Puzzle shirts featured in Hung Out to Dry, via Edoc Laundry co-founder Shane Small

During its third season, CSI: NY aired the episode Hung Out to Dry, revolving around a series of grisly murders. Each victim was found wearing a mythologically inspired t-shirt, with the logo Kodecon emblazoned on the collar. Solving the puzzles embedded in the shirt’s design would reveal information about the motive for murder, both through the hidden meanings woven into the shirt’s design and through a video clip unlocked on the Kodecon website.

Hung Out to Dry was inspired by the real world company Edoc Laundry, founded by a number of 42 Entertainment veterans to use a line of designer clothing to introduce players to the band Poor Richard, and unravel the mystery of who killed its lead singer. And while Edoc Laundry’s narrative puzzle shirts may be over a decade out of print, there’s been a recent resurgence of experiences that hide stories in fashion.

Solve Our Shirts’ games Escape From the Maze of the Minotaur and The Treasure Trove of Pirate Cove

Solve Our Shirts: This T-Shirt Comes With Its Own Sea Shanties
When the pandemic shut down escape rooms and immersive theater companies across the globe, designers explored different ways to recreate the escape room experience for players in the comfort of their own homes. Many rooms translated their existing rooms into online Zoom experiences, where players instructed in-person avatars on how to navigate the room’s challenges. Some experimented with audio escape experiences, mashing up escape rooms with tabletop gaming. Still others effectively re-invented alternate reality games, by asking what an escape room experience would look like if the narrative was no longer enclosed within a single building.

While Illinois escape room company CU Adventures also created their own series of more traditional “play-at-home” escape games, their foray into fashion with Solve Our Shirts is what really sets their at-home offerings apart.

Introductory postcards from Solve Our Shirts games, along with unlockable envelopes

To play a Solve Our Shirts game, “wish you were here” postcards themed to the game provide login instructions to CU Adventures’ at-home player portal, where players are tasked with a series of tasks that ask them to more deeply interrogate the secrets hidden within the shirt. After completing certain puzzles, players might also be instructed to open a series of marked envelopes to aid them in their journey through the shirt.

Escape From the Maze of the Minotaur was Solve Our Shirts’ first wearable puzzle experience, and revolves around an attempt to escape from a dream-like labyrinth, and manages to hide puzzles in practically every designable surface of the shirt, using the game’s online component to guide players through a series of challenging puzzles, with an additional challenge (and artifact) for players who buy the deluxe edition.

The online portal for The Treasure Trove of Pirate Cove, featuring one of its many sea shanties

The Treasure Trove of Pirate Cove is less ambitious in weaving puzzles into the fabric of the shirt itself and relies more on the details of the shirt’s design to deliver its puzzles, but doubles down on the digital companion piece to the experience (and puns) through a series of sea shanty puzzles, along with a bottle of Arr Sea Cola that might come into play for a puzzle or two.

During an episode of Reality Escape Pod, CU Adventures creators Chris and Anne Lukeman, “we are a sucker for spectacle, so when we wanted to do a take-home thing, the idea that we could base it around some sort of gimmick and then nail that gimmick was something that really appealed to us. We wanted to make sure it was a puzzle doing things that we had not seen before.” And Solve Our Shirts definitely delivers – straight to your door!

ARGNet Recommends: If you’re looking for something that showcases the physical possibilities of what a t-shirt puzzle can do, Escape From the Maze of the Minotaur is where you’ll want to begin. If you’re looking for a slightly more refined puzzle experience with sea shanties, go for The Treasure Trove of Pirate Cove first, instead.

The Quest Jacket announcement on Game Theory

MatPat’s Quest Jackets: Genre-Crossed Tales Delivered in Machete Order
ARGNet’s latest article on where to find ARG coverage online already mentioned that Theorist Media creator Matthew Patrick (more commonly known as “MatPat”) has worked on more than a few puzzle experiences, over the years. But on February 2022, MatPat interrupted a Game Theory video on Five Nights at Freddy’s: Security Breach to announce the release of his Quest Jacket product line, for one of his most ambitious projects to date.

Somewhat fittingly for a product announced during a video examining the convoluted mess that is FNAF‘s timelines, Quest Jacket releases are apparently being released in Machete order. The initial fantasy themed jacket, for instance, is named Quest Jacket, vol. 2 while its science fiction themed sequel has been dubbed the Star-ACE Quest Jacket, vol. 3.

Packaging for MatPat’s jackets: the fantasy themed Quest Jacket vol 2, and the scifi Quest Jacket vol 3

Unlike Edoc Laundry and Solve Our Shirts which relied on companion websites to flesh out the narrative puzzling experience, the Quest Jacket is designed to be solvable from start to finish using only the jacket itself. The only exception to that rule comes after completing each Quest Jacket’s final step, where players are directed to a website congratulating them on finishing their Quest. First-time solvers can then request a completionist’s patch from the page to celebrate their victory, free of (additional) charge.

Because the Quest Jackets embraced the herculean task of including all puzzle clues and narrative details on the jackets’ surface, and that design constraint influenced the development of both jackets. Both stories are relatively simple, with blocks of text providing instructions on how to proceed.

Quest Jacket vol. 2, MatPat’s fantasy-themed denim jacket

The first Quest Jacket centers around a wizard’s quest for knowledge, and players dive into that story by following the story laid out on the punk rock-inspired black denim jacket’s back panel. Stylized as an illuminated manuscript paired with an illustration of the wizard in question, players are provided with four paragraphs that offer a retelling of the wizard’s journey, which doubles as instructions for players to decipher the jacket’s many secrets.

Since the focus of the wizard’s Quest Jacket is retracing the wizard’s steps to discover knowledge, the experience with Quest Jacket vol. 2 is as much an exploration as it is a puzzle experience, with the narrative clues on the back panel directing players to hidden secrets in unexpected places on the jacket. Puzzles are present at each of those waypoints on the wizard’s path, but discovering where to look is where much of the magic happens, with MatPat’s debut code jacket.

That also leads to one of the main challenges with the first Quest Jacket: in order to make the puzzle trail work without players stumbling across the solution to the game’s peenultimate puzzle, almost half of the visible design elements of the jacket are red herrings that exist primarily for aesthetic purposes. And because the final step of the Quest Jacket is a particularly well hidden design element, players who do a thorough search of the jacket (either because they were stuck on a prior clue or wanted to explore the jacket in a more open-ended manner) often sequence jumped to the end of the experience.

Because of this, the best way to experience the Wizard’s Quest Jacket is to follow the wizard’s instructions, and retrace his steps without attempting to blaze a trail of your own.

Quest Jacket vol. 3, MatPat’s scifi-themed bomber jacket

The first Quest Jacket drew upon punk rock aesthetics to follow a wizard’s adventure, and it must have been tempting to work with familiar materials for the follow-up experience. However, the team went in a completely different direction with the Star-ACE Quest Jacket vol. 3, which drew upon the aesthetics of military bomber jackets to cast players in the role of a starfighter squadron captain looking to stop an alien invasion.

If the wizard’s Quest Jacket was focused around exploration, the focus of its sci-fi counterpart is more purely centered around creative execution of the puzzles themselves. While the wizard’s path relies on allegory and metaphor to help navigate the jacket’s secrets, the Star-ACE jacket provides clear, mission-based puzzle objectives that are plainly visible and often even clearly labeled.

Because the puzzles are more mechanically involved, that also removes the need for red herrings: practically every design element of the jacket is used for puzzles at some point in the adventure. Also, since the final puzzle involves a shell meta that provides a six letter “flight code word” as proof of completion, it’s no longer possible to claim victory without having experienced the jacket in full.

Even the aesthetic experience has improved with the Star-ACE jacket. Both jackets are brilliant puzzle experiences, but the punk-inspired denim jacket probably isn’t something I’d wear out in public – even when I brought it out to an escape room convention, it was something I carried with me. The same is not true for the sequel experience. Because the jacket’s more visually stimulating puzzles and blocks of clue text have been moved to the bomber jacket’s inner lining, the fact that it’s a puzzle jacket is only evident if the relevant details are explicitly pointed out.

ARGNet Recommends: Both Quest Jackets were sold as limited run items, and are currently out of stock. However, the fact that the first two jackets sold out we still haven’t seen a volume 1 implies there will likely be more Quest Jackets to come, so keep your eyes peeled for announcements of new releases.

Final Thoughts on Wearable Puzzles: Everything is a Designable Surface
Nordic Larp designers Johanna Koljonen and Bjarke Pedersen are known for popularizing the expression “everything is a designable surface”, highlighting the reality that designers have the opportunity to make conscious decisions about every element of experiences. That reality comes forward in stark relief when the focus of this article is nominally on puzzles designed for clothes. Because even though fashion is the focus, the experience doesn’t stop at the article of clothing itself.

Edoc Laundry viewed puzzle shirts as a way to deliver a story that lived across a product line, with individual stories unlocking fragments of a broader narrative. That model was then incorporated into a TV drama as a fictional series of shirts, before getting pulled back into the real world as the fictional CSI:NY shirts became commercially available. Individual Edoc Laundry shirts could be solved in isolation, but it would only result in a word or phrase – the context lives online.

Meanwhile, Solve Our Shirts treated their own puzzle shirts as the centerpiece of a broader narrative journey, inviting players on the adventure through literal postcards. Each shirt would tell a complete story…but only when paired with its corresponding supplemental materials.

MatPat’s Quest Jackets went out of their way to deliver a full solving experience printed on the jacket itself, at the expense of limited narrative depth. But solving the jacket does trigger a congratulatory patch to commemorate successful completion, and the boxes containing the jacket were so carefully crafted that they also provide an extension of the story beyond the jacket itself, even if the packaging doesn’t factor into the puzzles themselves. The overall framing device for the Quest Jackets also speaks volumes – what happened to the missing first installment?

In short: fashion makes for a fascinating designable surface, and I look forward to seeing more opportunities to flesh out my wardrobe and accessories with narrative and puzzle experiences. How long until we see K-Pop lightsticks as the entry point to narrative experiences? What would it take to pull off a pair of puzzle shoes? And what designable surface will enterprising experience designers tackle next?