Author: Michael Andersen (page 1 of 51)

RECON, Redux: The Virtual Escape Room Con is Back

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.

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Neurocracy Turns Wiki Wrangling Into a Murder Investigation

In 2048, Wikipedia was taken down by a series of spurious copyright claims. Within a year, a successor to the world’s largest crowdsourced collection of knowledge was replaced by Omnipedia, a more centralized online encyclopedia that relies on a select community of human and artificial intelligence contributors, with the backing of Chinese technology conglomerate Zhupao. On September 30th, 2049, Zhupao founder Xu Shaoyong’s helicopter was shot down by a missle fired from one of the airport’s security drones, killing the world’s wealthiest person, along with everyone else aboard. This is the central mystery of Neurocracy, a political thriller that plays out across edits to an online wiki from the future.

Neurocracy is a single-player, interactive narrative game created by Playthroughline, released serially on the Omnipedia.app website. The first chapter of the story (covering Omnipedia updates from September 28, 2049 – October 1, 2049) is freely available, with nine additional chapters released weekly for paid subscribers, with each week’s installment covering a single day of wiki edits and additions expanding the sci-fi universe’s footprint.

And while the assassination of Xu Shaoyong is the primary narrative skein to untangle, there are a number of fascinating side plots buried within the ever-expanding web of Omnipedia entries. Who was really responsible for the murder on season two of Are You For Real, a dating elimination show with a Turing test twist? Who is Adira, and what is their connection to the hacktivist collective Five of Swords? And why are peoples’ neural colloid implants glitching?

The Omnipedia Main Page, circa October 1, 2049

Wiki-Wrangling as Gameplay
Neurocracy‘s gameplay is deceptively simple. With every new episode, the Omnipedia Main Page is updated to highlight a featured article, along with a series of breaking news updates. Using these as a jumping off point, players can learn more about the world by hovering over tooltips, searching for key words or phrases in Omnipedia’s search bar, or clicking on in-line links within articles. Players can also dive deeper into individual articles by using Revision History navigation to see how articles have changed over time, with revisions conveniently highlighted.

By leveraging those features, players can dive into the central mysteries of the narrative, and try to assemble disparate pieces of evidence to figure out what really happened to Xu Shaoyong. Neurocracy is a game of theory-crafting, piecing together clues left behind in online breadcrumbs. Somewhat ironically, Neurocracy‘s gameplay is almost identical to the process of trying to piece together the events of an alternate reality game, after the fact.

Interested in piecing together the events of the Dungeons & Dragons ARG No Stone Unturned, leading up to the release of the Waterdeep: Dragon Heist module? Pore through the game’s wiki, and navigate through a series of pages to piece together the narrative. Interested in how a vampire dating site Tender led to a major Vampire: The Masquerade announcement? Another fan wiki will help guide you through the process. Parsing through wiki entries remains one of the primary way player communities track and document the often sprawling nature of alternate reality games: Neurocracy cuts through the middle-man and makes that navigational exercise a story in its own right.

It’s tempting to compare Neurocracy to other wiki-based storytelling projects like the SCP Foundation. But while the SCP foundation is an exercise in collective storytelling populated by largely stand-alone stories where multiple truths can coexist and contradict each other, Neurocracy is a more singular vision, unfolding in a non-traditional format.

Similarly, Neurocracy is also slightly distinct from alternate reality games, as the experience doesn’t even allow for the illusion of agency in gameplay. Players aren’t interacting with the story because they believe doing so might influence events. They’re interacting to try and piece together the narrative puzzle. That’s one of the reasons why the process of playing Neurocracy is so similar to that of consuming ARGs after they concluded: it’s ARGs, stripped of agency. This form of storytelling is often referred to under the umbrella term of ergodic literature, and focuses on the amount of effort taken to engage in the process of reading as its defining trait.

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Cat Detective Mimo and the Case of the Increasingly Meta Bank Heist

In the mobile puzzle game Detective Mimo, the titular protagnoist is an anthropomorphic cat detective, sent to put a stop to the nefarious Cat Rogue’s crime spree at the Purrfect Bank. By solving a series of increasingly challenging challenges in the game’s point-and-click interface players get closer and closer to the bank’s vault, figuring out Cat Rogue’s true identity and motivation along the way. At least, that’s how the game starts. Before the game is over, Detective Mimo will have players practicing their command line coding skills, cracking open password-protected PowerPoint presentations, and deconstructing practically every playable element of the game to complete the narrative.

The First Round: A Point and Click Puzzle Adventure
Detective Mimo starts out as a relatively simple point-and-click adventure game, albeit one that leans heavily on puzzle tropes. At the Shrimp City police station, Mimo is briefed on her assignment, which doubles as a player tutorial on the game’s core mechanics. Clicking on certain objects of the game allows Mimo to interact with them: clicking on a computer monitor might prompt players to enter a password, while clicking on other objects might transfer them into the player’s inventory, where they can be used by dragging and dropping them onto other objects.

Early challenges in the game are structured around breaking through a series of locks. Find the key to unlock the drawer, then figure out the password to unlock the computer. Find the missing pieces to access the Purrfect Bank’s interior, and then peel back layer after layer of security before finally reaching the inner vault. Practically every lock works on different principles so the process stays fresh, but a comfortable formula is established. Along the way, Mimo will stumble across more narrative clues essential to solving the broader mystery, allowing a successful identification of the Cat Rogue. All the while, the game maintains a lighthearted, comedic tone. Security Guard Mr. Purr Job is obsessed with the pop idol Meowna, while the bank’s Branch Manager keeps a secret stash of catnip locked away in his office.

Second Time’s the Charm: An Evolving Playthrough Experience
It’s only after solving the game’s primary mission that things start to get weird. The game loops back and has players retread familiar ground…but things are different this time. The difficulty of puzzles ramps up considerably, and not all challenges can be resolved through the now-familiar point and click mechanics. In the game’s first cycle, players provided support to cat detective Mimo in her investigation. For the second cycle, you as the player take on a more active role. And this round of gameplay is where Detective Mimo excels, both in its narrative and puzzle design.

From the puzzling perspective, challenges take full advantage of the fact that this is a smartphone exclusive game to force players into thinking outside the box, providing creative solutions to familiar tasks. The narrative complexity also expands, as players have a choice of how to proceed resulting in two drastically different endings. There’s even a secret room in the game available in this stage, containing the most challenging puzzle trail of the game.

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Protected: Unlocking the Secrets of Detective Mimo

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You may be asked to enter an additional username and password. The username is u9vqlk, and the password is the answer to the following math equation:

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Don’t Blink or You’ll Miss It: Lonely Assassins Return in Found-Phone Game

“They’re coming. The Angels are coming for you. But listen. Your life could depend on this. Don’t blink. Don’t even blink. Blink, and you’re dead. They are fast. Faster than you could believe. Don’t turn your back, don’t look away, and DON’T BLINK.”

The Weeping Angels are one of the most iconic villains introduced in the BBC’s Doctor Who. As long as someone is observing the quantum-locked creatures known as “Lonely Assassins”, they look like perfectly normal statues. But look away for even a moment, and they’ll come for you. Not to kill…but to send you into the past, stealing away any future you might have had. The Weeping Angels literally feast on your potential, leaving you behind as an inevitability.

It’s telling that the Weeping Angels weren’t introduced in an episode pitting The Doctor and his then-companion Martha Jones against the creatures during their debut episode, Blink. Instead, the plot revolved around two ordinary brits: Sally Sparrow and Larry Nightingale. The pair do receive a series of cryptic messages spliced into a series of DVDs as easter eggs, but it’s not The Doctor’s adventure viewers are following: it’s theirs. Therefore, it’s fitting that the BBC turned back to Blink as inspiration for its first foray into the “found-phone” genre of games, making Doctor Who: The Lonely Assassins act as the official sequel to one of the most beloved fan favorite episodes.

More than a decade has passed since Sally and Larry (now Lawrence) faced off against the Weeping Angels. In the intervening years, Sally moved to the United States, and Larry fell in love and settled down. But something went terribly wrong, and The Lonely Assassins opens with you, the player, finding Larry Nightingale’s missing phone. Can you pore through the evidence contained within and find out what happened to Larry, and stop it from happening to anyone else?

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Pictures of Gwen Delivers Aesthetic ARG Dream

Gwenhwyfar Thomas is a second-year university student studying Fine Arts, who landed the offer of a lifetime: a chance to work at Asterith International as a Graphic Designer. All she needs to do? Drop out of university, move to the city of Torstoy, and complete a probationary period over the next few months. Gwen created the Instagram account Pictures of Gwen, to document snapshots of her new life through sketches and watercolor art, celebrating highly aesthetic moments such as befriending a local magpie, exploring the local farmer’s market, and wandering through local parks. She even started working on a zine. In short: if Gwen Thomas didn’t move to a city, she’d probably be living the cottagecore dream.

However, dig a little deeper and something seems slightly off about this particular dream. Why would a major marketing firm reach out to an unproven university student, and ask her to join the company before she even applied to work there? Why is the city littered with tarot-themed graffiti, in what one commenter described as a “Torstow version of Banksy”? And why does the city of Torstow’s tourist website have a secret message hidden in the website, telling visitors to “seek her in the room marked with a spade”?

Learning More About Torstow: Zine Subscriptions Optional
Many mysteries remain unanswered, but one thing is clear: Pictures of Gwen is an alternate reality game, created by the team at Rogue Beacon, best known for their work on Boomtown Fair’s alternate reality game, featured on Night Mind’s channel. According to Pictures of Gwen‘s out-of-game website, while the game has started out as a simple story of a naive art student moving to the city to make a name for herself in the wonderful world of marketing, the story will soon take a turn towards magical realism, as Gwen “travels on the ley lines where mythology, art, and modernity meet…in the not-quite-shadow of a cyclopean tower that can only be seen through the corner of the eye.”

Mechanically, Gwen’s Instagram is the central hub for the story. From that central point, the narrative sprawls across a variety of websites, radio broadcasts, and even physical artifacts that breathe life into Gwen’s adventure and the fictional city of Torstow through monthly episodes. And while the game is free to play, invested players can sign up for monthly mailings that add a tactile element to the experience. The first mailing included everything from the first edition of Gwen’s zine and prints of some of her Instagram watercolor paintings to her welcome letter from Asterith International. And since players are meticulously documenting their packages once they’re delivered, the subscription element of the game remains a purely optional choice for prospective players.

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