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.
Bad Robot is releasing a new Cloverfield movie on 03-11-16, more than eight years after its cinematic debut. The film, 10 Cloverfield Lane, isn’t exactly an official sequel to the original, but has been described by JJ Abrams as a “blood relative” to the film. Whether this blood relative will mark the return of the enigmatic Cloverfield Monster remains to be seen, but the familial resemblance is evident with 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s new alternate reality game.
It’s highly doubtful that a thorough understanding of a eight-year-old viral marketing campaign will be required to enjoy the return to the Cloverfield universe…but then again, it can’t hurt to be prepared for anything.
The Mystery of 1-18-08 On July 4, 2007 moviegoers were treated to a trailer for a JJ Abrams film with no name. All they had to go on was shaky footage of the surprise farewell party for a cool dude named Rob, wholesale destruction of property by…something, and a date: 1-18-08.
From the date, players quickly discovered the (now-defunct) 1-18-08.com, which served as home for a growing collection of photographs. Click on a picture and shake it enough, and you might flip it over and find a message or two. Stay on the site long enough, and you might catch a muffled roar. But for the “main” Cloverfield site? That was pretty much it.
The story emerged as players explored beyond the photographs. One path led players to tracking down (now blank) MySpace profiles of a group of friends that would eventually gather for an ill-fated party on January 18, 2008. Yes, MySpace. Hey, it was a different time. Jamie Lascano was particularly active, and set up the website JamieandTeddy.com to document her only slightly creepy long distance relationship with Teddy Hanssen through a series of private vlogs, protected under the password “jllovesth”.
Once a year hundreds of MIT students, alumni, and puzzle enthusiasts converge in Cambridge for a weekend of almost impossible puzzles, tied together under a light narrative theme. In the five years I’ve been participating in the MIT Mystery Hunt, teams have been asked to turn to puzzles to put on a Broadway musical, rob a bank, save Wonderland, and explore the ocean’s depths. Progress at the Mystery Hunt is driven by tackling meta-puzzles: puzzles that leverage solutions from a group of puzzles as elements of a larger puzzle. The 2016 Hunt prominently featured its elegantly crafted meta-puzzles, delivering a master-class in solid puzzle design.
This article will explore some of those puzzle design choices. In order to discuss those choices, it will be necessary to “spoil” the answers to quite a few puzzles in the Hunt, so read at your own risk. If you want to try your hand at the Hunt spoiler-free, stop reading now and explore the 2016 Hunt website, which conveniently features detailed solutions to every puzzle in the hunt alongside the puzzles themselves.
Theming and the Meta-Puzzle: The Red Herring
Every MIT Mystery Hunt starts with a kick-off event that introduces the year’s theme. This year, kickoff attendees were informed that the 64 participating teams were competing for the top spot in a Dog Show. Sure, there were a few glitches during kickoff. Slides showing scores to future football games…PowerPoint slides responding to questions from the presenter…all clearly red herrings. The 2016 Mystery Hunt was going to be all about cute, adorable puppies competing.
I have a problem. Years of playing alternate reality games and transmedia storytelling experiences have trained me to love room escape games. Getting locked in a room and relying on a group of friends to figure out what we’re supposed to do to get out? Pretty much my dream come true. But there are a limited number of rooms in Philadelphia, and I’ve done them all. And for the most part, it’s not as fun playing a room escape game for a second time. It’s like going to the same murder mystery dinner party twice. Once you know everyone’s secrets and whodunnit, you’re either stuck watching on the sidelines, or end up spoiling the mystery for everyone else.
Okay, so I’ve done all three rooms currently running in Philadelphia. But there are hundreds of rooms running globally, so I can still scratch my room escape game itch when I’m on vacation…but I have to do it alone, unless the friends I’m visiting haven’t similarly run through all of their local games. Otherwise, I’m stuck waiting for more rooms to open up in my area, or for escape room designers to find a way to make their games more replayable. Luckily, Boda Borg has come up with a solution to both problems.
Boda Borg started in Sweden, and has been running “reality games” since the mid-90s, long before the current wave of room escape games swept their way through Asia and North America. Boda Borg currently has eight locations in Sweden and Ireland, but only recently opened their first North American location in Boston. The core concept is the same: a small team of participants enter the room, and have to figure out how to use the surrounding objects to get out of the room. But because Boda Borg evolved independently from traditional room escape games, the experience is considerably different, in practice. The main difference? The rooms are designed for teams to fail fast, and fail frequently.
Boda Borg’s business model enables this “fail fast” mentality. Rather than reserving a room for a particular time slot, Boda Borg Boston offers a 2-hour pass for $18, or an all-day pass for $28. This buys unlimited access to the building’s 20 “Quests”. Each Quest’s difficulty is rated primarily on the physical demands of the rooms, with “Green” rooms focusing on cognitive challenges, “Red” quests requiring moderate physical activity, and “Black” quests requiring…well, let’s just say “Black” quests lie somewhere between Survivor challenges and American Ninja Warrior, on the difficulty scale. Players who realize a Quest is too cognitively or physically demanding for them can easily move on and try a different room, finding the perfect fit for their personal appetite for challenge.
Four years ago, Jane McGonigal released Reality is Broken to make a case for the positive benefits of games, both as an anti-escapist outlet for personal growth and as a template for tackling serious societal challenges. The focus of Reality is Broken was on dissecting the core principles of game design, providing a series of case studies on how those principles were used to tackle big problems, and creating a community of game developers interested in making “gameful experiences.” Reality is Broken is a book of big solutions for big problems. It’s turning to games to encourage entrepreneurship in Africa, or to reinvent education to be more fun and rewarding for students. The book’s spiritual successor, SuperBetter, tells a much more personal story, of making the world better one person at a time.
Jane McGonigal, Concussion Slayer
Halfway through writing Reality is Broken, McGonigal slammed her head into a cabinet door and suffered a serious concussion that took away many of the things she loved most. To help recover McGonigal assumed a secret identity as Jane the Concussion Slayer. Over the following weeks, she recruited her friends to serve as Buffy the Vampire Slayer-themed allies as she identified the “bad guys” (triggers that made her feel worse) and “power-ups” (concrete actions she could take to feel better) to get better. Longer-term quests helped her along the road to recovery. Jane the Concussion Slayer was a highly personal and transformative experience for McGonigal.
During her research, McGonigal learned that while traumatic events can lead to post traumatic stress disorder, they can also serve as opportunities for people to reevaluate their priorities and experience post-traumatic growth, coming out of their crisis better than they were before. Further research indicated it’s even possible to voluntarily embrace a difficult challenge to experience similar benefits without the trauma, as post-ecstatic growth. SuperBetter is McGonigal’s attempt to tell their own stories of growth, whether in response to personal trauma or as a voluntary route to betterment.
The release of Jane McGonigal’s newest book SuperBetter is not the game’s global debut. McGonigal released the basic framework for it six years ago on her blog, She went on to recount the story in Reality is Broken, before creating a free online portal to make it easier to guide people through the process. The game has been around for a while. The book provides a rationale for playing, an overview of the studies that influenced its design, and a roadmap to start playing the game.
“All art movements start with a small group of friends…when historians look back on this phase in art, the movement that we will be a part of, what they will marvel at is how interconnected we are.” Brian Clark was fascinated with the formation of movements and creating scenes, and was tireless in his efforts to foster a community of creators looking to find new ways of telling stories in the digital age. Yesterday, Brian passed away after a brief bout with cancer, leaving behind a community and industry he affected deeply.
As president of GMD Studios (originally Global Media Design), Clark helped construct the web realities for Nothing So Strange and Freakylinks, extending the narrative storytelling of film and television onto the internet. He continued exploring different ways of telling stories through his work on beloved alternate reality games like Sega’s Beta-7, Audi’s Art of the Heist, and Eldritch Errors. His projects delighted in stretching the boundaries of fictional worlds outside their comfort zones, asking players to do everything from “stealing” SD cards out of cars on display at events to joining characters at a Lovecraftian cabin in the woods.
Clark worked tirelessly behind the scenes to mentor new creators in the space, offering them help on everything from the craft of subversive storytelling to the realities of running a small business, including knowing what to charge for their work. He delighted in playing with other peoples’ creations and testing their limits, whether that meant donning a Ronald Reagan mask and dancing under his “Jihadi Jazzhands” persona, or creating a well-endowed, chain-smoking sock puppet named “She-Crab” for a game originally intended for children. He was an irrepressible prankster, leading to frequently outlandish conversations punctuated by his staccato laughter.
More than anything, he’s been the dynamo that vociferously argued for the people who knew him to resist complacency, pushing them to make things to see if they’d work, and to figure out what went wrong when they didn’t. People impacted by Clark have turned to Facebook to offer their condolences and share their memories of him by sharing “things I learned from Brian Clark”.
We’re going to miss you, Brian. You took your not-so-small group of friends, and fused them into something bigger through the generosity of your friendship and the sheer force of your personality.