Swamp Motel’s three-part immersive sleuthing mystery Isklander is an ambitious remote experience that sends its players on a supernatural adventure, untangling the tendrils of a centuries-old secret society with the fate of the world on the line. But the entry point for the experience starts with surprisingly modest beginnings: players are invited to a meeting of the Plymouth Point Residents Watch, where a sweet older woman is worried that she hasn’t seen one of the neighbors in a while. It’s hard to overstate how charming this gradual entry into the world of Isklander is, and that reason alone would be enough to check out the show before its run concludes at the end of January.
It’s a particularly worthwhile experience for fans of alternate reality games, as it offers a fascinating example of how ARGs’ traditionally open-ended experience can be translated into a timed and ticketed event.
Breaking Down the Isklander Experience
The full Isklander experience plays out across three parts, with rapidly escalating stakes. In Plymouth Point (Part 1), the adventure begins with an investigation into the disappearance of Ivy Isklander, starting with a meeting of the local neighborhood watch for the apartment complex. The Mermaid’s Tongue (Part 2) starts pushing the narrative into supernatural territory in the hunt for an ancient artifact…that starts out in an online drawing class. The story wraps up in The Kindling Hour (Part 3), setting players in a head-to-head battle against a powerful organization…through a trial membership to an Equestrian Club.
These pretexts to enter the world of Isklander carry through the experience, leading to a customized video chat platform that serves as the experiential hub. While this initial website serves as a central collaborative platform, the full experience takes players on a journey across websites, social media platforms, and more to gather the intel needed to progress through each installment’s central mystery, serving as digital assistants to Isklander‘s various protagonists as the plot inexorably progresses to a climactic finish, with twists and turns to subvert players’ expectations. Narrative milestones are often rewarded with cinematic interludes that take full advantage of the show’s cast, including Lord of the Rings and LOST veteran Dominic Monaghan.
While the narrative of Isklander takes quite a few twists and turns, the experience itself is fairly linear. Solving each successive challenge unlocks the next one. For players who treat Isklander like a typical escape room, it’s possible to blow through the various puzzle challenges fairly quickly, and get pleasantly surprised by the shocking conclusions to each installment. However, the real joy of playing through Isklander is treating it like an interactive mystery novel, taking the time to chew over the narrative crumbs left behind to figure out the various twists and turns before they hit.
When the group I assembled for Isklander tackled Plymouth Point, we treated the experience like a digital escape room, and had players fan out to investigate the sprawling ecosystem created for the game in parallel. By focusing on puzzle progression, we made it through the experience quickly but missed out on the meat of the experience. For The Mermaid’s Tongue and The Kindling Hour, focusing on a more leisurely exploration of the story improved the experience immeasurably. Isklander relies heavily on ARG-style puzzles, so experienced players should be able to handle Isklander as a solo experience, and small groups are best served pacing themselves, to fully take in the details.
A Not-So Brief Aside: Two Types of “ARG Puzzles”
While Isklander structurally resembles many of the digital escape rooms that have emerged over the past few years, the nature of its puzzles put it much more closely aligned to what you would find in alternate reality games, prioritizing narrative over puzzle. But to unpack that, it’s necessary to discuss puzzles more broadly.
In an essay explaining the nuances of diegetic versus mimetic puzzle design in escape rooms, Room Escape Divas’ Errol Elumir notes that “a puzzle is diegetic if it fits the theme and reality of its game universe…[while] a puzzle is mimetic if its existence and its solution reflect the reality of its game universe” (emphasis added). He goes on to argue that escape rooms largely operate in the puzzle-forward diegetic space, operating under “escape room logic”. As he notes, while it might make thematic sense to sift through soup cans to open a locked door in a kitchen-themed escape room, a chef in the real world would have to be particularly deranged to put the same mechanism into practice in the real world.
The phrase “ARG puzzles” frequently evokes a similar diegetic approach, with exceedingly difficult puzzles designed to take dozens to hundreds of players working together to accomplish a task that might take days or even weeks to complete. Alice & Smith’s recent HELIOS ARG for Twitch had a perfect example of this. In order to unlock production of a resource called “Twitchitrium”, players from around the world needed to input a series of commands into an online terminal to extract the proper command to fix the system: something that makes perfect thematic sense for a game focused around remotely operating a lights out facility, by finding a solution with a method that wouldn’t make sense in the real world. Or, put more simply, “ARG logic”.
However, since alternate reality games are designed to play out across platforms and chase verisimilitude, ARG puzzles are significantly more likely to prioritize mimesis in their puzzle design. In Pictures of Gwen, players were tasked with figuring out what Gwen’s usual order was at a local restaurant – information gleaned by snooping through stray references in her social media profile. The wiki-fiction piece Neurocracy hides its story in the edit history of a near-future Wikipedia competitor, because that’s exactly where you’d look to see rewritten over time. Meanwhile, Dispatches From Elsewhere‘s New Noology Network ARG asked players to join a fictional online cult, by filming videos of themselves mindlessly following audio instructions.
This is the mimetic playground Isklander occupies: the puzzles in Isklander are as much research assignment as they are puzzle, and creating a strong sense of verisimilitude extends from the initial “neighborhood watch” invitation that precedes the game’s official start through to its dramatic conclusion. Isklander is a game that asks players to sift through social profiles, emails, security cam footage, and other forms of evidence to assemble the story as the primary mode of engagement – all actions that would make narrative sense, given the scenario. Because of this, Isklander bears more similarities to “persistent ARGs” like Black Watchmen, Subtext, and the lost phone game genre than with the structurally more similar digital escape room format.
Isklander’s Pacing: Prioritizing Narrative Over Puzzle
Embracing mimetic puzzle design does come at a cost: mimetic puzzles are typically more time-intensive than traditional escape room puzzles. Because of that, escape rooms typically view large blocks of exposition or text as anathema, since it distracts from the puzzle-centric experience players signed up for. And while alternate reality games don’t typically run on a timer, Isklander does.
In order to leave space for that investigative process, Isklander has what feels like a lower puzzle density than a comparable digital escape room, with more time allocated to tackle fewer puzzles. Similarly, the narrative pacing is considerably slower. Each chapter of Isklander delivers focuses on uncovering a single narrative beat, with the full story told across those parts.
Luckily, the game is competitively priced to reflect that fact – a single episode for a group of 1-3 players is priced at £30 (£40 for 4-6 players), meaning a single session can be experienced for as low as £6.67 per person. However, the full trilogy is offered at £70 (£90 for 4-6 players), which is still considerably less than most escape rooms, for triple the in-game experience.
Experiencing Plymouth Point on its own will give you a taste of how the team translated ARGs into a ticketed event, but the full trilogy is the best way to get the most of the experience. Isklander sessions run Wednesday – Sunday and there are only four weeks left, so act quick. Otherwise, you’ll need to make the trek out to London to experience their return to live experiences, with The Drop.
Note: ARGNet received comped tickets to Isklander