Meet the new generation of puzzle-makers bringing mystery to your door


Enlarge / Luckily in 2020, there may be an at-home puzzle for everyone.

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 puzzle 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.)

  • The Tale of Ord begins with a letter from someone at the Emerens Institute...

  • ...and then takes a wide variety of tools to solve.

  • Play often goes faster (and less frustratingly) with a partner.

  • Eventually, you get to find out what's inside the box.

  • The cover for Orlov's second game, The Emerald Flame.

  • Botanical drawings, alchemical stories, and art nouveau come together.

  • Whatever it is, it's vital to solving at least one puzzle in the box.

  • A collection of the art and papercraft in The Emerald Flame.

  • Another collection of the art and papercraft in The Emerald Flame.

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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.

Further Reading

“I have a really weird idea”—the rise of Mr. Robot’s IRL show-hacking

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."

  • The Society of Curiotisities' subscription box begins with a mysterious mailing...

  • ...that looks appropriately antique...

  • ...and of course has a treasure map puzzle involved.

  • New chapter, new mystery, new location, new time...

  • What do this grouchy man, this children's morality chapbook, and this unicorn have in common?

  • You have to put all the pieces together—sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally—to find out.

  • The locket is beautifully made, but the pince-nez is not included.

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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."

...but made for 2020

Most of the creators I spoke with, including Orlov, Merzouk, and Rundbaken, have a background in designing real-world escape rooms. That industry, too, is in its relative infancy. Physical escape rooms basically came out of nowhere to sweep all over the country just in the past few years. Data collected by Room Escape Artist found 24 US escape room facilities in operation in 2014; by 2019, that number had grown to almost 2,400—a 9,900 percent increase in just five years.

Being shut into a small, poorly ventilated room with a half-dozen friends and strangers and having to touch everything you can see in order to get out is a surprisingly fun pastime in a general sense—and a horrifyingly bad idea in a specific sense, here in 2020 where we are still struggling to get through a massive pandemic. Escape room creators, like everyone else who can, are now trying to work from home—and this weird and wonderful slice of gaming is getting a massive boost as a result.

"There have been a lot more creators popping up—it felt like every month there was a new project, and since the pandemic, every week there's a new project," Orlov said. "Because so many escape rooms are not able to be open, [creators] now have more freedom to be able to put it together at their home."

Supply and demand, here, are working in tandem, she added. "I saw on, I think, Google Analytics, where just the search for the word 'puzzle' shot up by a crazy amount after COVID hit. So I think a lot of people kind of fell into the scene, just because they've been looking for indoor things to do."

Google Trends does indeed reveal a very visible spike in "puzzle" searches in late March, with another rising in late November. Sales of jigsaw puzzles have been sky-high since March, and there is now a global shortage of puzzles thanks to a combination of high demand and pandemic-related manufacturing challenges. More than ever, players seem willing to branch out into novel, new at-home experiences.

Bringing the rooms to you

Escape room creator Nick Moran, faced with a world where players can't go to escape rooms, is taking the next logical step: bringing the rooms to the player. He and his team are working on Spectre and Vox: an ambitious 3D-model haunted house—just under three feet long on each side—that sits on your dining room table and has visual and audio effects connected to and triggered by an app.

Although this is Moran's first at-home product, he didn't find the scale of it daunting. His design background includes several "pretty big, complex" escape rooms in the UK, including partnering with Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss on the BBC-licensed Sherlock experience in London. Bringing the games to the players had been on Moran's radar for a while, and the pandemic provided an opportunity to go for it.

  • The haunted mansion of Spectre and Vox, seen from the outside.

  • with a player's hand, for scale.

  • Tiny fixtures for a tiny bathroom.

  • It does look quite creepy, in a close-up...

  • What's a tiny ballroom without tiny furniture...

  • ...and of course, an extremely baby grand piano?

  • The cluster of designer/players gives a sense of the scale of this thing.

  • The player's point of view of a paranormal situation.

  • You can use a phone app or an Alexa-powered device to play the stories of Spectre and Vox.

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"I come from a live event background," Moran explained. "And what I want [for a home experience] is something that feels like a live event—that feels like something that's truly immersive, that you can lose yourself in, where it's as much about the artifice intellectually as the artifice physically."

The trick, for Moran's team, is creating that same sense of discovery and of an alternate reality when you can't bring a player into your own live experience. "The thing I miss about live events is that moment when you enter—there are pockets of it where you forget what you're doing, and just believe in the world of the experience. And you start to think about the world, and the experience, as something that's purely real, and that you have to interact with, and your mind kind of shifts again into kind of another reality."

Moran spoke of theater—he studied writing and directing extensively in drama school—and the powerful sense of immersion a theatrical performance can create. That's why the Spectre and Vox house has so much detail, plus lighting effects and audio. The goal is to draw players into its stories in a present, tangible, theatrical way.

"When you're in a really great piece of immersive theater, you know, only this world exists for you, which is the thing that I really miss," Moran said. The plan for Spectre and Vox was always to maximize immersion and try to capture that feeling at home.

"Immersive" is, he grants, an overused buzzword. "'Immersive' is now used by everything like burger chains, ooh, a really immersive burger," Moran gently mocked. "But it does actually have an inherent meaning, that word, which I think people forget. And it is that thing that makes you forget where you are. That's what we really want to try to have."

Live, remote: Why not both?

Moran is far from the only experienced designer who keenly misses live events this year, nor is he the only one getting creative to build out live events you can play from home.

Kellian Adams Pletcher has managed Club Drosselmeyer as a live interactive event in Boston every year since 2016. As the website describes it, "We've delighted Bostonians with a WW2-era nightclub and our own live, swing-time version of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite played by our eight piece swing band. In the club, players dress their 1943 best, solve puzzles, work together, watch our floor show, listen to the excellent band and dance the night away!"

A club event is obviously even less advisable than an escape room in a pandemic. "I think I realized back in April that if we were going to have Club Drosselmeyer, we just weren't going to be able to do a club," Adams Pletcher told me. "I still really wanted to do something for people, this sort of swing era rebellion—I feel like people need some. If we can give people something that's positive for two hours, some way to interact with people and be happy—just that momentary break, I think it's worth it."

Thus was born the Club Drosselmeyer interactive radio show experience. Very few people have traditional AM/FM radios available to them anywhere except their cars these days, but everyone has a phone, so Adams Pletcher's husband designed a system to take advantage of that. Taking the 1940s-style radio play all-digital gave Club Drosselmeyer more flexibility. The show-slash-event has both live interactive performances, where players can speak with actual actors, and recorded versions, which players can complete on their own time.

  • Radio and telephone, alas, not included.

  • Some of the paper goods that help you figure out what the characters are talking about.

  • You can't see the actors in person, but you can still talk to their characters, including Herr Drosselmeyer...

  • ...Sugar Faye...

  • ...Dr. Clara Stahlbaum...

  • ...and Ginger Lamarr, lead singer.

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"So you call different characters, and you make different choices, and it sends you to different puzzles based on that," Adams Pletcher explained. "Then that interacts with the radio broadcast itself, and changes the way that it goes. When you do different things, you hear a different radio broadcast. For example, if you call Sugar Faye and you help her find the ingredients rations... if you help her out, then you hear the cooking show. But if you don't help her out, and she never figures out the cooking show, then you don't get to hear it." When Adams Pletcher and I spoke, Club Drosselmeyer had seven possible endings; she hoped, by the time the experience goes live, to have that up to 10.

Other designers, too, are launching live, timed experiences to finish the year with a bang. Orlov's PostCurious, for example, is partnering with The Great Gotham Challenge to run a puzzle competition, The Great Gotham Challenge: Post Haste, this December.

The contents of this one are still largely mysterious. Players form teams of four and then compete live to solve "a series of cyberspace-based and tactile clues" before any other team. Full disclosure: my husband and I roped in two friends in other cities and will be participating in the December 12 competition—but while our packages have shipped, as of the time this story was filed they have not yet arrived, and so even I don't know what will be in them.

Even the games that seem purely prefab can still have a live element in them. Society of Curiosities, for example, relies on chatbot systems that sometimes need human help. Players, after all, often think of suggestions no amount of playtesting can account for.

"For the first few weeks after we launch a game, we actually get a notification every time the AI fails," Merzouk said. "It's actually a sad trombone sound coming from my phone, and then that means I have to jump on the computer and make sure we can reply manually at first and then, over time, it becomes automated."

Low-stakes fun times

While many of these puzzle experiences require a significant investment of time and/or money, not everything is high stakes, high drama, or high cost. Some designers are simply in it to help you have a bit of fun.

Anna Ellett and her husband Ace launched Bluefish Games out of their Phoenix-area home a few years ago after discovering a shared love of escape rooms. Rather than sending the player to look for alchemical secrets, pirate treasure, or weird eldritch mysteries buried for a thousand years, Bluefish's games instead rely on a gentle series of cooperative, clever puzzles taking place in a shared "Mr. Hincks" world.

  • The Curious Elevator of Mr Hincks relies on both a Web interface and a collection of paper artifacts.

  • If you play it right, you're... mostly... going up.

  • The Curious Stairs of Mr Hincks, like the Elevator, relies on both a Web interface and a collection of paper artifacts.

  • A strange man invites you to lock yourself into an even stranger staircase! What could possibly go wrong?

  • A collection of goods that help you climb the curious stairs.

  • The Hincks Gazette is a series of hidden puzzles unto itself.

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The Elletts' first game, The Curious Elevator of Mr. Hincks, sends players on a journey up through a cheerfully demented skyscraper. Each floor you visit requires you to solve a problem—or, occasionally, a nested series of problems—to generate a password that then allows you to access the next floor. The sequel, Curious Stairs, does much the same, but in a stairwell. They also send out the "Hinks Gazette" as a monthly subscription, a comedic newspaper full of little puzzles to solve.

Keeping both play and tone lighthearted is important to Bluefish, Anna Ellett told me in an email interview.

"By the time we made The Curious Elevator, we knew we wanted: no timer, cooperative play, online hints and answer entry, materials that could be passed along a few times and then oftentimes recycled, and a theme that didn’t take itself too seriously," Ellett said. Their goal, she added, is to create "satisfying work" for players' brains. "Fine-tuning a puzzle so that it optimizes the chance of the ah-ha moment and then seeing it actually work is definitely the best part of my job."

She also hopes that games like Hincks can help be an on-ramp for new players who might just be dipping their toes into at-home puzzles.

"We're heading towards a day when the word 'puzzles' won't just conjure the idea of jigsaw puzzles in the minds of the masses," Ellett said, describing many of the escape room-style games that are already available for retail purchase. "We want more people to feel welcome in this realm, so our next project will approach puzzles a bit more slyly, but with just as much of an ultimate, 'I've got it!' feeling when a puzzle is solved. We want to lean a lot more into that concept and make challenging, invigorating puzzles that provide more of an equal playing field for newbies and veterans alike."

Speaking of newbies...

Which brings us to: if you're new to this weird world, where so many games are found only on Kickstarter or travel through word of mouth but don't show up on retailers' shelves, where should you start?

It's kind of a weird world to dive into, with so few games of this type currently available on retailers' shelves, but the Internet is chock full of enthusiasts who are both willing and eager to welcome new fans to their ranks. Both board game and escape room enthusiast sites also increasingly review new products in this genre.

"For people who are interested in playing games, I think it's important that you try a few and see what you like, because there are so many types of games out there," Rundbaken said. "There's no one type of game that's going to be perfect for everyone."

There can be wisdom in the crowd, she added. "Join groups, so you can chat and get to know what other people like and who might like what you like. Because a recommendation [for something] from people who are really gung-ho and love it—it still might not be the game you love. The game that some people hate might be a game you absolutely adore."

Ultimately, she added, you need to know your own taste. When you're looking at a game, try to find out: how puzzle-heavy is it? How story-heavy is it? Because if you prefer your experiences to tilt one way or the other, that will have a huge impact on how much you enjoy something. You may also want to double-check if the experience you're planning to buy into has an online hint system, or at least a responsive administrator, because getting a gentle nudge when you're stuck can make all the difference between a great time and a total bust.

And if nothing out there right now strikes you, just wait: six months from now the scene will be bursting with dozens more experiences as designers spread their wings.

"Even in the last six months, you can see how people are getting better at it. Designers of the games are getting better, and working with the medium more," Merzouk said.

Rundbaken agreed with him: "We've been playing the games for, what, two or three years, all these tabletop escape rooms. And it's been really interesting, how much [the scene] has grown and how even the smaller companies, so many of us are really getting innovative. It's almost competitive in a way, that we can create something no one's seen before."