Your friend Sam is missing. She had recently started taking walks through the misty woods beyond a cabin on the outskirts of the forest, to clear her head. But recently, she’s been different. Even more withdrawn and distant, yes…but also, something more. You discover her backpack and her deck of tarot cards at the edge of the woods, and approach the cabin for help. Locals call it the Witch House, but you suspect you’ll need the old woman’s help. Because some people claim the woods are haunted, and there’s a dark force lurking within the mists…
The Light in the Mist is a narrative puzzle experience created by PostCurious’ Rita Orlov and Jack Fallows that uses a tarot deck to guide readers through the story, one tarot card at a time. Every card of the Major Arcana presents players with a puzzle challenge, with clues scattered across the game’s Minor Arcana cards. Every solution unlocks snippets of Sam’s memories. These vignettes allow players to gradually piece together the secrets that led to Sam’s disappearance, and assemble the pieces needed to hopefully get her back.
The game’s Kickstarter campaign (which runs until Tuesday, October 19th) fully funded in two hours, so if you’re already won over, you can pre-order the game now for as little as $32, plus shipping. If you’re still not sure if you’re ready to plunge into the misty woods, read on to learn more about what hides beyond the mist.
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.
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 PBHerebegins 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.