Puzzle Your Way Out of Nemo’s Submarine in 5 Wits’s “20,000 Leagues” Interactive Adventure

While other people avoided hurricane stormclouds left and right during the last Saturday in August, I celebrated my fiancee’s birthday by heading over to Patriot Place in Foxboro, MA, where my friends and I entered a curious building run by the interactive entertainment group 5 Wits. We bought tickets to what first appeared to be a steampunk art exhibition sponsored by SteamPuffin and walked into a room containing dazzling artwork, including a rotating gearwork table and neo-Victorian mixed media pieces. The only other person there introduced himself as Ryan, the intern at 5 Wits, who was busy with a feather duster cleaning the displays. Nothing much is going on, he explained, except for the unfortunate water damage that happened in the building (with the pre-Hurricane Irene rains pouring outside, it set up an appropriate backdrop). Suddenly, the lights dimmed, the sound of grinding gears were heard, and one of the paintings slid open to reveal a hidden door to a rusted metal room….

Do we go or do we stay?

Despite our nervous intern’s warnings, we headed inside and soon were transported, somewhat inexplicitly, miles under the ocean to Captain Nemo’s infamous submarine. Not only transported, but stuck onboard, unless we figured out Nemo’s notes and puzzles in order to return to the surface. What started off as a mundane afternoon transformed into an undersea adventure in 5 Wits’ interactive game 20,000 Leagues.

My friends and I first heard about this hands-on adventure through word-of-mouth from the Massachusetts steampunk community during its construction last year, and the finished results really impressed me with its level of detail and beauty.   

Our undersea adventure started off rather Myst-like: trapped in a library with a giant world map and a pipe organ (you know you’re not really on a steampunk watercraft unless there’s an omnious pipe organ on board). Each room contained a separate puzzle to solve in order to progress to the next one.

The problem-solving skills needed varied from site-music reading to spatial reasoning; tours with a few or more people would work better than just going by yourself, but my group of four provided enough teamwork skills to work various parts of the puzzle maze. We traveled throughout the sub, exploring rooms that included a crumbling lab and a gear-crusted engine room, and in the later half of the adventure, we’re threatened by an ominous sea creature still roaming the depths of the sea since Nemo’s time….

5 Wits is an old hand at creating completely immersive game entertainment experiences, such as the Egyptian exploration game Tomb and the spy thriller Espionage. The game’s creator/designer and 5 Wits president Matt Duplessie explained in an email interview afterwards that this journey to the ocean depths was on the docket since the company was started in 2003. What he didn’t anticipate, however, was the strong reaction this game would get from the steampunk community. According to Duplessie, “We were aware of the concept of steampunk, but not the rabid following and the dedicated fans.” In fact, he reached out to Bruce Rosenbaum, the CEO of SteamPuffin and ModVic, along with other steampunk artists when assembling the art exhibit at the beginning of the game, and hosted a preview opening late last year for locals to check out their space.

The popularity of interactive games isn’t new, but Duplessie takes it to a whole different level. He believes that giving people a more immersive experience helps separate 5 Wits games from other standard forms of entertainment: “[Our games have] aspects of teamplay and cooperation, the adrenaline rush of being trapped and competing to save your own lives, the special effects that you can’t get on your TV or gaming system at home.”

While figuring out how to escape Nemo’s submarine, my favorite puzzles were ones that called for group participation, whether its figuring out where the Nautalius had traveled on a map, to jiggering with the switches, buttons & fuel rods needed to get the various rooms “running” again. And of course, the best room is the Engine Room (all those gears!). I’d love to have that on my living room wall.

Responses to 20,000 Leagues since its opening have been overwhelmingly positive. “We are so blessed,” Duplessie said, “The show attracts everything from families looking for something to do together, to college students on dates, to corporate teambuilding outings. It’s all over the map, which is wonderful.”

Plans for 20,000 Leagues will be expanding even further, including additions to their Sealab and the Bridge, plus a whole new room that 5 Wits is still keeping under wraps, but will involve lots of pipes….

I’m looking forward to returning to 20,000 Leagues in the future (especially in steamgear—the space would make an excellent spot for photoshoots!) Interested readers can check out more info on their website or call them at (508) 698-1600.

Ay-leen the Peacemaker thinks that life in general should be more adventurous. She also runs Tor.com Steampunk on Facebook and Twitter and the multicultural steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana.



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