Two weeks ago my friend Ryan, one of the Puzzah! founders, asked me if I wanted to join him at the Overlook Film Festival. I’m not a fan of horror films but I looked at the festival website and was intrigued by the immersive, virtual reality, and puzzle/game events included on the Overlook schedule. I was also in need of a vacation and imagined New Orleans, a city I had never visited, as a great change of scenery. We spent the next few days making flight and hotel arrangements and registering for the festival events. Last Wednesday we arrived in The Big Easy and our haunt-scene adventure began.
Over two dozen films were screened at Overlook this year. The marquee offerings were the premieres of Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die and Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s The Lodge. I prioritized live events over screenings and in the end the only films I saw were a selection of horror shorts. I met one of the short film directors, Meredith Alloway, at festival registration. Her film Deep Tissue was technically adept and its theme of gender power dynamics was provocative. Fire Escape was an virtual reality narrative requiring special signup due to the limited number of headsets. The experience is a high-tech version of Rear Window set at a Brooklyn apartment building. The viewer watches the action from a fire escape across the alley and can select windows to eavesdrop on scenes in particular apartments. Afterwards I compared notes with some of the other viewers and got some insight on apartment scenes I had missed. Overlook had a free VR Lounge at the registration area and I experienced two short VR pieces: Campfire Creepers and Wolves in the Walls based on a Neil Gaiman story. I experienced very little motion sickness, confirming that refresh rates are improving since my last VR attempt two years ago.
I attended my first immersive piece of the festival on Thursday night. The Pumpkin Pie Show was a one-on-one storytelling experience performed by Clay McLeod Chapman. I met Clay at one of the theaters and he led me to an upstairs storage room, sat me in a chair, and told a creepy fifteen-minute story called “Rest Area.” The story was good and Clay’s first-person narration was powerful. On Friday I signed up for Home of Enchantments, another one-on-one experience. Belle (played by Ava Lee Scott) texted meeting instructions at the Olivier House Hotel. I sat beside Belle in the period-furnished and otherwise deserted hotel lobby and, unlike the explicitly non-interactive Pumpkin Pie, I was prompted to join her in conversation and … do other things. It was a mesmerizing and intense performance — the highlight of my festival experience. My Saturday night show was Room Service created by the team at JFI Productions. Ryan and I were ushered into a guest room at the Olivier, tucked into the bed, and told a bedtime story. The experience left a strong impression.
I learned that the Overlook organizers traditionally present a walk-around puzzle game that can be solved in free time throughout the weekend. This year’s game was built around the story of a pair of young artists who become consumed by a dark conspiracy. The structure was similar to an MIT Mystery Hunt. The organizers scheduled a series of events over the weekend where solvers viewed a plot-advancing “skit” and received puzzles that could be solved by visiting locations in the French Quarter. Festival attendees who registered at the premium level had access to more skits and puzzles. The project was ambitious and the skits had impressive production values, but the locations and times of the skits, which were revealed during the game, often involved a ride-share several miles from the festival sites and/or conflicted with other scheduled events. Ryan and I eventually abandoned the puzzles and sought out more dedicated solvers to get story updates. I hope the organizers continue developing games of this type, but give more logistical details in advance to help solvers prepare. Saintsbone was a two-hour puzzle event scheduled at various times throughout the weekend. Small teams attended a will reading in Jackson Square and then roamed the nearby streets meeting characters connected to dearly departed. Each character posed a puzzle and then gave a clue to the meta once the puzzle was solved. Ryan and I signed up for a Saturday evening slot and the parades and tourist traffic made the streets difficult to navigate. The game creators may have misjudged the navigation time and the character frequently rushed us through puzzles to ensure the event was moving at the right pace. Still, the characters were all very fun and the story invited solvers to consider issues of life and death and make a choice at the game’s climax.
Ryan and I took some time away from the festival to visit local escape rooms. We found two other festival attendees, Elaine and Rob, to help us make the four-person minimum for the games at 13th Gate Escape in Baton Rouge. Dwayne Sanburn and his team of film industry world builders have created games with amazing sets and effects. We played Tomb of Anubis and Cutthroat Cavern and were blown away by the spectacle. Back in New Orleans, Ryan and I formed a solving duo for Escape My Room. The games created by owner Andrew Preble and his team represent rooms in the mansion of the fictional DeLaporte family. Once you open Escape My Room’s door and step off the street you are immediately in the story. We played Smuggler’s Den and Inventor’s Attic. Both had clever puzzles and visually attractive period decor … well, I suppose I can vouch more for the visuals in Attic than Den.
Ryan did some advance research and scouted out some great restaurants and bars. Weekend highlights: Felix’s (great grilled oysters!), Bennachin (African comfort food), Loa (the Jean Lafitte cocktail contains “Spanish moss pillaged from city park”), Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 (I now want to make macadamia nut liqueur), and Manolito (intimate cafe with Cuban snacks and daiquiris — we went there four times!)
You forgot about Idea Factory!