Spend enough time watching YouTube videos with titles like “10 biggest mysteries in gaming” and you’ll see it: a low-resolution symbol spins out of the darkness and the words “Aum Soft” glow green below it. Black and white video of a man bouncing in a sitting position follows, then chanting, music, and finally footage of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, which unleashed Sarin gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995.
The game is called “上九一色村物语," which roughly translates to The Story of Kamikuishiki Village. Nobody seems to know where it came from, and some speculate it was created by the Aum Shinrikyo cult itself as a digital effort to indoctrinate new members. The only thing anyone can agree on is that it’s creepy. And so the game has spread across the internet like a kind of visual creepypasta, or an interactive version of the tapes from The Ring.
But the game is only creepy because we don’t understand the cultural context in which it was created. I decided to find out the truth, and found my way to a Discord community dedicated to translations of obscure internet ephemera and eventually an underground Japanese game developer who knew the people who made the game. But first, I reached out to Sarah Hightower.
Hightower is an independent researcher who studies domestic terror movements. She also happens to be an Aum Shinrikyo expert and, according to her, the game was not an effort by the cult to bolster its numbers, but an elaborate troll meant to mock them—in effect, a shitpost.
“Basically everything you see on YouTube about ‘this game will brainwash you’ is bullshit,” Hightower told me via Twitter DM. “The game wasn’t made by Aum or Aleph [an Aum Shinrikyo splinter group].”
Hightower put me in touch with “Senn,” togement2,” and “Metalik,” three pseudonymous associates who collect, research, and translate obscure Japanese video games and culture as a hobby. According to them, The Story of Kamikuishiki Village belongs to a category of interactive visual novels called Doujin games where players navigate screens as they read and watch short animations. Senn and his friends had translated the game’s screens, and obtained copies of Game Urara Vol. 4, an underground magazine that advertised the game.
According to “Senn”, The Story of Kamikuishiki Village is a homebrew game straight from the 1990s Japanese underground software scene. Kamikuishiki was a village in Japan that the real Aum Shinrikyo used as a home base. According to Senn, the game is a cult simulator in which players control the cult and build up the village. The player wins the game by carrying out a sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway, and loses by mismanaging the cult which leads to Armageddon.
Based on advertisements in Gama Urara Vol. 4 and data Senn pulled from a floppy disc containing copy of the game, it was published around June 29, 1995, just months after the cult killed 12 and injured thousands by releasing sarin gas in a Tokyo subway, and sold direct to customers via underground magazines .
“The game has a satirical tone to it, the intro starts with the cult's most infamous moments on mass media,” Senn told me over in a direct message on Discord.
The game opens with a video of an Aum follower attempting to fly using a meditation practice called Darduri Siddhi. (Shoko Asahara, Aum’s leader, began his cult as a yoga practice and cultivated fame by claiming he could fly. Really, he was using a leg to briefly toss himself into the air.) After that, footage of an underwater breathing competition plays. Both the leapfrogging and underwater breathing competition were routinely mocked in Japanese media at the time.
Next, the game plays footage of Aum spokesperson Fumihiro Joyu dodging reporters. He brushes off their questions and tosses a board of accusations behind his shoulder. After the attacks, Japanese news programs played the clip over and over again.
These aren’t moments that an Aum follower would pick to highlight during recruitment. According to Senn, The Story of Kamikuishiki Village has a connection to a well-known maker of low-budget satirical games. “The game was advertised by [Yoshihisa] 'Kowloon' Kurosawa under a fake Chinese name, and featured his extremely impolite and rude writing, a dedicated hate letter to Aum,” Senn said.
Kurosawa is best known as the man behind the infamously terrible (purposefully so, he claims) Super Nintendo game Hong Kong 97. Widely regarded as one of the worst games ever made, Hong Kong 97 was a strange game with a crude and satirical plot about the British hiring a Jackie Chan lookalike to kill Chinese people in Hong Kong. It’s a bullet-hell notorious for its poor quality and the inclusion of a picture of an actual dead person in the game over screen. Hong Kong 97 was developed and published by HappySoft Ltd, the same company listed as the developer of The Story of Kamikuishiki Village in advertisements.
When reached by VICE, Kurosawa said that he didn’t make the game, but he knows who did.
“[The Story of Kamikuishiki Village] was made by two of my friends while we were still in high school,” he said over Facebook messenger. Kurosawa said Aum had become big in Japan, and had started running political candidates in elections. “The experience shook us, so those two ended up creating [ The Story of Kamikuishiki Village] and I also made a game about Aum on my own.”
Decades later, Kurosawa remembered the two as talented programmers. “I think they used a lot of new and innovative techniques to create it,” he said. “Unfortunately, I've been out of touch with them for more than 20 years now, so I have no idea what they're up to at this point. I recall one of them joining Konami, but I have no idea if they're still there or not. The name of the group they went by is Kanai Karasawa, and they made a lot of games together under that banner.”
On Tokugawa Corp—a forum dedicated to retro Japanese video games—fans believe they’ve discovered the identity of the men behind Kanai Karasawa. Buried in the readme for another Kanai Karasawa game are the names Takeshi Kanai and Kouichi Kanasawa. Kanasawa later worked for Konami.
When asked directly about Takeshi and Kouichi, Kurosawa confirmed they were his friends who made The Story of Kamikuishiki Village. VICE reached out to two people whose names and backgrounds match Kanai and Kanasawa, but have not heard back.
Kurosawa’s friends released their video game to a Japanese public terrorized by a rogue cult. Twenty minutes into a video of the game, there’s a shot of popular anime character Crayon Shin-Chan on a movie theater screen. Only two people are in the theater. The movie was released on April 15, 1995, a date Aum’s leader promised would be eventful. The cult was still at large and Police flooded the streets of Tokyo. Crayon Shin-Chan is popular, but not many people went to the opening.
The Story of Kamikuishiki Village is full of little references like this. It looks frightening on the surface because it uses video seemingly taken by the cult from inside its compounds. “Some of it really is footage from cult propaganda, but what's important to keep in mind is that after the [sarin] attack, TV news showed thousands of hours of aum coverage and even the cult's internal propaganda was picked through bit by bit,” Hightower said.
Part of the creepiness associated with The Story of Kamikuishiki Village is that it's largely indistinguishable from the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s actual propaganda. Faces of famous members of the cult hover on the right side of the screen while eerie chants play in tinny lo-fi. Aum’s leader sold his blood as part of a drink to followers, and the game show’s him milking his fingers into bottles. Photographs of the sarin gas attack play over solemn music.
But The Story of Kamikuishiki Village is a dark parody, an interactive shitpost from the 1990s, and a statement against the cult.
“If you look at the opening to the game, it's all mostly the shit people like the original ‘Aumers’ and kids at the time were mocking,” Hightower said. “Culturally speaking, Aum and [its] attacks were basically the worst thing ever, but at the same time there were a few very absurd things about Aum...that stood out to the public.”
Aum Shinrikyo still haunts Japan today. In 2018, more than two decades after the Sarin attack, Japan executed the founder and 12 senior members of the cult. “[It] still affects Japanese society, laws, paranoia...it's pretty hard to cite everything Aum did [to] Japan,” Senn said. “But it changed the country.”