The Puzzling Rise of the Escape Room Game

February 19, 2015 · By in Features, Info, Update · Comment 

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Image of Tomb’s sarcophagus illumination puzzle. ©2015, 5 Wits Productions, Inc.  Used by permission.

The first time I visited Boston, I met up with a group of friends and broke into an ancient Egyptian burial chamber. The tomb’s resident pharaoh was not exceptionally happy about our flagrant act of trespass, and forced our group of amateur archaeologists to solve a series of puzzles before barely escaping with our lives.

The rooms in the tomb were designed with a family-friendly audience in mind, and our guide throughout the experience embraced his role with an exuberant gusto I had only seen before from a skipper on Disney’s Jungle Cruise. The experience managed to make even familiar puzzles feel extraordinary: no matter how many times you’ve solved Tower of Hanoi puzzles in the comfort of your own home, it’s a completely different experience when you’re passing oversized pieces across the room while the ceiling is slowly crashing down overhead.

When 5 Wits‘ puzzle adventure Tomb set up shop in Boston in 2004, it was something of a rarity. The interactive exhibit mixed theatrics with physical puzzles to make its guests feel like swashbuckling adventurers narrowly escaping danger thanks to their collective intelligence. And the design was flexible enough to reward that success, allowing for multiple endings based on groups’  performance. While the original location is now closed, the 5-Wits moved Tomb to Tennessee, launching additional puzzle experiences in Washington DC, Massachusetts, and New York covering themes ranging from undersea exploration to espionage. Over the past decade, this type of immersive puzzle experience has expanded exponentially, with hundreds of locations putting down roots across the globe. For many, visiting the nearest real-life escape room is a day-trip away.

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The Solution to Cards Against Humanity’s Puzzling Obsession with Bullshit

December 29, 2014 · By in News, Update · 11 Comments 

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Images of the Reddit expedition to Hawaii 2 courtesy of Pewwer42

Shortly after Christmas, a group of Redditors met up, planning on making the trek to an uninhabited island near Lake Saint George Park in Maine. Previous expeditions to the island confirmed the presence of a wooden shed containing a massive safe at the southern tip of the island: but without the six digit passcode to unlock it, the safe’s contents remained a mystery. Finally, after almost a month of poring over websites, YouTube videos, and physical mailings, community members felt fairly confident they had the passcode that would unveil the safe’s contents.

All this, because of a bit of Holiday Bullshit.

A Little Bullshit Backstory

For this year’s Black Friday promotion, Cards Against Humanity made headlines by removing their popular card game from the market, and replacing it with Black Friday Bullshit – for $6, the company would mail its customers literal bullshit in a box. No more, and no less. At the same time, the company was promoting a separate dose of bullshit for the holidays. While the Black Friday Bullshit promotion was perfectly clear in what it was offering, Cards Against Humanity’s Ten Days or Whatever of Kwanzaa promotion at HolidayBullshit.com provided almost no guidance about what it would deliver: only that, for $15, the company would send ten mailings containing…just about anything.

Fans of the company had some idea of what they might expect by using the previous year’s Holiday Bullshit mailings as guidance: a handful of exclusive and personalized Cards Against Humanity cards, a miniaturized prototype of a game, a few comics, maybe a charitable donation to a worthy cause. But for the most part, $15 purchased the ability to find a surprise waiting in the mailbox for a few days…alongside access to an expansive puzzle hunt that promised to be bigger than the last.

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Google Rolls Out Ingress to iOS Devices

July 14, 2014 · By in Update · Comment 

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In November 2012, Google introduced its Ingress scanner app to the Google Play store. And for almost two years, the central point of interaction for Google’s deeply immersive alternate reality game has been an Android exclusive. That changes today: with the release of Ingress‘s scanner app to the iTunes Store, the world of Ingress has officially rolled out on iOS devices.

The Ingress scanner app asks players to join the green Enlightened or blue Resistance faction in a battle for control over portals tied to real world landmarks. The game has a sizeable player base within the Android community. Over 12,000 players have gathered for the game’s frequent live events in cities across the globe so far in 2014, and the game boasts over 4 million downloads. With the expansion into iOS devices, an influx of new players is likely.

To help ease new players into the game, Ingress is introducing new elements to ease the transition into a deep narrative running beneath the game’s surface, and a community that continues to blossom as they take on increasingly extravagant challenges. The primary conduit for introducing new players to the world of Ingress is a new web series featuring two sisters who signed up to play the game for opposite factions, Ingress Obsessed, complementing the existing Ingress Report videos.

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Ingress Anomalies Mix Live Events with In-App Gameplay

April 24, 2014 · By in Events, Features, Update · 2 Comments 

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Disclosure: Google paid for my flight and lodging for the Recursion event. 

The morning of March 29th, two rival factions gathered at Los Angeles’ Grand Park in anticipation for a pitched battle. As noon approached, it became obvious to any passerby that something was going on. Hundreds of people prominently wearing blue and green streamed in through the park steps, conspicuously segregating themselves into colored clumps: blues to the right, and greens to the left. To any random passerby, it must have looked like the staging area for a flash mob. But look a little closer, and you’d see the telltale signs of the virtual battle about to take place. Headphones tapped into private communications channels to coordinate movement. A row of cyclists primed and ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. Pennants proudly bearing faction insignia. And more smartphone chargers and batteries than people.

This gathering was an Anomaly event, one of the live events organized by Google’s Niantic Labs team for players of their geo-locative mobile game Ingress. Since early February, 25 Anomaly events took place in countries including the United States, Mexico, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Croatia, Egypt, Israel, and India for a series of events collectively referred to as the Recursion Anomalies. Los Angeles was the final Anomaly event in the series, and Google invited me out to Los Angeles to experience Google’s approach to designing a live event for a massively multiplayer game. Previously, ARGNet explained how Ingress is played at a more casual level. This article explores how gameplay changes for its most ardent fans.

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The Year (of Ingress) in Review

December 30, 2013 · By in News, Update · 4 Comments 

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Ingress at a ZipCar location in Philadelphia. Sorry Ingress players, this is not a new passcode.

It’s been over a year since Google introduced the world of Ingress. At its core, the project is a locative mobile game spawned out of NianticLabs@Google, an internal skunkworks team based out of the search giant’s San Francisco office. In Ingress, players compete to capture and connect virtual portals situated at real world locations to control the globe for their team. Ingress isn’t the first game to explore this geolocative game mechanic: games like Plundr and Shadow Cities paved the way for Ingress by conditioning “field agents” to take mobile gaming out to the streets. What makes Ingress distinct is Niantic’s narrative ambitions: in the past year, daily updates from the production team through an alternate reality game have introduced players to a sprawling narrative told across websites, videos, novels, live events, and even hidden within the game itself.

Ingress recently opened up to all Android users, and plans to expand out to iOS devices in 2014. With over a year of story to catch up on, entering the world of Ingress may seem daunting. Familiarity with the story isn’t essential to gameplay, but it does add staying power to a game that runs the risk of turning tedious over time. For those looking to take the plunge, here’s a few helpful pointers.

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Domino, Start Recording: A Virtual Boomtown in Sanditon, CA

September 19, 2013 · By in Features, News, Update · Comment 

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Pemberley Digital’s The Lizzie Bennet Diaries recently took home a Creative Arts Emmy for Original Interactive Program for its web adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The web series reframed Austen’s classic in a modern setting, allowing the characters to live out their fictional lives outside the show’s main YouTube channel, interacting freely across dozens of social media platforms. On October 7th, the team at Pemberley Digital will be returning to play in Jane Austen’s universe with the release of their next major production, Emma Approved. But between The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved, Pemberley Digital turned to one of Jane Austen’s lesser-known works for an experiment in transmedia storytelling with Welcome to Sanditon.

As one of California’s many Gold Rush boomtowns, the town of Sanditon California was no stranger to rapid change. In The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, William Darcy’s company Pemberley Digital developed an experimental video recording platform, Domino. Sanditon’s mayor Tom Parker met up with Gigi Darcy at SXSW, and signed up his town as a partner community, giving interested townsfolk the chance to share their lives on the platform through blogs, pictures, and videos. Mayor Parker’s aspiration for Sanditon was to transform the city into a vibrant, health-conscious vacation spot, and much of the plot revolved around complications that arose for townsfolk and business owners when the mayor’s idealized version of the city conflicted with its reality.

This comes to the fore through the story’s main plotline, following the interactions between Sanditon Scoops owner Clara Breton, whose ice cream parlour is targeted for a mayoral-encourage rebranding to juice bar, and Parker’s reluctant assistant Edward Denham, who shows a delightful passion for obscure British television. Glitches in the early release of the Domino platform also resulted in bringing a budding romance between the two to the town’s attention, resulting in equal parts consternation and glee. While Gigi Darcy has largely stepped into the town to serve as an embedded narrator, Welcome to Sanditon allows her to complete her own narrative arc. Executive producer Jay Bushman viewed Gigi’s character as the strongest test cases for transmedia storytelling in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, making her reprisal through Welcome to Sanditon the end of an 18-month long journey.
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