Creating award-winning, at-home experiences that are part escape room, part immersive theatre and part tabletop game.
H O W   I T   A L L   B E G A N
User design and game development
At the onset of COVID my immersive theatre company, Shine On Collective began to create immersive experiences that could be delivered in a box and played at-home. With a blend of narrative and puzzles, audio and video, these experience boxes provided an outlet of entertainment for hundreds of people across the United States and Canada.
We created Welcome Home as our first experimental at-home theatrical product and after being featured in the LA Times, we went on to create many more in collaboration with local restaurants and bars.
From theatre to box
Before COVID our shows relied on the development of intimacy between characters and audience, telling narrative stories and creating worlds and experiences that invited people to become part of the journey.
After realizing that we weren’t going to be doing in-person shows for a while it became this question of - what now? We needed to take a look at what moments of play or catharsis or entertainment players needed right now and how our storytelling skills could play a part in creating something that would provide that.
We specifically focused on our strengths and the skills we had developed - creating intimacy, crafting experiences, telling stories. But we had to use our new resources and climate to do this in a completely different way.
Getting off a screen
At the time, a lot of theatre makers were turning to online conferencing platforms, such as Zoom, to replace in-person interactions. In my day to day life, I was on a computer all day long and the last thing I wanted to do after a long day of work was get back in front of a screen. My life experience was screaming, “give me anything physical - I don’t want to look at a screen for one more moment!” 
Eventually we started experimenting with incorporating other digital media, but right out of the gate, we explored how to use physical objects to build a world and create connections between people. We asked ourselves, how can you build meaning through things so that once you look at them, explore them and put your hands on them, it makes you feel as though you’re part of the world they come from? Without having direct interactions with people we wanted players to feel as though they had become part of a community of people in this newly discovered world.
Discovering player agency
Just like our shows, our creation process put player agency at the forefront of exploration. Very early on in the process of crafting an at-home experience we talked about the role we wanted the audience to play within the story. What is their narrative goal? What obstacles do they face? Why is it important that it’s this player specifically and not anyone else? The narrative is shaped around these central questions.
Telling the story
Wether it’s solving a neighborhood murder, digging into a sci-fi mystery or tracking down an evil circus, narrative is at the core of our experiences. We find a lot of power in telling stories about female experiences and we often use elements of horror to shine a light on the frightening things in our world. We also focus on putting our players in the position of being able to help someone. It doesn’t matter if it’s pretend, creating a feeling of being able to help someone is a universal feeling. In Codename Burg3r: Eternal Circus, players are contacted by someone needing their help, his sister E’ifi has gone missing and he needs the players help to figure out where she could be.
Using puzzles as gatekeepers
One of the huge differences between creating events and creating at-home experiences, is the boundary system. At a live event, there’s a lot more you can do to manipulate the player experience. If you don’t want them to enter a room, you simply lock the door and have a person guide them to the correct area. In an at-home experience you can’t lock the door, there’s a lot less control. One of our strategies to gate information or creatively reveal narrative, was to use puzzles as a method to unlock more of the story. In this way, they become a mechanic for the flow of the narrative as well as a way to create more agency for the players. In Roguelike Tavern Presents: Spirits of Tillinghast, players must hack into the creepy database of a mysterious science organization to advance the story.
N A R R A T I V E   M E C H A N I C S
Experience of time
It’s typical in an immersive show to put the audience into the shoes of someone else - whether they’re pretending to be a different character or a different version of themselves. In Welcome Home the audience steps into the shoes of the main character and experiences this mystery as he did, following his steps, solving the puzzles he did and having the discoveries he did. In this story, the player is looking back on something that’s already happened. In another experience, we used text messages as a main mechanic. Players would text with the main character to help and guide them. In this experience the timeline of the narrative is different, players are “creating” and interacting in real time. This can give them more agency but it also tends to feel less theatrical, giving us less leeway to play with more artistic (and less realistic) troupes.
E X P E R I E N C E   M E C H A N I C S
Exploration of sandbox vs. linear
In immersive theatre, it’s common to describe shows as either a linear show (or “on rails”) or a sandbox style show. In a linear show, the interactions happen in a specific order and the audience is guided through the experience as if through a theme park. A sandbox experience typically means the audience can explore the space freely and usually doesn’t see things in a specific order. We’ve always tended to lean toward a very linear style because it’s easier to play and control narrative, which is an important part of our aesthetic. But we did play with using more sandbox elements. For example in the Spirits of Tillinghast box, players can explore the contents of the box freely and do the first few puzzles in any order to unlock the rest of the content whereas Beware the Woods, a game made for Canada family restaurant chain Wacky’s, is purely linear. 
U I   D E S I G N
A theatrical design approach
We designed the box, and the objects in it, in a theatrical way. We approached the design like you might a theatre set. A living room of a serial on stage might be less realistic, dark and drab, things twisted at odd angles. We incorporated that same theatricality in the physical objects that players are receiving and the digital artifacts that they’re interacting with so the emotion of the story is bleeding into everything they touch. Instead of crafting literal versions of things, these objects live in a theatrical place.
There’s also a large amount of audio incorporated into the experiences. Many of the shows use interactive phone elements as puzzles or for story content. Players often have to call phone numbers, navigate phone trees or hack into voicemails.
Gathering feedback for iterations
We had never designed something with puzzles before so testing was our highest priority. We needed to know where the puzzles were too hard or too easy, where people got confused about the narrative and where the flow of the game didn’t feel right. We started with a paper prototype, having people print stuff out at home, making iterations until we were testing with a full version of the game. Over the course of a three month testing process, we observed people playing the game. In the beginning of the process we cut puzzles that didn’t work. We noticed that people would feel confused if the puzzle didn’t make enough sense to the story. The puzzles needed to be fun, but they also needed to make the players feel like they had agency within the story and act as the guide through the narrative.
We also made narrative changes. There were a few times we had to relay information in a more obvious way than we anticipated. We may have thought we were being very clear but the players wouldn’t understand parts of the story because they were having to take in so much stimulus and so much information at once. 
M O R E   T H A N   A   G A M E
Making an experience stand out
All of our games have been sold not just as a game, but as an experience. There are so many board games or tabletop games that you bring home, put on the shelf and forget about. Our very first game came with a full in-world dinner that was created for the story by an award winning female chef. We wanted to create an experience for people that would force them to create a moment to sit down and play together.
Shipping across the United States
Our games have been played by over 1,000 people, shipped to over 34 states and garnered media attention including a feature in the LA Times. Welcome Home was also shortlisted for the Interaction Awards in the category of Engaging "capturing attention, creating delight and delivering meaning".