Worldbuilding in Immersive Theatre, and the Punchdrunk style

Earlier this month I took a one-day design masterclass with Punchdrunk, the immersive theatre company. I’ve previously written about seeing their work Sleep No More and Against Captain’s Orders. Their work has been a design inspiration especially for thinking about narratives where the characters are all in motion and the player is choosing which to track.

Going into this session, I was curious whether I’d learn methods of environmental storytelling that would cross over into game applications. I was also curious how they approach developing a physical space around a story concept, and what questions they ask in order to develop the character.

If you’re considering signing up for a class — I think they’re on hiatus now, but the opportunity might reopen in the future — I’ll cut to the chase and say that it was a fascinating, fun day and totally worth doing; that I enjoyed the activities and instruction and had a great time meeting the mix of other practitioners in the same space, who included museum curators, drama instructors and students, other game designers, and a few “I just love Punchdrunk and was curious” types.


Our group decorated a space (with only paper and string) to evoke a character from a short story (being intentionally a little vague here to avoid spoilers)

At the same time, I should acknowledge the news about the harassment of actors at Sleep No More productions. This didn’t come up in the course of the workshop, and I had scheduled mine before that news item broke, but I mention it in case that information affects your desire to engage with the company’s work.

The rest of this article will be talking specifically about what we learned in the context of video game design and story-telling — some items that I found expectedly or unexpectedly useful, and also some places where I’m not sure the inspiration would successfully cross over.

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Mid-February Link Assortment

February 17, the London IF Meetup is doing a Saturday afternoon workshop on using ink and Unity together. This is one of the best methods for creating professional-looking standalone IF applications, and we’ll help you get started with the tools you need.

February 21 is the next meetup of the People’s Republic of IF, in Cambridge MA.

March 1 is the deadline to register if you intend to enter Spring Thing 2018; April 1 is the date to actually submit the games themselves. Spring Thing is the second largest annual IF competition, and runs on slightly different terms than IF Comp in the fall. Among other things, there is usually an option to submit experimental, unfinished, or unusual works in the “Back Garden,” meaning that they are distributed but not ranked or given prizes. It’s a great way to get involved without the actual competition part, which isn’t ideal for all authors or all works.

March 3 is the next meetup of the SF Bay IF Meetup group.

March 4, Dublin Interactive Fiction Writing Meetup convenes for an introductory lunch.

March 5, there is a reading of procedural literature at the Harvard Book Store (Cambridge, MA) with Nick Montfort, John Cayley, Liza Daly, and Allison Parrish, at 7pm.

March 7, Oxford/London IF Meetup hears from Greg Buchanan on writing for games from IF and indie to AAA projects.

The Opening Up Digital Fiction competition runs through March 15, 2018. (Previously announced as February.) It offers cash prizes and the possibility of future publication.

March 17, Queer Code London holds a workshop on graphical uses of Twine (co-sponsored by the Oxford/London IF Meetup).

March 20, Sunderland Creative Writing Festival offers a workshop on writing choose your own ending stories (looks like it’s focused on craft and choice design, and might be non-digital).

I will be at GDC March 19-23, speaking at the AI Summit and present at the Spirit AI expo floor booth.

Through March 21, the MIT Rotch Library (77 Mass Ave, 2nd Floor) is running an exhibit about computer-generated books called Author Function.



Anya Johanna DeNiro wrote about my ancient game Pytho’s Mask for sub-q magazine.

Bruno Dias writes about controlling scope in your game.

Joey Jones has a manifesto on puzzle design and incorporating puzzles effectively into narrative.


amulet.jpgMike Gentry’s 1998 classic Anchorhead is now available in an updated, illustrated version on Steam and Itch, with some new puzzles. Bruno Dias writes about the release for PC Gamer. Mike is even doing a new batch of feelies for the game, including the nifty pewter charm (shown), and a map of the town. A word of warning about this: apparently the contents of the game have changed just enough that walkthroughs for the original version may be unhelpful. But if you want to get hints, you may be able to find help from the good people on the intfiction forum.

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In Case of Emergency (A Door in a Wall)


I’ve been hearing about A Door in a Wall for a while, and reading the rave reviews they get from escape room and immersive theatre review blog The Logic Escapes Me. This month, we decided to hire them to run a game for the London IF Meetup — one of their smaller pieces, suitable for 15-25 players rather than being performed in a whole pre-set house. They sent out a facilitator who gave the story background, MC’d, scored and awarded prizes at the end; and a suitcase full of clue and puzzle items. Our 20-odd group divided into teams of 1-4 people apiece, and we were off.

Continue reading and other odd recollections

Tonight (June 20), the London IF meetup is going to play In Case of Emergency, a game delivered mostly through the format of physical props.

The prospect of this has me thinking again about narrative told through objects, a topic I sometimes come back to here: everything from the work of the Mysterious Package Company through to the story-in-a-suitcase designed by Rob Sherman.

Infocom, of course, had its tradition of “feelies,” part copy-protection device and part souvenir, distributed with games: these consisted of printed manuals, letters, evidence dossiers, coins, pills, letters, and whatever else they could think of. Wishbringer came with a plastic glow-in-the-dark “stone” which represented the eponymous magic object of the game, and let me tell you that when you are eight years old a glowing plastic rock is pretty special. Jimmy Maher frequently mentions them in his Digital Antiquarian writeups on these games. For a while in the 90s there was a tradition of sending people feelies as a reward if they registered shareware interactive fiction, but shareware also died out as a way of distributing IF.

This captured my imagination, and for Savoir-Faire, I made a limited feelie run just for people who pre-ordered via rec.*.int-fiction:


It consisted of some supposedly historical documents and some modern ones:

  • a customized-to-the-recipient letter about the history of the objects, from a modern professor at the University of Pennsylvania (where I was at the time supposed to be finishing my PhD, but was actually procrastinating with projects such as this one);
  • a reprinted pamphlet about the Lavori d’Aracne, the magic system in the game;
  • a letter from one of the game’s characters to his daughter, sealed with sealing wax and designed not to be read until the end of the game; and
  • a scrap of paper carrying what was supposedly a magic machine design by another character:

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By the standards of, say, Punchdrunk, these weren’t impressive objects (you can see a scan of the full set in this PDF), but given my skills and abilities at the time, they were the best I could do. The pamphlet was based on some reprints I’d found of little etiquette manuals from the late 18th and early 19th century. The letter was handwritten with a fountain pen that I bought for the purpose — an expensive investment given my grad student poverty — and I tried to school myself in contemporary handwriting styles, though as you can see, I am not destined for a career in forgery any time soon.

As for the machinery design, for the very earliest purchasers, that was written on actual period paper that I bought from an online ephemera reseller, and I’ve always felt slightly bad that I tainted real 18th century paper, a limited resource no doubt salvaged from some antique desk drawer, with my very much 21st-century scribbling. (Later on, I handwrote on more boring paper, and later still I digitized and printed the thing with a suitable font.)

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Mysterious Package Company and Narrative of Objects


Last year, I interviewed the spokesman of the Mysterious Package Company about their Kickstarted project The Century Beast. The company was doing a form of object-based storytelling that struck me as really fascinating, though — as they also encouraged secrecy around their projects — it was hard to get exact details about what one could expect.

Since then, their Kickstarter has been successful and they’ve been sending out Century Beast packages. I bought a Bronze version of that experience for myself, less deluxe but also less exceptionally expensive than some of the other tiers of the experience. I’ve also heard from a few other people who bought MPC products after reading my interview. I’ve come away thinking the idea is still pretty interesting but that the execution is a mix of excellent, the less-than-excellent, and the problematic.

I’d like to talk about all of that, though I’m conscious of the need not to spoil too much, so I’ll avoid specifics as I do when writing about escape rooms.

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Mysterious Cases on Indiegogo

Robert Sabuda is a paper engineer who designs pop-up books. He — with collaborators — is now running an Indiegogo campaign to put together three Mysterious Cases: boxes that come with clues, props, puzzles and locks. He was good enough to answer some questions for me:

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ES: The trailer and photos make these look really appealing and tactile — it looks like there’s a lot of physical manipulation of props to solve these puzzles. And I know you’re a pop-up book artist and have done a lot of past projects that involve manipulating a book in order to bring about, as your FAQ says, a “WOW” moment. What qualities in a pop-up most contribute to delivering that sense of wonder?

RS: I think what it really comes down is providing a sense of a wonder and magic.  We like to be surprised, and maybe even a bit fooled, when we’re unable to come up with answer to “how did THAT happen?”  Pop-up books and interactive experiences, like the Mysterious Cases, supply that in droves.  We want to wrestle a bit and be delighted by new discoveries and the magic of the moment.

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