Category: Reviews (page 1 of 9)

At The Rogues Gallery, Evil Is Its Own Currency

Note: ARGNet received a comped ticket for this show.

Broken Ghost Immersives’ newest hybrid experience The Rogues Gallery asks players to step into the roles of supervillains for an evening at Wildrence, forming villainous team-ups of two to three players bent on world conquest. And I’m a little nervous about how easily my friends and I slipped into our nefarious roles.

It started before the game even began, when No Proscenium’s Kathryn Yu reached out to nefariously strategize before the event: “we can conspire and split up the Spiras”. While I’d ordinarily be opposed to splitting up the Room Escape Artists, Kathryn promised me one evil monologue if we won, so I responded “clearly, the target is Lisa. My bet would be David gets distracted being evil.” Lisa was on board, noting “David can fend for himself.” This was the origin story of the supervillainous cross-over team of No Proscenium, ARGNet, and Room Escape Artist: Team “Here to Make Friends” was born from betrayal at the start.

Luckily, The Rogues Gallery rewards duplicitous behavior, and primes players to embrace their worst impulses by handing out Supervillain identities on a lanyard upon entering the venue, along with optional capes and masks. The core gameplay mechanics are deceptively simple: players spend four types of gems to deploy their henchmen on a global map: green gems purchase troops, blue gems finance henchman movement, and red gems activate a supervillain’s unique powers. The only catch? Teams don’t start out with any gems: they can only be obtained by assisting the various supervillain administrators in a surprisingly varied collection of diabolical deeds.

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Going Beyond the Text with the Subtext Game

Jonathan is in trouble. After receiving a phone call warning that his apartment wasn’t safe and needed to be evacuated, a guy in a black ski mask kidnapped him, and the next thing he knows, he finds himself locked up in an office building. There’s a list of phone numbers there…and yours is one of them. Can you help him escape, and figure out why you were looped into this slightly menacing predicament? That’s the open question of Subtext, an SMS-driven experience that comes off as equal parts alternate reality game and virtual escape room, with a healthy side of paranoia.

In Subtext, players take on the role of Jonathan’s off-site support squad, serving as his virtual assistant in escapeology by completing tasks ranging from conducting research on fictional companies, solving light puzzles to help Jonathan navigate the building, and using social engineering to smooth the path. In terms of gameplay, Subtext is similar to its single player ARG counterpart The Black Watchmen, with the narrative guiding players through a string of linear challenges in service of a larger narrative. Where it differs is in its framing – by using chatbot functionalities to power Subtext, the hero of the story is the writing. While The Black Watchmen has a strong narrative focused on players joining up with a secret organization and climbing through the ranks by completing tasks, its strongest point is translating ARG style challenges into a single-player video game experience, with the narrative serving as an added bonus. And while mobile apps like Simulacra and Another Lost Phone place more of their focus on the narrative, those stories’ framing focuses on the phone as found object, making gameplay feel like an exercise in digital archaeology. Subtext taskes advantage of the low fidelity nature of the text messages that form the backbone of the story to create a more active immersion, and the experience has numerous moments of clever writing that makes it all too easy for players to fall into the conceit that they’re chatting with another honest to goodness person in need.

The full Subtext experience takes a few days to complete, but is designed to work around the player’s life. Since Subtext‘s forward momentum is fueled by successful solves, inactivity allows players to put the game on pause at any time – and if players get stuck, continuing to text with Jonathan will often yield hints which range from helpful to practically essential on one or two of the more frustrating tasks. There are a few developer-imposed breaks in the narrative so it would be a difficult if not impossible game to competitively speedrun on the first pass, but that doesn’t stop me from being curious about whether players are rushing through, or taking their time to savor the experience.

The full Subtext experience is sold as pay-what-you-want-as-long-as-you-want-to-pay-at-least-$6, although there is a free demo that will give you a 5-minute taste of the experience that has quickly become my favorite introductory example of alternate reality games in action. The delightfully creative challenge perfectly encapsulates what makes Subtext special, both in terms of writing and tone. And while none of the moments in the full experience exceed the rush of adrenaline at finishing the demo puzzle, there were one or two moments that were on par. Subtext asks players to imagine “what if the game was real”, and it lives up to that promise – especially if you opt in for the full experience, which opens up the potential for phone calls or even physical mail to round things out. Those additions aren’t necessary to the story, but they do contribute to the world-building, particularly when it comes to bringing closure to the story.

If you’re interested in learning more about Subtext, play the demo. Even if you don’t think you’re interested in the full experience, play the demo: it’s that good, and will help you decide whether the full game might be up your alley, at a negligible investment of time.

A Return for a New and Improved Emma Approved

Five years ago, Pemberley Digital released their first episode of Emma Approved, the Emmy-Award winning transmedia series that reimagined the character Jane Austen described as “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like” as a modern-day advice coach turned vlogger. Over the course of the show’s initial 72-episode run, Pemberley Digital painted a sympathetic and nuanced portrait of Emma Woodhouse that allows the viewers’ appreciation of Emma’s strength to grow in parallel with Emma’s own personal growth as the series progresses. And to commemorate the five-year anniversary of the show, Emma Approved is returning for a sequel, starting in October.

A Quick History Lesson: Pemberley Digital and the Birth of a Genre
When Hank Green and Bernie Su created The Lizzie Bennet Diaries as a modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 2012, it was far from the first modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s works, nor was it even the first attempt at telling those stories on YouTube as a web series. What set The Lizzie Bennet Diaries apart was its expert use of the vlogging format to make Austen’s characters come alive, reinforced by the social platforms they inhabited as part of the show’s transmedia strategy. This format inspired the birth of a genre, leading to the creation of over a hundred literary web series and the formation of Pemberley Digital that fittingly existed simultaneously as a fictional company within the world of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, and as a company focused on producing new literary web series.

When Pemberley Digital released a DVD box set of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, they reinvested a portion of those funds into the creation of Welcome to Sanditon, their second foray into Jane Austen adaptations. In order to flesh out a narrative around Austen’s unfinished novel, the production team turned to the audience to create the town of Sanditon together, with viewers virtually settling to live in the town as an exercise in co-creation, powered by social media and the video platform Theatrics. Welcome to Sanditon was still focused on character-driven storytelling – it just expanded to draw some of its B-plots from the characters its viewers were role-playing. Sanditon veteran Kyle Walters borrowed much of that co-creation framework for The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy, while Pemberley Digital opted for a more passive experience with their next project, Emma Approved.

Crafting a More Sympathetic Emma: This Review is Emma Approved
Like its predecessors, Emma Approved was set up as a character-driven show, allowing audiences to gradually come to know the show’s characters both through the video uploads and their online presences. But unlike Lizzie Bennet and fan-favorite Gigi Darcy, Emma Woodhouse doesn’t start off as endearing. “Emma Woodhouse…beautiful, clever, and brilliant. There are many intriguing female entrepreneurs in the love and lifestyle industry, but no one is more dynamic or has more potential than young Ms. Woodhouse.” Hearing Emma introduce herself by reciting that dose of hyperbolic prose to the camera doesn’t leave the best first impression. After seeing her systematically bully and lie to friends and coworkers to get her way in the next few videos, her second and third impressions could use some work as well.

And yet, in a series based in large part around Emma’s personal growth, Emma Approved is just as careful in highlighting how Emma’s greatest strengths are present throughout the series. When Annie Taylor is having doubts about her marriage to Ryan Weston, Emma is empathetic enough to identify what the underlying problem is, without being explicitly told. She just crosses the line by trying to fix everything behind everyone’s back, through subterfuge and deceit. After being confronted with her behavior, Emma internalizes the lesson so that when confronted by a similar situation with her sister, she takes a more reasoned tact. The lesson isn’t “don’t meddle in other peoples’ affairs” – that’s a core component of Emma’s personality and her business model. Instead, the lesson is to do so more directly.

Throughout the series, Emma learns a series of painful lessons after letting down most of the people in her life. And while she learns and adapts, she does not do so at the expense of who she is – the Emma Woodhouse who closes out the series is just as assertive, empathetic, and confident as the Emma who started it. She just finds better mechanisms for channeling that passion. And speaking of passion, it’s almost impossible not to ship the budding romances that form during the show. Bobby Martin and Harriet Smith’s awkwardly adorable overt flirting serves as the perfect foil for Emma Woodhouse and Alex Knightley’s more tentative banter, and the characters’ romantic arcs are equal parts fulfilling and nail-biting every step of the way.

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Bunker Buddies at the Wildrence, with Broken Ghost Immersives

Note: ARGNet received a comped ticket for this show.

Fifteen people huddled together in the Bunker, arranged in a rough circle of couches and chairs. The room itself was a pastiche of Cold War era kitsch, just big enough to fit our group, but small enough to feel a little cramped. The Nostalgia Electrics refrigerator was fully stocked with beverages of the alcoholic and non-alcoholic variety, and the kitchenette was stocked with all the essential cooking implements, hanging from the wall. Near the couch, a chess set was prominently displayed near period magazines to help us while away the time in a makeshift living room space. On the other side of the room, a small crafting table was positioned to give the group space for tinkering with the odd bits and bobs we found. The only signs of real modernity in the room: a handful of tablets strewn around the room, and a laptop propped up in the corner, broadcasting security cam-style footage of the room to our Artificial Intelligence-based overseer, De-Bunk. The apocalypse arrived, and this would be our home for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, that foreseeable future was severely limited by dwindling food supplies and a malfunctioning life support system.

This is the scenario that Broken Ghost Immersive’s The Bunker thrusts its players into at Wildrence, a basement events space in lower Manhattan. A loose collective of individuals, met with the challenge of surviving in a post-apocalyptic hellscape with only their wits, a few rolls of duct tape, and a supply of Twinkies. The roughly 2 hour long show is a bit of a hybrid experience: while it combines elements of a number of immersive styles of play, at its core the experience feels like an intimate parlor LARP, where players’ decisions help them learn about the world they find themselves in as they struggle to survive. Routes to survival might involve using tablet devices to negotiate with residents of other nearby bunkers, donning hazmat suits to explore the wastelands to search for supplies and interact more directly with neighbors, and use those supplies to craft items useful for the bunker’s residents. While there is a set narrative underpinning the entire post-apocalyptic scenario, player choice dictates what elements of that story any given show (or player within that show) might encounter.

The Bunker: A Game of Resource Management
Bunker resources are represented through a series of cards that can either be found through exploratory missions into the wasteland, or created by playing a mini-game to combine items at the crafting station. And over The Bunker‘s seven “day” narrative, carefully managing those resources is essential to survival. Every day, players must “consume” one food card, or run the risk of dying right there, on the spot. Satisfying that need is a constant weight hanging over the bunker, with the very real threat of death looming at every turn. Additional cards can be spent at the crafting table to obtain items necessary for short-term and long-term survival, both for the expeditionary forces and the bunker at large. And along with limited resources comes challenges with distribution. Some resources might be pooled for group consumption, while others get held back to ensure individual survival.

The biggest resource for players to manage, however, is time. As with many megagames, how players choose to spend their time is a much more valuable resource than the cards themselves. This isn’t a game where players can get by focusing exclusively on one element of gameplay, as each element informs the others.  Players chatting with other bunkers might unlock new abilities for players tackling the crafting table, while players going out on expeditions might come across information that changes what players negotiating with other bunkers discuss. To encourage players towards a more well-rounded play experience, the game has “nudges” built in that require switching around tasks on a fairly frequent basis. Expedition members might become afflicted with wounds, ailments, and mutations as a result of their journeys, forcing them to be temporarily bunker-bound, while some bunkers may become so hostile that further communications become pointless. Other “nudges” were more direct, as an Achievement Book would dole out cards as rewards to players who helped the team reach set milestones of exploration, crafting, and experimentation.

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Happy Escape Room in a Boxing Day!

It’s Boxing Day! The day when thoughtful gifts from friends, family, and coworkers are exchanged for store credit, and when you start planning on how to convert that stack of gift cards into even more presents. Something to consider for puzzle fans: the escape room in a box.

Comparing escape rooms in a box against their traditional escape room counterparts is a bit like comparing a theatrical performance with its cinema adaptation. Paying a premium to see a performance of West Side Story live delivers an experience that can’t be completely translated to film, and attempts to directly lift the experience will make that absence noticeable. However,  in the hands of the right team, cinematic adaptations can do things that would be impossible on a live stage. This article explores how three different companies brought their own particular spins on bringing the escape room genre home.

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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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