COVID-19 led an L.A. troupe to reject Zoom theater for games

In 2016, Marlee Delia and Anna Mavromati started an independent theater group. In 2020, the pandemic turned them into game designers.

With their small theater productions, a number that were connected to the Hollywood Fringe Festival, their Shine On Collective had seen the power of play through occasional scavenger hunts. Building upon the immersive theater movement popularized by the site-specific theatrical production “Sleep No More,” their intimate, budget-minded shows often required some form of audience participation.

But Delia had never designed an actual puzzle, and game design was never a goal of hers. When COVID-19 destroyed Shine On’s plans for a 2020 show, Delia cringed at some of the options presented to the group. She didn’t, for instance, want to take the collective’s theater to an online video platform such as Zoom.

“It felt like it was going to be hard to get that same feeling on Zoom,” Delia says. “It’s replacing salt with sugar. It looks the same, but it doesn’t taste the same. We felt like we wanted to do something physical. It had to be a physical thing you can touch. And, personally, I’m on a computer all day for work, and when I had to do a show on a computer it felt like, ‘Oh God, I have to look at a computer again’.”

So, Shine On Collective pivoted to a puzzle box.

The concept of puzzle boxes long pre-dates the pandemic — its roots date to the era of play-by-mail games. In recent years, large companies such as Disney have experimented with the idea, and murder mystery subscription boxes such as “Hunt a Killer” have an avid following, as do a number of escape rooms with in-a-box concepts.

Since the pandemic began, Shine On has released two play-at-home boxes, one recently in conjunction with Burbank bar the Roguelike Tavern. Had there not been a pandemic, the Roguelike Tavern would have opened in 2020 as a sort of reimagined dining-and-games establishment focused on so-called immersive theater works, which often have a tendency to feel like live-action role-playing games (LARPs).

“There was one show where we kind of gave people a clue that if they went to a second location and dug in the bushes they could find something,” says Mavromati, a community college English teacher by day who scripted the two theater-inspired puzzle boxes, “Welcome Home” and Roguelike Tavern’s “Spirits of Tillinghast.”

“We played around with things like that, and sometimes there were things the actors could interact with that were almost like playing games,” says Mavromati. “But it’s different when there’s an actor right there who can say, ‘This is what you do.’ That’s different than when you’re giving people a box and hoping they follow directions.”

Shine On Collective

Marllee Delia, left, and Amanda Albrecht, of Shine On Collective, a small experimental theater group, look through one of the escape room-inspired game boxes they created during the pandemic.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Boxed productions like those put on by Shine On illustrate the prevalence of games and play in storytelling and the thin line that can separate theater and games. To wit, many at-home theatrical experiences have tended to feel a bit game-like, including La Jolla Playhouse’s “Portaleza,” which ran last fall.

“Portaleza” had participants send emails and construct optical instruments, using interactivity to heighten the illusion. Center Theatre Group‘s campy “The Journey to the Elephant Room” was nominally a magic show, but one that prioritized open-ended world-building and then, among many other examples, there are the relatively tricky puzzles of “Club Drosselmeyer 1943,” an online adaption of what is normally a Boston concert/gala/LARP.

If there’s a silver-lining lesson to the pandemic, it’s a reminder that games surround us. When we can’t gather in darkened theaters, play has a tendency to become the form through which we tell stories and communicate.

“I think a lot of people’s first experience with the notion of immersive entertainment was ‘Sleep No More,’ and the way that ‘Sleep No More was originally described to me was ‘Bioshock’ but live theater,” says John McCormick, referencing the 2007 video game. McCormick is the owner of Roguelike and contributor to another local immersive theater group, The Speakeasy Society. If all goes according to plan, his Burbank bar will eventually be a hub for games and theater.

He connected with Shine On for his bar’s “Spirits of Tillinghast” experience after playing the collective’s “Welcome Home” box. Unlike slicker true-crime boxes, “Welcome Home” is designed to seem like something one might receive after moving into a new house amid a highly active neighborhood watch group.

The pamphlets feel like the sort of thing one would find in a random kitchen drawer. “At first,” says Mavromati, “we were like, ‘All this stuff, in the box!’”

A look inside the box Shine On Collective created for Burbank's Roguelike Tavern.

A look inside the box Shine On Collective created for Burbank’s Roguelike Tavern.

(Roguelike Tavern)

They were reined in by Shine On partner Amanda Albrecht, the member of the group who keeps the others on budget and on deadline. “We knew what we wanted, but we couldn’t afford to spend that much money,” Albrecht says. “We had to make things ourselves rather than buy things. It was an experiment. We were cautious that we would be able to make money off of this.”

McCormick was struck by the way the work felt personal.

Crumpled documents, neighborhood watch items and left-over “junk” from the previous owner of the home lead to phone numbers, which lead to recorded performances, which lead to unwrapping the mystery that befell the previous resident. Without spoiling the experience — which sells for $55, comes with brownies and has shipped to 14 states and counting in the U.S. — there’s a moment that can nod to others who have played through it, which McCormick feels is particularly powerful.

“They really take player agency into account,” says McCormick. “I have only done one or two of the other mystery boxes, but it’s a series of puzzles. Do this. Solve this. Doing ‘Welcome Home,’ there’s a spot at the end that I got genuinely emotionally affected by. It felt as close to a communal, non-Zoom-based immersive experience we were going to get.”

Delia, who along with Albrecht works in the food industry in marketing and operations, says she essentially did a crash course in mystery boxes for inspiration at the start of the pandemic. But ultimately it was transmedia novel “Cathy’s Book” that served as the primary influence. She first read the 2006 book about a decade ago but recalled the way it melded supplemental materials with narrative and was less about pure puzzle solving.

Delia says she found herself removing some of her favorite puzzles from the box, simply due to the challenge of ensuring they all propelled the narrative. There were times, Delia says, challenges leaned “more puzzle than story,” including one that played with various telephone tones. “It was too complicated,” she says, “I tested it with friends and they were just lost.”

For Roguelike, Shine On created an experience that builds fictional lore for the bar, one centered on the idea that the space was previously inhabited by a suspicious, potentially supernatural organization. It’s a bit more opened-ended but comes with dinner and booze for two for $150. When we can spend time in bars again, it’s likely the narrative will find its way into Roguelike’s on-site lineup.

Soon, McCormick plans to release the role-playing game-inspired box “A Bar’s Tale,” which he’s developing with the team behind like-minded experience Vampire (Dot) Pizza. “The idea is folks are going to accept a quest to go on a trek for the elements of flavor to create a potion — their cocktail — that will alleviate the curse of the bar,” he says.

When Shine On is able to get back to in-person events, expect more puzzles, Delia says. Added bonus: Puzzles are relatively safe in a pandemic-altered world, especially for an indie theater group that prides itself on one-one-one connections among actors and audience members.

“It not,” says Delia, “like all of sudden things will go back to normal and we’ll do a show where an actor is touching your face.”

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