Formats Unpacked: Box One
How a beautifully designed story creates unforgettable and surprising moments
Before we jump into today’s unpacking I wanted to point you toward Found/Saved/Subscribed/Shared, a new format we’ve launched on. You’ll know that we are obsessed with formats. But we’re also obsessed with audience behaviours. We want to understand all the ways great formats flow into the lives of their audience and what they do with them. So each week we ask someone to talk about how and where they find content, what makes them save and subscribe to something, and what makes them share it. Audience behaviours are always changing so if you want to keep ahead subscribe to the newsletter.
OK. Back to this week’s format.
Matthew Hawn is the CEO of Fictioneers, a cloud-based platform for creating and operating transmedia stories. Matt is a great thinker and is always involved in interesting projects. Today he’s unpacking something from the mind of Neil Patrick Harris.
Over to Matt…
What is it?
Box One is a solo experience that’s half escape room, half transmedia puzzle game. It was designed by actor and director Neil Patrick Harris and built with Theory 11, an unusual company selling deluxe playing cards and magic tricks.
What’s the format?
Originally a US Target department store exclusive, you can now buy Box One online and have it delivered by mail internationally. While the box is very self-contained, you’ll need an internet-connected phone or computer to play it. It’s designed as a solo experience though you could play it with a friend.
When you open the box, you’re presented with four objects
A box with a stack of “challenge” cards inside
A pad of paper
A single card in a black envelope that simply reads “you will need this card later”
There’s also a cheerfully cryptic single-page instruction note from Neil Patrick Harris himself and a link to get clues if you need them.
Box One falls into an evolving category of narrative experiences that may have been nurtured and accelerated by the social isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic and the rapid rise of board gaming. They’ve clearly been inspired by physical escape rooms and TV shows like The Crystal Maze, but you buy these boxes from game stores to play at home alone or with a small group of friends.
Most of them are designed as a cooperative experience for several players around a kitchen table instead of a physical location you visit but some are almost like interactive novels or Choose your Own Adventure game books, ideal for solo exploration. Increasingly, they are adding online components and transmedia elements in ways that bring back the Alternative Reality Games of the early 2000s.
What’s the magic that makes it special?
As with any good magic trick, to share specific details of Box One would ruin the experience.
Suffice it to say that what makes Box One special is how the story and puzzle unfolds as you play. Things are not quite as they seem and each beat of the game’s narrative arc is delightful and beautifully designed.
The best way to explore Box One is to come to it with no expectations and no real knowledge of what’s inside. The audience for this is anyone who loves puzzles, trivia games and escape rooms.
My favourite moment happens quite early in the experience, involving the stack of challenge cards. I won’t say anymore than that but when I spoke to another person who had played Box One, we realised we both shared the same joyful moment of realisation.
“At that moment,” he said, “all my expectations for what and how I was playing were transformed in a wonderful moment of surprise.”
There are several companies making these experiences now
Inka and Markus Brand are the creators of the Exit series published by Thames and Kosmos
The Curious Correspondence Club makes paper-crafted puzzle games in Canada that arrive in the post with beautiful designs and lovely writing.
Space Cowboys in France (part of Asmodee) make the elaborate and complex T.I.M.E story games as well as the more casual Unlock! series.
Diorama Games made beautiful narrative games like the Vandermist Dossier
If you are really curious about what elements go into the making of these experiences, I highly recommend this video of narrative designer Manda Whitney’s talk - Interactive Fiction in a Box - from the Narrascope interactive fiction convention last year. She skilfully and literally unpacks the component parts of these boxes and story crates to explain how they all contribute to an immersive experience. She’s also the creator of the Vandermist Dossier.
I love the attention Theory11 pays to design. Everything they produce is a thing of beauty, including their narrative arcs. If you’re not familiar with their work have a look around their site.
Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear about any new formats you’re loving at the moment. Tell me in the comments or get in touch. We are always looking for fans like Matt to share their thoughts. It really helps this community of makers keep on top of what makes great formats great.
OK. See you all next week.