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.
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 naïve 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.
Love, Actually the classic Christmas movie was released almost 20 years ago, so the cinematic statute of limitations on spoilers has expired long ago. Hugh Grants’ iconic dance through No. 10 Downing Street has already been enshrined as one of the greatest dances in movie history (a sentiment shared by everyone except Hugh Grant himself), and Andrew Lincoln’s equally memorable cue card fueled love confession is practically a holiday staple for Saturday Night Live, with both Pete Davidson and Kate McKinnon stepping into the role. But that’s not the Love, Actually this article plans on spoiling. That honor goes to the 2022 MIT Mystery Hunt puzzle named Love, Actually, which provides a perfect illustration of how puzzle hunts construct their challenges to serve as a love letter to their source material.
And the craziest part? The source material Love, Actually the puzzle is celebrating isn’t even Love, Actually the movie – instead, it’s a puzzle-filled homage to Dropout’s trivia game show Um, Actually.
Introduction to the Mystery Hunt: On Meta-Puzzles and Reading Into Things Since the 1980s, passionate puzzlers have made the trek to Cambridge, Massachusetts to compete in the annual MIT Mystery Hunt – a weekend long puzzling competition where teams of aspiring solvers tackle hundreds of extremely difficult puzzles in an attempt to win a special coin, and the privilege of designing the next year’s hunt. The puzzles are tied together with a loose narrative justification, and solving special puzzles known as “meta-puzzles” unlocks more of the story.
Meta-puzzles are one of the defining features of puzzle hunt events like the MIT Mystery Hunt, and provide narrative structure for the events. ARGNet’s coverage of the 2016 Mystery Hunt focused on that element of puzzle design. For that year’s Hunt, players realized they were participants in an Inception-inspired coin heist who got lost in the dream and forgot about their involvement. Meta-puzzles were designed to help identify the right way to wake up from the dream, and finish the score of a lifetime. Other years were inspired by everything from Inside Out to musical theater.
This year’s Mystery Hunt was created by Palindrome, and themed around books: at the start of the hunt, players learn that MIT’s Hayden Library disappeared, only to be replaced by a literal tornado of book-themed puzzles. The first round of puzzles acts as an initial round of investigation, revealing the source of the anomaly through the first meta-puzzle: IT’S A PLOT HOLE. Upon entering the plot hole, teams enter Bookspace, and need to figure out what caused the plot hole A VORACIOUS BOOKWYRM RUN AMOK, how to stop it FEED IT A NEW BERRY, and then navigate through a series of genre-inspired lands to construct a Plot Device capable of sending them back home, by BOOK(ING) PASSAGE HOME WITH LITCOIN. Each of these answers and more were found by completing meta-puzzles that drew upon the solutions from a host of individual puzzles.
Mystery Hunt Puzzles: The First Step is Finding the Puzzle While meta-puzzles are at the core of the Mystery Hunt experience from a narrative perspective, individual puzzle design also tends to be somewhat unique for puzzle hunts like the Mystery Hunt. Traditional puzzles will typically present a familiar ruleset, and ask solvers to puzzle out a solution given limited information. Sudoku puzzles give aspiring solvers a 9×9 grid, and ask players to follow a series of familiar rules to fill in the blanks with numbers. Crosswords give players a larger grid of black and white squares, and ask solvers to do the same with letters. For the most part, the challenge for Sudoku and crossword puzzles isn’t figuring out how to learn the rules of the format: instead, the challenge comes in creatively applying those rules to each new grid.
For puzzle hunt style puzzles, solvers go in knowing they’re looking for a single word, phrase, or even emoji as the solution to the puzzle…but they won’t necessarily know what type of puzzle they’re being asked to solve until investigating further. For instance, Please Prove You Are Human was a puzzle from the 2022 Hunt disguised as a series of CAPTCHA tests. Where the Wild Things Are, another puzzle from this year’s hunt, mailed players a coloring book to complete. Meanwhile, The Salt-N-Pepa Diner presented solvers with a virtual jukebox that almost exclusively played Tom Jones’ What’s New Pussycat, no matter what the song listing said it should play.
Solving Mystery Hunt Puzzles: Breaking Down Puzzles with ISIS Puzzle hunt puzzles can take almost any form, but one of the most common puzzle types involves asking solvers to immerse themselves in a niche community or subject matter, and apply the ISIS process to use what they learn to find the puzzle and extract an answer from it. Those steps include:
(I)DENTIFICATION – When puzzles present solvers with a wealth of information, identify everything contained within it. If there’s a series of crossword clues, solve them. If there’s a series of pictures, write down what they are. If the puzzle is referencing an online trivia show, learn everything you can about it;
(S)ORTING – Once everything has been identified, try and figure out if there’s a specific order for that information that makes sense.
(I)NDEXING – Once you’ve found the appropriate order for the information, try and find the right way to extract information from it. Does the first letter of every word spell something out?
(S)OLVING – Put together the information you got from indexing, and use it to solve the puzzle!
Because ISIS puzzles are so focused on immersing solvers in often unfamiliar subjects, the format often serves as an homage to the subject matter at the center of the puzzle, giving team members already obsessed with the subject matter a chance to deeply engage with the source material on another level, while introducing the rest of the team to what makes the work so special. A Blaseball puzzle might explore the chaotic plotlines of a fantasy baseball league that regularly sends its players to astral planes, while a puzzle themed around Harold and the Purple Crayon might revel in bringing color into fantastical settings.
Swamp Motel’s three-part immersive sleuthing mystery Isklander is an ambitious remote experience that sends its players on a supernatural adventure, untangling the tendrils of a centuries-old secret society with the fate of the world on the line. But the entry point for the experience starts with surprisingly modest beginnings: players are invited to a meeting of the Plymouth Point Residents Watch, where a sweet older woman is worried that she hasn’t seen one of the neighbors in a while. It’s hard to overstate how charming this gradual entry into the world of Isklander is, and that reason alone would be enough to check out the show before its run concludes at the end of January.
It’s a particularly worthwhile experience for fans of alternate reality games, as it offers a fascinating example of how ARGs’ traditionally open-ended experience can be translated into a timed and ticketed event.
Breaking Down the Isklander Experience The full Isklander experience plays out across three parts, with rapidly escalating stakes. In Plymouth Point (Part 1), the adventure begins with an investigation into the disappearance of Ivy Isklander, starting with a meeting of the local neighborhood watch for the apartment complex. The Mermaid’s Tongue (Part 2) starts pushing the narrative into supernatural territory in the hunt for an ancient artifact…that starts out in an online drawing class. The story wraps up in The Kindling Hour (Part 3), setting players in a head-to-head battle against a powerful organization…through a trial membership to an Equestrian Club.
These pretexts to enter the world of Isklander carry through the experience, leading to a customized video chat platform that serves as the experiential hub.While this initial website serves as a central collaborative platform, the full experience takes players on a journey across websites, social media platforms, and more to gather the intel needed to progress through each installment’s central mystery, serving as digital assistants to Isklander‘s various protagonists as the plot inexorably progresses to a climactic finish, with twists and turns to subvert players’ expectations. Narrative milestones are often rewarded with cinematic interludes that take full advantage of the show’s cast, including Lord of the Rings and LOST veteran Dominic Monaghan.
While the narrative of Isklander takes quite a few twists and turns, the experience itself is fairly linear. Solving each successive challenge unlocks the next one. For players who treat Isklander like a typical escape room, it’s possible to blow through the various puzzle challenges fairly quickly, and get pleasantly surprised by the shocking conclusions to each installment. However, the real joy of playing through Isklander is treating it like an interactive mystery novel, taking the time to chew over the narrative crumbs left behind to figure out the various twists and turns before they hit.
When the group I assembled for Isklander tackled Plymouth Point, we treated the experience like a digital escape room, and had players fan out to investigate the sprawling ecosystem created for the game in parallel. By focusing on puzzle progression, we made it through the experience quickly but missed out on the meat of the experience. For The Mermaid’s Tongue and The Kindling Hour, focusing on a more leisurely exploration of the story improved the experience immeasurably. Isklander relies heavily on ARG-style puzzles, so experienced players should be able to handle Isklander as a solo experience, and small groups are best served pacing themselves, to fully take in the details.
Earlier this spring, the TikTok user hamcitynr2 moved in to a new ground floor apartment in Stockholm. A few weeks after settling in, he found a strange flyer with GPS coordinates taped onto a road sign outside his apartment, just out of reach from the street. Curious, he did what all too many of us would have done in that situation: he balanced precariously on his windowsill, snatched the flyer, and went off to investigate the coordinates with the words, “beautiful day to not get murdered.”
During that outing, hamcitynr2 (commonly referred to his channel’s followers as “H”) discovered the first of what he would learn was a series of ten VHS tapes, hidden by an unknown figure for equally unknown reasons. Once he realized what was going on, the channel was rebranded to 10_tapes, and a community was formed to help track them down. Over the past five months, H collaborated with his followers to recover seven of those tapes, acting as an impromptu Swedish tour guide through Stockholm’s more esoteric locations for a deeply intimate scavenger hunt. But recently, the tapes have triggered strange events bordering on the paranormal, and other forces are starting to pay attention to H’s otherwise lighthearted search.
10 Tapes: First Person Gaming, Empowered By Silence As you might have guessed, 10 Tapes is a TikTok-centric alternate reality game created by the actor who plays H. The vast majority of videos are shot from a first-person perspective, with a silent H providing commentary through the videos’ text captions. This is a highly effective method for the viewer to project themselves into H, as years of video games have conditioned our minds to embody avatars in exactly this fashion.
While 10 Tapes has increasingly expanded outside this framework by allowing H to speak to the camera, it’s often reserved for moments where he is either recapping the story so far or describing events that took place off TikTok. Because of these updates, it’s possible to experience 10 Tapes exclusively through updates to the main channel, although the story has spread across additional YouTube and TikTok channels, websites, and even a custom sidescrolling video game.
While the game has gradually introduced more narrative context around who keeps hiding the tapes and what is actually going on, the bulk of the experience to date remains centered on the process of uncovering each new VHS tape, with player decisions and advice serving as the driving factor behind practically every new upload. Because of this structure, 10 Tapes has a lot of videos. By the time this article posts, the story will have played out across over 100 “parts” on the main channel alone. However, “essential viewing” to get caught up is limited to a series of in-game recap videos filmed by H that are positively dripping with the character’s dry wit.