Category: News (page 1 of 169)

Giving Escape Room Stories Room to Breathe through Theater

Madame Daphne’s Tarot Reading Room and Séance Parlor is hard to find without assistance, hidden away in a Houston artist’s studio. An invitation from Madame Daphne herself provides instructions through the former rice packaging plant’s stark white interior to the medium’s lair, its lavish decor making it feel like a room out of place. Stepping over the threshold begins a 90 minute experience that tells a tale of deception, magic, and love spanning almost a century.

Strange Bird Immersive’s production The Man From Beyond thrusts 4-8 players into a supernatural adventure that combines a masterfully crafted escape room themed around Harry Houdini with an immersive theater performance to frame the experience, set within the walls of Madame Daphne’s parlor.

An Immersive Theater Sandwich
The Man From Beyond‘s fictional narrative starts the minute players step into the room, as Madame Daphne greets her guests with a dramatic flourish. All the standard onboarding activities of an escape room are wrapped up into the context of the room, with a flair for the dramatic. The requisite waivers are still signed, but are done through the narrative conceit of the séance. Players are presented with the rules for the experience through a series of photographs in the hallway leading to the séance parlor, illuminated by candlelight. The séance itself sets the stage for the escape room portion, setting the narrative context for players when they take over the story’s agency.

Once the room’s clock starts ticking, the room transforms from séance parlor into a standard escape room. In a room surrounded by Houdini’s tools of the trade, players must tackle a century-old mystery on a deadline. At key milestones in the experience, micro-moments of theatrical exposition serve as narrative cut scenes, serving the dual purpose of rewarding player’s progress through the puzzle portion and reminding players of their broader purpose in the room. Solving a major puzzle might unlock information about Houdini’s wife Bess’ previous efforts to speak to her dead husband.

Most room escape games leave little room for telling a narrative that exists outside the room’s theming. A room based around an archaeological dig might hide some of its puzzles in a dig site and draw upon those themes to inform its puzzles, but a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required to tackle the room’s challenges. Even rooms that try to adhere to their own internal narrative consistency stick to a bare-bones plot due to the realities of room design. Players must often split themselves up into continually shifting groups to divide and conquer in the most efficient way possible. While this tactic is highly effective at uncovering a room’s secrets, it forces players to experience the room’s narrative in a disjointed fashion. Players might all be aware they’re escaping from a jail cell, but the specifics of their escape route might only be known to a few participants, on a need-to-know basis. This challenge is exacerbated in the final minutes of a room, as teams scramble to put together the final pieces needed to escape. Often, escape room operators’ explanations at the end of the room are as necessary to explain the accomplishments of teammates as they are to highlight overlooked puzzles and clues.

The Man From Beyond addresses that problem by explicitly carving out time outside the escape room’s unforgiving countdown to allow players time to take in the story. Every player is aware of what they’re doing because they experienced the introduction together, before the clock started ticking. Every player knows the main narrative beats because the information is broadcast to the group at key moments. And the grand finale can be fully experienced since it takes place after escaping the room, removing any time pressures that might otherwise cause players to gloss over the story.

Because Strange Bird Immersive created space for players to breathe and take in the narrative, it stopped the puzzles from overwhelming the game’s powerful narrative themes. During my team’s playthrough, we made it through the puzzles at a steady clip, but were so moved by the bittersweet tale that few of us made it out through the full experience without shedding a few tears along the way. It wasn’t just that the story was pulling on our heartstrings. It was knowing everything that happened was because of our actions.

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Acid-Wave Music Might Help Save the World

Late last week, I received a package in the mail from Sledged Infant Records, featuring a double EP of acid wave music. You’ve probably never heard of it before, but the genre of music is typified by its “fuzzy mix of psychedelia, funk, jazz, synthesized electronica, and whole-band improvisation from eccentric artists cranking out dope tracks in relative obscurity. The A-Side of the cassette featured music from GERTRUDE, 75-year old twin sisters out of Minnesota that mix electro dance rhythms and classical music with samples from film and television. The B-Side highlighted the works of Space Butter – recently deceased band leader Henry Wilson explicitly insisted that his works never be released, but in the words of the label, “this shit’s too good for your beyond-the-grave anxiety to stop.” If this kind of thing’s your jam, Sledged Infant Records runs an exclusive, ultra-secret mailing list for the most discerning of acid-wave fans. Oh also, the world may be coming to an end.

The acid-wave music genre doesn’t exist, Sledged Infant Records isn’t real, and the world isn’t actually coming to an end. But that didn’t stop Atlanta-based creative production company The Prudent Mariner from mixing together an hour-long cassette of acid-wave music, and offering a follow-up mix tape compiling the history of the non-existent genre for sale on their non-existent label’s website. The biographies and discographies on the Sledged Infant Records site paint a vivid picture of the colorful personalities who came together to create a music scene spanning almost four decades. And something is very, very wrong in this alternate universe. To understand, let’s fully unpack what I received in the mail.

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Stern Words from No Man’s Sky ARG

On July 8th, Hello Games will run a radio advertisement on at least one of Howard Stern’s Sirius channels, stations 100 and 101. The radio spot won’t be promoting the company’s game of interstellar exploration, No Man’s Sky…at least, not directly. Instead, if past ads are any indication, it will serve as a signal to the game’s fans that the website of yet another fictional company has unlocked, delving deep into the game’s lore as part of the alternate reality game Waking Titan.

From Hype Machine to Stealth Launches
When the video game No Man’s Sky launched last August, it was prefaced by over three years of hype, showcasing the game’s flexibility in creating an entire universe of procedurally generated worlds, promising an unprecedented sandbox for exploration and discovery. The game’s bold promises encouraged half a million players to load up the game on launch day, although many fans left disappointed when comparing the promised release against its reality. Pre-release hype promised gamers the moon, the stars, and everything in between, and the version of the game that shipped failed to measure up to those expectations.

Over the next year, Hello Games took a considerably more measured approach to the No Man’s Sky‘s major updates seeking to bridge the expectation gap for the game’s dedicated fans. News of the game’s free Foundation and Path Finder updates were only announced a week before the versions went live, helping to add greater depth to the game’s almost zen-like gameplay of planetary hopping. The communications strategy around the game’s relatively frequent updates fit well with the overall tone of the game, with its gradual discovery process.

As a game, No Man’s Sky is a plodding journey of revelation, as the player’s character gradually builds a vocabulary to understand the three other intelligent species that populate the game’s universe. Understanding the Gek, the Korvax, and the Vy’keen and their troubled history with the enigmatic planetary guardian Sentinels only leads to the game’s broader mystery: what is Atlas, and what is your character’s relation to it? The game provides partial answers to these questions. It’s here that Waking Titan makes its entrance.

Cassette Tapes and Radio Broadcasts
Last month, Hello Games reached out to the moderators for the game’s subreddit to distribute a series of six numbered cassette tapes– installments in a 16 cassette series. Messages hidden in the spectrograms of each tape spell out the word “PORTAL”, hinting at one of the game’s main enigmas: a series of monoliths located on certain planets within the game with portals reminiscent of Stargate, with no Daniel Jackson to activate them.

Around the same time, project-wt.com started directing people to listen for something on a series of global radio stations, with broadcasts. Starting on June 8, a series of radio stations all aired a radio spot declaring, “We are the mystery hiding in plain sight. You will find us. This broadcast is the first clue.” As with the cassette tapes, examining the commercial’s spectrogram led to a website that would serve as the hub for the alternate reality game, WakingTitan.com.

Future radio spots introduced a series of fictional companies. Echo Software is a company that specializes in bringing back voices of the dead using home video recordings as source material. Multiverse Technologies focuses on topological mapping technologies. Myriad provides satellite-based storage solutions, while Superlumina specializes in temporal communications, sending messages through the past.

Exactly how these companies fit together is a mystery, but poring through the websites has slowly revealed a loose web of connections tying the four companies together.

HAM Radio Enthusiasts and Regularly Scheduled Programming
The Waking Titan website itself is deceptively simple: it features six triangular sigils arranged in a hexagon along with a series of sixteen glyphs lined up along the bottom of the screen. Solve a sigil, unlock a garbled message and the next sigil in the sequence, along with information on where and when to listen for the next radio ad. Solving glyphs doesn’t currently do anything beyond changing the glyph’s color from white to red, but additional puzzles on the assorted websites will often unlock PDFs of internal communications between the various companies.

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Resistance Radio: Fighting Fascists Over Pirate Radio

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The year is 1962. It’s been 17 years since the United States surrendered to the Axis Powers after the Nazis dropped the Heisenberg Device on Washington, DC. The formerly United States of America is split with the Japanese Pacific States to the west, and the Greater Nazi Reich to the east. This is the world of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name. This is the world of Resistance Radio – a four hour long pirate radio broadcast bridging the gap between seasons of the show.

Special Delivery from the Underground

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After the war, the German company Electronica Musikanten won the contract to rebuild America’s infrastructure. In the process, they developed “Uber Fidelity Vinyl”, an evolution in high quality audio recording technology that has become the standard for music. But while the technological standards of music have improved, the cultural influences have suffered, with the Reich condemning any music influenced by gospel, jazz, blues, and R&B as “subversive”. Over the past few days, a number of perfectly innocuous mailings from Electronica Musikanten went out, containing the patriotic album Kinderliederbuch zur Charakterbildung Werkstoffe – the Children’s Songbook for Character Building.

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Upon opening up the package, everything checks out as advertised. One Kinderliederbuch zur Charakterbildung album, a flyer for a Reich Youth Music concert, and a spare needle for the record player, just in case. Nothing a government censor would think to explore any further. But if they did, they might notice instructions at the bottom of the flyer: “fold page over to make the arrows touch”. In an alternate timeline, MAD Magazine’s Al Jaffee would make the American populace intimately familiar with this type of puzzle. In The Man in the High Castle‘s timeline, fold-in artwork belongs to the Resistance.

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The secret message from Resistance Radio Headquarters points to the location of a speakeasy pop-up and concert at SXSW later this week…but that’s still just skimming the surface.

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Packed inside the Kinderliederbuch zur Charakterbildung album sleeve is a vinyl record with music from the resistance, along with a do-it-yourself kit to turn the enclosed propaganda packet into a manual record player using the enclosed needle and a quarter. One side of the record features Sam Cohen’s take on House of the Rising Sun, while the other features Sharon Van Etten’s cover of The End of the World. The call to arms: “tune in to the Resistance at ResistanceRadio.com”.

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The Tessera Promises a Spooky Primer to Computational Thinking

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The Computer History Museum in Mountain View has never been mentioned in a list of California’s Most Haunted Locations. Its exhibits may celebrate ghosts of computers past and the remnants of now-defunct websites, but the museum has remained resolutely apparition-free…but thanks to The Tessera, that’s about to change. Because starting January 17th, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California is launching an educational alternate reality game designed to teach computational thinking through a host of spectral guides.

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Last December, I received a cryptic introduction to The Tessera from computational pioneer Ada Lovelace. In addition to a letter warning of the return of “S” and a punch card, the envelope contained dossiers detailing two other deceased computing pioneers, Steve Jobs and Charles Babbage. The reverse side of Ada’s note featured one of her more famous quotes:

They say that coming events cast their shadows before. May they not sometimes cast their lights before?

Pairing Ada’s quote with the punch card lead to the final destination, featuring a preview of the full Tessera experience.

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Finding the Future Again at the Franklin Institute

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Five years ago, Jane McGonigal locked me inside the New York Public Library overnight. I didn’t particularly mind…after all, it did give me the opportunity to thoroughly explore the library while waiting for the building to open for business the next day. Did you know Charles Dickens had his deceased cat’s paw taxidermied and affixed to an ivory letter opener? Or that a special run of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was bound with asbestos-lined covers? I even got to briefly explore the library’s underground stacks. The experience was part of the New York Public Library’s Find the Future event, a 500 person scavenger hunt through some of the library’s most fascinating artifacts on display to celebrate its 100th anniversary. I still have fond memories of that night under lockdown at the library,  and I was brought back to that moment last night at the Franklin Institute.

The Franklin Institute is a museum in Philadelphia that takes hands-on science seriously. Exhibits ask visitors to do everything from learning about Newton’s laws of motion by using pulleys to lift themselves off the ground, to showing the limits of short-term memory by seeing how many numbers visitors can remember in order to open an increasingly complex combination safe. The museum even holds monthly themed “Science After Hours” events to ensure learning about science remains exciting for people of all ages. Last night, the Franklin Institute’s after-hours event was themed around crime scene investigations, with special stations set up around the museum to teach visitors everything from cryptography to forensic science, through live demonstrations. Mixed into the schedule was a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum for the first 20 museum members to sign up.

The guided tour started off normally, highlighting the museum’s close relationships with the Wright Brothers and its collection of artifacts. The Franklin Air Show exhibit even features diagrams the brothers drew on strips of wallpaper…or at least it would have, if the wallpaper hadn’t gone missing. In its place? A clue, leading our group of 10 to areas of the museum typically not accessible to the public ranging from executive corridors to library stacks. It culminated with the recovery of the missing artifact, as well as the opportunity to see items from the museum archives not normally shown on display.

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