games. The bar code, meanwhile, seems like a good old-fashioned wink, a quick reference to (perhaps) the most revered bar code in all of video games.

I’d love to be wrong, of course—and, again, I could very well be!—but I don’t really see how any of these alleged clues fit together. There’s no method to the madness—just scattered slabs of cardboard people are trying to will into puzzle pieces. More than anything, what this says to me is that there’s tremendous desire for some kind of Steam sale game or event, something Valve was doing regularly for a while. Recently, however, they’ve stopped. And yet, people want one so badly that they’re turning the winter Steam sale upside-down and shaking out crumbs in hopes of finding it. To some, each crumb is gold. In reality, they’re probably all gingerbread.

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As I discussed yesterday, in some ways it’s probably for the best that the past couple major Steam sales have been “just” sales. But clearly, Steam users pine for more. Doubtless, the folks who’ve latched onto this mystery will continue to pour over every little detail and change for at least a few days. Maybe they’ll find something, maybe they won’t. Regardless, Valve is pretty much always watching, even if they rarely communicate. I wonder what they’ll do with this information.

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To contact the author of this post, write to nathan.grayson@kotaku.com or find him on Twitter @vahn16.