Category: Features (page 1 of 31)

PBHere For You: An Animated Escape

In October 2020, the TikTok channel PBHere started posting videos from inside a seemingly abandoned facility. Over the next few months, player suggestions helped guide the alternate reality game’s amnesic protagonist to learn more about why they were locked in a room there to begin with, and how to escape. Over the series’ 31-episode run, PBHere told a remarkably succinct standalone narrative driven by audience interactions, that attracted over 1 million subscribers and 60 million views…as expressed through over 16 minutes of 3D animation by series creator yatoimtop.

One of the things that made PBHere so special was its ability to seamlessly create a project that felt highly interactive, while operating within considerable constraints in both time and resources as an animated TikTok adventure. And the game’s opening escape room challenge provides a perfect illustration of that balance.

Escape the Room: Stranded PBHere With No Memories
PBHere begins with video of a person trapped in a room talking to his cellphone with no memory of who he is, why he’s there, or even how long he’s been stuck there. A quick camera pan shows the room is sparsely decorated: there’s nothing in the room other than a bed, a chair, security cameras, and a keypad-locked door with a meal slot.

Since the letters “PB” were embroidered on the jacket, players quickly took to referring to their reluctant protagonist as PB. Over the next few videos, PBHere lays out the rules for interaction through PB’s video responses: first, by snarkily responding to a video comment of “hello”, before responding to a question asking if he remembered anything at all. In the next installment, PB explored the room in response to player feedback, confirming that the suggestions were good, but ultimately resulted in dead ends.

PB even followed up on the significantly more violent recommendation of throwing a chair against the window. After the chair breaks in pieces on impact PB quips, “well it was a good idea, it was just a flimsy chair. And also my only chair.” Within the sparse environment, PBHere established the rules for the game. The game responds directly to player input, that player input could range from open questions to recommended actions, and that those actions can have negative consequences.

Having set those ground rules, players proceeded to tackle the puzzle at hand: after more closely inspecting the keypad itself, players noticed that four digits were more worn out than the rest: 0, 2, 4, and 8. And when PB passed his cellphone through the door’s slot to get a better look at the hallway, eagle-eyed viewers noticed that a series of musical notes were etched into the ledge under the door’s windowpane. The notes spelled out ‘CECFD’ – in order to play those notes on the keypad PB had to type 80824, unlocking the door…before stumbling across a slumped body in a hazmat suit just around the corner from PB’s holding cell.

PBHere‘s initial locked room served as both tutorial mission for players, as well as an illustration of the types of gameplay to expect out of the experience. But as the door unlocked, both scope of experience and scope of gameplay expanded.

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Diving Into Thickett to Re-Right Grimm Tales

Long ago, in a world very different than ours, a princess convinced God and Death to write a book with the answers of how to live a perfect life. In response, the pair gave her The Book of Turns, a collection of stories providing guidance on how to live well. But after the princess spread pages of the story through the land, the stories changed, stripping away the moral lessons that gave them their power. To fix matters, the princess founded THICKETT: an organization dedicated to dive into the tales, and rewrite the wrongs.

In Cirque du Nuit‘s serial immersive production Thickett, players join one of three departments tasked with re-assembling The Book of Turns through a combination of immersive theater, puzzle-solving, and exploration. Each installment of the game’s six chapter run is intended to function as a stand-alone “Quest” exploring a different theme, with a new 90-minute episode coming out on Fridays and Saturdays every two weeks. The second installment goes live later this week, on November 27th and 28th.

A Glance Beyond the Thickett Fence: Anatomy of a Quest
When prospective players sign up to participate in a Thickett Quest, they are asked to fill out an intake form to get sorted into the appropriate department as a “Seeker”. Once accepted, they are provided with their department, an employee identification number, and login credentials to a departmental-specific resource page with an “Employee Handbook”, providing the in-game and out-of-game rules for the experience, as well as a link to the game’s optional Discord server.

Players started out on a Zoom call with Thickett corporate, before splitting out into departmental breakout rooms to be briefed on the department’s objectives for the mission. The Department of Foxes encourages the use of cunning to advance their personal agendas, the Department of Rabbits are focused on helping others and cultivating friendships, and the Department of Ravens is dedicated to the dogged pursuit of truth. After undergoing a brief onboarding and initiation process, players are thrust into the game world to immerse themselves in the Quest’s theme, before returning to Departmental breakout rooms to compete for the best re-write of the underlying folktale.

Episode 1 thrust players into the story of Godfather Death, although the corrupted tale players were presented with omitted a key element of the tale that stripped it of its morality. However, scattered throughout the world were hints of other Grimm tales, ranging from modern classics like Cinderella to lesser-known tales like The Brave Little Tailor. Each faction had separate objectives to achieve in the world, although the mechanisms were the same: find ways to assist the various non-player characters inhabiting the world, and unlock more chances to alter sections of Godfather Death. As THICKETT CEO, the Princess would go on to select one version of the story to re-write (and hopefully, re-right) the narrative.

Topia: The Heart of Thickett’s Multi-Player Point and Click Adventure
The bulk of Thickett takes place on Topia, a video chat platform layered on top of a point-and-click virtual world: audiovisual feeds from other players and NPCs only come into view when your digital avatar is nearby, and gradually fade away as your avatar walks away.

Thickett‘s world is littered with a handful of clickable items: some items expand to display images or videos, while others are portals that transport players to other sections of the realm. In the first episode, there was even a portal with restricted access: directly entering the location could only be accomplished by talking to the right NPC and getting express permission to enter.

And while players didn’t assume the roles of characters when entering Thickett for the most part: functionally, gameplay resembled other NPC-forward Larp-adjacent experiences like Evermore Park and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. While characters were happy to respond to more active roleplaying when players sought it out, their primary role was sending players out on quests, challenging them to games and diversions, and providing helpful information to arm players for their upcoming revisions.

This spatially-aware system for interacting with the world was incredibly effective at creating a sense of presence in the world, in part due to the resonance of the visuals. Topia’s minimalistic art style plays particularly well with Thickett‘s fairy tale theming, evoking nostalgic memories of EH Shepard’s illustrations of Winnie the Pooh‘s Hundred Acre Wood.

Topia (and Gather, its 16-bit competitor in the spatially aware video chat space) are a powerful tool for creators looking to simulate the joy of exploration and serendipity that lies at the heart of many location-specific immersive theater and Larp productions. While platforms like VRChat, Minecraft, and even Second Life have delivered more sophisticated avatar-mediated virtual spaces, there’s something viscerally satisfying about turning a corner and gradually seeing a human face coming into view.

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A Spoiler-Free Unpacking of Neil Patrick Harris’ BoxONE


There’s an often-repeated contemporary folktale: if you try and place a frog in a boiling pot of water, it will immediately jump out. But if you place the frog into cool water and slowly turn up the temperature, it won’t notice the gradual change until the water is boiling hot. This apocryphal tale may not apply to actual frogs, but it makes for one heck of a compelling metaphor. With Neil Patrick Harris’ single-player puzzling experience BoxONE, the heat is turned up so deftly, you’ll barely notice the game’s evolution from trivia game into…well, that would be telling.

ARGs and the Slow Burn Narrative
Since alternate reality games play out in real time across platforms, ARGs will frequently throw their players into a ludo-narrative pot: start by introducing players to something that’s relatively normal and familiar, and then gradually introduce fantastic elements as the story progresses. This has the side effect of making players sound mildly unhinged when describing their experiences, since what they experienced as a slowly unfolding narrative is an abrupt shock to the system for the listener.

Lonelygirl15 started out as a teenage girl’s vlog, before evolving into a story about a death cult harvesting human blood in the quest for immortality. I Love Bees started with a beleaguered beekeeper struggling with a glitching website before turning into a story about a time-travelling artificial intelligence struggling to piece itself back together. I Am Sophie started with an out-of-touch influencer’s YouTube debut before teasing players with potentially fatal plane crashes, brainwashing video games, and murderous entities.

The indie game scene has produced projects with similar trajectories, albeit at a quicker pace: James Lantz’ Discord-powered game SmileBot may start out as a simple chatbot that measures a server’s emoji usage, into a multi-phased text adventure that’s a single player game, except for when it isn’t. Frog Fractions may start out as a childish edutainment game of arithmetic, but it hops rapidly through increasingly ridiculous genres and scenarios until the game’s sequel is launched as a secret easter egg in the game Glittermitten Grove.

Which brings us back to BoxONE: a game coyly described on its website as “an ever-evolving game of trivia, codes, puzzles, and discovery only from the mind of Neil Patrick Harris.”

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BEN Drowned, Again…and Again…and Again

Ten years ago, a college student purchased a used copy of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask from an old man at a garage sale. The blank cartridge had no label: just the word MAJORA written on it with a black permanent marker. Over the next few days, under the username Jadusable, the fate of this nameless college student unfolded through a series of posts to 4chan’s /x/ board, the anonymous message board’s home for all things paranormal.

The story of Jadusable’s haunted Majora’s Mask cartridge remains one of the most iconic examples of internet creepypasta stories, under the name BEN Drowned. One of the things that set BEN Drowned apart from its peers was its use of video game footage as evidence to support the first-person narrative of Jadusable’s explorations of an increasingly cursed cartridge, culminating in a dramatic twist when followers opened the arc’s conclusion contained within the downloadable file, TheTruth.rtf.

The Haunted Cartridge arc that concluded the initial creepypasta story was followed by The Moon Children arc, an alternate reality game that gave players direct control over the fates of a forum of cult members tangled up with the malevolent force behind the first arc. But that wasn’t the end of BEN’s story. For that, fans would have to wait almost a decade for series creator Alex Hall to bring the project back from the dead.

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Beyond the Secret Society: It’s Influencers All the Way Down

I honestly couldn’t tell you how many secret societies I’ve joined in the past decade. After going through a series of harrowing tasks, I’ve managed to accrue at least tentative membership status in secret societies like Sentry Outpost, the Jejune Institute, PLUS ULTRA, the Leap Year Society, the Gray Matter Sodality, the Koschei Society, Pizza Time Pizza (not a cult), and the Conspiracy for Good. Within the last month alone, I was initiated into the first circle of the Cipher Organization and restarted my application process for the Leap Year Society. Recently, however, there has been a surge of influencer-driven ARGs that provide a different model.

The First Rule of Fight Club Doesn’t Lend Itself to Virality
Secret societies are a bit of a trope within the alternate reality gaming space, and for good reason: investigating and infiltrating secret societies gives a diagetic excuse for locking information behind a series of puzzles and challenges. Want to know what’s really going on by joining the fictional cult? Complete the initiation ritual first, proving that you’re worthy of admittance into an elite circle. Ferreting out evidence from an evil organization operating out of a series of fronts? Find vulnerabilities in their systems, and then pore through confidential documents to find incontrovertible proof of their malfeasance.

While secret societies make a perfect narrative construct for ARGs, the trope also creates barriers to encouraging players to share the alternate reality game without stepping out of the narrative. Prospective secret society members shouldn’t proudly proclaim “I joined another secret society today” on social media – those recruitment efforts are best conveyed by surreptitiously passing notes at coffee shops, or through whispered conversations in church pews at an abandoned church. And when the organizations are evil, publicizing their crimes becomes outright dangerous, within the narrative conceit.

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The Peculiar Tale of Eroda, and the Allure of the Mystery Box

In all the seas, in all the world, there has never been a land quite like the isle of Eroda.

Starting in late November, the Eroda Tourism Board started running ads on social media inviting users to check out VisitEroda.com. Unfortunately, both website and advertisements failed to provide any information on where to find the remote island, leading a curious Twitter user to share a tweet that launched a firestorm of speculation:

After clicking on the ad, Austin was introduced to a fairly sparse description of Eroda: according to the website, Eroda was an isle comprised of four quaint fishing villages. At first glance, everything seems normal with the slightly outdated tourist page. Each village is home to its own unique guest accommodations, making it easier to visit a brief list of local businesses and attractions. But something was clearly…off about the isle of Eroda. When describing the Fisherman’s Pub, the Tourism Board warns prospective visitors “don’t mention a pig in the pub”, while the Eroda Ferry description is paired with text reminding tourists to “avoid leaving Eroda on odd numbered days.” And while describing the island’s Fishing Charters, seafarers are told that, “for extra good luck, make sure you wear one gold earring”. A peculiarly superstitious island, at best. To say nothing of the peculiar fact that Eroda is ADORE spelled backwards.

The tourist bureau’s website also seemed a little fishy. Despite actively running multi-lingual ad campaigns for Visit Eroda across its Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram profiles, the website made no mention of any of its social platforms on the website. The site also built out sponsored ad units, advertising itself. Even stranger, nothing on the site invited visitors to do anything.

And so, the internet was provided a tantalizing mystery: someone was paying money to advertise a fictional island, but didn’t give visitors any indication about what to do with that knowledge. And it blew up. At the time of this article, Austin’s initial tweet has been shared over 12K times, 84K people followed the Visit Eroda Twitter account, two thousand people followed the r/Eroda subreddit, and a thousand people joined the Eroda ARG Discord server to try and figure out what was going on.

LOST on Another Island: JJ Abrams, the Mystery Box, and the Undeniable Allure of Infinite Possibility
Over a decade ago, the internet was fixated on another mysterious island, and the numbers 4 8 15 16 23 42. LOST was halfway through its third season, and showrunner JJ Abrams gave a TED Talk on his philosophy towards storytelling, The Mystery Box. In it, he tells a story.

When Abrams was a child, he went to Lou Tannen’s magic shop in midtown New York City, and bought Tannen’s Mystery Magic Box: a $15 box (now $25) containing $50 worth of magic. To this day, Abrams has never opened the box. In the talk, he explains how the box as it stands “represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential…[and] I started to think that maybe mystery is greater than knowledge.”

A major element of Eroda’s allure in those first few days was the infinite possibility the fictional island provided. Could Eroda be a horror ARG, introducing a remote isle of superstitious townsfolk as an immersive version of The Wicker Man? Maybe…there’s enough evidence to support it. Or maybe the source material is Brigadoon, and the 2004 copyright date paired with warnings about travelling on specific dates is a sign the island is out of phase with our reality. The immersive production company Punchdrunk is working on a television show starring Jude Law where he plays a man “who is drawn to a mysterious island off the British coast and is confronted with his past as reality and fantasy become blurred.” Or maybe it could be tied to an upcoming indie game called Adore.

Thanks to Visit Eroda’s focus on introducing the setting of the fictional world, all were very real possibilities, supported by scant evidence. And so, for a time, Eroda could be everything to everyone. And that scope of infinite possibility extended to the nature of interaction with the fictional isle, as well. Was the site a puzzle to be solved? The inclusion of a page on the site that offered high resolution files of Eroda’s map in both JPG and PDF formats was curious. Or maybe this was a challenge of social engineering or role-playing to extract information…after all, whoever was behind the project was actively paying to promote those channels.

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