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?
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.
“It’s a finicky technology. Just an empty wax tube with ridges cut into it as I speak. Its grooves locking in just a shadow of my voice. And hopefully, something else. Something that’s been haunting me. In more ways than one. I daren’t say it aloud yet. This will have to be enough. A mere echo of the horrors I’ve heard. The thinnest slice of reality, tinny to reality.
Such a…hollow medium.
– Lenora Bowen, Cylinder Zero
In October 1926, Prohibition-era bartender Lenora Bowen started making a series of wax cylinder recordings. Her primary goal? To document the paranormal activity she’s facing in St Augustine, and possibly even capture proof that she’s not crazy, etched in wax.
Almost a century later, an antique steamer trunk filled with Lenora Bowen’s recordings were unearthed, along with a collection of artifacts and ephemera from the time. The trunk’s custodian, operating under the whimsically appropriate name “Soul Proprietor” (S.P. for short), has started to pore through its contents, documenting them along the way on the website Hollow Medium. S.P. was even kind enough to send some people out to California’s Midsummer Scream to display the artifacts alongside gothic fashion, horror collectibles, and props for haunted attractions. S.P. eventually plans on archiving the audio recordings, to retell Lenora’s tale – however it may end.
In case the surprise Halloween convention appearance didn’t clue you in, Hollow Medium is an upcoming podcast from Granville House Productions that will release new episodes every Sunday in October, documenting Lenora Bowen’s investigations into the paranormal. But while the podcast itself is weeks away, Hollow Medium has been rolling out a few surprises for those looking to dig deeper.
Two months ago, magician and puzzle enthusiast Chris Ramsay received a chained and padlocked filing cabinet in the mail, along with a letter from Batman’s most infamous villain, the Joker. After solving his way through the puzzle box, Ramsay uncovered a coaster featuring to the website InfiniteRabbitHoles.com. At the time, the site featured a countdown clock and sign-up form, teasing visitors with the allure of a project that would show “Gotham City like you’ve never seen”.
That project was eventually revealed to be BATMAN: The Arkham Asylum Files, a series of three narrative puzzle boxes designed to bring Gotham City to life, created by many of the team at 42 Entertainment who worked on Why So Serious, the multi-year alternate reality game leading up to the release of The Dark Knight. Their goal: to take the wonder and surprise of Why So Serious‘ expansive campaign, and create a standalone game that could be more intimately experienced at home, among family and friends. The crowdfunding campaign is running through July 22nd, with the first box promised for delivery as soon as Christmas of this year.
The Rabbit Hole Before Infinite Rabbit Holes: A Puzzle Box Shaped Homage to Why So Serious Chris Ramsay’s video solving the Joker’s puzzle box was a highly tactile experience: after unlocking the five locks keeping the filing cabinet chained up, Ramsay was able to get his hands on an additional layer of puzzles keeping him from unlocking one final box concealing his prize: a birthday cake from the Joker, resting on a coaster with the “Infinite Rabbit Holes” URL.
Ramsay’s unboxing video is a compelling video in its own right, but doubled as heartfelt homage to Why So Serious for viewers familiar with the alternate reality game, with multiple puzzles referencing key moments in the prior game. A few of the more obvious puzzle-shaped shoutouts include:
The Joker’s Ransom Note – Infinite Rabbit Holes‘ filing cabinet unboxing started with Ramsay reading out a ransom note assembled from magazine clippings: the shapes of some of these clippings were key to solving the box’s puzzle. Why So Serious‘ Halloween 2007 challenge asked players to reconstruct their own ransom note, by taking photographs of 49 locations across the United States and sending them to the Joker. A letter from the logos of each of those locations was then added to the WhySoSerious website.
Batman’s Mask – After opening the filing cabinet, Ramsay reveals a Batman mask with red-tinted lenses as reward for completing the first phase of the puzzle, as well as a key tool to solve a later puzzle. For Why So Serious‘ San Diego Comic-Con scavenger hunt, players were tasked with a series of missions (including getting dolled up in clown makeup themselves), and were rewarded for their efforts with a clown mask of their own.
Return of the Cake – One of Why So Serious‘ most memorable moments involved cake deliveries for the holidays: in December 2007, players were sent to 22 bakeries across the United States, with the instructions to ask for a pick-up for “Robin Banks”. The first player to each location received a cake, iced with instructions to call a specific number. Once dialed, the cake started ringing and the lucky recipients had to dig inside the cake to recover their new burner phone. Ramsay’s cake-themed finale might have a different message iced on top, but the experience itself is the clearest homage of the bunch, and the full video is worth watching for that moment alone.
At the time this video was uploaded, these connections seemed like the puzzle box’s creators were just ardent fans of Why So Serious, who wanted to pay homage to a fixture in immersive Batman history. However, there was one additional hint that more was going on. A few weeks prior to Ramsay’s unboxing video, Dave Cobb tweeted out a link to a curious advertisement for Infinite Rabbit Holes, printed in programs for the Thea Awards (an award show for the Themed Entertainment industry). The advertisement noted that Animal Repair Shop was involved with Infinite Rabbit Holes: a company helmed by quite a few familiar names from 42 Entertainment.
And with that, the homage transformed into a promise: key figures behind the Why So Serious alternate reality game would be returning to the Batman franchise in some capacity, more than 15 years later.
In 2017, the computer programmer Natalie Neil disappeared without a trace from the quaint town of Rock Springs, Wyoming. Despite making national news and triggering a statewide search, Natalie appeared to have vanished without a trace, and the investigation was closed. But recently, individuals close to the investigation started receiving mysterious packages in the mail, containing a USB drive with an old voicemail message from Natalie, and a personalized decks of cards.
Charlie Neil, Natalie’s sister, received a deck of cards pulled straight from Arthurian legend, featuring figures of myth and legend;
Don Horn, the detective who investigated Natalie’s disappearance before getting pulled off the case, received a deck of cards with more beastly and animalistic attributes;
Ava Whitehall, Natalie’s former boss at Whitehill Mining, received a deck with a more demonic bent.
All told, six people close to Natalie received these mysterious packages. And buried within those decks just might lie the secret behind The Disappearance of Natalie Neil, the first season of the trading card game Dinn. By following along with the investigation through Dinn‘s alternate reality game embedded into the cards players can unravel the mystery themselves, and even exert a degree of influence over the story’s progression.
Deconstructing Dinn: A Brief Overview of the Card Game On its face, Dinn is a relatively fast-paced trading card game for two players. The goal of the game is to shatter the opponent’s three heart cards by defeating their heroes. Weaker heroes may only shatter one heart when defeated, while more powerful heroes end the game upon a loss, while equipment and action cards are played to give heroes an edge in the battle.
While many trading card games rely on asynchronous gameplay where players take turns driving the action, with Dinn players make their choices simultaneously. Every round starts with both players selecting a hero, and placing them face down on the table. Both players then reveal their hero cards, before activating any abilities written on the card. The process repeats two more times for action and ability cards placed face down, before determining which hero emerges triumphant.
Themed starter decks provide pre-constructed decks that allow players to start playing immediately, while “chapter pack” expansions provide players with additional cards they can integrate into their decks to level up the gameplay experience. There are no card rarities in Dinn: buying a starter deck or expansion pack gets players all the cards in that set, similar to the model used by Fantasy Flight Games with their “Living Card Games”, where seasonal releases give players full access to the game’s card evolving card library.
The Story Behind the Cards: Dinn’s “Artificial Reality Game” The narrative framing for Dinn is that each of the six “starter decks” of cards in the game are associated with one of the key figures associated with Natalie Neil’s disappearance, and represent a facsimile of what those characters actually received. Accordingly, every starter deck has a meta-puzzle scattered across the cards that helps reveal and advance the character’s story.
For instance, solving the puzzle scattered across the cards from Charlie Neil’s “Sentient” deck of cards involved players mapping out the cards that gave a series of alphanumeric characters – adding that text string to the partial URL added to the footer of all the cards in the deck leads players to discovering Charlie’s blog, What’s Wrong with Rock Springs.
In it, Charlie notes that strange things have been happening in the town of Rock Springs for a while, and that her sister wasn’t the first to disappear. A town with a population of ~23,000 people had over 300 of their residents disappear in the last three years alone. Finally, Charlie blogs about receiving the package with her own personal deck of cards, and a USB containing a voicemail from Natalie, shortly before her disappearance. If players check out Charlie’s “Contact” page, they can register the fact that they solved the puzzle (with the first to solve celebrated for the feat on Dinn‘s website), and even vote on how the story should progress.