Last month, JC Hutchins received a creepy package in the mail containing a doll wrapped in vintage newspapers. ARGNet’s coverage of this special delivery was given the light-hearted title, ARG or Not, Please Don’t Send Me Creepy Dolls. Much to my co-workers’ chagrin, our mysterious benefactor adhered to the letter of that request, if not the spirit, in sending a follow-up package to my work address earlier today.
A Quick Refresher: The Initial Mailing Back in December of last year, JC Hutchins jokingly shared a Facebook Marketplace ad for a creepy doll, with a single word in response: NOPE. A month later, he received a package in the mail from “Ray Stantz”, with a return address listed as Dan Aykroyd’s former Los Angeles residence, a house itself rumored to be haunted. Inside the box? The doll from the Marketplace listing, wrapped in 1930s era newspapers with a message scrawled in red ink saying “LOOK AFTER THIS CHILD”, along with a series of period photographs of masked figures, vintage stamps, and other curiosities that look suspiciously like coded messages.
Twelve years ago, science fiction author and podcast fiction phenomenon JC Hutchins received an envelope in the mail, sealed with a red wax stamp bearing the letters “tb”, and containing a message written in a long-dead language. Over the next few days, more and more people reported receiving similar envelopes. Eventually, players decrypted the message and discovered Blood Copy, an alternate reality game teasing the launch of True Blood on HBO, based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels. Over the years, Hutchins received a number of ARG trailheads…but his most recent mail call might also be the creepiest.
Earlier today, Hutchins uploaded a video to his YouTube channel and posted a link to it on Facebook, noting:
I don’t know who sent me this, and I don’t know why. It might be a rabbit-hole for an ARG or a movie/TV promo. It might be someone messing with me. Probably the former, not ruling out the latter.
What you see is not scripted in any way. I’m not “acting.” Every reaction is legit. Every word I’m saying is true.
In all the seas, in all the world, there has never been a land quite like the isle of Eroda.
Starting in late November, the Eroda Tourism Board started running ads on social media inviting users to check out VisitEroda.com. Unfortunately, both website and advertisements failed to provide any information on where to find the remote island, leading a curious Twitter user to share a tweet that launched a firestorm of speculation:
After clicking on the ad, Austin was introduced to a fairly sparse description of Eroda: according to the website, Eroda was an isle comprised of four quaint fishing villages. At first glance, everything seems normal with the slightly outdated tourist page. Each village is home to its own unique guest accommodations, making it easier to visit a brief list of local businesses and attractions. But something was clearly…off about the isle of Eroda. When describing the Fisherman’s Pub, the Tourism Board warns prospective visitors “don’t mention a pig in the pub”, while the Eroda Ferry description is paired with text reminding tourists to “avoid leaving Eroda on odd numbered days.” And while describing the island’s Fishing Charters, seafarers are told that, “for extra good luck, make sure you wear one gold earring”. A peculiarly superstitious island, at best. To say nothing of the peculiar fact that Eroda is ADORE spelled backwards.
The tourist bureau’s website also seemed a little fishy. Despite actively running multi-lingual ad campaigns for Visit Eroda across its Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram profiles, the website made no mention of any of its social platforms on the website. The site also built out sponsored ad units, advertising itself. Even stranger, nothing on the site invited visitors to do anything.
And so, the internet was provided a tantalizing mystery: someone was paying money to advertise a fictional island, but didn’t give visitors any indication about what to do with that knowledge. And it blew up. At the time of this article, Austin’s initial tweet has been shared over 12K times, 84K people followed the Visit Eroda Twitter account, two thousand people followed the r/Eroda subreddit, and a thousand people joined the Eroda ARG Discord server to try and figure out what was going on.
LOST on Another Island: JJ Abrams, the Mystery Box, and the Undeniable Allure of Infinite Possibility Over a decade ago, the internet was fixated on another mysterious island, and the numbers 4 8 15 16 23 42. LOST was halfway through its third season, and showrunner JJ Abrams gave a TED Talk on his philosophy towards storytelling, The Mystery Box. In it, he tells a story.
When Abrams was a child, he went to Lou Tannen’s magic shop in midtown New York City, and bought Tannen’s Mystery Magic Box: a $15 box (now $25) containing $50 worth of magic. To this day, Abrams has never opened the box. In the talk, he explains how the box as it stands “represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential…[and] I started to think that maybe mystery is greater than knowledge.”
A major element of Eroda’s allure in those first few days was the infinite possibility the fictional island provided. Could Eroda be a horror ARG, introducing a remote isle of superstitious townsfolk as an immersive version of The Wicker Man? Maybe…there’s enough evidence to support it. Or maybe the source material is Brigadoon, and the 2004 copyright date paired with warnings about travelling on specific dates is a sign the island is out of phase with our reality. The immersive production company Punchdrunk is working on a television show starring Jude Law where he plays a man “who is drawn to a mysterious island off the British coast and is confronted with his past as reality and fantasy become blurred.” Or maybe it could be tied to an upcoming indie game called Adore.
Thanks to Visit Eroda’s focus on introducing the setting of the fictional world, all were very real possibilities, supported by scant evidence. And so, for a time, Eroda could be everything to everyone. And that scope of infinite possibility extended to the nature of interaction with the fictional isle, as well. Was the site a puzzle to be solved? The inclusion of a page on the site that offered high resolution files of Eroda’s map in both JPG and PDF formats was curious. Or maybe this was a challenge of social engineering or role-playing to extract information…after all, whoever was behind the project was actively paying to promote those channels.
Starting at the beginning of October, people across the United States started discovering flyers for a sleep study in search of volunteer subjects. “SEE YOUR OWN DREAMS RECORDED IN FULL COLOR”, the signs brightly proclaim. The posters directed prospective volunteers to the New Noology Network website along with a Twitch channel that regularly broadcasts sleep study sessions with test subjects. Applications to participate in the New Noology Network’s research may start out simple, but simple personality tests asking whether you like the taste of raw meat has quickly given way to video trials asking applicants to go on an audio-driven tour of their neighborhoods.
New Noology Research Trials: Livestreamed fMRI Scans For the first few weeks of the New Noology Network, the primary outlet for interacting with the sleep study program was watching a series of hour-long livestreamed sleep studies. Livestream viewers were placed in front of a research station, monitoring two screens tracking the test subject. According to the Twitch profile, this Dream Recording and Re-Visualization (DR&RV) research presumes that memories and emotions are the key to mapping brain stimuli from waking life vision to dream vision.
For the most part, these streams were exercises in tedium, with livestream viewers monitoring two screens: on the left, viewers were presented with a report on brain activity. On the right, the monitor rotated between footage monitoring the test subject from two different vantage points, and a visualization of the Dream Recording and Re-Visualization project in action. Occasionally, a researcher would appear on screen to monitor the subject directly. Viewers also had the chance to vote on a hemisphere of the brain, which presumably influenced the research.
All this changed during a stream two weeks ago. Towards the end of the final stream, when something unexpected happens with the sleep study. As Inside a Mind explains, “the final few seconds of the stream reveal we’ve not actually been watching a science experiment, but instead it’s all part of a set…and before the stream cuts off, a strange van can be seen passing by.”
Welcome to the Global Consciousness Initiative With the curtain pulled back at the remote testing facility, the New Noology Network changed tactics and reached out to online applicants, asking them to sign up for the Global Consciousness Initiative. While the DR&RV project was focused on the connection between waking and sleeping brain activity, the GCI’s focus is on “studying the effects of coordinated and crowdsourced activities upon global mass psychological states through analysis of measurable disruptions distributed network random number generators”: in short, a test into whether coordinated behavior by a few could influence psychological states of the collective.
To participate in the Global Consciousness Initiative trials, players are asked to listen to a series of audio clips, following the instructions to the letter. Each audio clip helps ease participants into the proper mindset, provides instructions on where to go, and finally asks players to record a short video completing a variety of tasks.
Instruction 1: Record a video of your eyes, blinking six times slowly.
Instruction 2: Stand in the threshold of the door to your home, and declare “I am not afraid”.
Instruction 3: After walking outside, wander a bit and choose a particularly enticing door. Describe what lies beyond.
Instruction 4: Continue wandering, and voicelessly mouth your name.
Instruction 5: Repeat the word “stuck” three times: first as a whisper, then spoken normally, and finally shouted out loud.
The Global Consciousness Institute’s soothing vocal prompts and ambient musical backing track transforms the experience of recording the videos from an operational list of tasks into a meditative and personal experience, making it easier to get over the slightly transgressive act of yelling out “STUCK!” in the middle of a city. And while Trial 0 is centered around peoples’ local neighborhoods, select participants reported receiving a second set of trials asking players to extend the experience into their daily commutes.
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.
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.