Last month, the Institute for Higher Knowledge posted a seemingly innocuous online personality test asking people to discover their true potential. That simple test serves as an entryway into the strange world of Unknown 9, an ambitious transmedia franchise from Reflector Entertainment that plans on revealing its occult mystery across television, film, video games, podcasts, novels, comic books, live events…and an alternate reality game. The prologue to Unknown 9 wrapped up with a live event hosted by the McKittrick Hotel during New York Comic Con, but the first phase was largely designed to establish the occult, conspiracy-laden setting for the storyworld. The second phase launched earlier this week, making this a perfect chance to step into the story. How you do that, though, is based on what type of experience you’re looking for.
Unknown 9: A Rolodex of Immersive Contributors
Before getting into Unknown 9 itself, it might help to take a step back and appreciate how Reflector Entertainment is telling it. The first component of the Unknown 9 universe is The IHK Enrollment Initiative, the alternate reality game that developed as the unseen figures behind the test guided players through a series of eight gated “doors” that introduced players to glimpses of the Institute’s footprint, through everything from recordings from a call-in radio show, creepypasta posts to the r/nosleep subreddit, and even a fully-playable visual novel.
As players neared the final challenges from the Institute, Terry Miles released the first episode of The Leap Year Society podcast, expanding players’ investigations into the IHK to the seemingly related “Leap Year Society”, a secret society that exists within secret societies that gathers once every four years, on the leap day. Miles previously made a name for himself on previous podcast fiction projects playing the character of investigative reporter and producer Nic Silver in TANIS, The Black Tapes, The Last Movie, and RABBITS. The loosely connected shows blend real-world urban legends, unsolved crimes, and conspiracy theories with supernatural events with a format that pays homage to the Serial podcast’s investigative style. Like its predecessors, The Leap Year Society podcast pairs its episode releases with additional links and files for listeners to explore, to see if they can figure things out before the show’s hosts. While The IHK Enrollment Initiative is a player-driven journey of discovery, The Leap Year Society podcast is a guided tour.
Once players completed the opened the final “door” to the IHK Enrollment Initiative, the Institute’s director Aja Robinson invited them to the LYS Induction Ceremony, an hour-long immersive theater production hosted by the McKittrick Hotel (home of Sleep No More) and directed by The Company P’s Christopher Sandberg. Sandberg is no stranger to integrating alternate reality games with immersive theater through his work at The Company P, where he was responsible for projects like the Emmy Award-winning The Truth About Marika, in addition to working on Conspiracy for Good and an ARG for Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. The initiation gave prospective inductees a taste of the society’s esoteric rituals, before a climactic attempt at otherworldly communication went pear-shaped, a prospective inductee got possessed, and the newly minted IHK members were rushed out to learn that the IHK and LYS are literally two sides to the same coin. After the fact, the IHK tried to distance themselves from the incident by removing Aja Robinson from the organization, replacing her with Chelsea Rose Lancaster as director. In her new role, Chelsea claims the supernatural events were just theatrics, and the possessed attendee merely someone who suffered an unfortunate seizure at the event.
New York Comic Con attendees also might have grabbed a preview of Unknown 9 Archives at the Dark Horse booth. The full comic, set to release in Spring 2019, follows the story of the 17th century merchant Kieran as he is introduced to the network of knowledge seekers that likely evolves into the secret societies players are tracking across platforms in the present. In addition to the comic book, Reflector revealed to Variety that a film is in development by 10 Cloverfield Lane screenwriters Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken, a television series is in the works from Heroes executive producer Tim Kring, and a novel trilogy by Layton Green. The video game component is being developed by Reflector Interactive, drawing on Reflector CEO Alexandre Amancio’s experience as a creative director on the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Combined with co-founder Guy Laliberté’s experience as one of the founders of Cirque du Soleil, Unknown 9 is bringing decades of experience to the table.
The Puzzling Route into Unknown 9: Do You Want to Join a Cult?
Earlier this week, the application process to join the Institute for Higher Knowledge hit a hard reset, with a streamlined personality test welcoming prospective members into the fold, and a more personalized selection process to test newcomers’ mettle. This puzzle trail is the primary way to dive into the experience, if you’re looking to enter the world through a more puzzle-centric lens.
Initially, Admittance to the IHK was moderated through puzzles calibrated to be solved by large groups of players working together, in order to gain access to the initiation ritual under Aja Robinson’s guidance. It was a collective challenge to be solved together, with a single success unlocking access for all. For example, one of the most visually stunning puzzles from the first phase of IHK admissions involved the Twitter account @EnroII_Now. The official Twitter account for the Institute for Higher Knowledge is ENROLL_Now, but a duplicate account that swapped lowercase L’s with capital I’s was a wall of seemingly random characters, until players noticed that if they used the question marks in tweets as line breaks, the resulting image forms a picture of a book in ASCII art.
After poring over the resulting image, players converted the ASCII code written on the book to spell out “MULTIPLY/DIMENSIONS”, X7. That in turn produced 424,242, which is the ASCII code for the asterisk symbol. Highlighting the asterisks that appear in the text near the spine of the book spells out the final solution, “FOUNDATION.”
Under Chelsea’s regime, prospective applicants still start out with a personality quiz with a twist, before getting directed to an initial series of 21 puzzles calibrated to be solved as individuals or small groups, paired with the warning that applicants “will be disqualified for publicizing passwords or solutions”, with more puzzles planned for release in the near future. While the difficulty level has ramped down, the puzzles remain elegantly crafted: subtle clues built into some of the hardest puzzles are designed to nudge players in the right direction, so that even puzzles that had me stymied for hours felt satisfying upon solving.
However, Aja’s influence (and high-difficulty puzzles for the community as a whole) isn’t gone entirely: at the Comic Con initiation event, some of the ARG’s most active players were pulled aside and handed a USB drive. On the drive, players received a failsafe video from Aja thanking some of the most active players for their assistance so far, and handing off a series of encrypted files to let them delve deeper into the mysteries of the IHK. While the files have been decrypted, they still contain secrets that imply there are more puzzles to solve. Aja also left a series of coded messages for someone named “Hannes” on a handful of the websites used during the initial recruiting process that led to an alternate method of getting in touch with her.
Untangling the Narrative Jumble: Secret Societies and the Quest for Immortality
Because most of what players know about the spiderweb of secret societies that serves as the backdrop for Unknown 9 comes from the perspective of outsiders looking in, little is known for sure about the society in its many incarnations. In a segment on a call-in radio show, former Leap Year Society member Martin Lane describes the organization as “a cult that believes in human ascendence through knowledge. And more…it’s always about knowing more. They seek out wisdom that’s been hidden from the world so that humanity can fulfill its full potential.” They seek out people with the spark of curiosity to swell their ranks…and their tendrils extend far.
The preview comic sets the stage for the organization as Kieran transports society books and scrolls on his father’s behalf. The Leap Year Society Podcast picks up from here, focusing on the organization’s history, their penchant for making highly intelligent people disappear and take on new lives, and their interest in areas of study like walking hypnagogia and astral projection, as well as the looming historical presence of “The Unknown”. These two sources are the best starting points for catching up on the lore for now, as many of the outlandish theories from the alternate reality game tie back to theories discussed on the podcast.
Some of those tendrils take the form of Institute for Higher Knowledge-supported endeavors. A visual novel called Sol Hemochroma tells the story of a group of teens going on a Scooby Doo adventure to investigate an abandoned castle and learn about their town’s secrets. The game’s developers claim they adapted the story from a vintage screenplay that somehow found its way into the IHK archives. The Institute also reached out to a popular r/nosleep poster named Blake, covering expenses for additional paranormal research.
One of the strongest threads of Unknown 9 lore seems focused on the idea of connecting with other planes as a means of gaining knowledge through “stepping”. Former Leap Year Society member Martin Lane offers this otherworldly channeling as an explanation for how the author of the Voynich Manuscript could write a seemingly non-existent language so fluently and smoothly. A man describes entering that state after taking a “heroic dose” of psychedelic mushrooms. And an Irish priest receives a warning for his Monsignor from a man who is clearly possessed: “The Leap-Year Society will fall and the ascendancy will rise…Tell the Monsignor that the ascendancy will rise and his precious circle will be broken. The nine will stay unknown. The nine will stay blind to them.”
This came to a head at the Leap Year Society initiation, where the event culminated in then-director Aja Robinson’s attempt to open up a rift to another world to help save her friend Emilia Delacroix, who got stuck on the other side during her own initiation. While Aja was trying to use the ceremony to return Emilia to her body after 80 years spent on the other side, her rival Dex was concerned that something else would come through…a “Drifter”, capable of possessing people through extended eye contact. Dex’s fears proved justified, and something that wasn’t Emilia came through the rift. A special episode of No Proscenium goes into greater depth about the full Initiation.
Unknown 9 is intended to act as a multi-year project, so digging through the lore now is a bit like putting together a puzzle without all the pieces while blindfolded, so going beyond the primary narrative elements of comic and podcast may not be necessary to engage with the world. But delving through the digital artifacts helps flesh out the scope of the world to come. Because so much of what’s out there is pure conjecture, seeing themes and ideas repeated across wildly different sources provides waypoints to direct players’ attention.
Recommended Paths to Enter the World of Unknown 9
If you’re more interested in learning about the world of the Unknown 9, start out by catching up on the Leap Year Society Podcast and reading through the preview comic to get a sense of the world before listening to the summary of the Initiation event and skimming through the IHK Masterpost, focusing on reading through the links at the end of the document. While optional, the Sol Hemochroma game, the call-in show archives, r/nosleep case files, and O’Reilly Diaries are particularly strong from the narrative perspective. You’ll still want to attempt to enroll in the Institute for Higher Knowledge to receive updates – and if you find yourself rejected on your first attempt, read the rejection message carefully, because all is not yet lost. The Institute for Higher Knowledge has an active Twitter account that provides in-world updates at @Enroll_Now, and the Unknown 9 website and Twitter account provide out-of-world updates, which will be particularly useful as more components of the transmedia experience go live.
If you’re looking to challenge yourself against the IHK’s puzzles, start up by enrolling with the IHK and dive straight into the 21 puzzles currently unlocked at the time of this article. Once those are finished, the game’s subreddit at r/higherknowledge and its Discord server should highlight the currently active challenges. It’s still worth reviewing the IHK Masterpost to learn about previous solves, as several challenges have referenced older websites and puzzle types.