The Cipher Organization is a secret society that hosted annual events for well over a century “to gather the world’s most clever codebreakers, riddle solvers, and conundrum designers for the sharing of knowledge…and clandestine recruitment.” Due to the pandemic, the Cipher Organization created the Reality Escape Convention (RECON, for short) to test the mettle of new recruits through a free, virtual event.
Or at least, that’s what the alternate reality game embedded within RECON’s inaugural escape room conference would have you believe. In reality, the 2020 event was created by the escape room blog Room Escape Artist, and featured appearances from everyone from escape room creators and video game developers to Survivor contestants and cruciverbalist magicians. Starting on August 22nd, RECON will return for another round of virtual programming that can be experienced free of charge. And while it’s too soon to say whether the Cipher Organization will return, it looks like RECON 2021 will also feature a “secret” ARG.
RECON Reconnaissance: An ARG-centric Look at the RECON Schedule
While RECON 2020 is a conference focused on the escape room scene, the schedule is riddled with sessions and topics that should be of particular interest to ARG fans.
- Elan Lee – Best known in ARG circles for his role in helping create the genre through his work on The Beast for the film Artificial Intelligence, Lee is giving a talk called Escape Rooms Taught Me How to Build a Booth, discussing his recent work as co-creator and CEO of Exploding Kittens and the wildly creative (and sometimes contentious) way the company has approached convention booths.
- Errol Elumir – Although possibly best known for his role as co-host of the Room Escape Divas podcast, Errol is a prolific puzzle designer in his own right, and has run the annual Cryptex Hunt since 2018, hiding puzzles in an impressive array of framing devices including a MUD, magazine, online novel, and most recently, a point-and-click adventure game jam. He was also co-creator of the RECON’s 2020 ARG along with Mike Augustine. It’s more than a little fitting, then, that his talk is on Five Things Designers Should Know About Escape Room Puzzle Creation.
- Rita Orlov and Summer Herrick – Their session frames hinting as Fun Insurance, and focuses on ensuring that hint systems help enhance the experience for players. ARGNet previously reviewed Orlov’s upcoming tabletop puzzle game The Emerald Flame as a prime example of what a single-player ARG experience might look like. Herrick, owner of Seattle’s Locurio escape rooms, was part of the running team for the 2020 MIT Mystery Hunt, and helped design a personal favorite puzzle for that year, providing additional experience at creating (and hinting) for puzzles designed for larger audiences.
- Neil Patrick Harris – Yesterday, the RECON team announced that Neil Patrick Harris would be kicking off RECON 2021. Harris has been extremely active in the immersive space over the years, both on the creative side for projects like Accomplice: Hollywood and BoxONE, and as an active participant in shows like The Tension Experience.
RECON Basic access is available for anything from $0 to $50 (with a suggested ticket price of $30), and offers full access to the full RECON lineup of speakers, in addition to video and voice chat “bars” to encourage socializing with fellow attendees as well as the return of the Exhibit Hall to check out virtual vendor booths.
RECON Pro tickets are available for $100, which unlocks facilitated chats after select talks, Discord AMAs with select speakers and guests in the Discord, “Birds of a Feather” chats with fellow attendees, and active workshop sessions. RECON VIP tickets priced at $500 allow for a more curated experience, allowing for guaranteed access to limited capacity events.
The RECON 2021 schedule and speaker list is packed with a host of interesting people and discussions…which is going to make the allure of the conference’s many opportunities to play escape rooms, puzzle hunts, and ARGs all the more dangerous.
Passport to Play: Taking Interactivity to the Next Level
RECON 2020 went out of its way to recreate the feeling of attending a live event in the conference’s dedicated Discord server, which featured dedicated text chats for every session, facilitated discussions after select panels, a series of channels structured to act as virtual vendor’s booths, and additional channels set aside for casual conversations, impromptu game sessions, and even Discord Karaoke.
With this year’s programming, RECON is putting an even greater focus on play. For RECON’s free programming track, Escape This Podcast will be holding a live event where attendees can solve an audio roleplay-based escape room in the chat while the show’s guests struggle through the challenge on air. Four online escape games (along with the “secret” ARG) will be made available for all attendees to play during the weekend.
For players who want to turn their RECON experience into a weekend of puzzling fun, a digital “Play Pass” is available for $65, which unlocks access to over a dozen additional games. These games include a collection of games that can be played at any time, as well as limited-run events that take place during the conference proceedings. Some of these sessions are RECON-exclusive sessions of existing properties, such as Great Gotham Challenge‘s most recent online competitive puzzle hunt MMXXI, Secret Library‘s Speakeasy murder mystery adventure and Seeking Sasquatch “puzzle theater” event). Others are limited reun games created with RECON in mind: Trapped Puzzle Room‘s audio escape adventure Escape From Escape Island (a menagerie of common escape scenarios), Deadlocked Escape Rooms‘ Newtopia (an on-demand, 3-part escape room), and Green Door Labs‘ Space Cats (which creator Kellian Adams Pletcher described to Nerdist as “a Discord game about cats flying a spaceship”).
What Came Before: The Path to the Cipher Organization
Currently, the only thing we know about the RECON ARG for 2021 is that there will be a RECON ARG for 2021: on the Games at Recon page, the website confirms that the RECON ARG exists, and will be open to all attendees. There is no indication that the Cipher Organization will return, or that Errol Elumir and Mike Augustine will reprise their role as evil ARG masterminds. However, there’s still value in getting the lay of the virtual land.
A few days before the 2020 conference, the RECON Twitter account dropped a link to a YouTube video that introduced players to the start of the puzzle trailhead. That same day, the account introduced players to the lore behind the Cipher Organization by unearthing a “top-secret training video”. Solving the initial series of puzzles provided players with instructions on how to access a secret Discord channel for first-level initiates into the Organization. A second layer of puzzles unlocked a series of four crests that, when combined with the REA crest, spelled out the final solution and unlocked access to a special channel for completionists. And while puzzles relied heavily on custom websites, more than a few puzzles involved interacting with sponsor websites and an intimate exploration of the Discord server itself.
What new challenges will RECON 2021 bring? Only time will tell…but if you want to be in on the secret, register for Reality Escape Convention now. The formal conference proceedings starts on August 22nd, but the ARG starts when the ARG starts. And if you’re curious about last year’s sessions to get a taste, featured talks are available on YouTube.
Note: I will be volunteering to facilitate some of the RECON discussion sessions and workshops, but know nothing about the secret ARG.