Owner, Senior Editor
Michael is a Director of Cultural Intelligence at Simon & Schuster, and previously worked in Strategy & Analytics at Digitas Health. He previously served as an adjunct professor at Villanova University, on the editorial board for the Health Matrix: Journal of Law-Medicine, as a senior editor of the Journal of Law, Technology & the Internet, and has published a number of articles exploring the intersection between business, communications, and the law.
After serving as a staff writer at ARGNet for three years, Michael took over as owner and senior editor in 2009.
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: 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.
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.
And after twenty years, it’s past time to highlight some of the other places ARG coverage can be found.
The Real MCU – MatPat’s Cinematic Universe Over the past fifteen years, Matthew Patrick has steadily grown his YouTube channel Game Theory into an entire ecosystem focused on ARG theories and lore breakdowns, adding Film Theory, Food Theory, and the newly created Style Theory to his coverage repertoire. While MatPat is probably best known for the dogged tenacity of consuming every piece of media ever created within the Five Nights at Freddy’s franchise to assemble a comprehensive timeline of events for the game about creepy robot jumpscares, his network of channels have covered indie and blockbuster ARGs alike.
Game Theory, Film Theory, and Food Theory regularly integrate narrative summaries and explainer videos on ARGs, and while Style Theory hasn’t gotten around to reporting on Edoc Laundry yet, MatPat has launched a series of limited edition “Quest Jackets”, using fashion as a platform for puzzling in much the same way that Solve Our Shirts has done, literally weaving puzzles into the very fabric of its design. The original fantasy-themed Quest Jacket was released in April 2022, with a sci-fi themed sequel coming soon.
The Quest Jackets aren’t MatPat’s first time working on puzzle experiences: he served as host of Push, Nevada‘s spiritual successor reality television show The Runner in July 2016, and ran a multi-week puzzle hunt that sent groups of Theorist fans down a rabbit hole learning a custom cipher text, digging through past videos for clues, and even finding hidden messages in show merch.
Recommended Viewing: The provocatively titled Game Theory video Are Theories KILLING Video Games is a remarkably nuanced look at how creator-audience dynamics can shape the direction of stories, for better and for worse
Recently, an alternate reality game called I’m looking for 3024 people released. And while 3024‘s core narrative and puzzle experiences are contained within a Steam game and the website FranksComputer.online, the puzzle that players are currently struggling through is one that plays out on the game’s Discord server: in order to hack into a remote PC, players need to button-mash 35 keys in a Discord chat at the same time, to match the pattern pictured on the screen.
Getting a single column to align with its targeted zone is fairly easy: every time a player posts a letter in a specific channel of the Discord, a pixel at the bottom of the screen hops up, for about a second. Posting it again repeats the process, so with enough practice it’s possible to find a cadence to keep the pixel in range. However, in order to complete the puzzle, players need to achieve that 35 times, simultaneously. All of a sudden, 3024‘s puzzle becomes an exercise in coordination more than anything else: scheduling a play session 35 puzzlers is the first (and possibly hardest) challenge of the game.
MIT Mystery Hunt: The Perfect Playground for Puzzles Designed for a Crowd Outside of alternate reality games, there are relatively few opportunities for people to engage in large-scale collaborative puzzle solving: in part because scheduling more than a dozen people to tackle a puzzle together can be a daunting task. The MIT Mystery Hunt is one of the notable exceptions to that rule. For over 40 years, the puzzle event has been an excuse for increasingly large teams to converge on the MIT campus for a weekend of puzzling.
2023’s Mystery Hunt was the puzzle competition’s first year back at the Cambridge campus since 2020. According to the Hunt designers, there were over 6,000 puzzlers participating across over 300 teams, and over 1,600 players were on campus for the event. Multiple teams threw over 100 players at a series of extremely difficult but wildly creative puzzles. Which raises the question:
What can puzzle designers do when they know teams will be able to throw dozens of players at a puzzle, working together at the same time?
The year is 1939. The United States of America has yet to officially enter World War II, but those who are in the know suspect that it’s only a matter of time. Particularly enterprising corners of the private sector recognize the military-industrial complex is likely to pay top dollar for technological innovations that can deliver an edge in the coming conflict. In Cambridge, two companies are leading the charge: Drosselmeyer Industries seeks to push the boundaries of science with its research in artificial intelligence, while Rattibus Labs is exploring more paranormal lines of inquiry, attempting to use mind control on Earth’s smartest creature: the noble rat.
Of course, none of this should matter at Club Drosselmeyer: the local nightclub planned a big night of music, dancing, spirited performances, and even more spirited libations to provide a needed distraction from the increasingly dire state of the world. To be sure, there’s rumors of an escaped test subject from Rattibus Labs on the loose…and a curiously strong yet naÃ¯ve man known only as “our cousin Alan” says the most curious things while wandering the nightclub floor…but none of that should be important. Not at Club Drosselmeyer.
Club Drosselmeyer is an annual immersive show by Green Door Labs that transforms the holiday classic tale of TheNutcracker into an evening at a World War II era nightclub. And while it’s possible to treat Club Drosselmeyer as a fancy night on the town with live performances and swing dance lessons, the show can go in a surprising number of directions. Fans of puzzles can help the night’s adventures unfold by solving a series of puzzles, while attendees more interested in live action role-playing can adopt a persona to interact with over a dozen character actors scheming their way through the night. Club Drosselmeyer offers up a buffet of immersive possibilities, and it’s up to each attendee to decide what balance of dancing, puzzling, and character interactions they want to chase to fill their plates for the night.
The Main Course: Picking Sides Through Puzzles with a Side of Roleplay The events of Club Drosselmeyer open as Herr Drosselmeyer receives an encoded telegram from his mentor. The message is encoded in what should be an unbreakable cipher…luckily, the artificial intelligence his company has been working on, “Project Nutcracker”, should be capable of translating the message after assembling a module from five component parts, and installing it in the Nutcracker. At the same time, Erasmus King is looking for help with his mind control experiments…some of his experiments escaped from their cages, and he needs help tracking them down.
Players interested in helping with either of these challenges were directed to check in with characters at opposite ends of the ballroom floor to receive puzzle packets to assist in the respective investigations. For instance, the Drosselmeyer puzzle track revolved around solving pen-and-paper variety puzzles to determine the names of the five components.
Just knowing the name of the component, of course, was not enough to help out. Armed with that knowledge, players could start chatting with the characters scattered throughout the event to find where those components could be found. For instance, Club Drosselmeyer host Fritz Stahlbaum was sitting on a suitcase full of one particular component. The only problem? He had a bit of a gambling problem, and owed Erasmus’ son Rhett King a sizeable chunk of money. Players would have to find a way to help him out in order to get the MacGuffin. And while some of these tasks involved the accumulation of in-game currency, others challenged players to join a character for a short dance, or collect signatures for a birthday card a character neglected to prepare for his mother.
The largely pen-and-paper puzzles would have felt right at home at a Puzzled Pint event in both variety and difficulty, and were particularly good at blending the flavor of the challenge with the puzzle’s structure and design. The puzzle that led to Fritz Stahlbaum’s first component, for instance, involved reviewing research notes from a scientist who inadvertently took faulty readings: correcting the mistake and tracking the real results would spell out the component’s name.
After assembling all five pieces of the module through a combination of puzzle-solving and character interaction, Herr Drosselmeyer guided players into a back room to confirm it was in working order. After that, players were instructed to head up to Drosselmeyer Industries’ safe to recover Project Nutcracker’s blueprints so the module could be installed properly.
Once players entered the safe, they discovered that Erasmus King arranged for the theft of Project Nutcracker’s blueprints: luckily, the rats’ irradiated paws meant that a trail of blue prints could be seen under UV light, leading players to Erasmus King…or rather, an experimental rat who mesmered Erasmus King’s body into reenacting Ratatouille. The blueprints would help the rat take control of an even more powerful body: Project Nutcracker, who was “cousin Alan” all along. Realizing what he’d done, Erasmus briefly regained control of his senses and handed off the blueprints and told the group to flee.
Everything started when Jasmine Perodine’s grandfather passed away, six months ago. While wading through heaps of old maps and newspaper clippings Jasmine stumbled across a series of four satchels marked with sigils, and felt compelled to take them home. That’s when the dreams began. Without fail, the same sequence of dreams would haunt Jasmine’s nights: four ethereal creatures, tied inextricably with the elements: one for the sky, one for the earth, one for water, and a final one for the woods. Upon waking, Jasmine would feel compelled to document those dreams: but like a being possessed, the words came out through poetry and through art…tapping into skills she didn’t know she had. That’s when she reached out to an expert in dream interpretation for assistance. That’s when she reached out to you.
Adrift is PostCurious’ latest narrative puzzle adventure, casting players in the role of expert oneirologist, unraveling puzzles embedded in poetry as a close proxy for dream interpretation to receive instructions on how to find meaning in the four artifacts left by Jasmine’s grandfather. The resulting game can be finished by experienced puzzlers in 2-3 hours and delivers one of the most physically satisfying puzzling experiences I’ve had. This, more than any other at-home puzzle game I’ve played, is an experience designed to be held and perceived.
A Satisfying Structure That Won’t Leave You Adrift There is no official starting point for Adrift: any one of the four elemental satchels can serve as the beginning of players’ investigation into the world of dreams. After selecting one of the envelopes and its corresponding satchel, players are presented with a series of three poems, a piece of artwork depicting the dream’s central elemental figure, and a physical artifact to manipulate.
Correctly “interpreting” the first poem provides information or instructions essential to solving the puzzle hidden in the second poem. Similarly, interpreting the second poem provides information or instructions that feed in to the third poem, which provides instructions on how to manipulate the round’s central artifact to reveal a fragment of a message. After properly manipulating the contents of each satchel, players unlock a message from beyond that helps explain why Jasmine has been plagued with these dreams in the first place.
Because Adrift relies on sequential puzzles within each elemental chapter, poems are clearly labeled to indicate their position in the puzzling narrative: a single sigil marks the first poem, paired sigils mark the second poem, and a ring of three sigils marks the third.
However, relying on this puzzle-centric explanation of Adrift‘s structure does the full experience a gross disservice. The poems at the center of Adrift don’t merely serve as hollow vehicles for puzzle delivery: they also paint a lyrical picture of each elemental figure’s domain as vividly as the lush artwork does. And that gradually unfolding creation myth is as compelling as the puzzle experience itself.
WARNING: while this article does not spoil any of the puzzles or surprises in Adrift, after this point the article will show one of the pieces of artwork and one of the artifacts in its unsolved state. If you would prefer to save that as a surprise for your playthrough, now would be a good time to stop reading and order Adrift.
Earlier this year, Disney Parks reserved a booth on the Show Floor at New York Comic Con to showcase Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, one of Disney World’s newest roller coasters. The resulting immersive experience Wonders of Xandar didn’t explicitly mention the Cosmic Rewind roller coaster, Guardians of the Galaxy, or even Disney Parks as an entity. And yet, it still managed to capture the essence of the Disney Parks experience by thrusting booth visitors into a less-explored corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and letting visitors explore that corner as deeply as they were willing to go.
Wonders of Xandar: A Primer on the Disney Parks Experience In May 2022, Walt Disney World added the Wonders of Xandar Pavilion to EPCOT’s selection of attractions in the Florida park. Framed to mimic the purpose of EPCOT’s other World Showcase attractions, the new pavilion existed to provide an outpost to feature a different culture: only this time, instead of highlighting the cultures and cuisines of terrestrial locations like Mexico, Norway, or Japan, Disney took its cultural exchange intergalactic by enlisting the planet Xandar to highlight their civilization in the Andromeda Galaxy that featured heavily in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie.
The Wonders of Xandar Pavilion experience is divided into two main parts: the first installment is an extended queue experience that fulfills on that promise of cultural exchange by guiding park visitors through a series of museum exhibits, video displays, and live interactions to introduce the somewhat obscure planet featured in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After navigating the queue, visitors are thrust into the themed roller-coaster experience Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, where guests team up with the MCU’s intergalactic heroes through an off-planet mission facing off against a Celestial, threatening the planet Earth.
Which brings us to New York Comic Con, five months after the EPCOT experience’s launch.
Wonders of Xandar: A Cultural Exchange Outpost Disney Parks framed their New York Comic Con presence as an extension of the EPCOT Pavilion’s mission of cultural exchange, with a suitably cryptic listing for their booth experience:
Following the recent opening of the spectacular new Wonders of Xandar Pavilion at Walt Disney World, the Xandarians have created a new outpost at New York Comic Con to learn more about Terra (or as you call it, “Earth”) and its unique culture and customs. Come meet our Xandarian Ambassadors, learn more about our galaxy, and bring a Terran artifact of your own to trade for a cosmic collectable! Presented by Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, an all new thrill-coaster at EPCOT.
Booth visitors were greeted by an Earth representative that explained how the planet Xandar set up a presence at EPCOT, and established this outpost at NYCC to learn more about Terrans, before getting shepherded to a table where a Xandarian ambassador proudly displayed the Terran artifacts they collected. The Xandarian ambassador would ask if the booth guest had any Terran artifacts they’d be willing to contribute to the growing collection, and listen with rapt attention as guests who take the bait explain the significance of their gifts. Particularly interesting gifts were added to the displays, quickly transforming the booth’s recessed displays into a collection of Terran ephemera that would rival The Little Mermaid’s own collection of gadgets and gizmos aplenty.
The guest in front of me solemnly presented the Xandarians with a used MetroCard noting how it served as an essential currency for Terran transit. The Xandarian solemnly added it to the display, intermingled with cassette tapes and video game cartridges. When it came to be my turn, I handed over a magic box filled with plastic jewels, noting it was ideal for smuggling particularly interesting finds across intergalactic borders for more personal use.
This public-facing side of the Wonders of Xandar experience put the convention experience on its head: surrounded by booths offering fans more stuff, the Wonders of Xandar booth asked visitors what they’d be willing to give up, after personally interrogating its value. And since these exchanges were conducted in public view, those trades served as its own kind of spectacle.
Wonders of Xandar: Going Beyond Cultural Exchange and Entering Xandarian Space Booth visitors curious enough to offer up an item were presented with a Galactic Credit, and invited to go around the corner and check out the Xandarian cultural outpost’s break room. After opening a nondescript door, an “off duty” Xandarian would welcome the guest to the space and invite them to use the break room’s vending machine to buy a packet of Zarg Nuts.
Inside, the Galactic Credit could be exchanged for a bag of Zarg Nuts from the break room’s intergalactic vending machine, and an “off duty” Xandarian would chat about the Xandarian comic book she was reading, The Unusually Large Man.
And for the vast majority of con-goers, this is where the experience stopped. A glimpse into a charmingly mundane corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, brought to life by small moments of interactions with Disney cast and crew that are such an integral part of the overall Parks experience.