Refining the At-Home Escape Room Model with Flashback

Two years ago, I wrote a brief introduction to the world of escape room in a box games for Boxing Day after playing Wild Optimist’s Escape Room in a Box: The Werewolf Experiment. Juliana Patel and Ariel Rubin initially funded production of their game through a Kickstarter campaign, before partnering with Mattel to produce a mass market version of the game that includes one particularly devious puzzle that still sits as a trap on my desk for unwary coworkers. The Wild Optimists have partnered with Mattel once more with Escape Room in a Box: Flashback, a game that manages to create the most elegant narrative and puzzle-based experience I’ve seen in the space.

New Retro Packaging, Same Lycanthropic Focus
While the retro ’90s design aesthetic of the box and Flashback title might imply this game is a throwback to the electronic board game era of Dream Phone and Electronic Mall Madness, the Wild Optimist’s newest escape room in a box is actually a direct sequel to The Werewolf Experiment. In the first installment, players were tasked with facing off against the mad scientist Doc Cynthia Gnaw, rushing to avoid becoming a casualty of her latest experiments. For Throwback, Doc Cynthia Gnaw is back with a vengeance, and players need to dive into her history to get out intact.

Because the narrative framing is so straightforward, these games don’t have to be played in sequence: the group I assembled to play this game had never played The Werewolf Experiment before, and at no point in the 90-minute experience did I need to stop and explain what happened in the previous chapter.

Puzzles in Three Acts: Letting Players Choose Their Puzzling Fate
In The Werewolf Experiment, the solving process was largely a linear one. Upon opening up the box, a series of puzzles became available. By solving puzzles, players would figure out the combinations for a series of plastic combination locks or receive hints to explore unexpected places to uncover additional puzzles until they figured out how to open up the final locked box.

Flashback refined that model by splitting gameplay into three separate rounds: a word-puzzle round themed around Doc Gnaw’s childhood friend Doctor Lisa David, a science-oriented puzzle round themed around Doc Gnaw herself, and a childhood round themed around their friendship. If smaller teams are tackling the escape room, these rounds are probably best tackled sequentially so everyone can appreciate the full breadth of the experience together. However, larger teams may find it easier to get everyone more consistently engaged by splitting up into smaller groups, and tackling the themes that speak to them while also making it harder for a single person to dominate the solving process.

This is where the game’s strong theming steps up to become the hero: because each of the rounds have distinct theming and color-coding, it’s possible to have all the game’s pieces splayed out on the table at the same time without getting confused about which puzzles are tied to which theme.

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Those Who Watch: Rediscovering the Alternate Reality Game Show

Earlier this week, No Proscenium’s Noah Nelson published an article discussing immersive productions through the lens of Those Who Make, Those Who Play, and Those Who Watch. In it, he argues that the broader immersive space can do a better job at providing rewarding experiences for people who want to experience immersive stories more passively. Campfire previously advanced a similar framework for immersive experiences, breaking out players into a continuous spectrum of skimmers, dippers, and divers. Skimmers are Those Who Watch: they experience immersive vicariously, either through a casual perusal of a website, or (more often) through vicarious accounts from Those Who Play – the divers. As for the dippers…? They take on a hybrid role, and that’s where things get interesting.

In Defense of Those Who Watch: Compelling Narrative from Vicarious Play

The independent film Coherence is a fascinating experiment in film-making. Shot over the course of five days, the science fiction thriller about a group of friends at a house party didn’t have a script: instead, James Ward Byrkit mapped out a 12-page treatment revealing all the twists, reveals, and character arcs of the film. But actors were only provided information on a need-to-know basis, with characters only aware of their own evolving backstory and motivations. In effect, Coherence was a live-action role playing game shot by trained improvisational actors thrust into an increasingly surreal experience. If that sounds familiar, The Blair Witch Project used similar tactics, years earlier. Rather than using a formal script, the indie horror film’s actors were instructed to visit a series of locations, receiving directing notes along the way.

Both films benefited greatly from the visceral reality of actors engaged in a form of play, leading to films that feels more real as a result of that conceit: viewers experience a different kind of movie as a result of how the films were produced. And that effect carries through to vicarious experiences of other immersive works, as well.

Ivan Van Norman has extensively explored this space with his Sagas of Sundry series for Geek and Sundry’s now-defunct Project Alpha, and the Stream of Many Eyes‘ Dungeons & Dragons-based Off-the-Table sessions that mixed immersive theater, escape rooms, and tabletop gaming into an immersive hodge-podge that transformed performative play into a spectator sport. In Sagas of Sundry, the shows’ leads would assume the roles of carefully constructed characters with hidden secrets: every time a character wanted to do something substantive, they would have to pull a block from a giant Jenga tower. If the tower were to topple as a result of a pull, something terrible and frequently fatal would befall their character. For Van Norman’s Off-the-Table sessions, four tabletop streamers met together in a live recreation of Waterdeep to solve a series of escape room-style challenges, drawing on their characters’ unique powers by drawing cards from a deck of d20 cards to obtain hints along the way.

Shows like Escape the Night, Busted, The Quest, and Whodunnit take this to the logical conclusion, filming alternate reality game shows where contestants are playing versions of themselves who believe everything that is happening to them is real. Escape This Podcast plays similar games in podcast form, with guests navigating their way through virtual escape room scenarios, giving listeners at home a chance to solve along. These shows don’t ask much of viewers, but benefit from the role of performative play in their creation nonetheless.

All the examples so far involve Those Who Make controlling the production of a “documentary” of what Those Who Play do. However, the vast majority of content created within the immersive space is created by players, for players and the broader public.

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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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Spycraft and Sundaes with the Stranger Things ARG

Ahoy! Last July, Netflix released a teaser trailer for Stranger Things season 3…by releasing a period-appropriate commercial for Starcourt Mall, a recent addition to the town. Why worry about multi-dimensional portals to hell dimensions that might lie dormant under the town when thriving businesses like Sam Goody, Waldenbooks, and Chess King are just a stone’s throw away? The only direct reference to prior seasons of Stranger Things that appeared in the trailer was the reluctantly chipper appearance of Scoops Ahoy ice cream parlor employee Steve Harrington, forced to cover up his signature hair for the sake of American capitalism. With Scoops Ahoy featuring so prominently in early marketing for the show, it was only slightly surprising to learn that Netflix partnered with Baskin Robbins to create Scoops Ahoy pop-up locations in Burbank and Toronto to bring back a taste of the 80s for fans of the show. The fact that these pop-up shops served as the trailhead for a binge-worthy alternate reality game that mixed spycraft and ice cream? That was the real surprise.

The Rocky Road to Scoop Snoop: All Aboard the USS Butterscotch
The new season of Stranger Things premiered on July 4th, but Scoops Ahoy was open for business two days earlier – so when Buzzfeed’s Crystal Ro went to the Burbank location, Ro knew enough to be suspicious of the morse code appended to the tub of U.S.S. Butterscotch ice cream and the Russian cipher wheel innocuously placed on the plexiglass. Players extracted the password CEREBRO from the phone call and received the instructions ‘SSH 34.68.105.48 -p 1985’, but were asked to return on July 5th. Once the first episode dropped, players realized that the password to get through to the next stage of the game was the name of Dustin’s communications system.

Outside of the brief mention of CERBERO and thematic similarities, the Stranger Things ARG is something that runs in parallel with the new season of the show, so players didn’t have to binge-watch the full season before diving into the show’s companion game. However, the rest of this article will dive fairly deeply into an experience that is still available as a single-player experience, so be warned.

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Global Crypto Hunt Tracks Down “Satoshi’s Treasure”

On April 16th, the first three keys to a global scavenger hunt with a million dollar prize were released. To win Satoshi’s Treasure, players must chase after 1,000 keys with clues scattered across the world. The first individual or team to assemble 400 of these keys will be able to stitch them together using Shamir’s Secret Sharing Scheme to claim the private key to a Bitcoin wallet, and control over the hefty sum.

Finding the First Keys
The first three keys were released in dramatic fashion: on the SatoshisTreasure.xyz website, the following clue was posted on April 15th:

The first of one thousand, they are hidden in locations around the earth, in places where many dwell and one with only a small number of inhabitants. These locations can be discovered by monitoring the output of the primitive orbitals known in your time as GALAXY18, EUTELSAT 113, TELSTAR 11N, and TELSTAR18V at 1PM EST, APRIL 14th in the year 2019.

Searching for those “primitive orbitals” turned up Blockstream’s Satellite network, which provides a service that lets users pay to send messages via satellite to receivers trained to listen to them. A good Samaritan posted the message to an encrypted PasteBin alternative, revealing a series of GPS coordinates for locations around the world, and instructions to appear at noon, local time on April 16th. When I went to the Times Square location, the first key was wrapped around a QR code on a sandwich board a man was wearing.

Scanning the QR code leads to a page asking for the passphrase, and entering the phrase unlocks the first key fragment, along with puzzle-themed quotes.

In a recent newsletter post, Satoshi’s Treasure co-creator and face of the game Eric Meltzer notes,

People showed up to the 10 spots we indicated around the world where keys would appear en masse—some drove over 3 hours to get to a spot. Others figured out how to brute force the encryption we used and solved the clues without having to travel (something which we hoped would happen, but thought would take weeks—in reality it took 30 minutes..)

People are forming teams, talking strategy, speculating on the value of keys and where the next clues will show up… and our hypothesis that Bitcoin and cryptography enable a new type of online/offline game experience seems to be getting validated. Subreddits are being created. Telegram groups are forming. Our poor mongoDB is getting hammered with signups. We’re all a bit exhausted after this first day, but we’re also incredibly excited to see what people do with the next set of clues.

The Times Square location had one player travel from Virginia to find out what was going to happen, and one enterprising team got to the location early to post flyers with QR codes driving to a recruitment page for their particular crew. As for the brute-forcing, John Cantrell released a write-up of his process solving the first three keys without needing to travel to the locations, making the initial set available to everyone committed enough to read through the post.

A Game of Trust, and Hints of Things to Come
The first three keys were released publicly with little fanfare. But in an interview with the Citizen Bitcoin podcast, Meltzer explains one of the challenges of Satoshi’s Treasure that will likely unfold as the game progresses, explaining “there’s a really tricky problem with this…if you want to join a team, you actually have to prove that you have keys they don’t, but you don’t want to reveal the keys.” Rather than relying on players to develop tools to manage this verification process, Meltzer and the team behind the hunt will be releasing a tool in the coming weeks that will let players prove that they have keys without revealing the keys themselves. However, since this challenge is as much about collecting people capable of finding future keys as it is about collecting already uncovered keys, that will only solve part of the challenge here. During the podcast, Meltzer also provides a brief explanation of two test hunts conducted on the MIT and USC campuses to work out the more obvious gameplay bugs before going global. Vestiges of these hunts remain on the @ToshiTreasure Twitter account, for those who are curious.

When DARPA ran its Red Balloon Network Challenge in 2009, the MIT Media Lab won by creating a referral-based incentive structure reminiscent of pyramid schemes for the first person to find the locations of 10 red weather balloons scattered across the country, with smaller payouts made to individuals who referred them into the system. The winning team explained that additional manual analysis was needed to separate the wheat from the chaff by identifying patterns in how multiple parties submitted location data from real locations versus faked attempts at throwing the team off their trail.

The hunt is still young, so it’s almost impossible to say what types of challenges will be thrown at players: however, the game’s rules page provides a few hints of what’s to come, with a strong focus on conduct in public places implying the trend of location-specific key drops is likely to continue, although “the general public will never suspect they are in the presence of a Key”. The Rules do instruct players that clues will never be hidden on private property, and that finding clues in publicly accessible locations will never involve breaking or destroying objects. Should players be caught destroying clues to interfere with other teams, the Satoshi’s Treasure team may make that key public, along with any other keys the clan or player has gathered along the way.

Help Finally Solve a Satoshi-Themed Challenge
In 2005, the alternate reality game Perplex City released a card named “Billion to One”, asking players to track down a man named Satoshi with only a first name and a photograph from his vacation in Kaysersberg, France as clues. That mystery remains unsolved, almost 15 years later. Five years later, a different Satoshi played a formative role in developing Bitcoin, before retreating further from the public eye. His location and identity has also remained secret for over a decade. Neither of these Satoshi-related “puzzles” are likely to be solved in the near future. But with a sizable prize on the line and hundreds of clues designed to be found, Satoshi’s Treasure is likely going to find its way into capable hands.

To sign up for updates when new clues to Satoshi’s Treasure drop, go to the game’s website and follow @ToshiTreasure on Twitter. Multiple groups are playing this online, including the “Secret” Escape Room Enthusiasts Slack channel (the link to join can be found on The Codex).

The Kickstarter to End All Maze of Games Kickstarters

In 1897, Colleen and Samuel Quaice discovered a mysterious book in the Upper Wolverhampton Bibliothèque. As soon as the two siblings opened the book, the skeletal Gatekeeper emerged and pulled the pair into The Maze of Games. In 2014, readers discovered copies of The Maze of Games, documenting the sibling’s passage through that labyrinth. Readers were tasked with squaring off against each of the puzzles the Quaices faced along the way, with every solve unlocking the next page of the story. This “interactive puzzle novel” format added a welcome twist to the gamebook genre without infringing on the litigious Choose Your Own Adventure franchise’s intellectual property.

After four long years, the first group of readers successfully completed The Maze of Games‘ puzzles, finally freeing the Quaice siblings and unlocking one final Maze of Games Kickstarter campaign, The Maze of Games Omnibus and Escape Room Experience. The campaign allows backers to obtain an in-universe answer key, as well as a chance to buy in for the full experience, with components including a soundtrack composed by Austin Wintory, an audiobook narrated by Wil Wheaton, a radio show, and even a Maze of Games themed escape room in Seattle.

How Exactly Does The Maze of Games Work?

The Maze of Games prologue starts off like a traditional book, with a brief introduction to the Quaices and their plight. Once the pair encounter the Gatekeeper, they are charged with solving an initial puzzle to gain entry to the Castle Maze. The Maze of Games is themed around a deck of cards, with each suit representing a “chapter” of the story.

With standard Choose Your Own Adventure novels, players are given multiple choices. However, The Maze of Games only has one correct pathway through its pages, determined by the four mazes contained within. Figuring the optimal path through each maze will provide each chapter’s intended reading (and solving) order, with each suit getting increasingly difficult.

Even readers tackling the book alone should be able to make it through the initial Castle Maze of Diamonds…it’s the Cloud Maze of Spades and its final meta-puzzle that had readers confounded for the past four years. Lone Shark Games even released The Theseus Guide to the Final Maze, a chapbook that offered hints to see Colleen and Samuel through to the finish with yet another series of puzzles. And while audio-inclined readers couldn’t solve the Maze of Games audiobook, Wil Wheaton’s acting quickly made the audio edition my preferred way of experiencing the story, showing off an impressive range as he embodies the host of helpful (and somewhat less-than helpful) characters the siblings encounter along the way. Conveniently, the audiobook comes in “solved” and “unsolved” ordering, so listeners can appreciate the narrative in the style of their choosing.

The Maze of Games wiki has hints for every puzzle (including the final challenge) to nudge readers on to the solutions should they find themselves stuck. What Lone Shark Games’ 2019 Maze of Games Kickstarter campaign is adding to the mix is The Keymaster’s Tome, a reproduction of the journal the Quaice siblings might have used to navigate The Maze of Games, with “answers, conversations, and tidbits hand-written in the margins”. The campaign also introduces an audio recording of The Theseus Guide to the Final Maze and a radio play, The Gatekeeper’s Variety Hour, featuring both musical and puzzle guests.

The Maze of Games: Now a Physical Escape Room?
Readers of the newest edition of Puzzlecraft may already be familiar with the concept of a Maze of Games-themed escape room, as Gaby Weidling used the idea to illustrate the process of escape room development in the book. Lone Shark Games partnered with Epic Team Adventures to transform that idea into a reality, with a themed escape room in Seattle that opens up…today, March 14th. The room’s construction is a bit atypical for escape rooms, with four different rooms all making use of the same space. As with all Maze of Games productions with an audio component, Wil Wheaton is reprising his role to narrate the escape room.

All backers who contribute $15 or more will receive a $35 discount code for the room in which Selinker and Weidling find themselves trapped. Which brings us to the Kickstarter campaign.

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