The Tale of Ord: Content

(Heavy puzzle spoilers throughout this post. Since The Tale of Ord is out of print, this should only affect you if you already have a copy and haven’t solved it yet.)

The puzzles in Ord are largely about putting together information from multiple sources, drawing connections and correspondences between things presented separately. A simple example: In the first chapter, there’s an envelope containing five thick cards, cut with slots and holes and printed with letters and numbers in various places. A journal mentions how a character had a method of divination using cards, that had won them some small sums in the lottery. A lottery scratch card also included in the package has some diagrams on the back, showing sets of five crisscrossing colored lines. Color words scattered throughout the same journal give you a letter for each color; the letters in question are found on the cards, giving you a correspondence between cards and colors, which lets you use the diagrams to slot the cards together correctly and read some text through those holes in the resulting structure. That’s not getting into what you do with that text once you have it — the interpretive chain can get pretty long, and the failure mode is that you’re stopped dead, with no idea of what to do next, until you notice a similarity somewhere, and try to find meaning in it.

It’s perhaps appropriate, then, that the story concerns academics. The story’s inciting incident is the disappearance of one Dr. Rose Woning, an archeologist at the Emerens Institute, which specializes in viking history. Her dean, Mikhail Soterman, recruits the player to find her. From there, it escalates into “Mythology is real” territory. The stakes are powers sealed away by Odin himself, put into humanity’s hand’s by Loki. With them, if you choose, you can free humankind from the binds of fate (although the effect is honestly rather subtle). But Mikhail calls this all nonsense, the imaginings of an unwell mind. He’s seeking Rose for her own good. Rose disagrees, and her side becomes more convincing when things start getting eerie.

It’s interesting how this is managed. It’s acceptable for puzzles in this sort of game to be contrived, without logical explanation for their existence within the story. But the first chapter here rejects that, taking care to make all of the messages into things that could have imaginably been planted by Rose to send messages to the player without Mikhail noticing. There’s message hidden in a puzzle in a magazine? One of Rose’s grad students works at the magazine. A secret hidden in Mikhail’s letter to you? Ah, but it’s not a message without the means of interpreting it, which is found in Rose’s journal. But then we get to later chapters, where messages clearly intended specifically for you are found encoded in unearthed viking artifacts. Because the first chapter led us to believe that things in this story have plausible causes, these later developments feel like they must have causes beyond human agency. Messages from the divine. And that gets creepy when we consider the system of correspondences in chapter 3, based around nine dates, nine constellations, the nine worlds in the branches of Yggdrasil… and the nine faculty members of the Emerens Institute. Have their entire lives been manipulated by forces unseen to put them into their positions like so many game pieces? Both Rose and Mikhail turn out to be basically proxies for the gods in their schemes, and why should they be the only ones?

Another notable thing: the puzzle design builds on things from chapter to chapter. There’s a hitherto unknown runic alphabet to decode, which is just a substitution cipher for English, but the glyphs are doled out piecemeal through the chapters, and even in the end, you don’t have the full alphabet. Some puzzles require looking back at objects from previous chapters, getting new information from things that seemed like mere decoration before you knew what to look for. Chapter 4 indulges in this the most, essentially recapitulating the game’s puzzles through callbacks — “Hm, I just folded a paper to reveal some map coordinates… just like in chapter 1! Let’s apply them to the chapter 1 map.” One puzzle in particular in chapter 4 involves disassembling a star chart from chapter 3, flipping over the transparency, and seeing that the constellations now form words. This seems like a particularly risky move to me: what if someone noticed that during chapter 3, and tried to make sense of it without context? But in fact I did not do this, and maybe no one did.

To my mind, there are two major weak points to the puzzles, and they’re both at their worst in chapter 3, where my reluctance to take hints led me to abandon the thing for a matter of months. First, sometimes they don’t lead to solutions as cleanly and unambiguously as they should. A password is given as a set of letters for you to unscramble, but there’s more than one common word made of those letters. A chain of digits produces a phone number, but there’s no way to know which end of the sequence to start at other than by just picking one possibility and calling it, something I’m hesitant to do. (I actually chose the wrong way first, but no one picked up.) In chapter 3, you’re supposed to fit a looping path to a page of runes to find a sequence, but the path doesn’t quite fit its endpoints; there’s more than a centimeter of wiggle room, which is enough to change which runes are on the path and in what order.

The second and more serious weakness is that you can unintentionally break sequence on those those long inferential chains. Chapter 3 has this whole deal about finding the dosages of the three psychiatric medications that Rose was taking. Mikhail’s letter to you in that chapter blatantly hints that the dosages are important (although he doesn’t say why), and that you can find them by using the objects on her keychain. Objects on the keychain encode three URLs, each going to a picture puzzle containing text that pretty clearly hints that the solution to each is linked to a dosage. I solved all three puzzles. I got the dosages. I had no idea what to do with them. That’s because I wasn’t supposed to use the three picture puzzles to find the dosages. I was supposed to find the dosages using different objects on the keychain, then use them to solve the three picture puzzles. I’m still a bit upset about this, especially with how it left me struggling to interpret enigmas whose solution would have just given me information I already had. The big problem is that finding the dosages the intended way involved making a couple of major intuitive leaps, and solving the puzzles without them just required a little tenacity.

It’s likely that solving it with a team would help prevent such missteps. It’s also notable that your best guidance about not just how to solve the puzzles but about what order to solve them in comes from Mikhail, who by that point I was thinking of as the antagonist. It’s a little reminiscent of the Yeesha vs Esher dyanamic, except that Mikhail is less unambiguously evil in the end.

At any rate, after my problems with chapter 3, chapter 4 was much nicer, in part because my stubborn insistence on not using hints had been broken. There were two puzzles there where I did everything right but failed to recognize the solution as a solution and just tried to keep on finding more hidden meaning than there was. But it all ended with a nice “Aha!” moment that I actually got. Overall, I think this is my favorite puzzle-story-package of all those I’ve experienced.

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.