Category: Reviews (page 1 of 9)

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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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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At The Rogues Gallery, Evil Is Its Own Currency

Note: ARGNet received a comped ticket for this show.

Broken Ghost Immersives’ newest hybrid experience The Rogues Gallery asks players to step into the roles of supervillains for an evening at Wildrence, forming villainous team-ups of two to three players bent on world conquest. And I’m a little nervous about how easily my friends and I slipped into our nefarious roles.

It started before the game even began, when No Proscenium’s Kathryn Yu reached out to nefariously strategize before the event: “we can conspire and split up the Spiras”. While I’d ordinarily be opposed to splitting up the Room Escape Artists, Kathryn promised me one evil monologue if we won, so I responded “clearly, the target is Lisa. My bet would be David gets distracted being evil.” Lisa was on board, noting “David can fend for himself.” This was the origin story of the supervillainous cross-over team of No Proscenium, ARGNet, and Room Escape Artist: Team “Here to Make Friends” was born from betrayal at the start.

Luckily, The Rogues Gallery rewards duplicitous behavior, and primes players to embrace their worst impulses by handing out Supervillain identities on a lanyard upon entering the venue, along with optional capes and masks. The core gameplay mechanics are deceptively simple: players spend four types of gems to deploy their henchmen on a global map: green gems purchase troops, blue gems finance henchman movement, and red gems activate a supervillain’s unique powers. The only catch? Teams don’t start out with any gems: they can only be obtained by assisting the various supervillain administrators in a surprisingly varied collection of diabolical deeds.

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Going Beyond the Text with the Subtext Game

Jonathan is in trouble. After receiving a phone call warning that his apartment wasn’t safe and needed to be evacuated, a guy in a black ski mask kidnapped him, and the next thing he knows, he finds himself locked up in an office building. There’s a list of phone numbers there…and yours is one of them. Can you help him escape, and figure out why you were looped into this slightly menacing predicament? That’s the open question of Subtext, an SMS-driven experience that comes off as equal parts alternate reality game and virtual escape room, with a healthy side of paranoia.

In Subtext, players take on the role of Jonathan’s off-site support squad, serving as his virtual assistant in escapeology by completing tasks ranging from conducting research on fictional companies, solving light puzzles to help Jonathan navigate the building, and using social engineering to smooth the path. In terms of gameplay, Subtext is similar to its single player ARG counterpart The Black Watchmen, with the narrative guiding players through a string of linear challenges in service of a larger narrative. Where it differs is in its framing – by using chatbot functionalities to power Subtext, the hero of the story is the writing. While The Black Watchmen has a strong narrative focused on players joining up with a secret organization and climbing through the ranks by completing tasks, its strongest point is translating ARG style challenges into a single-player video game experience, with the narrative serving as an added bonus. And while mobile apps like Simulacra and Another Lost Phone place more of their focus on the narrative, those stories’ framing focuses on the phone as found object, making gameplay feel like an exercise in digital archaeology. Subtext taskes advantage of the low fidelity nature of the text messages that form the backbone of the story to create a more active immersion, and the experience has numerous moments of clever writing that makes it all too easy for players to fall into the conceit that they’re chatting with another honest to goodness person in need.

The full Subtext experience takes a few days to complete, but is designed to work around the player’s life. Since Subtext‘s forward momentum is fueled by successful solves, inactivity allows players to put the game on pause at any time – and if players get stuck, continuing to text with Jonathan will often yield hints which range from helpful to practically essential on one or two of the more frustrating tasks. There are a few developer-imposed breaks in the narrative so it would be a difficult if not impossible game to competitively speedrun on the first pass, but that doesn’t stop me from being curious about whether players are rushing through, or taking their time to savor the experience.

The full Subtext experience is sold as pay-what-you-want-as-long-as-you-want-to-pay-at-least-$6, although there is a free demo that will give you a 5-minute taste of the experience that has quickly become my favorite introductory example of alternate reality games in action. The delightfully creative challenge perfectly encapsulates what makes Subtext special, both in terms of writing and tone. And while none of the moments in the full experience exceed the rush of adrenaline at finishing the demo puzzle, there were one or two moments that were on par. Subtext asks players to imagine “what if the game was real”, and it lives up to that promise – especially if you opt in for the full experience, which opens up the potential for phone calls or even physical mail to round things out. Those additions aren’t necessary to the story, but they do contribute to the world-building, particularly when it comes to bringing closure to the story.

If you’re interested in learning more about Subtext, play the demo. Even if you don’t think you’re interested in the full experience, play the demo: it’s that good, and will help you decide whether the full game might be up your alley, at a negligible investment of time.

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