“What’s in the box?”
Location: At home, monthly subscription
Date played: Most of 2017
Team size: 1- ¯\_(ツ)_/¯; we recommend 2-3
Price: $165 per season (9 boxes over 9 months)
This review will be discussing the entirety of Hunt A Killer Season 1. Spoilers will be hidden unless clicked open. However, it includes a discussion of the game’s structure from which you could glean nuance and solving tactics. If you’re sensitive to the spoilage of any detail, please don’t read this. You’ve been warned.
Story & setup
Season 1 of Hunt A Killer was centered on The Listening Friends of America, an organization that links “isolated men and women living in prisons, hospitals, and psychiatric wards” with volunteer pen pals. Listening Friends put us in contact with a man named John William James (JWJ), as his pen pal.
JWJ, an intelligent and charismatic individual, had spent many years under compulsory psychiatric care after committing murder. All communication with JWJ was screened by Listening Friends inspectors, so he elected to fill his ongoing communication with veiled and encoded messages.
This was the detective story that Hunt A Killer presented to us: each month we would receive a Listening Friends package from JWJ. We had to chew on the letters, documents, clippings, and items that we received to explore the past, present, and future of this criminally insane individual.
Hunt A Killer’s boxes, notebooks, pins, and other paraphernalia that arrived in the packages all looked slick.
With rare exception, the boxes that we received had high quality, meticulously designed materials.
In a game where every detail could be important, Hunt a Killer minded a lot of details on the component level.
Hunt A Killer Season 1 was interactive fiction with some puzzles (not the other way around). The puzzles within these boxes were generally about achieving understanding, identifying details, and researching references.
While the experience did include the explicit puzzles that an escape room player or puzzle hunter would consider to be a puzzle, there were maybe one or two per box and they almost never identified themselves without research.
Hunt A Killer was striving to present a detective game, not a puzzle game.
Hunt A Killer had phenomenal aesthetic style and excelled at carefully selecting materials to send subtle messages. Observing these details was without a doubt my favorite part of each episode.
The folks at Hunt A Killer were clearly iterating on the product in real time. A few episodes in they introduced “Inspector’s Notes” which were in-character hinting provided by the Listening Friends’ inspector who was reviewing JWJ’s communications. This was an essential addition to the game.
We enjoyed the set up with the Listen Friends of America and our pen pal JWJ, which created an interesting dynamic to deliver a mystery. We welcomed the narration via documents, letters, innuendo, and encoded message. All together, this was a compelling way for us to dive into a world, rather than being told about a world.
The first two boxes were seductive. They set up enough intrigue that we felt compelled to dive into this continuous river of madness. It was clear that we were going to have to swim upstream and we were not certain that we would enjoy the journey… but we couldn’t deny ourselves the challenge.
At the end of the experience, we received a final box including an epilogue and review of each previous box, with an item-by-item explanation of each’s significance, insignificance, and puzzle solutions.
The Hunt A Killer Season 1 episodes were not self-contained and didn’t conclude with any resolution. There was no way to know when we were finished investigating a box.
For as much information as Hunt A Killer would throw at us, we were given almost no feedback in return. When we learned or accomplished something, we could assume that we’d solved something because our conclusion felt right; there was almost never confirmation. We figured out a ton of this mystery, but along the way, we never knew how much we had actually solved nor what we were still missing.
Season 1 also suffered from a serious depth problem. Every component in each box needed to be interrogated and researched. As a player, it was impossible to tell if the significance required digging deep or taking a thing at face value.
One of the boxes included a maroon, unsharpened Listening Friends of America pencil. What did it mean? When we couldn’t figure it out, we sharpened it. It seemed like a normal pencil… but it had to mean something. However unlikely, maybe something was something hidden within it? So we sharpened it and sharpened it until it was a freaking nub. In the epilogue, we learned that it was just a pencil. We kind of knew from the beginning, but because of the nature of the game, we couldn’t be certain. As a result of this depth problem, the various blog posts and forum posts by Hunt A Killer fans are a mess of treatises on constellations, mythology, and other nuances that emerged in the story. Most of these dove entirely too deep, but then every once in a while there was a clue that required an insane amount of exploration.
The longer the Hunt A Killer season went on, the more troublesome the volume of content became. Since these boxes weren’t self-contained, anything could be in play. More often than not, backtracking wasn’t required… but sometimes it was. By the final box, the threat of having to look back through two thirds of a year’s worth of content was depressing.
To further illustrate the backtracking, volume, and depth problems, consider the blacklight included in box 1. This blacklight revealed a minor detail that was also re-revealed repeatedly throughout the story. We didn’t need to see this detail illuminate in UV ink, but since we had been given a blacklight in box 1, that meant that we had to use it on every damn item that we received from that point forward, because you never know.
While the printed materials were smartly designed, the physical objects were generally weak (although there were one or two great ones). This is a problem that I’ve seen recur in many subscription games. I think it stems from needing to purchase these items in bulk while controlling weight, size, and cost. Since these items are never designed by the game’s creators, they generally feel tacked on. This is unfortunate because tangible objects stand out among paper and it’s natural to ascribe more meaning to them, even when it’s undeserved.
When Hunt A Killer established a game mechanic, we learned how to work with it. Then in some critical instances, they shifted the function and meaning of the mechanix. Praised be design controlled. This violated a basic tenet of game design. I understand that storytelling was the main thrust of Season 1, but it was still a game, which was sometimes forgotten in the puzzle design.
Bluntly: There were too many logic leaps. Most of the details that we missed necessitated insane connections. When I was reading the epilogue, at times I felt like the person who wrote it must have known that these puzzles and deductions were nonsense.
While the box-by-box summary in the epilogue was great, we needed each to arrive within the next box. This would have at least prevented us from feeling like we had missed too many details to move forward.
In the first few boxes, I really cared about a few of these characters – the ones that Hunt a Killer worked to develop a bit – but as the story progressed, they became utterly unbelievable. I stopped caring whether they lived or died or achieved their goals (good or evil). In a game focused on storytelling, this was Hunt A Killer Season 1’s cardinal sin. I’ll explain, but this is a deep spoiler:
The emails from Valerie Madson did not read at all like a letter from a mother of a young child whose husband had disappeared. (I’m not referring to the autoresponder… that was cool). When this character was killed off, I didn’t care at all. What a wasted moment.
Then there was JWJ’s progression from charismatic and enigmatic murderer to omniscient and unstoppable super-villain. This guy was so much more compelling when he seemed like a human, deranged though he may have been, he was still human. By the end, I was completely indifferent to him.
Should I play Hunt A Killer’s Season 1?
The Hunt A Killer team did so many things so right with materials that subtly conveyed plot details. I loved that. I wish that this review could have been more positive, but the truth is: I did not enjoy Hunt A Killer Season 1. By the end, I just wanted it to be over.
Once the first couple of boxes offered no resolution, I became frustrated. Still, I needed to know where the story was going and what Hunt A Killer would do with it. It was clear that they were attempting something different. I respected that enough that I wanted to see it through.
The game improved in some ways over the course of Season 1. They were iterating on their product live, which I respect. However, this made Season 1 feel like an elaborate beta test. Almost everything felt like it hadn’t been tested enough. This was a critical issue in a game that was infinitely open-ended.
The story started out strong, but it buckled when it shifted from telling an intimate tale of murder to a grand murderous epic.
The puzzles and gameplay never really worked. Their flaws snowballed as the volume of game mechanics and content increased with each subsequent box.
Hunt A Killer Season 1 fell victim to its own decadence. It attempted to tell too grandiose a story. It demonstrated a blatant disregard for its players. The logic leaps were painful. The lack of clue structure was mind-boggling. The game mechanics were far too fluid to ever feel like you could achieve mastery over this experience. Plus, there were too many things to research… and too many of them weren’t relevant without any means of discerning what mattered.
In spite of this, I know that there is an audience for this concept. I know that there are people who have enthusiastically embraced JWJ and his story. I know that there are people who are enrolled in Season 2. So here are my final thoughts on Hunt A Killer:
I love and respect what Hunt A Killer was trying to do. I don’t think that the finished product was satisfying and I didn’t enjoy the journey. If I hear that Hunt A Killer has created mechanisms to tighten the gameplay, I will eagerly re-enroll in the future. But for now, there is no way that I can recommend Season 1 and I cannot even bring myself to look at the Season 2 material that came with the epilogue.
If you loved Hunt A Killer and think that I’m wrong, let’s discuss. I’m going to pull a page from Theme Park University’s playbook and ask that you tag your comment with #IReadTheWholeReview and I’ll happily engage with you on the nuances of the game’s design.
Also know that the comments might have spoilers. I am not going to police them.