In Case of Emergency (A Door in a Wall)

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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.

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feelies.org 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:

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It consisted of some supposedly historical documents and some modern ones: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

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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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Against Captain’s Orders (Punchdrunk / National Maritime Museum)

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Against Captain’s Orders is an interactive theater experience run by Punchdrunk for the National Maritime Museum in London. It’s designed for a group of about 30 kids. Most of the productions require an adult to be accompanied at least one child between the ages of six and twelve, but they do run a special evening edition of the show for adults who are members of the museum. I’ve never been able to get to Sleep No More or any of Punchdrunk’s other work, and I was curious enough about them that I got a museum membership largely to be able to go to Against Captain’s Orders without having to obtain a child first.

The show has been reviewed as a piece of theater: the Guardian gave it ***, said it wasn’t dangerous enough; the Evening Standard an ungenerous ** and called it confused; Timeout went with ****, thought it was good but mostly for kids. The Register assures readers that the show provides value for money, which is true, but a grim sort of review of any sort of art. None of those reviews really gets into the interaction design side very deeply, though.

At the end of the show they ask you not to reveal too many of its secrets. I’m not going to give away the absolute ending, but it’s hard to analyze without spoiling a bit. So I’m not publishing this blog post until after the show finishes running. Still, if for some reason you want to avoid spoilers for a show that you can’t see now anyway, you should not read on.

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The Secret Language of Desire (Megan Heyward)

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The Secret Language of Desire is an iPad app, enhanced with images and music and sound effects, which tells the story of a woman’s erotic awakening through a series of 27 short vignettes. It is available via iTunes, and will also be shown at the upcoming ELO conference in Bergen.

It’s fully linear: there are no branches in the story, no hypertext links to dig into. Unlike in PRY, there’s very little hidden information to tease out of the interactions, either. In one case, there’s something to uncover that explains the meaning of an intentionally vague and referential bit of text, though I was pretty sure what I was going to find there. This is the exception rather than the rule.

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