On May 6th, Saitama Prefecture students Aine Ichirai and Binato Sotobara were reported missing. At 10pm EST on May 7th, Aine’s Twitter account shared a chilling account: on her way home from cram school, she blacked out, and then woke up in a dark room with no windows. The only things of note in the room? A box with a series of numbered buttons, and a piece of paper saying “Solve the Puzzle”. Twenty minutes later, her account went silent. The same pattern repeated for Binato at 10pm EST on May 8th. After blacking out on his way home from college, he woke up in a room with a box with a number lock, a note instructing him to “Solve the Puzzle”, and a smartphone that only connects to the internet for 21 minutes, every other day. This is players’ introduction to Hidden Bats, an alternate reality game teasing Japanese game developer Spike Chunsoft’s upcoming game, AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative.
A Brief Introduction to Hidden Bats’ Gameplay During the game’s first week, the mechanics of the game have been relatively simple: as Spike Chunsoft explains in their press release, every day, the smartphone belonging to one of the two missing students will activate for 21 minutes, and they will share a note through their Twitter account. Players then have two days to decode the message, using the surreal images contained within a video called “Bats489” as a guide. Then, they would enter that “Nirvana Spell” into an online tool to generate the nine-digit combination allowing the students to move on.
For instance, Aine Ichirai’s first note featured an image of a blue snake, a yellow penguin, and a gray giraffe. Each of these images appeared in the video, associated with letters spelling out the word “PAN”.
Entering that keyword into the Answer box on the Hidden Bats website as a “Nirvana Spell” triggers a congratulatory message, along with the first 9-digit code needed to proceed – . Two days later, when Aine’s internet access was restored, she reported that the box opened up, exposing yet another layer to solve. Puzzles have gotten progressively complex over the past week as players progressed (requiring players to get more creative in identifying the referenced symbols and introducing shift ciphers), but the core mechanic has remained the same. Find the puzzle, get the word, transform the word into the necessary number sequence.
Hidden Bats‘ design made a somewhat novel choice for the alternate reality gaming space: the entire experience is delivered with near-simultaneous posting in both English and Japanese, across the game’s websites and social accounts. While other games like McDonalds’ The Lost Ring and Star Trek’s Alert Vulcanhave integrated multiple languages into gameplay, those games typically turn global communication into a puzzle of its own, leaving it as an exercise for fans to translate the often expansive texts driving gameplay. By making the conscious choice to limit communications to 21 minutes a day, Hidden Bats manages to more seamlessly engage with English and Japanese speakers in tandem.
The daily scheduling (starting at 10pm EST and alternating between Aine and Binato) also introduces some welcome regularity in updates.
Stranger Things is returning for its fourth season on May 27th, bringing back one of Netflix’s largest and longest running success stories – according to Netflix, fans have logged over a billion hours watching the series. So it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that Netflix is having a little fun with the leadup to launch through what they’ve cheekily dubbed an “interactive curiosity voyage” centered around the website I Am Hell’ s Master, launching in earnest on April 29th.
Finding Hell’s Master: Cracking Stranger Things‘ Hidden Trailer Puzzle Last week, Netflix released the official trailer for Stranger Things 4, and fans quickly noticed that amidst a flurry of extra-dimensional lightning strikes, one particular frame at the 1:59 marker showed a particularly interesting image featuring colorful bursts of energy, labeled with four additional timestamps.
Taken individually, the images found at each of the timestamps was fairly sedate: an image of Billy Hargrove’s grave, a Hellfire Club baseball tshirt, a government building in Lenora Hills, and a Dungeon Master’s screen.
However, when those two images are superimposed, a message is revealed – I AM HELL’S MASTERis legible, if you read the characters in timestamp order. Fans put together the pieces relatively quickly, and patted themselves on the back for a job unearthing extra-dimensional easter eggs, well done.
the world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes…
close but not close enough 🙃
After another round of investigations, fans put together the missing pieces and treated the solution as a URL, leading to the IAmHellsMaster.com website.
While finding the perfect frame from each timestamp might have lead to slight headaches, the construction of this puzzle was exceptionally satisfying, given Stranger Things‘ themes of overlapping layers of reality that most people blissfully ignore.
In the year 2086, technology has advanced sufficiently to allow for the augmentation of humans. In what seems to be a tradition for emerging technologies, the market for “cyborgization” is dominated by NeuroGlory, whose proprietary technologies are on track to dominate 70% of the global market before the end of the century. Some members of society will still pursue open source solutions or even opt out of augmentation entirely, but for the most part, augmentation is synonymous with NeuroGlory.
This vision of the future is the setting for a new alternate reality game that primarily plays out across the fully functioning social network CyberFACED. The site as a whole was created to serve as a hub for retro nostalgia for the turn of this century, creating one of the rare safe places for open discourse between corporate cyborgs, open source cyborgs, and even conscientious objector “baseline humans”. The site will feel all too familiar to internet denizens who spent time involved in online communities in the early 2000s. Even the website’s artificial intelligence embraces the kitsch, as he’s programmed as a highly insecure Shiba Inu dog who moderates the site and worries that he’s not being a good enough boy.
The narrative centers around a network of friends who grew up together as wards of NeuroGlory’s Kid House program, which legally adopted the children and put them on the fast track for augmentation. And like any social platform, the primary method of gameplay is untangling the messy friendships of these corporate siblings as they navigate college exams, conflicting politics, and potential side effects from the augmentation that I’m sure are perfectly harmless and nothing to worry about.
Earlier this month, I received a trailhead package in the mail from Joey “Legit” Markham, one of the NeuroGlory loyalists of his Kid House cohort. Inside was a tshirt with the text OPEN SOURCE CYBORG printed on it, as well as a CyberFACED branded flash drive. After plugging the USB into a computer, a drive amusingly named “Legit Cat” (a remix of Joey’s Legit CyberFACED username with InuBot’s canine-centric branding) contained screencaps of posts and messages from the platform, along with a PDF letter from Joey.
Love, Actually the classic Christmas movie was released almost 20 years ago, so the cinematic statute of limitations on spoilers has expired long ago. Hugh Grants’ iconic dance through No. 10 Downing Street has already been enshrined as one of the greatest dances in movie history (a sentiment shared by everyone except Hugh Grant himself), and Andrew Lincoln’s equally memorable cue card fueled love confession is practically a holiday staple for Saturday Night Live, with both Pete Davidson and Kate McKinnon stepping into the role. But that’s not the Love, Actually this article plans on spoiling. That honor goes to the 2022 MIT Mystery Hunt puzzle named Love, Actually, which provides a perfect illustration of how puzzle hunts construct their challenges to serve as a love letter to their source material.
And the craziest part? The source material Love, Actually the puzzle is celebrating isn’t even Love, Actually the movie – instead, it’s a puzzle-filled homage to Dropout’s trivia game show Um, Actually.
Introduction to the Mystery Hunt: On Meta-Puzzles and Reading Into Things Since the 1980s, passionate puzzlers have made the trek to Cambridge, Massachusetts to compete in the annual MIT Mystery Hunt – a weekend long puzzling competition where teams of aspiring solvers tackle hundreds of extremely difficult puzzles in an attempt to win a special coin, and the privilege of designing the next year’s hunt. The puzzles are tied together with a loose narrative justification, and solving special puzzles known as “meta-puzzles” unlocks more of the story.
Meta-puzzles are one of the defining features of puzzle hunt events like the MIT Mystery Hunt, and provide narrative structure for the events. ARGNet’s coverage of the 2016 Mystery Hunt focused on that element of puzzle design. For that year’s Hunt, players realized they were participants in an Inception-inspired coin heist who got lost in the dream and forgot about their involvement. Meta-puzzles were designed to help identify the right way to wake up from the dream, and finish the score of a lifetime. Other years were inspired by everything from Inside Out to musical theater.
This year’s Mystery Hunt was created by Palindrome, and themed around books: at the start of the hunt, players learn that MIT’s Hayden Library disappeared, only to be replaced by a literal tornado of book-themed puzzles. The first round of puzzles acts as an initial round of investigation, revealing the source of the anomaly through the first meta-puzzle: IT’S A PLOT HOLE. Upon entering the plot hole, teams enter Bookspace, and need to figure out what caused the plot hole A VORACIOUS BOOKWYRM RUN AMOK, how to stop it FEED IT A NEW BERRY, and then navigate through a series of genre-inspired lands to construct a Plot Device capable of sending them back home, by BOOK(ING) PASSAGE HOME WITH LITCOIN. Each of these answers and more were found by completing meta-puzzles that drew upon the solutions from a host of individual puzzles.
Mystery Hunt Puzzles: The First Step is Finding the Puzzle While meta-puzzles are at the core of the Mystery Hunt experience from a narrative perspective, individual puzzle design also tends to be somewhat unique for puzzle hunts like the Mystery Hunt. Traditional puzzles will typically present a familiar ruleset, and ask solvers to puzzle out a solution given limited information. Sudoku puzzles give aspiring solvers a 9×9 grid, and ask players to follow a series of familiar rules to fill in the blanks with numbers. Crosswords give players a larger grid of black and white squares, and ask solvers to do the same with letters. For the most part, the challenge for Sudoku and crossword puzzles isn’t figuring out how to learn the rules of the format: instead, the challenge comes in creatively applying those rules to each new grid.
For puzzle hunt style puzzles, solvers go in knowing they’re looking for a single word, phrase, or even emoji as the solution to the puzzle…but they won’t necessarily know what type of puzzle they’re being asked to solve until investigating further. For instance, Please Prove You Are Human was a puzzle from the 2022 Hunt disguised as a series of CAPTCHA tests. Where the Wild Things Are, another puzzle from this year’s hunt, mailed players a coloring book to complete. Meanwhile, The Salt-N-Pepa Diner presented solvers with a virtual jukebox that almost exclusively played Tom Jones’ What’s New Pussycat, no matter what the song listing said it should play.
Solving Mystery Hunt Puzzles: Breaking Down Puzzles with ISIS Puzzle hunt puzzles can take almost any form, but one of the most common puzzle types involves asking solvers to immerse themselves in a niche community or subject matter, and apply the ISIS process to use what they learn to find the puzzle and extract an answer from it. Those steps include:
(I)DENTIFICATION – When puzzles present solvers with a wealth of information, identify everything contained within it. If there’s a series of crossword clues, solve them. If there’s a series of pictures, write down what they are. If the puzzle is referencing an online trivia show, learn everything you can about it;
(S)ORTING – Once everything has been identified, try and figure out if there’s a specific order for that information that makes sense.
(I)NDEXING – Once you’ve found the appropriate order for the information, try and find the right way to extract information from it. Does the first letter of every word spell something out?
(S)OLVING – Put together the information you got from indexing, and use it to solve the puzzle!
Because ISIS puzzles are so focused on immersing solvers in often unfamiliar subjects, the format often serves as an homage to the subject matter at the center of the puzzle, giving team members already obsessed with the subject matter a chance to deeply engage with the source material on another level, while introducing the rest of the team to what makes the work so special. A Blaseball puzzle might explore the chaotic plotlines of a fantasy baseball league that regularly sends its players to astral planes, while a puzzle themed around Harold and the Purple Crayon might revel in bringing color into fantastical settings.
Last month, Twitch’s main gaming channel was taken over a long weekend with dire news: the Space Weather Prediction Center projected that a massive solar flare threatened the planet with an extinction-level event on December 12th, 2021. The only way to stop the solar flare from wiping out life on Earth as we know it? Take control of production at a lights out factory in order to manufacture a series of multi-stage rockets capable of deploying a protective shield over the planet. Over 50K Twitch viewers were tasked with farming resources to manufacture ship parts, while 66 Twitch streamers banded together to assemble those parts into a fleet of rockets under the project codename Helios: Rampart Initiative.
If the thought of controlling remote factories over Twitch to save the planet sounds implausible, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that Helios: Rampart Initiative was an experimental alternate reality game by Alice & Smith, the team behind ARGs for everything from No Man’s Sky and Bloodlines 2 to their single player ARG experience, The Black Watchmen. Helios played out on Twitch as an idle game, controlled through a combination of dedicated Twitch channels and the game’s custom Twitch extension.
Living up to the game’s incremental gaming roots, the primary method of engaging with the Helios game involved tuning into participating streamers’ broadcasts, collecting resources in the background. But players engaging with the ARG layer had to delve into the Twitch extension’s command prompt to activate the lights out factory and remotely resolve the occasional bottleneck stopping the factory operating at peak efficiency.
Helios‘ balance of low effort participation with higher intensity puzzle-solving did an exemplary job of providing broad swaths of the player base with concrete ways to engage on a meaningful level. The game’sgreatest strength, however, and what might make this Alice & Smith’s greatest game to date, is how it played around with viewer and streamer dynamics on the platform. But to explain that, it’s first necessary to explain how the game unfolded.
Earlier this month, Midnight Society announced their formation as a new AAA game studio founded by Robert Bowling as studio head, Quinn DelHoyo as creative director, and Dr Disrespect as “6’8″ visionary”. Part of the studio’s promise in the press release was to “[include] communities and influencers much earlier in the development process”. That process has started surprisingly soon, as Midnight Society has already launched a teaser alternate reality game for their first game, playing out across their website and Discord server. Curiously, the core of that experience is a text adventure facsimile of a first-person-shooter game, coded to play out through Discord private messages.
Trail to the Text Adventure: Glitched Tweets and Virtual Consoles On January 1st, the Midnight Society’s Twitter account posted a system error message directing players to MidnightSociety.com/Access, with the login credentials “VSM” briefly shown in a glitched GIF accompanying the tweet. At the time, logging in with those credentials would open up a virtual console and start to download a series of files, before the console crashes and reboots to try again. Every night so far, the console manages to advance a little bit closer to loading “Midnight Protocol”, adding more and more modules like security footage from a facility’s sectors and mission logs.
Around the same time, Midnight Society opened up a Discord server, and gave members the choice to select the “Claws” role, granting access to ARG-related channels in the Discord. Players noticed that commands from the virtual console worked in these channels, and used the M:\Verify command to start receiving direct messages from the Midnight Protocol Discord bot, which requested a password. Using clues from the virtual console (which noted that the passcode format would be #####XXXXXX), players figured out the password was 14421PCGSPD – grabbing the numbers from the sector numbers displayed on the virtual console, and PCGSPD from the names of “watched users” in a separate popup.
This unlocked the ability for players to direct message the bot to access the M:\Access portal shown on the website, and query the console. Using command cues hinted at on the Access page paired with guesswork, players were able to map out commands, and check on what looks to be the aftermath of an FPS match involving ten players: three of them emerged victorious, and the rest were marked as “KIA – Loadout recoverable.” Through the M:\Map command, players even found an additional page on the website at MidnightSociety.com/Map, featuring annotated concept art of the facilities, including guard sight lines and potential routes.
First-Person Shooter As Text Adventure: Mapping Through Murder Finally, on January 5th, the M:\Access page showed Sector 1 as “ready”, and players were able to trigger an interactive text adventure within the sector, making key decisions by reacting to each successive text post with emojis. The goal? Survive the mission while gathering loot, while simultaneously avoiding death – too many “bad ends”, and players are locked out for the day. Loot persists across mission attempts, so players’ item loadouts grow with every successive raid.
There are multiple valid routes to complete sector 1. Two in particular stand out for allowing players to collect “Visor Cortexes” from Nikolai and LordsofKarma, two of the players labeled “KIA – Loadout recoverable” in the virtual console. So while the text adventure so far is something that can be played solo, risking virtual death to map out each sector as a collective may help players piece together the broader mystery.
Midnight Society has maintained an aggressive daily update schedule since the game launched with updates at 12AM PST (a potential nod to the Midnight Society’s @12AM Twitter handle), and signs point to that pace continuing through the month of January – typing in the command M:\12AM into the portal notes that “31 total moments [match] the start time of 00:00:00”, before tracking the number of moments that have progressed so far.