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 Vulcan have 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.
Deceptively Simple Mechanics, Hiding a Deeper Story
Because the mechanics are so straightforward, it’s tempting to treat this as a series of easily accessible daily puzzles, and leave it at that. Get the puzzle, solve the puzzle, pass on the number combination, and feel good about helping the poor kidnapped students make it through for another two days in the mystery rooms.
For players who dig deeper, there’s another layer to the story. The easiest entry point to that broader narrative is the Sunaiku Foundation, an organization “dedicated to resolving missing persons cases as quickly as possible.” The foundation has a successful track record, having helped rescue another missing person from Saitama Prefecture one month earlier. Sadly, they did not have as much luck when the president of their organization, Kagura Iwato, went missing days later.
Perhaps most suspiciously, the Hidden Bats controlling the distribution of codes that allow the two presumably kidnapped students to unlock the series of locked boxes in their rooms is buried away inside the “Patrons” section of the Sunaiku Foundation’s website. The organization’s history also raises a few red flags, as the organization’s history is riddled with references to supernatural missing persons cases.
The Sunaiku Foundation was established on the date of the USS Eldridge’s disappearance as part of the alleged Philadelphia Experiment, is overseen by a Chairman of the Board referencing a famous creepypasta centered around a disappearance at Kisaragi Station, and has a Philadelphia branch director whose name references the disappearances tied to the infamous Polybius arcade cabinets.
As for the victims themselves: while Aine and Binato’s tweets during their 21-minute spurts of activity are generally focused on passing on information about the puzzle solving process, a few interesting details have emerged over the past week. For instance, Aine recounted a dream she had where she was run over by a truck after getting sick. A few days later, Binato recounts getting a fever of his own, and hearing a girl’s voice, singing.
AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative is set to release on June 23rd, so there’s still quite a bit of time for this ARG to develop. One particularly strong sign of that lies with the Hidden Bats website itself: while the core image features nine television monitors, only five of those are currently lit up, indicating the game might expand beyond its current scope before too long.
Connecting Hidden Bats to the Broader Spike Chunsoft Universe
AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative is a sequel to AI: The Somnium Files, a mystery adventure game created by Kotaro Uchikoshi (also responsible for the Zero Escape series of games). Uchikoshi’s games are known for their mind-bending mysteries that make fantastical narrative gameplay mechanics a core element in unraveling his narrative mysteries. For instance, with the first Somnium Files game, a core mechanic of the game involved using a “Psync Machine” to enter key characters’ dreamscapes in order to track down a serial killer.
The Somnium Files franchise was also introduced with an alternate reality game, the A-set Alternate Reality Game. In it, the in-universe Kotaro Uchikoshi introduced fans to the fictional company Lemniscate’s net idol known as A-set, who debuted with the song Invincible Rainbow Arrow. Like Hidden Bats, the A-set ARG was run as a bilingual experience through English and Japanese YouTube vlogs centered around the net idol who also features heavily in the games.
The Lemniscate channel uploads gave viewers in-world previews of the upcoming game’s mechanics, as well as hints to understand the broader mystery spread across the game’s multiple endings. Some of the videos even make loose connections to other games, like when A-set name-checked Danganronpa‘s black-and-white robotic bear Monokuma as one of her favorite mascots, as a nod to fellow Spike Chunsoft developer Kazutaka Kodaka. Some of the game’s “Nirvana Spell” solutions and passwords also seem to be making reference to Uchikoshi’s Zero Escape games.
If the A-set ARG is any indication, Hidden Bats will likely offer teasers to gameplay mechanics, characters, and plot as its on story unfolds: and some of that process appears to have already started. The upcoming game’s trailer notes that the new investigation centers around a missing person case where two halves of the same body were discovered six years apart, tying in quite neatly with the Sunaiku Foundation’s implicit connections to historical disappearances of a seemingly paranormal nature. There even seems to be some continuity from the past alternate reality game, as A-set’s Twitter account (a central element of the prior experience) has been closely following the Sunaiku Foundation’s investigation, quote-tweeting her generally unhelpful thoughts on every daily puzzle.
Getting into Hidden Bats (and Beyond)
If you’re interested in following Hidden Bats, following @HiddenBats on Twitter will get you the daily puzzles, and going to the Hidden Bats page on the Sunaiku Foundation website will let you verify your solves. Following @Aine_Ichirai and @Binato_Sotabara on Twitter will provide a more direct line towards the puzzles as well as giving insight into the emerging plot, while following @Lemniscate_Aset might lead to more in the future.
Players have also been collaborating on the Uchikoshi’s Somnium Discord server. Scrolling through the #HiddenBats hashtag is also highly encouraged: because the ARG’s core gameplay is so straightforward, fans are having a grand old time memeing their way through the challenges every night. It might be the best part of the game.
For a better sense of the events that led up to Hidden Bats, playing AI: The Somnium Files provides a solid grounding on the events that led to the new game. Ryan Geever’s YouTube channel also has an interesting three-part series (part 1 / part 2 / part 3) detailing the events of the A-set ARG, as well as additional videos breaking down some of the game’s alternate endings. He’s also started a new series focused on Hidden Bats, as it unfolds.