Long ago, in a world very different than ours, a princess convinced God and Death to write a book with the answers of how to live a perfect life. In response, the pair gave her The Book of Turns, a collection of stories providing guidance on how to live well. But after the princess spread pages of the story through the land, the stories changed, stripping away the moral lessons that gave them their power. To fix matters, the princess founded THICKETT: an organization dedicated to dive into the tales, and rewrite the wrongs.
In Cirque du Nuit‘s serial immersive production Thickett, players join one of three departments tasked with re-assembling The Book of Turns through a combination of immersive theater, puzzle-solving, and exploration. Each installment of the game’s six chapter run is intended to function as a stand-alone “Quest” exploring a different theme, with a new 90-minute episode coming out on Fridays and Saturdays every two weeks. The second installment goes live later this week, on November 27th and 28th.
A Glance Beyond the Thickett Fence: Anatomy of a Quest
When prospective players sign up to participate in a Thickett Quest, they are asked to fill out an intake form to get sorted into the appropriate department as a “Seeker”. Once accepted, they are provided with their department, an employee identification number, and login credentials to a departmental-specific resource page with an “Employee Handbook”, providing the in-game and out-of-game rules for the experience, as well as a link to the game’s optional Discord server.
Players started out on a Zoom call with Thickett corporate, before splitting out into departmental breakout rooms to be briefed on the department’s objectives for the mission. The Department of Foxes encourages the use of cunning to advance their personal agendas, the Department of Rabbits are focused on helping others and cultivating friendships, and the Department of Ravens is dedicated to the dogged pursuit of truth. After undergoing a brief onboarding and initiation process, players are thrust into the game world to immerse themselves in the Quest’s theme, before returning to Departmental breakout rooms to compete for the best re-write of the underlying folktale.
Episode 1 thrust players into the story of Godfather Death, although the corrupted tale players were presented with omitted a key element of the tale that stripped it of its morality. However, scattered throughout the world were hints of other Grimm tales, ranging from modern classics like Cinderella to lesser-known tales like The Brave Little Tailor. Each faction had separate objectives to achieve in the world, although the mechanisms were the same: find ways to assist the various non-player characters inhabiting the world, and unlock more chances to alter sections of Godfather Death. As THICKETT CEO, the Princess would go on to select one version of the story to re-write (and hopefully, re-right) the narrative.
Topia: The Heart of Thickett’s Multi-Player Point and Click Adventure
The bulk of Thickett takes place on Topia, a video chat platform layered on top of a point-and-click virtual world: audiovisual feeds from other players and NPCs only come into view when your digital avatar is nearby, and gradually fade away as your avatar walks away.
Thickett‘s world is littered with a handful of clickable items: some items expand to display images or videos, while others are portals that transport players to other sections of the realm. In the first episode, there was even a portal with restricted access: directly entering the location could only be accomplished by talking to the right NPC and getting express permission to enter.
And while players didn’t assume the roles of characters when entering Thickett for the most part: functionally, gameplay resembled other NPC-forward Larp-adjacent experiences like Evermore Park and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. While characters were happy to respond to more active roleplaying when players sought it out, their primary role was sending players out on quests, challenging them to games and diversions, and providing helpful information to arm players for their upcoming revisions.
This spatially-aware system for interacting with the world was incredibly effective at creating a sense of presence in the world, in part due to the resonance of the visuals. Topia’s minimalistic art style plays particularly well with Thickett‘s fairy tale theming, evoking nostalgic memories of EH Shepard’s illustrations of Winnie the Pooh‘s Hundred Acre Wood.
Topia (and Gather, its 16-bit competitor in the spatially aware video chat space) are a powerful tool for creators looking to simulate the joy of exploration and serendipity that lies at the heart of many location-specific immersive theater and Larp productions. While platforms like VRChat, Minecraft, and even Second Life have delivered more sophisticated avatar-mediated virtual spaces, there’s something viscerally satisfying about turning a corner and gradually seeing a human face coming into view.
Deeper into Thickett: A Beginner’s Guide to Finding Your Play Style
Growing up, one of the first video games I remember playing was an edutainment game by Sierra On-Line called Mixed-Up Mother Goose. Using a point-and-click interface the company perfected with its King’s Quest and Space Quest titles, Roberta Williams thrust players into the world of Mother Goose, where all the world’s nursery rhymes got scrambled up, and it was up to players to help the characters rediscover their own stories. The game itself was simple: wander around a map, finding items to help the characters from nursery rhymes complete their stories.
At its simplest, Thickett is a sophisticated platform for playing Mixed-Up Mother Goose in the more mature world of Grimm’s tales. But in practice, the game’s multi-player, faction-based gameplay sets out different styles of gameplay that players can mix-and-match to suit their individual interests. Because of that, the game can be more than a little overwhelming, the first time. Here are a few routes of engagement to consider, that emerged during the initial chapter.
Narrative Explorer: The first Quest was focused on Godfather Death, and many of the characters from the tale were scattered throughout the game world, looking for assistance in one form or another. Chasing down those leads could help give your Department an edge in drafting a “re-right” that appeals to the Princess…but keep in mind, chasing this route down might take some collaboration. Luckily, multiple people can experience the same resolution to a given scenario, so it’s not a race to be the first to complete a narrative task: just a race to finish it before the Quest ends.
For the Ravens, learning more about the not-so-good Doctor involved solving a series of puzzles tied to items in the world, presenting those answers to an NPC to learn what the items were truly capable of, and then returning with the appropriate item in hand…so the act of Narrative Exploration is the most likely to require a touch of collaboration.
Puzzling Pro: Many of the items littering the virtual world of Thickett were paired with basic puzzles to solve: until the puzzle is solved, characters won’t recognize the items as acquired. A sign in the virtual town square helpfully flagged that most of these puzzles would take the form of pigpen ciphers, morse code, semaphore, binary strings (both 5-bit and 8-bit), and NATO alphabet codes. However a handful of other puzzle types popped up as well, ranging from mazes to messages hidden in “typos”.
The solutions to these basic puzzles might prove useful within the current quest, as well as feeding into a meta-puzzle at the end of the Quest that expands on the broader narrative, along with a few other more challenging puzzles scattered throughout the experience for those looking to keep busy between chapters.
Mini-Games Master: A handful of characters in Thickett offer players challenges and mini-games to barter for information or the points needed to unlock story edits for your faction. In the first Quest I went head-to-head in a trivia competition with one NPC, before playing a whimsical game of cards with another.
These Department-specific points are necessary to impose a Department’s will against the story. And as a bonus, the interactions themselves made for some of the most fun I had during the session.
Amateur Cartographer: While the world of Thickett isn’t limitless, it is fairly expansive. And finding out which characters can be found where is only half the battle: in the first Quest, a Lost-and-Found board flagged four items scattered across the world that specific characters were looking for. Unlike puzzle-locked items, finding these items might require remembering the location, or providing an accurate description of the item.
Further complicating things: while NPCs will typically stay in one place, they might go roaming, from time to time: and knowing where to find someone is helpful in its own right.
Social Butterfly: The NPCs themselves are also a vital source of information, and information can be gleaned just as readily from role-playing with them as it can from completing missions or solving puzzles. Also, keep in mind that Thickett is not a solo adventure, and 90 minutes isn’t enough time to experience everything: to make the most of the experience, take the time and talk to fellow Department members when you cross paths, because they might have already found the answer you’re looking for, or stumbled across a secret, hard-to-reach space. Other factions might be willing to help as well, although you might need to prepared to barter for the privilege.
Topia has a chat feature built into the platform and the optional Discord provides faction-exclusive channels, but often the most effective method is a virtual “face-to-face” conversation…but be mindful of your surroundings, as a well-placed wallflower could engage in Departmental espionage if you’re not careful.
Boundless Potential…for Active Participants
While Thickett does have a section of the space dedicated to enjoying more passive viewing experiences through a series of video performances, this is an experience that is designed with players looking to actively engage with the story, even moreso than in traditional immersive theater productions or even many alternate reality games. In that respect, Thickett more closely resembles its Mixed-Up Mother Goose video game roots than Sleep No More or BEN Drowned.
However, Thickett provides satisfying experiences across a broad spectrum of active play types, and does so while balancing the complexities of a live, multiplayer space, and it’s worth attending a Quest if only to experience the potential of this style of remote gameplay. I can’t help but wonder: what would a fully-fledged digital Larp look like, done in the style of Thickett?
Tickets for individual Quests are available at ThickettQuest.com for $20, and a season pass covering Quests 2-6 is on sale for $90.