GPS is an immersive theater experience with puzzles, created by Theatre Department at Lehigh University, in Bethlehem, PA.
Style of Play:
- Online native experience (can NOT be played IRL)
- Immersive theater
Required Equipment: computer with internet connection
It helps to be familiar with Zoom breakout sessions.
Recommended Team Size: any – you’re booking into a public show
Play Time: 60 minutes
Booking: this show ran in late April 2021 and is no longer running
GPS was a theatrical performance put on in 3 Zoom breakout rooms. You could freely hop between the breakout rooms to interact with different characters and storylines. Each character’s room also had a puzzle displayed in the framing that sometimes utilizes components within the set. Performers were monologuing while solves were happening. Audience members could just watch the show if they didn’t want to solve puzzles. Players could collaborate to solve puzzles in the Zoom chat, and give solutions there. Once a solution was found, the puzzle was marked as complete, and the solution might impact character actions in later scenes.
Hivemind Review Scale
Theresa W’s Reaction
I had absolutely no idea what to expect from GPS – a free immersive puzzle experience presented through Zoom from Lehigh University? This show caught me off guard in the best way possible! They presented the hour-long show in three different Zoom breakout rooms: the tunnels, the lab, and the study, each portraying a different character livestreaming from their location. The story was interconnected between the breakout rooms, which tied the experience together quite well. Each story arc had a puzzle per breakout room that had to be solved by the audience. The difficulties varied; some puzzles were better than others. The characters’ improv for most of the show was super impressive. If this show ever runs again, be sure to grab a ticket!
Brett Kuehner’s Reaction
- + Puzzles escalated smoothly from easy to quite difficult (in the time allowed)
- + Varied puzzle designs and styles, with good signposting
- – Not many audience members participated in the puzzle collaboration via Zoom chat
- + Good performances and impressive overall polish, especially for a very limited run show
- + Set design was well suited for a remote show, and some puzzles used set elements
- – Hard to follow the story and do puzzles at the same time (a common problem in shows that mix both)
- + Zoom setup made it easy to switch character tracks at will
- +/- Puzzle solutions sometimes had clear (but delayed) impact on specific character actions, but an unclear impact on the story branching
- +/- Wrap-up seemed to indicate story had a better outcome because of the solved puzzles, but the connection was not really apparent
Matthew Stein’s Reaction
GPS was an intriguing hybrid of open-world immersive theater and collaborative audience puzzle solving. Since the show’s run has already ended, I’ll treat this as more of a design critique than a normal review. There are some interesting learnings from this show.
As a Pennsylvania native, I grew up attending top-notch theater at Lehigh University, and the acting and production design in GPS were equally stellar. The actor and set in a sewer scene were especially engaging and escape room-esque. The show was structured in 3 acts, with 3 virtual rooms to explore and solve a puzzle in per act. Puzzle difficulty increased steadily across the acts: we solved the Act 1 puzzles almost instantly, the Act 2 puzzles took a bit more thought, and our audience was only able to solve 1 of 3 puzzles in Act 3 (but that was enough to unlock the show’s secret ending!). The show’s creators did an outstanding job with the puzzle design. The puzzles were much more interesting and varied than those in the majority of other puzzly immersive theater shows I’ve experienced, and the answer to each felt meaningful in how it directly led to an action or discovery in the corresponding scene.
The difficulty of designing content-rich open-world or nonlinear narrative experiences is ensuring that any path the audience follows is sufficiently cohesive, emphasizing free choice over potential FOMO. When you add in puzzles, there are even more elements competing for the audience’s attention within finite time for exploration. As an active puzzle solver in GPS, I was incentivized by the show’s mechanics to have a fragmented narrative experience. After solving a puzzle in one room, I often left to check out another room which still needed help on its puzzle. While this led to a fuller view of the show’s puzzle content, it also meant I often didn’t directly see the consequence of solving a specific puzzle, and I accordingly only got fragmented snapshots of the show’s overarching narrative. With this show structure, the onus of how best to experience the show falls on the audience, for whom it’s difficult to know how long to stay in a scene or when best to leave without missing a particularly important moment, not knowing what’s to come. This partially results from the puzzles being built alongside of rather than into the acting; once a puzzle was discovered in a scene, it appeared at the bottom of the screen and existed in parallel to the scene until it was solved and then merged back into that scene.
When puzzles, immersive acting, and pre-recorded video are all equally alluring, the surfeit of overlapping high-quality content almost cannibalizes itself. Possible solutions to this structural conundrum include encouraging audience members to only switch rooms between scenes, adding more redundancy into the narrative, or inserting narrative recaps/ sync-up points in between scenes. Nonetheless, this was a highly compelling show, and I’m excited to see such a creative, innovative approach to puzzles and immersive theater being explored in a university setting. I can’t wait to see what this group of creators concocts next.
The show’s run has ended (sadly).