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.
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.”
The Koschei Society is an organization of scholars and historical enthusiasts. In the course of their research, the Koschei Society stumbled across a handful of artifacts that just might set an enterprising researcher on the path towards a legendary alchemist’s hiding spot, and the recipe for a transformative alchemical elixir. Are you wise enough, resourceful enough, and brave enough to be that enterprising researcher?
PostCurious’ newest narrative puzzle adventure The Emerald Flame begins with an invitation to assist the Koschei Society in poring over a series of letters and artifacts to unearth the ancient alchemist’s secret. Structured across three separate “chapters” of puzzle-driven narrative, players piece together the information necessary to advance the story, verifying answers through an online chat portal. The game’s Kickstarter campaign funded within 4 hours of its launch, and offers the full experience for as little as $69. The campaign will run through June 26th, and has already secured over a thousand backers eager to take on the Koschei Society’s challenge.
Burning Bright: A Seamless Blend of Art and Puzzle Every chapter’s structure follows a similar framework: aspiring Koschei Society researchers are tasked with extracting information relevant to the investigation. Like many at-home puzzle experiences, these puzzles can be completed in any order, providing structure to the small group solving experience. However, The Emerald Flame‘s greatest strength is its ability to take things one step further, weaving the game’s art and its puzzles into an elegant tapestry.
The puzzles at the heart of The Emerald Flame aren’t always self-contained. So while some puzzles communicate everything that’s needed on a single sheet of paper, others are interspersed across the experience. Pulling on a puzzling thread on one line of inquiry might lead to a revelation about a detail expertly hidden within the art of another page, or teach you the rules of engagement for one of the game’s items. But the reverse is also true, with the game’s artistic stylings serving as signposts for players, hinting at what puzzle pieces are likely to fit together, if seen under the proper light. This interplay between art and puzzle leads to many of the most surprising moments of The Emerald Flame.
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.
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.