Maso Award

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It’s Tuesday evening and all of my house guests who were in town for the 180th convention of the National Puzzlers’ League have departed. I’m alone in my condo to reflect on the events related to my 22nd reunion with my chosen family. I won’t bury the lede. The highlight of my weekend, and perhaps my entire NPL experience to date, took place on Sunday morning when Kristy McGowan and Wil Zambole stepped to the podium to announce the Maso Award. This is an award named for the “nom” (NPL nickname) of Thomas Gazzola who was taken so unfairly from the puzzle community in 2015. Wil approached me at last year’s convention with the idea to create an annual award in Maso’s honor to recognize the NPL member who showed the true spirit of the convention. I fully supported the idea as well as the suggestion to appoint Eric Berlin as the inaugural recipient of the award. At the Sunday awards ceremony this year I was sleep deprived and wondered why Wil had not sought my input on a Maso Award winner for 2019. And then it hit me. And then it really hit me.

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Eric was taken off guard when he was announced as last year’s winner. I was similarly stunned and unable to offer any kind of address beyond an emotionally hampered “thank you” as I accepted my certificate. Now that I have my bearings I want to share some thoughts on the honor and the convention.

Maso was an immensely positive force in my life as a puzzle creator. I am not a spiritual person but I still have “conversations” with Maso. My impressions of him as a vital force in the puzzle community remain very strong, and in our conversations he gives me comfort, keeps me honest, and guides me in the direction of being a better person. After the wrap-up of this year’s activities, I was included in a discussion of possibly renaming the award to something more general, so Maso’s nom would not be elevated above other great NPL members who are no longer with us. I respect that sentiment and hold memories of departed Krewe firmly in my feels, but Maso was special to me and the award as it was presented to me will remain dedicated to him.

Eric Berlin posted an excellent summary of the convention that includes a mention of my award. He describes the decision he reached with Kristy and Wil by stating “nobody else really comes close.” That is flattering, but I respond in all seriousness that I want more members of the League to “come close.” The growth of the convention is both exciting and concerning. We need more people to step up and help keep the convention running functionally in the wake of the expanded attendance. I know that many members of the Krewe look upon the convention as a vacation, but we need more contributions from the them to maintain the quality of the event. Even little things like volunteering to pass out answer sheets for large group games are helpful and greatly appreciated. Please contact me if you want ideas of how you can benefit the League through service.

ETA: I wrote the above in a slightly heated state and regret the way I used the quotation from Eric’s summary. Many people exhibited the spirit of the Maso Award to make RockOn a fantastic convention. I want to thank the members of the board, my colleagues on the program committee, the ambassadors, the code of conduct committee, and all of the presenters for their hard work. And I especially want to applaud Kristy McGowan for doing an amazing job hosting a seamless convention!

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Immersive Theatre Pop-Up

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Immersive Theatre Pop-Up is performance event that took place this afternoon at the downtown branch of Denver Public Library. The event featured six pieces and was overseen by the creative teams at Off-Center, a division of Denver Performing Arts Center. The event was experimental and each small team behind one of the six pieces faced the same goal: to collaborate on creating a repeatable performance piece that lasted 6-8 minutes, addressed a relevant library topic, and offered active participation opportunity for every individual who attended the piece. The time span between conceiving the piece and striking the set after the final performance was just under 24 hours.

I volunteered to be an actor in the event and was assigned to a team that would create a piece on the topic of banned books. Our team of five actors and director Leigh Miller met at the downtown library on Saturday afternoon to tour the performance space and then relocated to a DCPA rehearsal room to hash out a concept. We noted that books are rarely banned in the U.S. but many are challenged, and we used the DPL’s book challenge form as the inspiration for the piece. We would prompt attendees to choose a word they dislike, ask them what they disliked about it, and then submit this information to an unseen judge who would ban it based on the attendees comments. We felt a printed except from a familiar literary work would be useful as a source for attendees to pick words, and one of my castmates came up with the inspired idea to use an excerpt from The New Colossus. After a word was banned, attendees would be led to a “redaction room” to mark out the chosen word as well as adjacent, corrupted text. The attendee would be invited to keep the redacted copy of the poem, “as a record of what would now appear at the base of the Statue of Liberty.” We drafted a basic script, ran some table reads, came up with a prop list, and called it a night at 10 p.m.

On Sunday morning we met at the library to set up our space. The main set piece was a mountain of books piled on a round table in a conference room where we would read the Judge’s ruling. The five of us rehearsed, taking turns as the “advocate.” We also went to the spaces of the other five performance pieces to experience their works. At 1:30 we opened to the general public. Our piece, titled “Banned Together,” attracted about 100 audience members, and I led about dozen groups made up of 1-4 individuals. The concept was admittedly blunt and manipulative, but many attendees seemed quite affected by the gut-punch line of the redaction scene. Our piece was often the last of the pieces experience by attendees because we performed on the seventh (highest) floor of the library. I regretted this and wished more people has finished on lovely “Soñadores/Dreamerswhich explored the library as a refuge for persons of different cultural backgrounds. The last “Banned Together” groups finished at 3 p.m. and the teams met for a debrief before going our separate ways.

I enjoyed being in an acting role again, though a lot of the advocate’s dialogue was giving instructions, something I do a lot in the puzzle community. The abbreviated creation process was more remarkable than the actual performance, and I hope Off-Center will try this experiment again in the future.

Overlook Film Festival

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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!)

 

Love Potion no. 13

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Last December the curators of Denver Immersive Summit asked Puzzah! to create an activity related to puzzles and immersive experience. Our offering was Love Potion no. 13, a live action puzzle experience presented last night at our Lower Downtown location. Marilyn Dorn and I created the activity and performed it along with Nick Lawson and Deirdre Lee.

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Eighteen attendees agreed to be subjects in a social experiment by sampling a dose of the compatibility enhancement drug LP-13 and then participating in a speed-dating exercise to find a perfect match. The speed-dating activity drew heavily from the structure created by Jeff Roberts for a similar event presented at the MIT Mystery Hunt in 2017. Subjects who found perfect matches learned there was more to the experiment than first advertised, and all participants eventually worked together to bring the story to a happy conclusion.

The participants included artists, musicians, designers, educators, and members of the escape room industry. The group worked well together and dispatched the puzzle set in about 20 minutes. The activity was followed by a 40-minute discussion that covered puzzles (a little) and ideas about immersive experience (a lot). My highlights of the evening were meeting new members of Denver’s immersive community and hamming it up as the nefarious Dr. Adam Rue of Blind Data Laboratories.

I hope we can reprise Love Potion no. 13 either for a DIS event or for Puzzah! but no definite plans have been made.

 

The [secret society]

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Today I joined a secret society.

Well, it’s “secret” to the extent that I am not supposed to reveal its name or some of its history, but I can confirm that it exists and that it should be a lot of fun to be part of.

Several months ago I was visiting our downtown store and noticed an unusual plaque attached to the wall of the lobby. The plaque bore a simple logo and alphanumeric code. The front desk staffer wasn’t sure what it meant but assured me that the owners knew about it. Later, I heard that some strangers visited Puzzah! and asked to interview the front-of-house staff. The interviewers wanted to know if anyone had visited the store specifically to see the plaque. Our personable staff conducted themselves in these interviews with aplomb, though one admitted after the interview that the plaque was starting to freak him out.

A few weeks ago I received an email that included the logo from the plaque. The email included some coded message and a web address. The website featured a password field, so I tried the alphanumeric code from the plaque. I found an article about a possible conspiracy, or at least egregious negligence, within the world’s scientific community. Another member of the Puzzah! design team received a similar email, and we spent some time analyzing the website and discovering hidden clues, which led to contacting other Denver-area escape room businesses that had similar plaques in their lobbies. We eventually decoded the message on the original email, which revealed a date (February 10), a time, and coordinates representing a location in Denver.

ss02.jpgThe location turned out to be a music studio in the Sun Valley area. A group of people was waiting in front of the door when I arrived. The group included some familiar faces and many people who expressed utter confusion. We were led into the studio and found envelopes, locked cases, scientific instruments, and an elaborate set of crystalline towers pulsing in various colors. We were instructed to work cooperatively and share our discoveries but most participants dove hungrily into the challenges. I enjoyed the enthusiasm and clung to the sidelines. The solvers eventually found an entrance to small courtyard with a locked chest. The chest, opened with a previously discovered combination, contained packets declaring our mission was successful and inviting us to join the secret society for fans of immersive, group-oriented puzzle experiences.

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Today’s event drew from the traditions of alternate reality games and pop-up escape rooms. Puzzle fans have been enjoying these for decades, but I never made much effort to participate. I felt honored to be included in this event. My takeaway of membership in this secret society is not the joy of puzzle solving as much as the joy of collaborative creation.

Denver Immersive Summit Notes / Eric Berlin’s “Escape Room” Crossword

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The Denver Immersive Summit drew nearly 300 creators, technologists, and businesspeople to the CU-Denver campus on Saturday. The summit opened with a mission statement by co-organizer David Thomas and a high-level history of immersive art presented by Lonnie Hanzon. No Proscenium founder Noah Nelson delivered the keynote speech titled “Presence,” which explored the opportunities for artistic expression in the immersive space. The rest of the day comprised three breakout sessions in which participants could choose between various open forums, panel discussions, and demonstrations.

In many ways, the summit only scratched the surface. The inability to understand or agree on the meaning of “immersive” was general theme of the discourse. Still. I was heartened by the “Year Zero” turnout and enjoyed the opportunity to network with other members of the community. David Thomas plans on expanding the conversation with a series of postscript events starting in 2019.

In the keynote Noah Nelson made a brief reference to a rivalry in the escape room community between “high puzzle” and “high immersive.” I wasn’t aware this rivalry but realized it might apply to the afternoon panel discussion in which Cody Borst and I discussed escape room design challenges. I am clearly of the High Puzzle camp and Cody, whose rooms are astoundingly rich sensory experiences, is the delegate for the Immersives. We expressed no antagonism as it tuns out, and instead shared common concerns about making escape rooms that are accessible to participants with a wide variety of abilities and expectations. The conversation was a bit dry at fist as Cody and I kept things on a theoretical level. Once we started giving examples of design successes and failures in actual rooms, the audience began to perk up. Among the audience members were Puzzah! coworkers, my former coworker Noreen, and friends Arianna and Winter. The Q&A session ended with a powerful question from Winter: Why do escape rooms reward strong performance with a shorter experience?

Puzzah! agreed to host one of the Summit followups with a event in February based on puzzles. I hope to address Winter’s question and other puzzle topics related to escape rooms and other immersive experiences.

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Eric Berlin has a great crossword puzzle in today’s (Sunday’s) New York Times. “Escape Room” is a contest crossword with a hidden bonus answer. Solvers can submit this answer for a chance to win a 2019 crossword calendar. Check it out!

Crosswords LA X / LA Escape Room Binge 2

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Crosswords LA provided me an opportunity for a mini-vacation in Southern California last weekend. I constructed the opening puzzle and volunteered at the tournament as a judge and an assistant for some of the game events. The tournament had a good puzzle set this year and I encourage solvers to get solve-at-home packets once they become available. Puzzle 3 by Anna Gundlach and Erik Agard gave solvers the biggest challenge of the day, but it wasn’t as dramatic a pack separator as I predicted. Solid performance throughout the day netted berths in the finals for Jeff Davidson, Brian Fodera, and Eric Maddy. Eric took the victory with the only perfect solution of Brendan Emmett Quigley’s  championship puzzle. Congratulations to all the finalists!

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Outside of the tournament, most of my waking moments in LA were assigned to a binge of local escape rooms. Tyler Hinman organized the binge and scheduled 15 escapes over the weekend. I participated in ten of them, eight on Saturday and two following the tournament on Sunday night, and it’s safe to say that the best was saved for last. Hatch Escape’s Lab Rat is the current hot escape room ticket in LA and I have to say that it lives up to the hype. The game put solvers in a world where rats are the scientists and humans the diminutive test subjects, and this premise is realized with amazing fabrication and humorous narrative. The game-play structure features many original puzzles including one challenge revealing that Tyler and I should work on some strategies if we ever end up on a charades team in the future. The room’s intricate mechanics seem a bit risk-inviting and, in fact, we suffered two mechanical hiccups that halted our game, but game master August was on the ball and got us back on track in short order. The whimsical prediction values and great teammates made this a memorable escape room experience.

Escapades LA was another highlight of the binge. Of its two rooms in North Hollywood, my favorite was Doggy Dog World in which the solving group took on the role of an intrepid canine on a quest for a beloved red ball. The dog’s-eye-view set was inspired and the endgame was hysterical. The Laboratory in downtown LA had an intriguingly manifest structure. After a generic “save the world” briefing, the group was shown a wall-mounted diagram of all the puzzles with clear visual indications of the solving order and the confirmation locations. This was helpful information as the mission had over 30 puzzles to solve. I found the structure refreshing and enjoyed the fact that we could organize our efforts so that everyone had opportunities to make contributions. I played several 60Out rooms on Saturday and my favorite was the circus themed Hyde and Seek with a fun train car set. Abyss at Maze Rooms was a two-person experience that Tyler and I completed as our last experience on Saturday night. It featured an interesting narrative and polished set but, like Maze’s Magic Kingdom, we struggled with intuitive leaps on how precisely to use the technical elements to complete each task.

The best part of escape room binges is the opportunity to solve with new friends. The montage of victory photos below includes people such as Al, Craig, Erik, Jenna, and Wyna with whom I shared an escape experience for the first time over the weekend. Thank you for adding to my joy and reminding me that it’s all about the team!

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