Around the second week of September, I received a correspondence from Michelle Gray, a private investigator from the small town of Chestnut Falls, Illinois. She wanted my help with a case involving the apparent murder of Chestnut Falls pharmacist Charles MacDonagh on the night of his high school reunion. The suspects included members of MacDonagh’s old senior class clique, the “Hacky Pack,” of which Gray was a member. She was too close to this thing and needed a fresh pair of eyes.
I found this all a little strange, given that I have no background or expertise as a criminal investigator, but Gray did throw in a sweet neon koozie from the reunion, so I figured I’d do her a solid and take a gander at the evidence. Breaking the seal on a manila envelope, I discovered several pages of witness testimony, an official incident report, a big map of Chestnut Falls, a Class of ’98 Chestnut High yearbook, a blacklight, and a few other odds and ends. Gray’s letter also gave me access to a “virtual shared desktop” containing electronic case files, gin cocktail recipes, and a funky Spotify playlist.
Within about two hours, I’d exhausted the available evidence, boogied to Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and eliminated one of the nine suspects. In her letter, Gray promised she’d send over new evidence as it became available, but for now, I was left with a bundle of unresolved mysteries and a hankering to watch The Craft. I had my suspicions about MacDonagh’s killer and had grasped a handful of tantalizing threads, but if I wanted to tug on them to see where they led—and maybe, in the tradition of Weezer, see the whole thing unravel—it was clear I was going to have to wait.
Future generations might look back on the 2010s as the decade of the subscription box. In what appears to be a balancing of the scales against the monumental rise of “on-demand” entertainment culture and the internet’s relentless repackaging of our lives and social interactions, the popularity of the subscription box looks to be ever-growing. The “subscription economy” is a multi-billion-dollar business, delivering curated crates of beauty products, razors, wine samplers, fashion items and accessories, geeky tchotchkes, toys, literature, snacks, socks, pet supplies, and even carnivorous plants to millions of Americans each month. While I don’t have the disposable income or shelf space for something like Loot Crate, I’ve dabbled in more utilitarian subscriptions: a former subscriber to the graze box, I recently signed up for Imperfect Produce, a weekly delivery service that reduces food waste and helps you save on essentials by leaving off-spec or surplus fruits and vegetables on your doorstep. I can understand the subscription addiction: with more and more of our correspondence now conducted virtually, it’s nice to get something tangible in the mail besides bills and credit card offers.
As much as curation culture might seem cozy and old-fashioned, like a monthly care package from Mom and Dad, it’s also impossible to completely separate from our spectacle-driven social media landscape, particularly as it manifests on visual platforms like YouTube and Instagram. The trajectory of the unboxing video, that unlikely genre of entertainment, has largely matched that of the subscription box, to the point that modern kids’ toys are now packaged in a way that deliberately feeds into the unboxing spectacle. So we’re left with a tension: on the one hand, the sentimental, mildly boujee notion of curated wine-and-cheese samplers or backyard chicken-keeping supplies, and on the other, the open embrace of YouTube’s culture-destroying popularity algorithms.
Forget about unboxing vids, though; Hunt A Killer might be the first monthly box that encourages its subscribers to create conspiracy boards. The “Start Here” guide that came in my box recommended that I prepare a “cork board, highlighters, notepad, binder, red string, etc.” They even offer an optional “Murder Board Kit” ($47.00) on their virtual storefront. This is a box that embraces the spectacle.
But I’m getting ahead of myself; let me take a step back, lay out the facts of the case. Hunt A Killer is an episodic, interactive mystery in a box, inspired by Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), escape rooms, and the kinds of live-action, prop-driven immersive experiences that tend to appear at certain geek-culture conventions (Hunt A Killer actually began as “an immersive thriller event at Camp Ramblewood, MD”). Every month, subscribers receive a box full of hand-crafted clues, props, and other goodies, either kicking off a new mystery or continuing an existing one. (There are typically two “series” per year; the box I received from Gray Investigations was Episode 1 of a six-episode arc called Class of ’98.)
Gnomish Hat, the company that produces Hunt A Killer and its offshoots, the paranormal-themed Empty Faces box and the sci-fi Earthbreak box, definitely knows how to put on a production. What immediately struck me was that they had co-opted the actually interesting elements of ARGs—particularly their nonlinear narrative structure and strong “this is not a game” aesthetic—while ditching the elements that render them inaccessible to large portions of the population. Case files were photocopied into oblivion, a newspaper clipping looked and felt like authentic newsprint, but it was clear the bulk of this box’s production time and budget went into crafting the Chestnut High yearbook, a marvelously produced prop packed with senior photos, signatures, and late-’90s nostalgia. While the scale is just shy of believable, even for a small town, it’s beyond impressive for a $25 box and must have required a small army of models, writers, designers, and artists to make it happen.
As impressive as the yearbook is—and I’m positive that it, along with the included map and partial timeline, will only grow more relevant as the six-episode arc continues—it did leave the rest of the box feeling a little spare. A password-protected folder in the virtual desktop contains all of two files, and important components like an evidence checklist exist largely for flavor at this stage in the investigation. As mentioned above, it took about an hour or two to gather all of the evidence needed to eliminate one of the suspects, which Hunt A Killer defines as the “end” of the episode. The episodic, subscription-based nature of the box ended up working against it in this case: I felt I spent most of my time setting up a foundation for future boxes, with minimal deduction required to reach this episode’s less-than-satisfying conclusion. As I mentioned previously, I have no doubt that the details I did uncover will prove vital as the case progresses, but that’s of little consolation now—media like Capcom’s masterful Ace Attorney series have already shown it’s entirely possible to make evidence entertaining, relevant, and intriguing now while witholding its true significance for later. Finishing Episode 1 of Class of ’98 felt a bit like sitting down to a puzzle adventure game and realizing midway through it’s a visual novel. Or trying to get into Dark by watching just the trailer for the pilot. Or, what the heck, like attending your class reunion and realizing that, behind the retro neon streamers and Backstreet Boys beat, it’s just a small, poorly lit high school gymnasium.
Luckily, Gnomish Hat had provided me with another box, this one a sample of their new Earthbreak line. Where the first episode of Class of ’98 left me feeling investigatorially undersatisfied, Earthbreak kept me riveted throughout. Here was a box that was far bigger than it at first seemed, backed by stellar world-building, packed with some truly bedeviling puzzles and a strong digital component. Blending elements of Fallout, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and other sci-fi classics, Earthbreak cast me in the role of resident C117, the newest member of a secretive underground facility in the wake of a devastating extraterrestrial invasion. Unfortunately, my arrival coincided with a moment of upheaval within the facility, as its residents debated whether to permanently seal themselves off from the outside world following the unexpected death of one of their own. My anonymous contact suspected foul play and tasked me with scouring the internal NACS server for any evidence of conspiracy or wrongdoing.
Part of what made Earthbreak so much more satisfying for me was that its setting, fueled by secrecy, paranoia, and terror of the unknown, naturally lends itself to ciphers, hidden “backdoors,” and multiple layers of obfuscation—and even when I wasn’t racking my brain against honest-to-goodness puzzles, I was piecing together details of Earthbreak’s backstory and sussing out the rules of its post-invasion setting. My brain never felt disengaged, and even in this first episode, I had a satisfying feeling of “peeling back the curtain” as, progressing into incrementally gated portions of the NACS server, I learned to attach names, personalities, and faces to a cast that was initially referred to entirely by identification number—A002, B005. The pervasive use of these numerical identifiers serves the dual purpose of enriching the setting and making even the most banal conversation on NACS server’s “Resident Discourse” forum feel like an exercise in code-cracking.
I cannot overemphasize how impressed I was with Earthbreak’s opening chapter. I even got to interact with the facility’s state-of-the-art AI, PATRICIA, who—in the tradition of HAL 9000, GERTY, GLaDOS, and MU-TH-UR—may have overgrown her initial directive of monitoring the facility and its residents. In fact, the only unsatisfying element of the whole thing was knowing when the episode was over. Unlike Hunt A Killer, which gave me a clear goal—play until you think you can eliminate at least one suspect—Earthbreak was more vague, tasking me to play until I felt I had “finished the episode.” As it turned out, I misjudged the mark and accessed the box’s Recap page, which provides hints and reveals for each episode, way too early. Even without expanding the spoiler tags, seeing how many things I hadn’t yet figured out—knowing that there’s something deeper to figure out about this or that element—was a bit of an unwanted spoiler, and I’d have liked more guidance from my contact about exactly how much of the conspiracy I was expected to unravel before opening the next box.
I have a feeling that Gnomish Hat intentionally shipped me boxes on opposite ends of the spectrum: Class of ’98 is likely intended as a way to ease amateur sleuths into this unique brand of multimedia puzzle-solving, while Earthbreak shows off just how much immersive puzzle-solving can be packed into a single $25 subscription box. While the latter is definitely more my speed, I can’t help but note how well the whole Gnomish Hat project embodies the paradox at the heart of the zeitgeist. It’s a real without origin or reality, an authentic fake. It’s the same quantum force fueling the boom in VR, escape rooms, and Bandersnatch, the longing for authenticity and the hunger for virtual spectacle. There’s perhaps no more fitting form of escapism, in this emotionally and psychically draining post-truth era, than into another deep fake, a simulation that is cathartically solvable.