There’s an often-repeated contemporary folktale: if you try and place a frog in a boiling pot of water, it will immediately jump out. But if you place the frog into cool water and slowly turn up the temperature, it won’t notice the gradual change until the water is boiling hot. This apocryphal tale may not apply to actual frogs, but it makes for one heck of a compelling metaphor. With Neil Patrick Harris’ single-player puzzling experience BoxONE, the heat is turned up so deftly, you’ll barely notice the game’s evolution from trivia game into…well, that would be telling.

ARGs and the Slow Burn Narrative
Since alternate reality games play out in real time across platforms, ARGs will frequently throw their players into a ludo-narrative pot: start by introducing players to something that’s relatively normal and familiar, and then gradually introduce fantastic elements as the story progresses. This has the side effect of making players sound mildly unhinged when describing their experiences, since what they experienced as a slowly unfolding narrative is an abrupt shock to the system for the listener.

Lonelygirl15 started out as a teenage girl’s vlog, before evolving into a story about a death cult harvesting human blood in the quest for immortality. I Love Bees started with a beleaguered beekeeper struggling with a glitching website before turning into a story about a time-travelling artificial intelligence struggling to piece itself back together. I Am Sophie started with an out-of-touch influencer’s YouTube debut before teasing players with potentially fatal plane crashes, brainwashing video games, and murderous entities.

The indie game scene has produced projects with similar trajectories, albeit at a quicker pace: James Lantz’ Discord-powered game SmileBot may start out as a simple chatbot that measures a server’s emoji usage, into a multi-phased text adventure that’s a single player game, except for when it isn’t. Frog Fractions may start out as a childish edutainment game of arithmetic, but it hops rapidly through increasingly ridiculous genres and scenarios until the game’s sequel is launched as a secret easter egg in the game Glittermitten Grove.

Which brings us back to BoxONE: a game coyly described on its website as “an ever-evolving game of trivia, codes, puzzles, and discovery only from the mind of Neil Patrick Harris.”

Unpacking Magic in a Box(ONE)

BoxONE starts out relatively tame: upon opening, players are met with a deck of challenge cards, a notepad, a pen, and a black envelope. Magician and puzzle box enthusiast Chris Ramsay filmed an introductory playthrough of the first few challenge cards as part of his review for the game that gives a decent sense of the introductory stages of the game…before the temperature starts heating up.

Over the course of the next two to three hours, BoxONE manages to throw a surprising number of tricks from the alternate reality gaming arsenal, guiding players through a linear path that slowly unpacks a narrative at the core of the puzzle box. And while the game insists that it is “A Game For One, Created By One”, it’s also one of the most remote-friendly puzzle games I’ve played. I “cheated” and played BoxONE over Zoom with a friend, and the experience managed to cross the digital divide quite effectively: in fact, that decision actually added to the experience in many ways.

The inherently linear nature of BoxONE does mean it’s possible to inadvertently discover clues earlier than anticipated, but relatively few of those moments of inadvertent discovery run the risk of sequence jumping and missing part of the experience. For the truly stuck, a hint website offers threaded hints to walk players through the solve without giving too much away. And whether you treat it as “a game for one” or not, the box has repack instructions that makes it relatively simple to let a friend in on the secret, after you’re done.

Neil Patrick Harris’ BoxONE is a showcase of the many forms of magic that can be packed into a deceptively simple box. It works well as a single-player experience, but some tricks are best shared: so plan on either playing through with a friend, or lending the game out, to spread the joy.

A Welcome Evolution From Known Names in the Immersive Space
Neil Patrick Harris has been an active supporter and creator within the immersive world: as early as 2009, Harris partnered with the New York immersive theater production Accomplice to take the show to the West Coast. Neil previously collaborated with BoxONE partners theory11 on a set of custom playing cards, with a secret puzzle hidden for the curious.

Theory11 previously worked with JJ Abrams to create a Mystery Box themed set of playing cards packaged in an elaborate lockbox: and while the $149 price point allowed Bad Robot and theory11 to create a more challenging artifact and puzzle experience, BoxONE might be their most accessibly ambitious project yet, exclusively available at Target for $29.99.