An Experiment in Immersive Storytelling
Behind the Scenes:
A New Respect for Puzzles

Think of a word, any word.

Just one.

Got one in mind?

Now, think of a way to tell me that word without saying the actual word.

The word you're thinking of is 'gelnana.'

Did I get it?

I doubt it because you weren't able to give me clues. It's a bit like Charades!™, where I have to puzzle out the clues you give me. Even if I accomplish it with your hints and guess the word you came up with, not everyone out there will get it from the same hints. Everyone's life experiences and associations with things are different, so what you think is an obvious clue could mean something entirely different for everyone. That right there is the problem with puzzles.

Here's a practice run.

Tell me you're American without telling me you're American.

A hamburger consisting of pepperoni pizza as the top bun with bacon, melted cheese, and a fatty ground beef burger on top of a bed of french fries and ketchup and a wheat bun on the bottom.
The hamburger. As American as apple pie and baseball.

Alternatively, here's another hint that we're talking about America.

A bulletproof backpack insert.
Okay, but seriously, you can buy TuffyPacks here. They are an ingenious solution to a real problem (without addressing the root of the problem.)

Now that we've practiced with America, let's return to Absolution. Imagine you want to give someone a riddle or puzzle that, when solved, conveys a secret message that isn't just one word; instead, it's a hint like "Zarina, go look under your car."

I officially challenge you to come up with a riddle that does that. You want it to be solvable, but not instantly so. If you try to come up with a riddle that tells someone to go look under their car, check yourself against people you know. What you find may surprise you.

Do you know how hard it is to create a challenging yet solvable puzzle? Damn hard. Not only that, but you can only give it to a person once. If you were to create a puzzle and find out that it needed to be tweaked, by handing it back to someone who has seen any previous iteration, you've accidentally created bias because that person has the advantage of more information (even if they never solved the first one you gave to them.)

No wonder adventure game players complain that some puzzles are impossible to solve without a walkthrough. Here's an example from one of my all-time favorite games, The Longest Journey: Stupid Rubber Duck puzzle.

All that was to explain that I only had one shot at getting these puzzles right for Zarina.

No pressure.

The Audience Matters

Zarina Rosiello, the protagonist. What skills does she have that she can put to use in solving puzzles? What languages does she know? If she encountered something in another language, would she run it by Google Translate, run it by someone fluent, or just give up on ever knowing what it said? How are her research skills, and how good is she at digging up obscure information? Does she like solving puzzles, or does she find them annoying?

It's questions like these that I had to ask myself when creating puzzles for her in Absolution. Some answers are about difficulty, while others are more about trying to keep the experience fun for her.

If you read Zarina's journey through Absolution or even just the last installment of Behind the Scenes, and if you're incredibly observant, you may have noticed that Amon had a handwritten shopping list in the background of one of the photos. It's written in German. If you can't read German, did you just move on and not give that shopping list a second thought?

Zarina didn't just move on. She pays attention to small details. With this in mind, the entire story was built for her, which is why it worked. It probably wouldn't work for someone else.

Creating puzzles is hard, and creating customized puzzles is even harder. And that is perhaps why escape rooms are full of dull puzzles that boil down to figuring out the numbers for the next combination lock.

Find the Hidden Package

Zarina likes puzzles, obviously. So, I created a few intentional points to pause the story and let Zarina work something out. The first of these was when she received a cryptic message in an envelope stuck to her front door. I planned it so that she had to work out the meaning of it so the story could progress.

A manila envelope stuck to Zarina's front door.
Actual photo of the envelope before Zarina discovered it.

The letter stuck to Zarina's front door was the moment that she realized the story was going to be something more than just emails going back and forth.

Inside the envelope was a riddle, along with a strange old newspaper clipping.

I wonder...Where can you go fast while sitting? You know the place. Look underneath. A small urn you will find. Smear the dead upon the beast. Don't be afraid to get your hands dirty. I thought you should know. -D-
You know what? My printer was acting crazy at the time and this is what it did. I rolled with it because it looked cool.
An old newspaper clipping about a strange animal.
Very odd. In fact, this is a real article. I didn't change anything about it.

Put yourself in Zarina's shoes for a second. What the hell does all of this mean?

Well, it's a two-part puzzle.

Where can you go fast while sitting?

Solution: A car.

Zarina's hand holding a black magnetic key holder with pink duct tape still attached to it.
I put hot pink duct tape on it to make it easier to spot when she looked under her car.

A few hours after she discovered the envelope on her front door, Zarina took this photo and texted me as soon as she found the package taped to the underside of her car. She figured it out while at work and ran outside to check. And you know what? Zarina was so damned excited that she was right.

But there was more to the riddle.

A small urn you will find. Smear the dead upon the beast. Don't be afraid to get your hands dirty.

Inside the package underneath her car was a Slovenian coin and a small glass vial of black powder. A short while later, Zarina texted me.

Zarina Rosiello with a friendly, smiling face

Okay, so I went home for lunch because I wanted to test out a theory re: "the beast" 


The same strange animal newspaper clipping, now with the name "KSENIA HORVAT" on top of it.

This mystery/puzzle is so fucking cool. I hope you realize.

Feb 22, 2017 12:13 PM

Yes! Success! It was so satisfying that it actually worked out without a hitch—and that Zarina loved it.

But Zarina didn't know at the time that the puzzle went through a few iterations while I was trying to figure out how to make it challenging but solvable. 

Here are a few photos of the same puzzle that eventually morphed into the one that Zarina received.

A simple line drawing consisting of an eye, a down arrow, a bonnet, a boot with a UK flag, and a wings.
Puzzle iteration #1. Too hard. What...the...? Too hard. You, dear reader, can probably decipher this because you know she was supposed to look under her car. Hand it to someone who knows nothing about Absolution and see if they can figure it out. Your mileage may vary.
A place where you can go fast by just sitting. A dark bird shouts the name. A beggar can't buy, but a rich man can't live without. Look underneath. Smear the dead upon the blank slate.
Puzzle iteration #2. Too easy (also too cheesy). This wasn't going to work because Zarina could have just Googled these and found the solution. It had to be something that didn't exist.
The same riddle with handwritten notes on it that describe the final version to come.
Puzzle iteration #3. Almost there. It had to be just right, like in Goldilocks. The 'blank slate' didn't work, by the way, because the newspaper article wasn't blank. This iteration one was so close and, with a few tweaks, worked out wonderfully.

How did I know what was too hard or too easy? Or that I had one that worked? User testing.

At this point, you may be wondering how the name "KSENIJA HORVAT" showed up on that newspaper article. It took some experimentation to figure out how to make that magic happen. Tae and I tried quite a few methods with varying success until she finally found one that worked: white crayon. The little glass vial of black powder is willow charcoal, commonly used for sketching. We wrote "KSENIJA HORVAT" in white crayon on top of the newspaper article, light enough that you couldn't tell but thick enough that it picked up the willow ash if you smeared it over the top. 

A small urn you will find. Smear the dead upon the beast. Don't be afraid to get your hands dirty.

"They don't call me propmaster for nothing, you know."
Photo of Tae Hernandez
Tae Hernandez

Find a Pattern in the Newspaper Clippings

Back in Chapter 3, Zarian received some newspaper clippings and had to find out how they were connected. The entire point of this puzzle was to clue Zarina into the fact that she was in the middle of a werewolf story, which worked wonderfully.

You can look at the newspaper articles and see if you can find the connections. And, as with Amon's shopping list I mentioned above, there's at least one Easter Egg hidden within the newspaper articles relating to language. You can read it and move on without it affecting the story, but if you take a second to dig, you'll find out that the Easter Egg was also a hint to the honesty of someone being interviewed—another clue to solving the puzzle.

I think the "find the pattern" puzzle for her is best described in her own words, as she told me how she did it.

"Okay, so the first thing I noticed was that the NWI Times article and the Connecticut article were in the same year and month. And Vera Horvat died when visiting family in CT on the same day that Meghan Rosiello disappeared in CT. So those are obviously connected. Then I started Googling the people in these articles (I appreciate all the Dresden Files references, by the way). And I realized that the Star is a Toronto paper, Suzanne MacDonald is a professor who studied raccoons in urban settings at the University of York in Toronto, and Nathalie Karvonen is the director of the Toronto Wildlife Center (which she started in 1992).

IDK if you changed the city to Tallahassee just because I lived there or if Toronto has any significance. Then I realized that the Post Bulletin article was a real article where you changed the owner of the weird animal's last name to Rosiello. Which led me to wonder if you'd changed anything else about the article—and you had.

The date.

Why would you change the date from July 4, 1989, to July 19, 1989, unless the date was significant? I also found via Google that Peggy Callahan from the Post Bulletin founded the Wolf Project while she was living in Rochester. Something clicked with the wolf project + maulings by animals + dates that have some significance. So I searched for "full moon" plus the dates that each attack happened.

Sure enough, March 21, 1962, June 12, 1976, and July 18, 1989, were all full moons. This was confirmed when I checked and realized March 12, 2017, was a full moon too. Also, thinking about how I might further fit into this story with the upcoming full moon helped me realize that Meghan Rosiello (presumably a werewolf??) was 25 when she disappeared/possibly killed Vera Horvat (?). And Giovanni Rosiello had just turned 25 when he got ill, then superhumanly strong."
Zarina Rosiello with her serious work face. A small swoop of green is on the left side of her photo.
Zarina Rosiello

I must say, Zarina did an outstanding job figuring it all out. She even figured out that little Easter Egg I mentioned above without any hint that it even existed. See? I told you she pays attention to small details. If you ever take on creating a puzzle, riddle, escape room, adventure game, or anything of the sort, I'd love to hear how it goes.