Two months ago, magician and puzzle enthusiast Chris Ramsay received a chained and padlocked filing cabinet in the mail, along with a letter from Batman’s most infamous villain, the Joker. After solving his way through the puzzle box, Ramsay uncovered a coaster featuring to the website InfiniteRabbitHoles.com. At the time, the site featured a countdown clock and sign-up form, teasing visitors with the allure of a project that would show “Gotham City like you’ve never seen”.
That project was eventually revealed to be BATMAN: The Arkham Asylum Files, a series of three narrative puzzle boxes designed to bring Gotham City to life, created by many of the team at 42 Entertainment who worked on Why So Serious, the multi-year alternate reality game leading up to the release of The Dark Knight. Their goal: to take the wonder and surprise of Why So Serious‘ expansive campaign, and create a standalone game that could be more intimately experienced at home, among family and friends. The crowdfunding campaign is running through July 22nd, with the first box promised for delivery as soon as Christmas of this year.
The Rabbit Hole Before Infinite Rabbit Holes: A Puzzle Box Shaped Homage to Why So Serious
Chris Ramsay’s video solving the Joker’s puzzle box was a highly tactile experience: after unlocking the five locks keeping the filing cabinet chained up, Ramsay was able to get his hands on an additional layer of puzzles keeping him from unlocking one final box concealing his prize: a birthday cake from the Joker, resting on a coaster with the “Infinite Rabbit Holes” URL.
Ramsay’s unboxing video is a compelling video in its own right, but doubled as heartfelt homage to Why So Serious for viewers familiar with the alternate reality game, with multiple puzzles referencing key moments in the prior game. A few of the more obvious puzzle-shaped shoutouts include:
- The Joker’s Ransom Note – Infinite Rabbit Holes‘ filing cabinet unboxing started with Ramsay reading out a ransom note assembled from magazine clippings: the shapes of some of these clippings were key to solving the box’s puzzle. Why So Serious‘ Halloween 2007 challenge asked players to reconstruct their own ransom note, by taking photographs of 49 locations across the United States and sending them to the Joker. A letter from the logos of each of those locations was then added to the WhySoSerious website.
- Batman’s Mask – After opening the filing cabinet, Ramsay reveals a Batman mask with red-tinted lenses as reward for completing the first phase of the puzzle, as well as a key tool to solve a later puzzle. For Why So Serious‘ San Diego Comic-Con scavenger hunt, players were tasked with a series of missions (including getting dolled up in clown makeup themselves), and were rewarded for their efforts with a clown mask of their own.
- Return of the Cake – One of Why So Serious‘ most memorable moments involved cake deliveries for the holidays: in December 2007, players were sent to 22 bakeries across the United States, with the instructions to ask for a pick-up for “Robin Banks”. The first player to each location received a cake, iced with instructions to call a specific number. Once dialed, the cake started ringing and the lucky recipients had to dig inside the cake to recover their new burner phone. Ramsay’s cake-themed finale might have a different message iced on top, but the experience itself is the clearest homage of the bunch, and the full video is worth watching for that moment alone.
At the time this video was uploaded, these connections seemed like the puzzle box’s creators were just ardent fans of Why So Serious, who wanted to pay homage to a fixture in immersive Batman history. However, there was one additional hint that more was going on. A few weeks prior to Ramsay’s unboxing video, Dave Cobb tweeted out a link to a curious advertisement for Infinite Rabbit Holes, printed in programs for the Thea Awards (an award show for the Themed Entertainment industry). The advertisement noted that Animal Repair Shop was involved with Infinite Rabbit Holes: a company helmed by quite a few familiar names from 42 Entertainment.
And with that, the homage transformed into a promise: key figures behind the Why So Serious alternate reality game would be returning to the Batman franchise in some capacity, more than 15 years later.
The Arkham Asylum Files: A Puzzle Box Made for Exploring
Once the Kickstarter campaign for The Arkham Asylum Files went live, the series of games is framed as a series of “Mixed Reality Adventures”. At a narrative level, The Arkham Asylum Files pairs players with a reformed Harley Quinn, asking players to work together with her to assist in investigations as a reinstated therapist at Arkham Asylum. The story begins with the game’s Panic in Gotham City box (Episode 01) set to release in December 2022, followed by Gotham City Twisted Skies (Episode 02) in Summer 2023, and The Eyes of Gotham City (Episode 03) in December 2023.
Players are guided through missions via the game’s companion mobile app as animated video cutscenes, live video clips, and augmented reality features help guide players through the experience. At the app’s prompting, players are encouraged to sift through dozens of evidence files, game tiles, physical artifacts, and even an expansive papercraft recreation of Gotham City.
Each box is broken up into several chapters designed to last between 45-60 minutes each adding up to a total playtime of around 6 hours per box. And while puzzles are a key component of that experience, the game’s narrative appears to be driven by exploration and discovery as much as traditional puzzle-solving.
Ramsay, who is an investor in the project, created a “first look” teaser video for the project that provides a spoiler-free taste of what’s to come.
Ramsay also followed that up with a full playthrough of the first of Panic in Gotham City‘s six chapters: and while the experience does feature a number of more traditional puzzles, the first chapter’s focus is on letting players bring the city to life by literally building the city from the ground up and then exploring an enhanced version of what they built in augmented reality, as much as anything else.
While puzzles aren’t the central focus of The Arkham Asylum Files, they are still a major component of the adventure. Accordingly, as with most narrative puzzle boxes, The Arkham Asylum Files will come with a hint system to guide players when they get stuck, as well as repack instructions to make it easier for players to share the experience with their friends and family after the first playthrough is complete.
Beyond the boxed experience for The Arkham Asylum Files, the game’s Kickstarter campaign also features a whole host of related ephemera including exclusive decks of All-Joker cards, a prequel comic, and a special edition of The Gotham Times elaborating on that comic book backstory.
Not A Why So Serious Sequel…But the Shared DNA Persists
In an interview with ARGNet, 42 Entertainment and Animal Repair Shop Chief Creative Officer Alex Lieu explained that one of the inspirations for The Arkham Asylum Files was looking back at Why So Serious, and reimagining that for a more intimate setting:
What if we took [the Why So Serious] experience, and those collectibles and artifacts, and we put it into a box? And instead of millions collaborating we went back to the roots of being physical? We can only send a few dozen people cakes…but with augmented reality, you can have the Joker walk into the room and have a conversation with you.
As such, the game tells an independent story that requires no knowledge of Why So Serious, while still tapping into that history along with the broader DC canon. One of the most overt examples of that involves The Gotham Times, Gotham City’s newspaper. During Why So Serious, three issues of The Gotham Times were released in print and digital editions, with online editions transforming into defaced, “Jokerized” versions.
The Gotham Times returns in The Arkham Asylum Files, and gives a nod to Why So Serious by starting off where Why So Serious left off: backers who opt in for the highest tier will receive the fourth issue of The Gotham Times, while Panic in Gotham City takes over with the paper’s fifth issue. And while Why So Serious relied on its digital editions to uncover alternate versions of the paper, the Joker can take over players’ phones directly to deliver that experience on the physical pages themselves. As Lieu explained, a key question the team was challenged with throughout the design process was “what are the surprising and magical experiences you can give [players]”, especially once augmented reality gets introduced into the equation?
Even using Ramsay’s video playthrough of the first chapter of Why So Serious as template, this pattern of reimagining Why So Serious for a different medium occurs more than a few times. How might Why So Serious‘ habit of “defacing” campaign ads and dollar bills translate into an at-home experience? How can Joker cards come alive to drive the narrative forward? And most importantly, how do you make sifting through evidence files fun? While Why So Serious did feature a handful of puzzles, its strongest and most memorable moments were rooted in spectacle and surprise, and in subverted expectations at every turn. And those are the narrative and experiential notes that will hopefully translate into a more intimate, at-home experience with The Arkham Asylum Files.
Bringing More Batman Into Your Life, One Immersive at a Time
The Arkham Asylum Files Kickstarter will run through July 22nd. The first boxed experience, Panic in Gotham City, is priced at $149 (plus shipping), while buying additional episodes reduces the price to $144 per episode. A premium edition is also available for $185 a box, which adds on exclusive variant editions of the Joker cards and prequel comic book, an uncut one-sheet of Joker cards, and a physical copy of The Gotham Times’ fourth issue.
The game will still be available after the campaign concludes, but the decks of cards, comic books, and newspaper are all reserved as Kickstarter exclusives. If you’re still unsure of whether you want to buy the game, don’t forget to check out Chris Ramsay’s full playthrough of chapter 1, to get a feel of what’s to come.
It’s been a good year for Batman fans, and it’s looking to get even better in the coming months. In addition to Rata Alada, the alternate reality game tied to Robert Pattinson’s film debut as the caped crusader, two new immersive experiences will be opening up shortly. For NYC fans, Batman x Spyscape delivers an app-driven narrative experience that tasks players with infiltrating the welcome center for a front organization helmed by villains, while London fans can commit themselves to an institution in the immersive theater experience Arkham Asylum, or choose to check out London’s Park Row for a more gastronomic immersive experience. And while it’s too soon to tell whether the November release of the video game Gotham Knights will get creative with its gameplay, there is some precedent for it.
All this can serve to whet the appetites for those willing to take a chance on what The Arkham Asylum Files has to offer, come December.
Click Here to check out the Kickstarter campaign for BATMAN: The Arkham Asylum Files.
Click Here to see Chris Ramsay’s unboxing of the box that served as trailhead for the campaign
Click Here to watch a playthrough of the game’s first installment, Panic in Gotham City (Episode 01, chapter 01)