The Tale of Ord: Form

In the waning days of the year 2020, I finally accomplished something I’d been putting off for a couple of years: finishing The Tale of Ord, the blockbuster puzzle-story package from PostCurious, makers of the upcoming Emerald Flame.

This is a genre that has its roots in the venerable Dennis Wheatley crime dossiers and the Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective board game, but its current form, based around serialized mailings, was basically pioneered in 2013 by The Mysterious Package Company, which seems to emphasize story over puzzles. And there seems to have been something of a boom in the form lately, probably spurred on by the pandemic-driven closure of the escape rooms at the height of their popularity. I myself am currently subscribed to two such series, Scarlet Envelope and The Curious Correspondence Club, which I may or may not post more about later. Ord was clearly meant to be serial, consisting of four chapters, each in its own 9″x12″ envelope, but I received them all at once in a box.

The most obvious way that Ord distinguishes itself is through its production values. The whole basis of the genre, and the core of its appeal, is that it’s a story told through physical artifacts, an adventure game made entirely of feelies, hiding information through their physical properties: “Aha, this object fits perfectly over that one!” sort of thing. But in most cases, what you get is made of various sorts of paper and cardstock, even when the fiction claims otherwise. For example, both Ord and Curious Correspondence Club feature a puzzle where you’re supposed to lay a series of keys over some text as a grille, and read numbers through the gaps. CCC‘s keys, although described as metal in the chapter’s intro text, are cardboard in the package. You have to pretend to yourself that they’re real keys. Ord gives you actual metal keys, no pretending necessary, making good on the implicit promise. The climax of the fourth and final chapter is an actual wooden puzzlebox — which requires a little pretending, because it’s supposed to be a Viking artifact and it’s clearly made of plywood, but it’s still a working physical machine that makes a very satisfying “ka-click!” when you solve it, letting you know you’re done in a visceral way before you’ve even seen the reward.

The physicality poses a small problem you don’t get from videogames (or not from digitally-distributed games, anyway): What do you do with these objects once you’ve finished the puzzles? I understand there’s actually an aftermarket for Ord in particular, and I should probably look into that. It’s out of print, and the original run was limited to 500 copies, presumably due to the effort and expense involved, so it’s sought after by fans of this sort of thing. (Because of its limited availability, I’m being pretty free with spoilers here.) Sadly, it’s not fully resettable. It’s mostly resettable, but not entirely. A few of the components are meant to be folded, leaving visible creases. There’s a scratch card in chapter 1. Saddest of all, one of the impressive moments in the game, the one that all the reviews comment on, involves objects that change color when exposed to sunlight, and the chemical that does this seems to wear off over time — the red objects still turn very red, but the blue and yellow ones were very faint a few months ago, and basically invisible now.

Also, there’s a significant online component, getting both clues and additional puzzles from several websites, email autoresponders, and even a telephone voice line. This always leaves me apprehensive, because it makes the entire story contingent on something ephemeral, and likely to go away long before the objects, leaving you with a partial mystery, solvable only in pieces. I’m lucky that everything stayed up long enough for me to solve it. But I’ll admit that making the player type a puzzle solution into a password field every now and then does have some benefits for both designer and player, serving as checkpoints to make sure you’re on the right path.

I’ll post again tomorrow with thoughts on the story and puzzles, and how they interrelate.

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