Category: Opinion (page 1 of 17)

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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Refining the At-Home Escape Room Model with Flashback

Two years ago, I wrote a brief introduction to the world of escape room in a box games for Boxing Day after playing Wild Optimist’s Escape Room in a Box: The Werewolf Experiment. Juliana Patel and Ariel Rubin initially funded production of their game through a Kickstarter campaign, before partnering with Mattel to produce a mass market version of the game that includes one particularly devious puzzle that still sits as a trap on my desk for unwary coworkers. The Wild Optimists have partnered with Mattel once more with Escape Room in a Box: Flashback, a game that manages to create the most elegant narrative and puzzle-based experience I’ve seen in the space.

New Retro Packaging, Same Lycanthropic Focus
While the retro ’90s design aesthetic of the box and Flashback title might imply this game is a throwback to the electronic board game era of Dream Phone and Electronic Mall Madness, the Wild Optimist’s newest escape room in a box is actually a direct sequel to The Werewolf Experiment. In the first installment, players were tasked with facing off against the mad scientist Doc Cynthia Gnaw, rushing to avoid becoming a casualty of her latest experiments. For Throwback, Doc Cynthia Gnaw is back with a vengeance, and players need to dive into her history to get out intact.

Because the narrative framing is so straightforward, these games don’t have to be played in sequence: the group I assembled to play this game had never played The Werewolf Experiment before, and at no point in the 90-minute experience did I need to stop and explain what happened in the previous chapter.

Puzzles in Three Acts: Letting Players Choose Their Puzzling Fate
In The Werewolf Experiment, the solving process was largely a linear one. Upon opening up the box, a series of puzzles became available. By solving puzzles, players would figure out the combinations for a series of plastic combination locks or receive hints to explore unexpected places to uncover additional puzzles until they figured out how to open up the final locked box.

Flashback refined that model by splitting gameplay into three separate rounds: a word-puzzle round themed around Doc Gnaw’s childhood friend Doctor Lisa David, a science-oriented puzzle round themed around Doc Gnaw herself, and a childhood round themed around their friendship. If smaller teams are tackling the escape room, these rounds are probably best tackled sequentially so everyone can appreciate the full breadth of the experience together. However, larger teams may find it easier to get everyone more consistently engaged by splitting up into smaller groups, and tackling the themes that speak to them while also making it harder for a single person to dominate the solving process.

This is where the game’s strong theming steps up to become the hero: because each of the rounds have distinct theming and color-coding, it’s possible to have all the game’s pieces splayed out on the table at the same time without getting confused about which puzzles are tied to which theme.

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Those Who Watch: Rediscovering the Alternate Reality Game Show

Earlier this week, No Proscenium’s Noah Nelson published an article discussing immersive productions through the lens of Those Who Make, Those Who Play, and Those Who Watch. In it, he argues that the broader immersive space can do a better job at providing rewarding experiences for people who want to experience immersive stories more passively. Campfire previously advanced a similar framework for immersive experiences, breaking out players into a continuous spectrum of skimmers, dippers, and divers. Skimmers are Those Who Watch: they experience immersive vicariously, either through a casual perusal of a website, or (more often) through vicarious accounts from Those Who Play – the divers. As for the dippers…? They take on a hybrid role, and that’s where things get interesting.

In Defense of Those Who Watch: Compelling Narrative from Vicarious Play

The independent film Coherence is a fascinating experiment in film-making. Shot over the course of five days, the science fiction thriller about a group of friends at a house party didn’t have a script: instead, James Ward Byrkit mapped out a 12-page treatment revealing all the twists, reveals, and character arcs of the film. But actors were only provided information on a need-to-know basis, with characters only aware of their own evolving backstory and motivations. In effect, Coherence was a live-action role playing game shot by trained improvisational actors thrust into an increasingly surreal experience. If that sounds familiar, The Blair Witch Project used similar tactics, years earlier. Rather than using a formal script, the indie horror film’s actors were instructed to visit a series of locations, receiving directing notes along the way.

Both films benefited greatly from the visceral reality of actors engaged in a form of play, leading to films that feels more real as a result of that conceit: viewers experience a different kind of movie as a result of how the films were produced. And that effect carries through to vicarious experiences of other immersive works, as well.

Ivan Van Norman has extensively explored this space with his Sagas of Sundry series for Geek and Sundry’s now-defunct Project Alpha, and the Stream of Many Eyes‘ Dungeons & Dragons-based Off-the-Table sessions that mixed immersive theater, escape rooms, and tabletop gaming into an immersive hodge-podge that transformed performative play into a spectator sport. In Sagas of Sundry, the shows’ leads would assume the roles of carefully constructed characters with hidden secrets: every time a character wanted to do something substantive, they would have to pull a block from a giant Jenga tower. If the tower were to topple as a result of a pull, something terrible and frequently fatal would befall their character. For Van Norman’s Off-the-Table sessions, four tabletop streamers met together in a live recreation of Waterdeep to solve a series of escape room-style challenges, drawing on their characters’ unique powers by drawing cards from a deck of d20 cards to obtain hints along the way.

Shows like Escape the Night, Busted, The Quest, and Whodunnit take this to the logical conclusion, filming alternate reality game shows where contestants are playing versions of themselves who believe everything that is happening to them is real. Escape This Podcast plays similar games in podcast form, with guests navigating their way through virtual escape room scenarios, giving listeners at home a chance to solve along. These shows don’t ask much of viewers, but benefit from the role of performative play in their creation nonetheless.

All the examples so far involve Those Who Make controlling the production of a “documentary” of what Those Who Play do. However, the vast majority of content created within the immersive space is created by players, for players and the broader public.

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