A few weeks ago, my husband and I broke into a museum.
Well, we didn’t break in, exactly. We had keys, so it was more like, you know, a little light trespassing. The keys came from some guy in a hooded cloak standing around outside, but they worked, and the cops never showed up. So, long story short: there’s an artifact sitting in our living room currently, and we’re trying to figure out what to do with it.
The artifact, alas, exists only digitally (for now, at least). And both the keys and the museum were made entirely of paper. My husband and I both wore cozy pajama pants for the break-in slightly unauthorized entry, which took place on our coffee table while I sipped a glass of red wine.
If all this sounds terribly confusing, know that we were playing a game made by the Curious Correspondence Club, a subscription box filled with mysteries instead of with snacks. It was one of a litany of at-home mystery boxes we’ve played through in the past two years, a stack of adventures each positioned somewhere between an escape room, a puzzle, and an alternate reality game. So it’s not unusual that our home remains full of ancient, furled maps and long-lost artifacts pointing the way to solve mysteries of the ages… none of which existed till, roughly speaking, last Thursday.
The birth of a genre
Escape room games have been available at your local board game (or big box) retailer for a few years now, but they’ve got a new cousin in town via a nascent field that sprang almost out of nowhere in the past three years. These experiences are not board games, nor are they tabletop games in the roleplay sense. Some are monthly or quarterly subscriptions; others are bespoke, painstaking designs. Some rely heavily on Internet interaction; others are entirely hand-crafted physical goods.
The entire genre is so new that no two fans or creators seem to agree on what to call it. Enthusiasts have tried “mystery boxes,” “puzzle boxes,” and “at-home escape room,” but no single name seems to have stuck.
“To me, I think the encompassing genre is ‘tabletop puzzle game,'” designer Rita Orlov tells Ars. “Sometimes those are more narrative. Sometimes they’re really just puzzles. Or sometimes it’s a narrative experience and not even really very puzzling. It seems like there are so many subgenres, even in this kind of very niche genre.”
Orlov personally calls her games narrative playable adventures. The Tale of Ord, which she launched in 2018 to near-universal acclaim, is arguably the growing field’s first blockbuster hit. In the two years since, Orlov herself has become as close to a legend as the growing mystery-puzzle-adventure-narrative scene has, earning respect from players and fellow creators alike. (Every single person I talked to for this story suggested, unprompted, that I should speak with Orlov, too.)
PostCurious, Orlov’s company, only ever made 500 copies of Tale of Ord; used editions have become a hot commodity among collectors. The game unfolds over the course of four separate packages and culminates in something of a final exam puzzle that requires you to put together everything you’ve learned over the first three installments in order to solve and unlock a literal, surprisingly sturdy, wooden box. Its popularity has made Tale of Ord a yardstick against which new experiences are often measured, particularly “found object” style games. But only two years later, the competition has indeed heated up.
20 years in the making…
Many of these new experiences weave their fictions tightly into the history and reality in which most of us live. Solutions to puzzles and hints for where to go next will lie in real historical cues or simply within answers you can find on Google. In short, these new concepts are drawing on a decades-old tradition in digital gaming: the ARG, or alternate reality game.
EA tried launching a paid ARG, Majestic, back in 2001. The game was at the time a new concept, blending real-world phone calls, emails, and Internet scavenger hunts with an X-Files-inspired conspiracy theme. As a commercial venture, it was a fairly spectacular flop. As an idea, however, it kicked off something of a trend.
Microsoft commissioned its own ARG, I Love Bees, a few years later as a marketing tool for Halo 2. According to 42 Entertainment, who developed the game, I Love Bees ultimately drew more than three million players into its “fractured narrative.” Video games, too, were also starting to play with the idea, such as French developer Lexis Numérique’s In Memoriam and Evidence: The Last Ritual. Mr. Robot famously partnered with Mozilla for an ARG that clumsily bled into your Web browser in recent years.
That humble thread—”what if…?”—weaving the real and the unreal is now a core part of a countless number of experiences. Some, like Tale of Ord, send you artifacts and ask you to unravel their mystery. Then there are experiences like Club Drosselmeyer, which draw heavily from interactive theater to create an interactive ambience. (More about that in a bit.)
Yacine Merzouk and Michelle Rundbaken between them are the minds behind the Society of Curiosities, which sells a series of loosely linked experiences in a monthly subscription box format, as well as a handful of online-only one-off games. Weaving their created reality into, well, real reality takes some doing, they explained, but the sense of discovery is worth the work.
“When you play, you have to question: is this real? Is this not real?” Rundbaken said. She drew a line to familiar tales that plant breadcrumbs from reality to fabulous findings: “We’re right there watching Indiana Jones and National Treasure and The Goonies, and that’s the feeling we want our players to have—an adventure.”
A sense of immersion is key to making that feeling of discovery really work, Merzouk said, which admittedly “can be a challenge” to create for players who are in their own homes. Society of Curiosities works to allow players to “feel like you’re part of the adventure in a way that doesn’t require you to create a whole new world in your own mind,” he added. “You’re in your own world, discovering things along with your ‘team’ on the ground. Which I think has been fun for our players.”
One of their stories, for example, takes players to an absolutely fictional coffee and tea shop that, frankly, looks delightful. (I expressed repeated frustration to my husband, when we played the game, that I could not in fact visit it.) But making a fake café show up just enough on the real Internet almost didn’t work.
“We had a moment of panic for the Moonbeam Society,” Merzouk admitted. “We were about to launch the game, and it was not ranking on Google yet. There were too many related keywords online, and it’s kind of out of your hands. If you want to build something immersive, and people can search the actual Web, you have to do this [SEO] dance with Google and make sure you get found.”
The trick is to smudge the lines between the game’s reality and the rest of reality just enough, but not too far. “I wanted to make something that was blurring the lines between fantasy and reality,” Orlov said, describing The Tale of Ord, as well as her upcoming game, The Emerald Flame. “I try to keep the game elements kind of obvious, because I had played a couple things before where I didn’t really know where the edge was, and it ended up being really frustrating.”