When Albert Einstein died in 1955, New England pathologist Thomas Harvey removed the noted physicist’s brain without asking the family permission. Upon learning of the theft, Einstein’s son Hans Albert gave Harvey permission to keep the brain as long as it was used for scientific research. Over the next few months, Harvey carefully preserved, sectioned, and mounted the brain on thousands of slides, with chunks of the brain periodically getting sent off to researchers around the world from its new home under a beer cooler. Slivers of Einstein’s brain are currently on display at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. As unbelievable as it might seem, this is all true.
This is where the Gray Matter Sodality comes in. The secret society is looking to reassemble the scattered pieces of Einstein’s brain for unknown purposes…and they could use your help.
A Subscription Service for Hunting Brain Fragments The Gray Matter Sodality is a narrative puzzle experience put on by Traipse, with monthly mailings introducing subscribers to their new role as Inquisitors with the organization, chasing down clues to the locations of Einstein’s brain for subsequent reclamation by specialized teams. Every mission comes with a letter from Gray Matter Sodality Executive Director Artemis Shoal introducing the month’s assignment, along with physical artifacts useful in locating the next fragment. Typically, solutions are a word or phrase appended to the GMSodality.org website, with the GMSodality.org/solution telling investigators the results of their sleuthing efforts.
The puzzles are self-contained, although there are hints of a larger meta-puzzle in the three mailings I received as a preview of the experience.
Between June 1st – 3rd, Dungeons & Dragons is introducing a new adventure storyline to the franchise through the Stream of Many Eyes, a Los Angeles-based event that will be livestreamed on Twitch, featuring gameplay sessions with D&D streamers from popular tabletop shows including Adventure Zone, Dice, Camera, Action!, and Critical Role. And for the past month, Wizards of the Coast has been running an alternate reality game that bridges the gap between Wizards of the Coast’s Forgotten Realms and our own world with No Stone Unturned.
The alternate reality game kicked off on May 1st with a code hidden away at the bottom of the Stream of Many Eyes‘ announcement page on the Wizards of the Coast website.
Decoding the morse code revealed the hashtag #nostoneunturned, which had recently been used on Twitter by Kalesh Marivaldi under the Twitter handle @Immortal4tress. The next day, Marivaldi hijacked the official Dungeons & Dragons account to present fans with a challenge. According to Marivaldi, Elminster, one of Faerûn’s most powerful mages, sent a powerful stone to Earth along with a guardian to protect it. The guardian’s memories of his prior life were replaced with new ones, leaving him ignorant of both his true role and the nature of the artifact he protected. The Forgotten Realms had need of the stone, so Marivaldi charged Earth’s denizens with the task of finding the guardian, helping him reclaim his memories, and sending the stone back to its rightful home.
“Puppy. Fried chicken. Puppy. Fried chicken. Aw, what a cute puppy!” A small group of people huddled together in a corner of an MIT classroom. As I rattled off proclamations of puppy-or-not-puppy, one fellow solver stared intently at the 20×20 grid of pictures to check my work while a third typed numbers into a grid to record our findings. The image were divided into four quadrants of images likely to fool deep learning algorithms: pictures that resemble fried chicken, pictures that resemble mint ice cream, pictures that resemble croissants, and pictures that resemble blueberry muffins.
The puzzle we were working on was one of the most adorable puzzles from the MIT Mystery Hunt. The puzzle hunt takes place in mid-January of every year…but opportunities to tackle challenging puzzles mean fans of the genre are rarely found wanting for puzzle experiences.
The MIT Mystery Hunt 2018: Head-Hunters Every year, the Mystery Hunt embraces a new theme to provide the narrative structure for a weekend of puzzling in an experience designed by the winners of the previous year’s hunt. This year, Death & Mayhem turned to the Pixar film Inside Out for inspiration, asking puzzle hunt teams to get Miss Terry Hunter’s emotions under control so she could guide her team to victory, rediscovering many of the formative memories that led to her becoming a puzzle solver in the first place.
It’s relatively easy to experience the MIT Mystery Hunt remotely. Most challenges are delivered through an online website that progressively expands as teams unlock new puzzles, and the increasingly theatrical kickoff event that introduces players to the year’s theme is livestreamed.
But while the MIT Mystery Hunt creates an accessible experience for people solving off-campus, celebrating real world challenges and interactions is a core tenet of the Hunt. For instance, to complete the Pokémon round of puzzles, a small group from our team went to visit the “Safari Zone”, a classroom littered with dozens of Voltorb balls with five different sets of words written on them. After locating every ball, they noticed that one Voltorb in each group didn’t belong, giving them the combination lock password to obtain the bittersweet memory of Terry capturing her first Magikarp.
This year’s Hunt was strongest when it played with that line between digital and analog puzzles, exemplified by the paired puzzles Twitch Plays Mystery Hunt and Under Control. In Twitch Plays Mystery Hunt, teams were given a relatively simple video game to explore. The only catch: just like its namesake Twitch Plays Pokémon, each team was only given one avatar to control. After completing Twitch Plays Mystery Hunt teams unlocked Under Control, sending one member of their team to stand in front of a green screen for a livestreamed ninja dance battle. In order to defeat a series of ninja warriors the tribute had to be guided like a human puppet through a series of poses, with team communication managed by a synthesized voice reading out time delayed comments in the livestream.
The puzzle hunt finale returned to that same theme, with teams playing a modified version of Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes by taking over the Emotional Command Center and following printed instructions to guide an overtired Terry Hunter through the MIT campus to the final location, solving the Hunt.
Other puzzles that are worth checking out include Marked Deck (a deck of laser-cut cards that, when properly arranged, provides a hint to the next step of the puzzle), Do You Want A (a puzzle that will be very familiar to people who know what MBMBAM stands for), Space Sounds TV (a puzzle about the history of spaceflight), A Pub Crawl (a very social drinking puzzle), and Special Delivery (a puzzle about musical mixes).
It’s Boxing Day! The day when thoughtful gifts from friends, family, and coworkers are exchanged for store credit, and when you start planning on how to convert that stack of gift cards into even more presents. Something to consider for puzzle fans: the escape room in a box.
Comparing escape rooms in a box against their traditional escape room counterparts is a bit like comparing a theatrical performance with its cinema adaptation. Paying a premium to see a performance of West Side Story live delivers an experience that can’t be completely translated to film, and attempts to directly lift the experience will make that absence noticeable. However, in the hands of the right team, cinematic adaptations can do things that would be impossible on a live stage. This article explores how three different companies brought their own particular spins on bringing the escape room genre home.
Simulacra Games is selling a crate of 1930s era memorabilia from the early days of animation for a studio that never existed. It’s not an elaborate counterfeiting scheme, but rather an elaborate alternate reality game in a box called The Wilson Wolfe Affair. Using the diary of a studio animator as a guide, players are guided through the crate’s exquisitely crafted materials artifacts by the diary of a studio animator to uncover the mysteries behind the Wilson Wolfe cartoons.
The Kickstarter campaign for The Wilson Wolfe Affair ends December 21st at 10AM EST, and the team has already blown past all their stretch goals, with almost a thousand backers raising over $210K in pre-orders for the experience. This level of support is particularly impressive for Simulacra Games’ first foray into the world of puzzle boxes, and can be a craftily executed promotional campaign designed to showcase the team’s skills without revealing any of the mysteries of the experience itself.
Wilson Wolfe and the Animated Series Prior to launching their Kickstarter campaign, Simulacra Games released a series of videos that served as an introduction to Wilson Wolfe, Jinks Studio’s version of Felix the Cat. For the first two videos, Wilson Wolfe’s adventures are framed in actual animated shorts. Mad Scientist Wilson highlights a restrained Wilson Wolfe struggling against his bonds as a shadowy figure approaches, while The Spooky Salesman shows Wolfe chased down a hallway by a spectral gloved hand.
Madame Daphne’s Tarot Reading Room and Séance Parlor is hard to find without assistance, hidden away in a Houston artist’s studio. An invitation from Madame Daphne herself provides instructions through the former rice packaging plant’s stark white interior to the medium’s lair, its lavish decor making it feel like a room out of place. Stepping over the threshold begins a 90 minute experience that tells a tale of deception, magic, and love spanning almost a century.
Strange Bird Immersive’s production The Man From Beyond thrusts 4-8 players into a supernatural adventure that combines a masterfully crafted escape room themed around Harry Houdini with an immersive theater performance to frame the experience, set within the walls of Madame Daphne’s parlor.
An Immersive Theater Sandwich The Man From Beyond‘s fictional narrative starts the minute players step into the room, as Madame Daphne greets her guests with a dramatic flourish. All the standard onboarding activities of an escape room are wrapped up into the context of the room, with a flair for the dramatic. The requisite waivers are still signed, but are done through the narrative conceit of the séance. Players are presented with the rules for the experience through a series of photographs in the hallway leading to the séance parlor, illuminated by candlelight. The séance itself sets the stage for the escape room portion, setting the narrative context for players when they take over the story’s agency.
Once the room’s clock starts ticking, the room transforms from séance parlor into a standard escape room. In a room surrounded by Houdini’s tools of the trade, players must tackle a century-old mystery on a deadline. At key milestones in the experience, micro-moments of theatrical exposition serve as narrative cut scenes, serving the dual purpose of rewarding player’s progress through the puzzle portion and reminding players of their broader purpose in the room. Solving a major puzzle might unlock information about Houdini’s wife Bess’ previous efforts to speak to her dead husband.
Most room escape games leave little room for telling a narrative that exists outside the room’s theming. A room based around an archaeological dig might hide some of its puzzles in a dig site and draw upon those themes to inform its puzzles, but a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required to tackle the room’s challenges. Even rooms that try to adhere to their own internal narrative consistency stick to a bare-bones plot due to the realities of room design. Players must often split themselves up into continually shifting groups to divide and conquer in the most efficient way possible. While this tactic is highly effective at uncovering a room’s secrets, it forces players to experience the room’s narrative in a disjointed fashion. Players might all be aware they’re escaping from a jail cell, but the specifics of their escape route might only be known to a few participants, on a need-to-know basis. This challenge is exacerbated in the final minutes of a room, as teams scramble to put together the final pieces needed to escape. Often, escape room operators’ explanations at the end of the room are as necessary to explain the accomplishments of teammates as they are to highlight overlooked puzzles and clues.
The Man From Beyond addresses that problem by explicitly carving out time outside the escape room’s unforgiving countdown to allow players time to take in the story. Every player is aware of what they’re doing because they experienced the introduction together, before the clock started ticking. Every player knows the main narrative beats because the information is broadcast to the group at key moments. And the grand finale can be fully experienced since it takes place after escaping the room, removing any time pressures that might otherwise cause players to gloss over the story.
Because Strange Bird Immersive created space for players to breathe and take in the narrative, it stopped the puzzles from overwhelming the game’s powerful narrative themes. During my team’s playthrough, we made it through the puzzles at a steady clip, but were so moved by the bittersweet tale that few of us made it out through the full experience without shedding a few tears along the way. It wasn’t just that the story was pulling on our heartstrings. It was knowing everything that happened was because of our actions.