“It’s a finicky technology. Just an empty wax tube with ridges cut into it as I speak. Its grooves locking in just a shadow of my voice. And hopefully, something else. Something that’s been haunting me. In more ways than one. I daren’t say it aloud yet. This will have to be enough. A mere echo of the horrors I’ve heard. The thinnest slice of reality, tinny to reality.
Such a…hollow medium.
– Lenora Bowen, Cylinder Zero
In October 1926, Prohibition-era bartender Lenora Bowen started making a series of wax cylinder recordings. Her primary goal? To document the paranormal activity she’s facing in St Augustine, and possibly even capture proof that she’s not crazy, etched in wax.
Almost a century later, an antique steamer trunk filled with Lenora Bowen’s recordings were unearthed, along with a collection of artifacts and ephemera from the time. The trunk’s custodian, operating under the whimsically appropriate name “Soul Proprietor” (S.P. for short), has started to pore through its contents, documenting them along the way on the website Hollow Medium. S.P. was even kind enough to send some people out to California’s Midsummer Scream to display the artifacts alongside gothic fashion, horror collectibles, and props for haunted attractions. S.P. eventually plans on archiving the audio recordings, to retell Lenora’s tale – however it may end.
In case the surprise Halloween convention appearance didn’t clue you in, Hollow Medium is an upcoming podcast from Granville House Productions that will release new episodes every Sunday in October, documenting Lenora Bowen’s investigations into the paranormal. But while the podcast itself is weeks away, Hollow Medium has been rolling out a few surprises for those looking to dig deeper.
Two months ago, magician and puzzle enthusiast Chris Ramsay received a chained and padlocked filing cabinet in the mail, along with a letter from Batman’s most infamous villain, the Joker. After solving his way through the puzzle box, Ramsay uncovered a coaster featuring to the website InfiniteRabbitHoles.com. At the time, the site featured a countdown clock and sign-up form, teasing visitors with the allure of a project that would show “Gotham City like you’ve never seen”.
That project was eventually revealed to be BATMAN: The Arkham Asylum Files, a series of three narrative puzzle boxes designed to bring Gotham City to life, created by many of the team at 42 Entertainment who worked on Why So Serious, the multi-year alternate reality game leading up to the release of The Dark Knight. Their goal: to take the wonder and surprise of Why So Serious‘ expansive campaign, and create a standalone game that could be more intimately experienced at home, among family and friends. The crowdfunding campaign is running through July 22nd, with the first box promised for delivery as soon as Christmas of this year.
The Rabbit Hole Before Infinite Rabbit Holes: A Puzzle Box Shaped Homage to Why So Serious Chris Ramsay’s video solving the Joker’s puzzle box was a highly tactile experience: after unlocking the five locks keeping the filing cabinet chained up, Ramsay was able to get his hands on an additional layer of puzzles keeping him from unlocking one final box concealing his prize: a birthday cake from the Joker, resting on a coaster with the “Infinite Rabbit Holes” URL.
Ramsay’s unboxing video is a compelling video in its own right, but doubled as heartfelt homage to Why So Serious for viewers familiar with the alternate reality game, with multiple puzzles referencing key moments in the prior game. A few of the more obvious puzzle-shaped shoutouts include:
The Joker’s Ransom Note – Infinite Rabbit Holes‘ filing cabinet unboxing started with Ramsay reading out a ransom note assembled from magazine clippings: the shapes of some of these clippings were key to solving the box’s puzzle. Why So Serious‘ Halloween 2007 challenge asked players to reconstruct their own ransom note, by taking photographs of 49 locations across the United States and sending them to the Joker. A letter from the logos of each of those locations was then added to the WhySoSerious website.
Batman’s Mask – After opening the filing cabinet, Ramsay reveals a Batman mask with red-tinted lenses as reward for completing the first phase of the puzzle, as well as a key tool to solve a later puzzle. For Why So Serious‘ San Diego Comic-Con scavenger hunt, players were tasked with a series of missions (including getting dolled up in clown makeup themselves), and were rewarded for their efforts with a clown mask of their own.
Return of the Cake – One of Why So Serious‘ most memorable moments involved cake deliveries for the holidays: in December 2007, players were sent to 22 bakeries across the United States, with the instructions to ask for a pick-up for “Robin Banks”. The first player to each location received a cake, iced with instructions to call a specific number. Once dialed, the cake started ringing and the lucky recipients had to dig inside the cake to recover their new burner phone. Ramsay’s cake-themed finale might have a different message iced on top, but the experience itself is the clearest homage of the bunch, and the full video is worth watching for that moment alone.
At the time this video was uploaded, these connections seemed like the puzzle box’s creators were just ardent fans of Why So Serious, who wanted to pay homage to a fixture in immersive Batman history. However, there was one additional hint that more was going on. A few weeks prior to Ramsay’s unboxing video, Dave Cobb tweeted out a link to a curious advertisement for Infinite Rabbit Holes, printed in programs for the Thea Awards (an award show for the Themed Entertainment industry). The advertisement noted that Animal Repair Shop was involved with Infinite Rabbit Holes: a company helmed by quite a few familiar names from 42 Entertainment.
And with that, the homage transformed into a promise: key figures behind the Why So Serious alternate reality game would be returning to the Batman franchise in some capacity, more than 15 years later.
In 2017, the computer programmer Natalie Neil disappeared without a trace from the quaint town of Rock Springs, Wyoming. Despite making national news and triggering a statewide search, Natalie appeared to have vanished without a trace, and the investigation was closed. But recently, individuals close to the investigation started receiving mysterious packages in the mail, containing a USB drive with an old voicemail message from Natalie, and a personalized decks of cards.
Charlie Neil, Natalie’s sister, received a deck of cards pulled straight from Arthurian legend, featuring figures of myth and legend;
Don Horn, the detective who investigated Natalie’s disappearance before getting pulled off the case, received a deck of cards with more beastly and animalistic attributes;
Ava Whitehall, Natalie’s former boss at Whitehill Mining, received a deck with a more demonic bent.
All told, six people close to Natalie received these mysterious packages. And buried within those decks just might lie the secret behind The Disappearance of Natalie Neil, the first season of the trading card game Dinn. By following along with the investigation through Dinn‘s alternate reality game embedded into the cards players can unravel the mystery themselves, and even exert a degree of influence over the story’s progression.
Deconstructing Dinn: A Brief Overview of the Card Game On its face, Dinn is a relatively fast-paced trading card game for two players. The goal of the game is to shatter the opponent’s three heart cards by defeating their heroes. Weaker heroes may only shatter one heart when defeated, while more powerful heroes end the game upon a loss, while equipment and action cards are played to give heroes an edge in the battle.
While many trading card games rely on asynchronous gameplay where players take turns driving the action, with Dinn players make their choices simultaneously. Every round starts with both players selecting a hero, and placing them face down on the table. Both players then reveal their hero cards, before activating any abilities written on the card. The process repeats two more times for action and ability cards placed face down, before determining which hero emerges triumphant.
Themed starter decks provide pre-constructed decks that allow players to start playing immediately, while “chapter pack” expansions provide players with additional cards they can integrate into their decks to level up the gameplay experience. There are no card rarities in Dinn: buying a starter deck or expansion pack gets players all the cards in that set, similar to the model used by Fantasy Flight Games with their “Living Card Games”, where seasonal releases give players full access to the game’s card evolving card library.
The Story Behind the Cards: Dinn’s “Artificial Reality Game” The narrative framing for Dinn is that each of the six “starter decks” of cards in the game are associated with one of the key figures associated with Natalie Neil’s disappearance, and represent a facsimile of what those characters actually received. Accordingly, every starter deck has a meta-puzzle scattered across the cards that helps reveal and advance the character’s story.
For instance, solving the puzzle scattered across the cards from Charlie Neil’s “Sentient” deck of cards involved players mapping out the cards that gave a series of alphanumeric characters – adding that text string to the partial URL added to the footer of all the cards in the deck leads players to discovering Charlie’s blog, What’s Wrong with Rock Springs.
In it, Charlie notes that strange things have been happening in the town of Rock Springs for a while, and that her sister wasn’t the first to disappear. A town with a population of ~23,000 people had over 300 of their residents disappear in the last three years alone. Finally, Charlie blogs about receiving the package with her own personal deck of cards, and a USB containing a voicemail from Natalie, shortly before her disappearance. If players check out Charlie’s “Contact” page, they can register the fact that they solved the puzzle (with the first to solve celebrated for the feat on Dinn‘s website), and even vote on how the story should progress.
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.
Author’s Note: if you’re looking for up-to-date answers to the weekly challenges, this Google Doc is providing updates on the solutions as new Lite Brite-based puzzles launch.
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.