A small English village, a mysterious night-time circus, and a case of missing children. THE PANDORA NETWORK recently invited groups of plucky online participants to join them in their second “visit” to Pondermere and investigate case #2720: THE NIGHTLIGHT CIRCUS. As the clock ticked on, the intrepid agents found themselves navigating their way through the perilous waters of local gossip, dipping their toes into psychic exploration, and researching scientific phenomenon, all with one question playing heavily on their minds: would they find the children in time?

THE PANDORA NETWORK is a series of online immersive experiences from Electric Goldfish – a trio of creative forces some may have encountered before. While UK-based Faceless Ventures is best known for its more extreme endeavours, such as ‘Cracked: Survival Experience’, over the past couple of years they have ventured (pun intended) into the immersive realm with their debut ARG ‘Fraternity’ and theatrical productions including ‘Is There Anybody There?’, ‘Diary of a Deceased’, and ‘Cruelty’. Joining the team, Incognito Experiences also offers the heady combination of immersive theatre and alternate realities, with previous works including ‘Altitude’ and ‘Hitchhiker’. The final element of this dynamic triad is Nick Hutson Music, a composer and broadcaster, who straddles both the theme park and musical theatre industries. Those who have attended Faceless Ventures’ shows will be familiar with Hutson’s impressively emotive soundscapes, and theme park fans may have encountered his work at UK resorts like Alton Towers and Chessington World of Adventures, or further afield at Six Flags Mexico City and Sunway Lagoon in Malaysia.

Although THE PANDORA NETWORK may have been an idea in consideration for a while, its transition into reality could not come at a better time. With the Coronavirus pandemic laying waste to the in-person immersive scene across the globe, creators are busy exploring ways in which to tell their stories and engage willing participants through existing social media platforms. THE PANDORA NETWORK utilizes different aspects of Facebook as its platform of choice – mostly using the group page to share and discuss discoveries and research, but also encouraging teamwork to solve a practical problem on Facebook Live in a scenario reminiscent of remote escape rooms, and using chat groups on Facebook Messanger to conduct pub quizzes and virtual search parties. All you need to participate is a ticket, a Facebook account, and a curious mind.

THE PANDORA NETWORK itself is, in their own words, “an international network of investigators with field agents in over 30 countries around the world, supported by an international online team of volunteer analysts…” who have “…established bases wherever we have detected high levels of ‘unusual’ incidents.” Uniting participants from around the world, players act as the “Volunteer Online Analysts” a dream come true for armchair detectives. Somewhat akin to a Choose Your Own Adventure, the participants, or online “Agents” as they are called, react to the information provided (through documents, pictures, videos, and audio recordings), sending a duo of field Agents in particular directions of interest as the team attempts to achieve what the local Police could not – solving the mystery.

Faceless Ventures‘ Rosalie Woodward has described THE PANDORA NETWORK as “Miss Marple meets the X-Files” and this is certainly an accurate description. NIGHTLIGHT CIRCUS feels like being dropped into an episode of ‘Midsomer Murders’ with touches of nostalgic ‘The Goonies’-esque adventure and otherworldly ‘Stranger Things’ peril for added flavour.

Set in the imaginary English idyll of Pondermere, NIGHTLIGHT CIRCUS is the second mystery in THE PANDORA NETWORK universe, following on from the successful ‘Burying the Hatchet’ which saw Agents attempt to solve the murder of a mysterious newcomer in the grounds of the Kimura Mansion. Due to demand, both instalments have run twice, with the second run of NIGHTLIGHT CIRCUS beginning on 2nd August 2020.

Amidst rumours of flocks of black birds filling the sky, and a dense fog filled with strange lights in the nearby forest, the Nightlight Circus arrived in the quaint village of Pondermere. Only operating after dark, the Nightlight Circus entertained and enchanted the locals with creepy carousels, a snake-handling storyteller, a raven filled mirror maze, and the opportunity to see into your future. It was all fun and games until 5 children mysteriously disappeared without a trace…

Local authorities, including the Police, the Mayor, and a voluntary search party, in desperate need of assistance, called upon the only people they could trust to separate fact from fiction and hopefully find the missing children alive – THE PANDORA NETWORK. And this is where NIGHTLIGHT CIRCUS begins.

Chief Executive Benedict Spalding is an enigmatic figure, akin to “M” in the James Bond franchise. Your first connection to THE PANDORA NETWORK, he invites participants to the relevant private Facebook group for their case, provides an audio brief to get the investigation underway, and introduces the field Agents: Felix Chase and Beatrice Blackthorn.

Agent Felix Chase (Lee Conway) is a brusque, Northern, ale-living pragmatist, railing against any suggestion of supernatural forces at play, which he consistently refers to as “mumbo jumbo”. Agent Beatrice Blackthorn (Rosalie Woodward), on the other hand, is more empathetic, esoteric, and open-minded, with interests in mythology and mysticism. Their dynamic is one of Mulder and Scully in reverse, offering Agents the choice between two paths, or even the opportunity to walk the line between both. This relationship is reflected cleverly in the narrative, balancing superstitions and scary stories with interrogations and research.

Beyond this lies a cast of characters who at any time can fall under the spotlight as potential suspects or as helpful allies. In the case of NIGHTLIGHT CIRCUS, this included the image-conscious Mayor Adamson, traumatised “Little James” with his tales of the “Raven Man”, and of course the fascinating crew of the Nightlight Circus. Access to these characters varies, including official documents, appearances on the local radio station, transcripts of interviews, video recordings of magic tricks and tarot readings, and even full access via Facebook messenger. Taking a chance and reaching out can often yield interesting results as several Agents have discovered.

As with the majority of remote immersive experiences, THE PANDORA NETWORK is an example of “you get what you give” meaning the more engagement, the more there is to be gained. Whilst NIGHTLIGHT CIRCUS could definitely have been enjoyed as a passive individual experience, observing from a distance and piecing together the evidence in private, the preferred option for participants is to choose to be actively engaged, sharing theories and research with the group. Engagement reaps its own unique rewards which can include private groups, and individual interactions with characters through phone calls and messages, with information that is then up to the agent to share… or not share. And whether you are stuck on furlough and crave something to break the monotony, or if you need to balance work and play, NIGHTLIGHT CIRCUS accommodates. Most of the action takes place between 2pm and 10pm GMT, with the big moments of interaction falling at the later end of that bracket. Blackthorn and Chase even let Agents know of their plans in advance, meaning not only can you submit tips and questions ahead of time, but also allowing you to schedule your gameplay around your life commitments if you need to. This makes the experience easier to juggle than most – check-in as often as you choose, follow the paths that interest you, share your knowledge if you so desire.

It is important to note that with a ticket to THE PANDORA NETWORK: NIGHTLIGHT CIRCUS only costing £15, signing up to this experience is low risk. Such a low ticket price reflects the current economic uncertainty for many, making it as financially accessible as possible – it is no more expensive than a trip to the movies and yet the experience lasts an entire week. The limited number of tickets available (averaging around 20 per run) also creates a more intimate feel and allows for a higher frequency and quality of interactions. And interaction is a real strong selling point of THE PANDORA NETWORK – each contribution is recognised and repeatedly referred to by Chase and Blackthorn, each message to a character is acknowledged and replied to, creating a sense of ownership, agency, and appreciation.

In the final de-brief provided by Benedict Spalding, Agents will find themselves named in further recognition of their contributions to the outcome of the case, providing a lovely audio memento of their time exploring the mysteries of Pondermere. This de-brief serves as a 20-minute round up of the experience, allowing Agents to catch up on aspects of the investigation they may have missed, enjoy the story from beginning to end, and also clear up any lingering questions they may have had about the solution.

Following the conclusion of the case, Agents can be added to an Alumni group allowing the relationship between fellow participants and the field Agents to continue to grow through conversation and online social events, in anticipation of upcoming investigations. It certainly feels like THE PANDORA NETWORK will be inviting Agents both new and old to join another case in the near future.

If you are looking for an experience to find a deeper understanding of yourself, destroy you emotionally, or fill both your waking and sleeping hours with terror, this is not any of those things. Neither does it contain the kind of puzzles that will keep you up all night, although an ability to translate different languages, as well as a knowledge of Russian literature and folklore proved helpful in this particular case. What THE PANDORA NETWORK offers is a fun and engaging distraction from the current nightmare that is real life; it is as charming as the village in which it is set. A wry tongue-in-cheek sense of humour permeates the narrative, with gentle banter creating camaraderie between characters and participants. And there is no need to be attached to your phone 24/7 for the 7 days. However, if you let it, the case at hand will play on your mind while you go about your “real life”, leading to moments of revelation and new avenues of investigation and research.

It is what YOU, the individual, make it, and so much more. Solving the case will leave you feeling triumphant, yet not exhausted, and that balance proves refreshing in the emerging field of immersive online experience.

All images courtesy of The Pandora Network. Artwork by Rosalie Woodward. 

For more on THE PANDORA NETWORK, visit www.pandoranetwork.online.


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