Author: Michael Andersen (page 2 of 45)

Lessons on ARGs and Teamwork Through the Lens of Daedalus

Daedalus is an artificial intelligence built to solve humanity’s greatest problems. And over the next few days, it will be recruiting teams of 5-7 players to participate in a week-long series of puzzles that play out across Daedalus’ neural network, to “complete Daedalus’ programming”. While many of these tasks will take place on the game’s digital interface, some puzzles will cross over into the real world, requiring teams to have at least two players in the Boston area.

This week-long experience is a collaboration between Extra Ludic and Northeastern University that is looking to leverage alternate reality games to study team performance and adaptability, with a particular focus on “individual differences and their effects on adaptability and performance within teams.” Using survey and questionnaire data collected at the midpoint and end of the game, the team hopes to leverage ARG and digital escape room environments to study how teams work together. To provide an incentive for teams to participate, all teams who complete the game and the corresponding surveys will receive a gift certificate, with an additional prize for the team who completes the game in the fastest time.

This is not the first time alternate reality games have been used for research purposes. Indiana University’s Skeleton Chase game presented members of the school’s Foundations of Fitness and Wellness program with a sprawling game that led students across campus, confirming that players presented with a compelling experience could be encouraged to increase the amount they walk every day. Researchers noted that students reporting the highest weekly step counts were the teams that bonded well, forming a cohesive unit that worked together towards a common goal, serving as an early indicator for the success of games like Ingress and Pokemon Go.

The project is sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is no stranger to using competitions to test out models for group dynamics. In 2009, they ran the DARPA Network Challenge as a competition to locate ten red balloons located across the country. Player data for Daedalus will remain anonymous, with survey and other data collected through the project anonymized and associated with a unique identifier for use in the research.

It will be interesting to see what emerges from Daedalus from the research standpoint. It will also be a novel experience for participants to get paid to play an alternate reality game – and it’s not too late to make a play for the grand reward. The team is still in the process of recruiting their third cohort for the experience. Registration is limited to participants who are US Citizens or Permanent Residents who are 18 years or older, fluent in English, and have access to a cellphone. However, you don’t have to live in Boston or assemble the full team yourself to participate: the game’s sign-up form implies that researchers may help form teams for prospective players who haven’t assembled a full team.

As appealing as the research element of Deadalus sounds, the most alluring element in the teaser trailer is what almost sounds like a warning from the game’s artificial intelligence: “it sounds simple, but in this puzzle not everything is what it appears to be. So you must be clever, and work together.” To find out what that means, head over to the game’s sign-up page to get started – but don’t take too long, as Daedalus will be wrapping up at the end of September.

Thanks to Room Escape Artist for directing this game to our attention.

Bunker Buddies at the Wildrence, with Broken Ghost Immersives

Note: ARGNet received a comped ticket for this show.

Fifteen people huddled together in the Bunker, arranged in a rough circle of couches and chairs. The room itself was a pastiche of Cold War era kitsch, just big enough to fit our group, but small enough to feel a little cramped. The Nostalgia Electrics refrigerator was fully stocked with beverages of the alcoholic and non-alcoholic variety, and the kitchenette was stocked with all the essential cooking implements, hanging from the wall. Near the couch, a chess set was prominently displayed near period magazines to help us while away the time in a makeshift living room space. On the other side of the room, a small crafting table was positioned to give the group space for tinkering with the odd bits and bobs we found. The only signs of real modernity in the room: a handful of tablets strewn around the room, and a laptop propped up in the corner, broadcasting security cam-style footage of the room to our Artificial Intelligence-based overseer, De-Bunk. The apocalypse arrived, and this would be our home for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, that foreseeable future was severely limited by dwindling food supplies and a malfunctioning life support system.

This is the scenario that Broken Ghost Immersive’s The Bunker thrusts its players into at Wildrence, a basement events space in lower Manhattan. A loose collective of individuals, met with the challenge of surviving in a post-apocalyptic hellscape with only their wits, a few rolls of duct tape, and a supply of Twinkies. The roughly 2 hour long show is a bit of a hybrid experience: while it combines elements of a number of immersive styles of play, at its core the experience feels like an intimate parlor LARP, where players’ decisions help them learn about the world they find themselves in as they struggle to survive. Routes to survival might involve using tablet devices to negotiate with residents of other nearby bunkers, donning hazmat suits to explore the wastelands to search for supplies and interact more directly with neighbors, and use those supplies to craft items useful for the bunker’s residents. While there is a set narrative underpinning the entire post-apocalyptic scenario, player choice dictates what elements of that story any given show (or player within that show) might encounter.

The Bunker: A Game of Resource Management
Bunker resources are represented through a series of cards that can either be found through exploratory missions into the wasteland, or created by playing a mini-game to combine items at the crafting station. And over The Bunker‘s seven “day” narrative, carefully managing those resources is essential to survival. Every day, players must “consume” one food card, or run the risk of dying right there, on the spot. Satisfying that need is a constant weight hanging over the bunker, with the very real threat of death looming at every turn. Additional cards can be spent at the crafting table to obtain items necessary for short-term and long-term survival, both for the expeditionary forces and the bunker at large. And along with limited resources comes challenges with distribution. Some resources might be pooled for group consumption, while others get held back to ensure individual survival.

The biggest resource for players to manage, however, is time. As with many megagames, how players choose to spend their time is a much more valuable resource than the cards themselves. This isn’t a game where players can get by focusing exclusively on one element of gameplay, as each element informs the others.  Players chatting with other bunkers might unlock new abilities for players tackling the crafting table, while players going out on expeditions might come across information that changes what players negotiating with other bunkers discuss. To encourage players towards a more well-rounded play experience, the game has “nudges” built in that require switching around tasks on a fairly frequent basis. Expedition members might become afflicted with wounds, ailments, and mutations as a result of their journeys, forcing them to be temporarily bunker-bound, while some bunkers may become so hostile that further communications become pointless. Other “nudges” were more direct, as an Achievement Book would dole out cards as rewards to players who helped the team reach set milestones of exploration, crafting, and experimentation.

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A Return to Puzzlecraft, Just in Time for Gen Con

Starting in 2004, puzzle designers Mike Selinker and Thomas Snyder wrote a column on puzzle design for Games Magazine called “Puzzlecraft”. In 2013, the pair condensed a decade of commentary and learnings from the column into a book, the ambitiously titled Puzzlecraft: The Ultimate Guide on How to Construct Every Kind of Puzzle. The book was intended to serve as a resource for aspiring puzzlemakers, passing down guidelines for designing elegant puzzles. As Selinker explains in the book’s introduction, “Whether you’re making puzzles to publish online or befuddle your family or educate your students, you should find what you need [in Puzzlecraft]. If you master everything we talk about, you’ll be on your way to being a puzzlemaker.” The spiral-bound book’s 192 pages lived up to that promise, detailing over 70 different puzzle variations through solvable examples of each type, guidelines to help new puzzlemakers construct those puzzles, and offering italicized hints and color commentary along the way. The only problem was, when you sell a book of puzzles to fans of the genre, they’re going to write in the books. So when Puzzlecraft‘s limited print run was exhausted, obtaining a used copy became a costly endeavor. When Puzzlecraft was initially released, it retailed for $9.99. When I finally got my hands on a copy on the used books market, I ended up spending $65.

No one has to pay that much for puzzling wisdom again, since Lone Shark Games just announced the book’s return, on the eve of Gen Con 2018. The new version of Puzzlecraft has been updated to feature a new forward by Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me‘s Peter Sagal and over 20 new puzzle types, with a focus on ARG-adjacent puzzle types like interactive fiction, escape rooms, puzzle rallies, and videogame puzzles. The alternate reality gaming section of the book has also received an update, adding a miniature alternate reality game to the book. As one of the book’s italicized flavortext hints reads,

To build our ARG, first we had to figure out how a book could become a springboard for an ARG puzzle. Once we had that, we came up with the parts necessary to make that work. I’d tell you more, but This Is Not A Game.

When reached for comment, Puzzlecraft developer Gaby Weidling cryptically responded, “all I’ll say is that it’s our smallest ARG ever!”Puzzlecraft is available for pre-order at the Lone Shark Games store for $29.95 for the book, or $15 for the PDF. And if you’re reading this article after August 15th, you should absolutely do that. Otherwise, there’s an even better option.

To celebrate the book’s release and support the Girls Make Games and Girls Who Code charities, Lone Shark Games partnered with a collection of game designer friends to release the Game Design & Puzzlecraft Humble Bundle, a series of game design books. For $8, aspiring puzzle fans can have a Humble Bundle exclusive edition of the newly expanded Puzzlecraft, along with 10 other books that provide different perspectives on game design like . For $15, newly released “DLC”editions of Puzzlecraft and The Kobold Guide to Board Game Design are unlocked. For Puzzlecraft, the DLC takes the form of a 400 page digital tome of Selinker and Snyder’s first drafts of Puzzlecraft articles for Games Magazine that served as inspiration for the reference book. For The Kobold Guide to Board Game Design, readers are treated to a sneak preview of the book’s 2019 update, featuring essays from Bruno Faidutti, Chad Brown, and Mike Selinker. The Humble Bundle also comes with a 20% off coupon for the Lone Shark Games Store, in case a print copy of the book is what you’re looking for.

If only for its skill at exposing readers to the depth and variety of puzzle types available, Puzzlecraft is an essential text for puzzle solvers and makers alike, and the book’s re-release has made that recommendation an accessible one, at a price that’s hard to beat. Now about that embedded alternate reality game…

To get started, check out the Game Design & Puzzlecraft Humble Bundle for downloadable copies of Puzzlecraft, and the Lone Shark Games store to pre-order its print release. The full list of books included in the Humble Bundle are included below.

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Hybrid LARPs as Immersive Primer: On Dragon Thrones and the Blockbuster Renaissance

All images courtesy of Allison Kern Photography

Magic appears to have left the realm of Cambria, and many of its inhabitants, human and non-human alike, are struggling to cope with its unexpected absence. A scourge of the undead emerged throughout the land, and the machinations of the inscrutable “Godfather” appears to be spreading strife among the Houses of the realm. This is the situation that greeted the players of Game Theatre’s Dragon Thrones 3: Exodus Magi upon arrival at Bryn Mawr College for a long weekend of hybrid gameplay, mixing megagames, blockbuster LARP, tabletop gaming, and puzzle-solving into a hybrid event that served as a surprisingly effective primer to different corners of the broader immersive play space. Individual players were free to pursue whatever narrative or immersive hooks struck their fancy, while their Houses as a collective benefited from members stretching out of their comfort zones into all the different features the game had to offer.

Explaining what Dragon Thrones offered its players requires a step back to examine its component parts, before understanding how those parts fit together to make a broader story. What follows is an introduction to a number of different flavors of immersive play, as told through the magical lens of Dragon Thrones.

Megagames: These Rules Subject to Negotiation
House Wyndon’s Fortress of Sadathea was taken over by an army of the undead, and troops were falling to the horde en masse in an effort to regain control of Wyndon’s seat of power. Things were looking dire for the beleaguered nation-state, until the King of Ardmore completed an arcane ritual that enabled him to ascend to literal godhood, transforming into Lord Lucent of the Light. With his divine blessing on the battlefield, previously slain troops were brought back to light, and the undead forces were routed.

Most traditional board games don’t include mechanics that let its players ascend to godhood as a literal deus ex machina, and doing so would generally be considered a game-breaking mechanic. But megagames are the board gaming equivalent of the classic improv game “yes, and” – while megagames have a core set of rules, gamemasters known as the “Control” exist to give players the flexibility to find creative solutions outside the pre-defined rules without breaking the experience. In the case of Dragon Thrones, every faction was gifted with a single source of untapped potential – in the case of Ardmore, that source was Ardmore’s Dragon Throne, a throne constructed out of the corpse of an elder dragon. The King of Ardmore would approach the Game Theatre team embedded into the story as characters with his plan, and they would in turn impose costs to enact that plan, and describe what form the results of that plan would have on the megagame itself.

While the King of Ardmore’s deification is an extreme example, this flexible ruleset is as an integral a function of megagames as the large team sizes that make separating fact from fiction a practical impossibility. At PAX Unplugged 2017, Ironmark Games ran The World Turned Upside Down, a “short” four hour megagame themed around the American Revolution. Players were assigned roles as famous figures from the fledgling American states or the British Empire, and lobbied for dominance through legislative finesse, military might, and a deft hand at espionage. I played as a British spy, where the two teams had the opportunity to steal resources from each other through a card game. As the evening progressed, it became clear that things were not going well for the British, and the spies collectively planned to embezzle resources and retire wealthy to the Bahamas. We approached Control with our plan, and they set a fee of how many resources we’d need to collect to enact this plan. This type of “last turn madness” is so common for the genre that a podcast dedicated to the space adopted the term as its name.

But while traditional megagames typically use in-game currency and resources as the coin to power “rule-breaking” moves, Dragon Thrones’ biggest moves were powered by investments in time, through the live-action role playing game and puzzle elements.

Live Action Role Playing: A Flavor for Every Player
One of Helfarian’s diplomats called me over. With magic gone, Helfarian’s Iron Drakes were unable to fly due to the heavy weight of their construction. In exchange for sharing the findings of the research, Wyndon offered up access to their wyverns for study, along with access to their wyvern handlers. As Helfarian’s engineer, I was called over to seal the deal and develop a plan of action for redeploying the engines of war. Since I was also serving as Master of Coin for the House in charge of managing Helfaria’s progression along the various megagaming skill trees, I diverted funds to the development of this special unit and provided our General with a new force to bring to bear on the battlefield.

Since LARPs have the potential to leave players both physically and emotionally vulnerable, signing up for Dragon Thrones starts with an introductory call to feel out what players are looking for in an experience, as well as gauging whether they might play nicely with others. Using that information, every player is assigned a character and backstory to better fit into the world. In the world of Cambria, I was given the role of the engineer Nikol Bellum of House Helfaria, and provided with two pages of backstory explaining how I came to find a place in my Kingdom and my personal goals for the weekend, along with what I knew about the other members of other players pre-Cambrian Summit, along with skeins of plot threads that could potentially drive collaboration and conflict. These character descriptions were delivered weeks in advance, giving players the opportunity to negotiate tweaks and modifications to create the character they wanted to play for the long weekend.

Every House had a member of the Game Theatre team embedded as both character and gamemaster, serving as an in-world concierge to guide players through the various challenges, and to check in to ensure players were enjoying themselves along the way. Dragon Thrones is a salon-style LARP, focused on creating and encouraging interactions between players unlike the more combat-focused boffer LARP format. So while many characters brought foam weapons as part of their costuming, players could not use them against each other directly. Instead, the focus was on role-playing through relationships and court intrigue, complemented with questing for the more action-packed tasks, which took a variety of forms.

Lizard and Flower, a pair of fairies idling in the Bryn Mawr courtyard served as quest-givers for many of the more exploratory quests of Dragon Thrones, guiding groups of players through some of the campus’ more iconic locations to help players tackle some of the more global challenges of the game, like the recovery of magic through collecting physical orbs and cornerstones of magic that contained power to influence the world of Cambria, either through the megagame or more personal pursuits. For one particularly memorable moment, I joined a group of players in translating a shroud through an impromptu theatrical performance recounting a tale from the two fairies’ pasts. Teas, hand-fasting ceremonies, and live performances from dancers and magicians also served to create the 360 degree illusion of being immersed in the world of Cambria for those who wanted to evoke that sense of realism. And while Dragon Thrones is not a boffer LARP, lessons in foam weapon combat were provided, culminating in a boffer tourney to whet the appetites of the more combat-inclined.

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Jack Torrance Leads Players Through a Dance Macabre

In a recent interview with the immersive entertainment podcast No Proscenium, Sean Stewart (one of the co-creators of the alternate reality gaming genre as we know it) described alternate reality games as a dance. “In ballroom [dance], they used to say, and forgive the gendered reference, the gentleman proposes the step, the lady decides whether or not to accept. And I think increasingly, entertainment is moving into a world in which as creators we propose the step, but it is a dance. And you can’t do it if they don’t want to come along.” While alternate reality games will typically have creator-driven narratives, one of the most exciting parts of the genre is when creators carve out spaces for their audiences to dance, even if that leads in unexpected directions. And over the past few weeks, found footage horror channel Jack Torrance and horror-centric YouTube theorist Nick Nocturne went on one hell of a dance.

Meet the Dance Partners
Back in 2011, the YouTube channel Jack Torrance purportedly purchased 10 boxes of old footage and vintage records at an estate sale held in a barn just outside of Austin, Texas. The channel gradually started uploading videos, restoring Super 8 and VHS tapes for digital consumption. The found footage was a melange of short clips of Ouija boards, mannequins, and dessicated hands juxtaposed against more sedate scenes of daily life like a child playing or a girl applying makeup. Two years ago, the found footage was replaced with a series of four “modern” videos of someone exploring a house containing some of the items featuring in previous videos before switching back to found footage again.

At the time, Nick Nocturne had been running the YouTube channel Night Mind for almost a year, analyzing and summarizing online horror experiences like Marble HornetsUnedited Footage of a Bear, and Alantutorial. Nocturne’s videos specialized in condensing sprawling experiences into more easily digestible forms, all through the lens of his four-eyed interdimensional cat persona. Night Mind ran a feature breaking down the series and its cinematography in conjunction with Nyx Fears.

Soon after the video aired, Jack Torrance went dark for two years. During its first five years of operation, Jack Torrance was an experience to consume and theorize about, with little to no direct interaction between uploader and audience. Viewers could theorize about what the footage might mean, but the channel was deathly silent. The only clue: in the descriptions of one of the channel’s final videos, the phrase “help” was spliced into the copy of the video description.

Invitation to Dance: The Return of Jack Torrance
Two weeks ago, Jack Torrance returned to YouTube with a livestreamed video titled “Find me”. In a video response, Nocturne explained that he interpreted that title as a challenge to the players to find the mysterious uploader, and that he was up for the channel. In addition to the response video itself, Nocturne left the following comment on the “Find me” video, which quickly rose to the most upvoted comment on the video:

If you want to be found, very well–I’m calling your bluff.

Make me come to Texas and I’ll track you down.

Nocturne received his response in the next video upload, with a corrupted message embedded in the video description answering “it is calling will you answer”. Interpreting this as an invitation to dance, Nocturne planned a trip out to Austin, Texas to hunt down the mysterious uploader and whatever supernatural force might be involved.

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Reassembling Einstein’s Brain By Post – The Gray Matter Sodality

When Albert Einstein died in 1955, New England pathologist Thomas Harvey removed the noted physicist’s brain without asking the family permission. Upon learning of the theft, Einstein’s son Hans Albert gave Harvey permission to keep the brain as long as it was used for scientific research. Over the next few months, Harvey carefully preserved, sectioned, and mounted the brain on thousands of slides, with chunks of the brain periodically getting sent off to researchers around the world from its new home under a beer cooler. Slivers of Einstein’s brain are currently on display at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. As unbelievable as it might seem, this is all true.

This is where the Gray Matter Sodality comes in. The secret society is looking to reassemble the scattered pieces of Einstein’s brain for unknown purposes…and they could use your help.

A Subscription Service for Hunting Brain Fragments
The Gray Matter Sodality is a narrative puzzle experience put on by Traipse, with monthly mailings introducing subscribers to their new role as Inquisitors with the organization, chasing down clues to the locations of Einstein’s brain for subsequent reclamation by specialized teams. Every mission comes with a letter from Gray Matter Sodality Executive Director Artemis Shoal introducing the month’s assignment, along with physical artifacts useful in locating the next fragment. Typically, solutions are a word or phrase appended to the GMSodality.org website, with the GMSodality.org/solution telling investigators the results of their sleuthing efforts.

The puzzles are self-contained, although there are hints of a larger meta-puzzle in the three mailings I received as a preview of the experience.

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