In March, Terry Rolapp and Tommy Wallach of the escape room company Hatch Escapes were well on their way to launching their second escape room, The Ladder, in Los Angeles. Then the pandemic hit. But their cocreator on the project, Arvind Ethan David, the producer of BBC America's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and Broadway's Jagged Little Pill, wasn't ready to pack the partnership in. So they put their heads together on a new project: one that they could take, as David put it, "from genesis to delivery" while in lockdown and that could be enjoyed by anyone while safely at home or trapped there under quarantine.
The result of their brainstorming sessions, the forthcoming tabletop game Mother of Frankenstein, is pretty much the definition of out-of-the-box thinking (even though, like most tabletop games, it will come in a box). The game combines aspects of immersive theater, escape rooms, board games, puzzles, role-playing games, and parlor games in one package, making for a 15-hour playing experience; although the creators implore buyers to spread the game out over the course of a few nights—enjoy it like "fine wine, rather than a tequila shot," they say. And gamers, it seems, are hungry for just this kind of hybrid experience. The game was fully funded on Kickstarter in under 24 hours, and more than 1,470 backers have donated over $184,000, well over five times the campaign's initial goal of $33,000, with two days still to go in the fundraiser. And it's already getting praise on Twitter from the likes of Neil Gaiman.
Congratulations to everyone involved in MOTHER OF FRANKENSTEIN for getting fully funded on Kickstarter! (And you all have 25 days to go to order it: a treasure trove of documents, puzzles, mysterious objects and artifacts, and devious challenges.)— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) September 28, 2020
The game is a gothic literary mystery based on the life of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. Gameplay begins with the discovery of the "Shelley Volumes," a collection of hollowed-out books left by Shelley to her son, Florence. Players are asked to "uncover the 'true' story behind Frankenstein," the creators explain in a press release, only to be led to "discover that perhaps her famous novel wasn’t quite as fictional as we’ve been led to believe" by working their way through a pile of Shelley's "handwritten" documents, 2D and 3D jigsaw puzzles, and a handful of objects and artifacts left in the Shelley estate. The creators are even planning to include, with higher-end editions of the game, a special edition of Frankenstein, featuring original art by comics artist Liana Kangas, numbered and signed by all Mother of Frankenstein creators and the illustrator, and including a new original short story by Wallach set in the world of Mother of Frankenstein.
A publishing partnership for the volume has yet to be cemented, with Wallach and David telling PW that it is currently in the works; similarly, the creators are in talks with games developers and distribution companies surrounding potential partnerships following the Kickstarter's success, although a manufacturing partnership with a Chinese company has already been struck. Working out the logistics during the pandemic hasn't been easy, Wallach and David said, but the creators anticipate that they will have finished copies of the game ready to send to Kickstarter backers by next April, and they hope to begin selling the game through games shops and mass market retailers shortly thereafter.
The idea to base the game on Shelley's life came from David, Wallach said, and the more the creators looked into her life, the more they realized there was something there, just waiting to be turned into this kind of experience. "For Terry and I, in starting Hatch, our goal was really to mature this medium that a lot of people saw as at best a novelty, and at worst a carnival game," Wallach said. "But Terry and I thought of it more as, movies or video games. And Mary Shelley, the more we read about her and learned about her, seemed to be an incredible candidate just because of her life story. We wanted to tell her actual life story, not the story of Frankenstein."
David said he'd always had interest in Shelley, but that it was was reinvigorated upon reading a profile of the author that Jill Lepore wrote for the New Yorker in 2018. "Most of the great 19th century female novelists were sort of spinster-virgin-aunts, whether that's Jane Austen or the Brontës or George Eliot," David said. "But Mary Shelley had, and lost, multiple children while she was a teenager and in her early 20s. How that informed one of the greatest stories of the creation of life is a thing that just hasn't been talked about enough. We all got excited by that, and Tommy and Terry took it and really ran with it in an amazing direction."
Rooting the game in Shelley's life, the creators thought, brought a serious, even mournful, literary quality to it—one that they hope will be significantly moving for players. As a result, Wallach said, "It's not that there's a story superimposed on a fun gameplay experience. The game is the story."
David added that making sure the game was both a moving storytelling experience and an enjoyable gaming experience was very much the goal, albeit a tricky one. "In the development, there were many points where something was great from a gaming perspective, but wasn't delivering the emotion—or it was delivering the emotions but it was no longer a game, and it had sort of become a novel," he said. "That push and pull has really been fun, and hugely educational. And we're still getting better at it as we go."