Category: Features (page 1 of 30)

Spycraft and Sundaes with the Stranger Things ARG

Ahoy! Last July, Netflix released a teaser trailer for Stranger Things season 3…by releasing a period-appropriate commercial for Starcourt Mall, a recent addition to the town. Why worry about multi-dimensional portals to hell dimensions that might lie dormant under the town when thriving businesses like Sam Goody, Waldenbooks, and Chess King are just a stone’s throw away? The only direct reference to prior seasons of Stranger Things that appeared in the trailer was the reluctantly chipper appearance of Scoops Ahoy ice cream parlor employee Steve Harrington, forced to cover up his signature hair for the sake of American capitalism. With Scoops Ahoy featuring so prominently in early marketing for the show, it was only slightly surprising to learn that Netflix partnered with Baskin Robbins to create Scoops Ahoy pop-up locations in Burbank and Toronto to bring back a taste of the 80s for fans of the show. The fact that these pop-up shops served as the trailhead for a binge-worthy alternate reality game that mixed spycraft and ice cream? That was the real surprise.

The Rocky Road to Scoop Snoop: All Aboard the USS Butterscotch
The new season of Stranger Things premiered on July 4th, but Scoops Ahoy was open for business two days earlier – so when Buzzfeed’s Crystal Ro went to the Burbank location, Ro knew enough to be suspicious of the morse code appended to the tub of U.S.S. Butterscotch ice cream and the Russian cipher wheel innocuously placed on the plexiglass. Players extracted the password CEREBRO from the phone call and received the instructions ‘SSH 34.68.105.48 -p 1985’, but were asked to return on July 5th. Once the first episode dropped, players realized that the password to get through to the next stage of the game was the name of Dustin’s communications system.

Outside of the brief mention of CERBERO and thematic similarities, the Stranger Things ARG is something that runs in parallel with the new season of the show, so players didn’t have to binge-watch the full season before diving into the show’s companion game. However, the rest of this article will dive fairly deeply into an experience that is still available as a single-player experience, so be warned.

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Literally Give Your Heart Away on Tender This Valentine’s Day

Happy Valentine’s Day! Are you single? Interested in not being single? If so, you should consider signing up for Tender. It’s an AI-driven dating site designed to help you find your soul mate, and it almost certainly hasn’t been co-opted by vampires looking to hunt down suitably compliant blood bags at the click of a button. Just answer a few completely innocuous questions about your emotional state, loneliness levels, interests, and blood type, and Tender will procedurally generate a profile guaranteed to find you that special someone who, again, is probably not a vampire. Even if it is part of what looks to be an official Vampire: the Masquerade alternate reality game.

Let’s take a step back. In early January, a handful of established YouTubers and Twitch streamers started tweeting about their good buddy Knox coming out of the woodwork and asking them to check out this new closed beta dating site, Tender. In between jet-setting around the world, Knox released a series of puzzles on his Twitter account that led to a website, Trust No More. Posts on that site from a writer going by the pseudonym “Manchuria”  In parallel, he started receiving messages from the user “BetrayedMind1”, warning that something was amiss with Tender. Players helped Knox solve a series of puzzles left by the person, leading to a meetup at Griffith Observatory where players laid claim to a conspicuously guarded briefcase. The contents alluded to Tender’s experiments with gamification and operant conditioning to get users hooked on the website. Even more foreboding, documents allude to a secret “Regent Dashboard” known only to select employees at the company. An unidentified Tender engineer’s notes indicate the Regent Dashboard is actively manipulating its users:

Weird. The conditioning reminds me of the effects of the Toxoplasma parasite on rodents. Doesn’t completely change them. Doesn’t make them suicidal exactly. Just a subtle shift. Less afraid of open spaces. Inhibited risk judgement. Willingness to step into danger. Behavior that makes them easier to catch for predators.

Soon after, players unlocked access to the Tender Beta app, allowing them to interact with the perfectly innocuous dating site that’s probably not conditioning its users to be more trustworthy and docile. Under the guise of finding a soulmate, users are rewarded for completing “quests” with experience points, to level up. Some tasks ask players to complete basic research tasks, while others ask users to share simple fill-in-the-blanks status updates about their plans.

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How to Lose Yourself in Unknown 9’s Transmedia Sprawl

Last month, the Institute for Higher Knowledge posted a seemingly innocuous online personality test asking people to discover their true potential. That simple test serves as an entryway into the strange world of Unknown 9, an ambitious transmedia franchise from Reflector Entertainment that plans on revealing its occult mystery across television, film, video games, podcasts, novels, comic books, live events…and an alternate reality game. The prologue to Unknown 9 wrapped up with a live event hosted by the McKittrick Hotel during New York Comic Con, but the first phase was largely designed to establish the occult, conspiracy-laden setting for the storyworld. The second phase launched earlier this week, making this a perfect chance to step into the story. How you do that, though, is based on what type of experience you’re looking for.

Unknown 9: A Rolodex of Immersive Contributors
Before getting into Unknown 9 itself, it might help to take a step back and appreciate how Reflector Entertainment is telling it. The first component of the Unknown 9 universe is The IHK Enrollment Initiative, the alternate reality game that developed as the unseen figures behind the test guided players through a series of eight gated “doors” that introduced players to glimpses of the Institute’s footprint, through everything from recordings from a call-in radio show, creepypasta posts to the r/nosleep subreddit, and even a fully-playable visual novel.

As players neared the final challenges from the Institute, Terry Miles released the first episode of The Leap Year Society podcast, expanding players’ investigations into the IHK to the seemingly related “Leap Year Society”, a secret society that exists within secret societies that gathers once every four years, on the leap day. Miles previously made a name for himself on previous podcast fiction projects playing the character of investigative reporter and producer Nic Silver in TANISThe Black TapesThe Last Movie, and RABBITS. The loosely connected shows blend real-world urban legends, unsolved crimes, and conspiracy theories with supernatural events with a format that pays homage to the Serial podcast’s investigative style. Like its predecessors, The Leap Year Society podcast pairs its episode releases with additional links and files for listeners to explore, to see if they can figure things out before the show’s hosts. While The IHK Enrollment Initiative is a player-driven journey of discovery, The Leap Year Society podcast is a guided tour.

Once players completed the opened the final “door” to the IHK Enrollment Initiative, the Institute’s director Aja Robinson invited them to the LYS Induction Ceremony, an hour-long immersive theater production hosted by the McKittrick Hotel (home of Sleep No More) and directed by The Company P’s Christopher Sandberg. Sandberg is no stranger to integrating alternate reality games with immersive theater through his work at The Company P, where he was responsible for projects like the Emmy Award-winning The Truth About Marika, in addition to working on Conspiracy for Good and an ARG for Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. The initiation gave prospective inductees a taste of the society’s esoteric rituals, before a climactic attempt at otherworldly communication went pear-shaped, a prospective inductee got possessed, and the newly minted IHK members were rushed out to learn that the IHK and LYS are literally two sides to the same coin. After the fact, the IHK tried to distance themselves from the incident by removing Aja Robinson from the organization, replacing her with Chelsea Rose Lancaster as director. In her new role, Chelsea claims the supernatural events were just theatrics, and the possessed attendee merely someone who suffered an unfortunate seizure at the event.

New York Comic Con attendees also might have grabbed a preview of Unknown 9 Archives at the Dark Horse booth. The full comic, set to release in Spring 2019, follows the story of the 17th century merchant Kieran as he is introduced to the network of knowledge seekers that likely evolves into the secret societies players are tracking across platforms in the present. In addition to the comic book, Reflector revealed to Variety that a film is in development by 10 Cloverfield Lane screenwriters Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken, a television series is in the works from Heroes executive producer Tim Kring, and a novel trilogy by Layton Green. The video game component is being developed by Reflector Interactive, drawing on Reflector CEO Alexandre Amancio’s experience as a creative director on the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Combined with co-founder Guy Laliberté’s experience as one of the founders of Cirque du Soleil, Unknown 9 is bringing decades of experience to the table.

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Simulacra Games Masters Art of Puzzle Box Sales

Simulacra Games is selling a crate of 1930s era memorabilia from the early days of animation for a studio that never existed. It’s not an elaborate counterfeiting scheme, but rather an elaborate alternate reality game in a box called The Wilson Wolfe Affair. Using the diary of a studio animator as a guide, players are guided through the crate’s exquisitely crafted materials artifacts by the diary of a studio animator to uncover the mysteries behind the Wilson Wolfe cartoons.

The Kickstarter campaign for The Wilson Wolfe Affair ends December 21st at 10AM EST, and the team has already blown past all their stretch goals,  with almost a thousand backers raising over $210K in pre-orders for the experience. This level of support is particularly impressive for Simulacra Games’ first foray into the world of puzzle boxes, and can be a craftily executed promotional campaign designed to showcase the team’s skills without revealing any of the mysteries of the experience itself.

Wilson Wolfe and the Animated Series
Prior to launching their Kickstarter campaign, Simulacra Games released a series of videos that served as an introduction to Wilson Wolfe, Jinks Studio’s version of Felix the Cat. For the first two videos, Wilson Wolfe’s adventures are framed in actual animated shorts. Mad Scientist Wilson highlights a restrained Wilson Wolfe struggling against his bonds as a shadowy figure approaches, while The Spooky Salesman shows Wolfe chased down a hallway by a spectral gloved hand.

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Resistance Radio: Fighting Fascists Over Pirate Radio

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The year is 1962. It’s been 17 years since the United States surrendered to the Axis Powers after the Nazis dropped the Heisenberg Device on Washington, DC. The formerly United States of America is split with the Japanese Pacific States to the west, and the Greater Nazi Reich to the east. This is the world of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name. This is the world of Resistance Radio – a four hour long pirate radio broadcast bridging the gap between seasons of the show.

Special Delivery from the Underground

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After the war, the German company Electronica Musikanten won the contract to rebuild America’s infrastructure. In the process, they developed “Uber Fidelity Vinyl”, an evolution in high quality audio recording technology that has become the standard for music. But while the technological standards of music have improved, the cultural influences have suffered, with the Reich condemning any music influenced by gospel, jazz, blues, and R&B as “subversive”. Over the past few days, a number of perfectly innocuous mailings from Electronica Musikanten went out, containing the patriotic album Kinderliederbuch zur Charakterbildung Werkstoffe – the Children’s Songbook for Character Building.

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Upon opening up the package, everything checks out as advertised. One Kinderliederbuch zur Charakterbildung album, a flyer for a Reich Youth Music concert, and a spare needle for the record player, just in case. Nothing a government censor would think to explore any further. But if they did, they might notice instructions at the bottom of the flyer: “fold page over to make the arrows touch”. In an alternate timeline, MAD Magazine’s Al Jaffee would make the American populace intimately familiar with this type of puzzle. In The Man in the High Castle‘s timeline, fold-in artwork belongs to the Resistance.

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The secret message from Resistance Radio Headquarters points to the location of a speakeasy pop-up and concert at SXSW later this week…but that’s still just skimming the surface.

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Packed inside the Kinderliederbuch zur Charakterbildung album sleeve is a vinyl record with music from the resistance, along with a do-it-yourself kit to turn the enclosed propaganda packet into a manual record player using the enclosed needle and a quarter. One side of the record features Sam Cohen’s take on House of the Rising Sun, while the other features Sharon Van Etten’s cover of The End of the World. The call to arms: “tune in to the Resistance at ResistanceRadio.com”.

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The Puzzling Rise of the Escape Room Game

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Image of Tomb’s sarcophagus illumination puzzle. ©2015, 5 Wits Productions, Inc.  Used by permission.

The first time I visited Boston, I met up with a group of friends and broke into an ancient Egyptian burial chamber. The tomb’s resident pharaoh was not exceptionally happy about our flagrant act of trespass, and forced our group of amateur archaeologists to solve a series of puzzles before barely escaping with our lives.

The rooms in the tomb were designed with a family-friendly audience in mind, and our guide throughout the experience embraced his role with an exuberant gusto I had only seen before from a skipper on Disney’s Jungle Cruise. The experience managed to make even familiar puzzles feel extraordinary: no matter how many times you’ve solved Tower of Hanoi puzzles in the comfort of your own home, it’s a completely different experience when you’re passing oversized pieces across the room while the ceiling is slowly crashing down overhead.

When 5 Wits‘ puzzle adventure Tomb set up shop in Boston in 2004, it was something of a rarity. The interactive exhibit mixed theatrics with physical puzzles to make its guests feel like swashbuckling adventurers narrowly escaping danger thanks to their collective intelligence. And the design was flexible enough to reward that success, allowing for multiple endings based on groups’  performance. While the original location is now closed, the 5-Wits moved Tomb to Tennessee, launching additional puzzle experiences in Washington DC, Massachusetts, and New York covering themes ranging from undersea exploration to espionage. Over the past decade, this type of immersive puzzle experience has expanded exponentially, with hundreds of locations putting down roots across the globe. For many, visiting the nearest real-life escape room is a day-trip away.

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