Experience Arcana: A Thinkwellian’s Instagram-Based, Top 10 Game of 2020

The Los Angeles Times recently named Arcana, a horror-based interactive social media narrative I co-created with my team, AOTW, as one of the top ten games of 2020, just behind the likes of Animal Crossing and Mario Kart Live. This came as a true shock. We feel extremely proud and also humbled beyond belief. How did our Instagram-based never-before-done month-long super-hard-to-explain project get on such a list? 

ReView asked me to talk about the process of getting Arcana up and running. But to do so I feel I first have to remind readers that Thinkwell is made up of incredible artists, many of whom are working on creative projects outside their job description. From Chris Durmick’s Three Stooges TikTok page to Sara Beil’s incredible live theatre events on Zoom, we are a bunch of strange, talented creatures who bring our know-how, creativity, and lived experiences to the work we do at Thinkwell. 

My outside experience is primarily as a theater maker. And in the last decade, my theater efforts have been focused in a subgenre called immersive theatre, which blurs the lines between reality and performativity, and challenges the relationship between performer and audience member. In 2019, I worked with a team of brilliant creatives on a four day long city-wide immersive theatrical game called “All of Them, Witches!” in New Orleans, in conjunction with the Overlook Horror Film Festival. We intended to adapt our project and turn it into an evening-long Los Angeles-based experience. But then: COVID. Suddenly, the idea of having audience members in close quarters with performers was off the table. We had created an immersive theater experience that was, in every way, not permissible during the global pandemic. For a while, we attempted to re-tool the script to make it a COVID-safe one, but eventually we started from scratch, determined to create something that was tailor-made for the at-home always-safe needs of the pandemic. (I liken this moment to our creative process at Thinkwell, when we assess project parameters, and figure out how we can flex our creative muscles within a box, no matter how rigid the walls may seem.)


Arcana developed quickly into a narrative focused on the isolation, loneliness, and heartbreak that COVID was causing. But Arcana was never explicitly about COVID. We wanted that element to be subtextual. To do so, our protagonist, Jade, was set up as a loner, recently abandoned by her dear Robin, living alone in a big house with a spooky attic. Weird stuff started happening to Jade: dreams, visions, and visitations from creepy fox creatures. We put everything on Instagram. And as spectators got more involved with Jade, they started playing the game of her life by solving riddles tucked inside artwork, or decoding a cypher that had to be assembled from numerous posts. Eventually our audience became friends with Jade. We had our audience hooked, and that was only week one! In the following three weeks, the narrative moved into other forms of social media, direct email messages, internet-based world religion research, and some serious puzzle solving. Our players dove head-first into user-created communities like Slack and Discord to collaborate, communicate, and squabble over how to solve mysteries inside the narrative. Some players remained spectators, happy to watch the story unfold, but not keen to spend hours solving complicated riddles. The entire time, we observed from “beyond the veil,” keeping tabs on player delight and frustration to ensure we could adapt and evolve alongside our audience. This was real-time adaptation and pivoting, which enhanced our ability to give the audience real agency. In the final week of the narrative, our audience decided upon the outcome of dear, sweet Jade (who, by then, wasn’t so dear nor so sweet.) You can re-live the entire experience at Arcana-Game.com. 

Our process, internally, had to adapt and evolve as we created the experience for audience members. My writing partner, Eva Anderson, and I would brainstorm and break episodes, which we would then pitch to the rest of the team. Then, our production team E3W (Natalie Jones, Austin Keeling, Aaron Keeling) would collaborate with puzzle mastermind Tommy Honton to figure out how to put the narrative/script into action, aided by a wonderful performance by Nerea Duhart, who played Jade. Keeping tabs on everything was our ever-watchful and brilliant producer, Mali Elfman. Just as we figured out how to produce week one, we were in “pre-production” for weeks two, three, and four! It was a whirlwind, and one that I’d gladly step into again. The LATimes enjoyed the whirlwind, too

The question of how to give audience members a flexible amount of agency to influence the outcome of a narrative experience, whether it be in a theme park setting or while roaming an illuminated garden, is one that we enjoy discussing at Thinkwell. My experience producing Arcana will surely influence how I think about experience design as a Creative Director for Thinkwell, and I can’t wait to apply that knowledge to future projects. 


Lessons From Lockdown

As designers and developers of location-based experiences, we have the privilege and opportunity to connect with our audiences in unique and unexpected ways. Whether we have crafted a museum exhibit, a Family Entertainment Center, or the most ambitious theme park ever created, our greatest reward is the memories our guests share, forging lifelong bonds and personal connections to our work and each other. Ironically, in normal times, we tirelessly toil through the days and sleepless nights, fussing and fretting over every design detail and budget hiccup, not stopping until the hammering is done and the ribbon is cut. And then it’s on to the next. We are kept so busy crafting the next big thing that we often fail to capture the smaller moments ourselves.


Obviously, these are far from normal times. 2020 has been the Black Swan of Black Swans. In the beforedays, our industry flourished in times of crisis as people sought a bit of escapism from the troubling world, but this global pandemic has been a gut-punch to all of our preconceived notions. A year ago, it was inconceivable to think that our homes would become our fortresses of solitude. That cinemas, museums, attractions, and theme parks (never mind bars and restaurants) would shut their doors for a single day, let alone months. We all had a rather vacant stare as it dawned on us that our gates would shutter, our offices would close, our projects would pause, our lives would go on hold. The whole world had suddenly and forever changed.

And yet, we’ve adapted and adopted new tools and ways of working. So much has already been written about the surprising productivity of working from home (with or without pants), the comparatively painless transition to online conferencing and collaboration, the explosion of streaming entertainment, social media platforms, and a creator economy in which anyone and everyone, anywhere in the world can find a voice, a following, and an audience all their own.  

We push forward and speculate, plot, and blogpost about how social-distancing and a contactless world will alter our approach to visitor engagements. We closely follow the theme parks that have begun to reopen to see how new safety guidelines affect attendance and guest satisfaction. We share the challenges and successes of museum exhibits and theatrical performances as they reinvent themselves in the digital realm, and debate what elements might outlast this pandemic to shape experiences to come.  We quietly delight in the renaissance of the drive-in, which has become the venue not only for movies, but for concerts, weddings, graduations, worship services, election rallies, and victory celebrations.  Our cars have become their own semi-autonomous, trackless ride vehicles that lead us through the nearest Halloween haunt or holiday lights spectacle.  We follow the trends of an audience whose entertainment options have been severely limited resulting in the soaring popularity of outdoor activities like camping, hiking, and even golf, and we consider how all of this will play out in our future projects.  

When we shift the topic of our lockdown experiences away from work-related things, however, the conversation takes a revealing turn. When asked what happy surprises our suddenly homebound existences have revealed after these many months, our answers are notably intimate and personal.  Many of us take great satisfaction in finally checking off items on our much ignored to do lists, ignored not so much because we’ve been busy, but because we had so many ready distractions to blame for our procrastination. My colleagues have fixed that leaky faucet, renovated a room, completed unfinished writing projects, honed new skills, created the artwork, crafted instruments, miniatures, sweaters, scarves, and quilts. Others have tended their gardens, harvested their crops, and prepared their meals… and spent time with each other. 

And that’s the heart of the matter. In spite of the challenges of this “lockdown lifestyle,” it has ironically drawn us closer to one another.  We’ve bonded with our pets, who seem deeply puzzled as to why we’re around so much these days. Through Zoom calls, we’ve reconnected with friends and family, separated by time and space. We’ve treasured walks and bike rides with our partners, siblings, children, and grandchildren. We’ve watched the drama of nature unfold outside our windows, gazing at the night sky, or rooting for birds as they battle for territory in the trees. This Halloween, my block arranged a special costume parade for the little ones on the street followed by a socially distanced outdoor movie on the driveway. Neighbors who opted into the festivities gathered on their lawns, and made it one of the most memorable community bonding events we’ve ever had, and a tradition we hope to repeat next year. 

The almost unbearable challenge of distance learning has given us a renewed appreciation for educators, but also the gift of precious time with our sons and daughters. My colleague Cynthia and I each have a teen-ager named Sean, both of whom are seniors in high school. Thankfully, they both remain active and engaged, but it crushes us to think they are missing social events, dances, live shows, sports, and, sigh… graduation ceremonies, all milestones in this grand finale to their schooldays. The silver lining is that we get to share this ever-dwindling time together as they prepare to fly, cooking meals together, playing foosball, ping-pong, board games, guiding them through homework, rehearsing the virtual musical in the next room, streaming Netflix on the same couch at the same time. My Sean cannot play organized ice hockey with his team, so he has to settle for beer league pick-up games with friends and, ugh, his dad.  I make sure I tell him over and over how much I treasure these moments, and I am confident that one day, he will too.

It seems that even the gee-wizards of location-based entertainment, the purveyors of pomp and pyrotechnics, the first adopters, first-in-liners, and fiercest critics of the latest and greatest immersive any-and-everything are living through a crash course in the power of moments. 

So as this crisis fades and our cultural ship begins to right itself and lists forward into the new sea of reality, as we begin to rev our engines once again to plan, plot, draw and design the next big, immersive, 5D, multimedia, autonomous, AR, VR, AI, gob-smacking glockenspiel of awesomeness, let’s not forget the power of the small moment. Let’s not forget that the greatest reward for all our efforts is connecting with our guests; creating personal moments of awe, wonder, joy, revelation, or familial intimacy. We are gifted with the opportunity to create memories that transcend the commonplace. These “emotional souvenirs” are treasures that our guests will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Hopefully, as we emerge from this lunacy of lockdowns, we can also remember to savor those small moments in our own lives, too. 


Thinkwell 3.0 – An Introduction

Back in 2001, when we sat around discussing what the company should be called, we knew we didn’t want any one person’s name on the door. We’d seen other companies that had done that and the limiting factor became every client wanted to have that person in their meeting, working on their project. Over time, some of those companies changed their names to try to eliminate that critical limiting factor. Thinkwell is bigger than one person, better than an ego, and is both an organism and an organization. We felt–and still feel–the company should be a place where everyone is proud to work–through good times and bad.

Which leads us to 2020. 

At the beginning of the year, staff raised concerns about workplace culture issues that led to us contemplating how best to address these matters and improve the working environment at Thinkwell–and that was before March when everything went COVID-sideways. Unfortunately, the pandemic’s effects made it necessary to engage in a round of layoffs in order to remain a viable business, which also had a significant impact on the company’s culture and created a sense of uncertainty, as it would in any workplace. Add that to the stress, day-to-day unpredictability of working from home, and not having the camaraderie of being with and seeing fellow employees around the proverbial watercooler for support.

Of course, we’d been working online and long-distance with our clients and our studios & offices in Beijing, Abu Dhabi, and Montréal, so the distributed workforce was, in many ways, a broadening of what we had been successfully for many years.

At the same time, as a groundswell of movement rose into voices of protest and concern across the nation and worldwide, we needed to address our own diversity and inclusion position and policies at Thinkwell. We couldn’t just sit idly by or, worse, acknowledge the situation like so many others without putting real work behind it. 

With all these things in flux, all these things rising together virtually at the same time, we had to hit “pause” and say, “What do we want Thinkwell to look like and be for our employees today, tomorrow, and in the future?” When can a business see such change from external forces create a cliff’s edge of opportunity? This is an inflection point: the world will not be the same after this, and we can either plunge into the chasm by continuing on the old, dated path or forge a new direction in order to soar.

The direction we chose became known in-house as the Thinkwell 3.0 initiatives (Thinkwell 2.0 being the time of the great financial crisis in 2008). We still believe deeply in the power of connecting people with stories, brands, and ideas, but Thinkwell 3.0 aims to make how we get there better, smarter, nimbler, and more equitable:

  • We put a group of leaders from across the company together to lead the way to recommend how to address our problematic cultural issues rather than dictate them from the top down. Immediately after the layoffs took effect, these leaders convened roundtables of employees from across all teams in the L.A. Studio to envision what they wanted the Thinkwell of the future to be. These discussions went beyond questions of policy, they got to the heart of how we hire, nurture, create, and collaborate.
  • We asked our staff to develop and lead our own Diversity & Inclusion Council, made up of 20 employees across identities, teams, and seniority, in order to bring diverse perspectives to the table.
  • Thinkwell surveyed employees across our offices to understand how they were feeling and holding up to balancing work and life while continuing to create great, world-class projects for our clients worldwide–often while juggling other stay-at-home partners, assisting kids with remote learning, and other demands. This way we understood where our people and teams were emotionally; how their own personal balancing acts of work and home are going; and that they are well-supported structurally, technologically, and personally.
  • We’re piloting a new program in our LA Office. Studio Teams, with experienced Thinkwellians as Studio Guides, provide groups of five employees from across disciplines with a resource group for goal setting, career insight, and industry guidance, as well as offering the benefit of building closer relationships with Thinkwellians across teams and disciplines.

Where does all this take Thinkwell? As we head into 2021 we will eagerly watch to see how these efforts that have been put into place will manifest themselves in improving our organization. 2021 is, by the way, Thinkwell’s 20th anniversary, and we believe that with the help of our employees doing great and often difficult efforts we are all working together to create a stronger, better, more vital place to work–even as we do it all in our pajama bottoms from home. Our distributed workforce of multidisciplinary talented experts has proven in the last seven months that we are adaptable, that we are strong, that we are productive, and that we remain innovative. 

Our teams have facilitated and participated in dozens of online charrettes, produced schematic design and design development packages, continued in-field production and installation supervision and art direction, produced turnkey media packages, developed bespoke interactives, created land-use and masterplans for major developments, and continue to design some of the best immersive guest experiences in the industry. And, to our pleasant surprise, we’ve seen an increase in productivity, efficiency, and margins in the process as Thinkwellians work in a flexible model of WFH and some office/studio time, as needed. 

Ultimately, whether we are in the office all together or working as a distributed workforce–or someday perhaps a hybrid of both–we hope Thinkwellians will be and remain proud to be a part of a company that cares about them and about our futures together.

Thinkwell Holidays at Home: Frightful Fun Fall Packet

Halloween is traditionally a large celebration with our Thinkwellians. This year looks a bit different as we socially distance and work from home, but that won’t stop our teams from celebrating in new ways. Back in April, we introduced the first Thinkwell Holidays at Home packet for Easter. The intention was simple: get kids dreaming, creating, and crafting with activities that both celebrated the season and leaned on our experience design disciplines to introduce the next generation to the creative process of art design, problem-solving and more. 

Now, we’re thrilled to introduce our second round of the Holidays at Home packet with our Frightful Fall Fun Family Activity Packet. Great for all ages, this booklet explores creating your own monster to hang on your door, building a Pepper’s Ghost box effect, and dodging mummies in a new spin on the classic game, “Battleship” (but we’ll keep those details under wraps for now…).  Additionally, families can create their own comic book with Thinkwell Media‘s mascot, Jetpack Jenny! Here, kids create a story and script just like writers and creative directors do. We hope that these fun family activities will keep the festive fall spirit alive as you celebrate Halloween from home this year. 

Be sure to tag our social media accounts, or use the hashtag #ThinkwellAtHome so we can see your monster designs, and Pepper’s Ghost effects!

To download the packet, click HERE

For Chrome users: On the top right, click the printer to print, or the download button to directly download the PDF to your computer!

For Safari: Hover at the bottom center of the page and click ‘download’.

Thinkwell’s First (And Only) Online Film Festival – Collaboration Film

Last week, we debuted our eight individual film submissions from our First (And Only) Online Film Festival. Today, we’re excited to share the festival’s finale with our very own Thinkwell Group collaboration film!

For this progressive film, 12 Thinkwellians collaborated on a short film that includes clips spanning the globe. The catch: each entrant couldn’t see anyone else’s’ work as parts were in progress, so they had no idea what the final product would be. All submissions were shot with safe social distancing efforts and edited together by our Thinkwell Media team. 

Now, enjoy the premiere of our collaboration film, In Progress




If you missed the previous films, you can view them all here: 

Winner and Runner Up

Film Submissions Part Two 

Film Submissions Part Three 

Thinkwell’s First (And Only) Online Film Festival, Part Three

Throughout this week, we’ve featured 5 of the 8 short films from our first film festival. From our winner and runner up, to three additional films that entered, we’re excited to share the remaining three individual submissions with the world! All submissions were shot with safe and local social distancing in place, with submissions being entered from Thinkwellians all over the globe.

Check out the final three individual submissions below! 

A Quarantine Rhapsody by Cory Watson

Cory Watson, Vice President and Executive Producer of Thinkwell Media, composed and directed a rhapsody of “calm”..with a twist. 

An Illusion by Mateo Rendon 

Thinkwell Media’s Sr. Editor Mateo Rendon crafted a concept film looking at the construct of time as an illusion while dreaming of past memories happening again.


1979 – A Hot Wheels Adventure

Our final video comes from Marketing Project Specialist Jake Williams, who built his film around the adventures of Hot Wheels tracks through his living room, as an homage to childhood playtime of the past. 

We hope you’ve enjoyed all of the fantastic works of art from our Thinkwellians around the world. Stay tuned to our blog next week for the final progressive film debut!

Thinkwell’s First (And Only) Online Film Festival, Part Two

Earlier this week, we showcased the short films from our winner and runner up of Thinkwell’s First (And Only) Online Film Festival. If you missed that first post, Thinkwellians held a virtual film festival at the end of May, complete with eight individual films, and one progressive short film. All submissions were shot with safe and local social distancing in place, with submissions coming in from Thinkwellians all around the world! 

Today, we’re bringing you three more short films, from a murder mystery on a zoom call to submissions from Montréal and Australia.


Chief Creative Officer Craig Hanna brought together a creative use of zoom and played off the classic Murder Mystery in a new digital death way. Find out whodunit in this 2 minute short film! 


Pete Ford created a beautiful short film dubbed, “Night”. Enjoy!

Pulp Fiction 2 by Kaiman Walker


Our final video for today comes from Kaiman Walker, Interactive Designer at Thinkwell Studio Montréal, with his idea for a sequel to Pulp Fiction. 

We hope you’ve enjoyed these three fantastic works of art from our Thinkwellians around the world. Stay tuned to our blog this week for three more Thinkwellian short films, and be sure to let us know which one is your favorite!

Thinkwell’s First (And Only) Online Film Festival

What happens when Thinkwellians have a creative fire that needs to be fueled? We find projects to work on simply for the fun of creating art. From the coloring and activity book that we shared in April, to this new cinematic venture, we are always working hard at keeping our creativity alive. 

Today we are beginning to share our short films from Thinkwell’s First (and Only) Film Festival with the world! Yes, that’s right, our Thinkwellians held a virtual film festival at the end of May, complete with eight individual entries and a progressive short film. All of the submissions were shot with safe, local social distancing in place, and submissions came from Thinkwellians around the world. 

Today, we’re sharing the winning film and runner up. Enjoy!


The People’s Choice and Poo D’Or Award Winner: Chris Durmick, Principal Attractions and Museums, opted to create a timely piece that honored the classic silent film stars of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and played off the idea of being ‘safer at home’. Enjoy! 






Safer at Home by Chris Durmick


Grand Runner Up: From Ellen Richardson, Thinkwell’s in-house counsel, this short film went another direction but covered a similar subject, highlighting a mom just trying to get some time to herself during quarantine with her family…something every parent these days can relate to. 

Banana Bread by Ellen Richardson

We hope you’ve enjoyed the first two masterpieces from our winner and runner up. Stay tuned to our blog this week for six more Thinkwellian short films, and be sure to let us know which one is your favorite!

Finding Daily Inspiration at Thinkwell, Part Two

As we continue through the list of ways Thinkwellians have adjusted to work-from-home life, our team has shared a wide variety of outlets to fuel their creativity during shelter-in-place restrictions. Given that we can’t go out into the world to benchmark attractions or experiences, we’re constantly finding ways to bring creativity directly into our homes. 

From Beijing to Montreal and beyond, we’ve asked Thinkwellians around the world what they’ve been doing to seek out creative inspiration. This second half of a two-part series covers what keeps their imagination alive. 

Theater In-Home With Thinkwellians

Many of our Thinkwellians have theater backgrounds. Through the years they’ve honed their craft and have used their skills to develop incredible attractions, shows, and museums through the learned disciplines the stage has to offer. That’s why we asked Sara Beil, a writer in our content department, what she’s been keeping an eye on. “There’s some exciting virtual theater happening! Some friends of mine run a pretty successful digital theater called ‘Pixel Playhouse’ on a Twitch stream, where they gather a bunch of singers to perform live songs (musicals, most of the time) every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. PST,” she said. “It’s highly recommended for the musical theater buffs!” 

Meanwhile, Creative Director Eric Hoff, whose background stems from immersive and traditional theater, has been enjoying a wide array of theatrical performances. From a gem of a concert production by the Lincoln Center Theatre, alongside the youtube channel from the National Theatre of London, he’s enjoyed many productions from the comfort of his home. “One amazing byproduct of this shelter-in-place time is that incredible professional theater companies are streaming fantastic plays and musicals to watch at home,” he stated. “While there’s nothing quite like seeing shows in-person and witnessing live theater, I have to say: the thrill of these performances from home is a close second!”

While in quarantine, Eric also partnered with colleagues to create ‘Arcana’ an alternate reality game taking place throughout Instagram  – all from the comfort of homes. Based around an old Los Angeles murder, Eric and his team weaved an intricate ARG game through the Instagram platform, allowing anyone, anywhere, to participate in a new-age style of gameplay.


What’s Happening With Theme Parks

Theme parks aren’t just for the fans. We designers at Thinkwell are avid fans of the very places we create, and we love to see what others are up to — be it construction updates on Facebook or following theme park Twitter accounts to see what they are creating for social content, it’s been great to see what others have come up with during this time. Jeremy Thompson, another writer in our content department, loves following theme park Twitter accounts. “We’re already at the point of shelter-at-home where the social media accounts for regional theme parks are staging rap battles against each other,” Jeremy mused. “It’s great to see who’s coming up with this. Kentucky Kingdom is winning it all at this point with their rap battle against their fellow regional park, Worlds of Fun.

Dave Cobb work from home theme park recreation of Men In Black: Alien Attack

Across the board, fans have also been creating their own “at home” version of famous theme park attractions. From famous Disney attractions to our very own Dave Cobb’s recreation of Men In Black: Alien Attack (an attraction he helped design), the creativity of recreating beloved attractions has helped keep our minds sharp through this time. 

Dave Cobb, principal of creative development, has also been enjoying his time at home by getting spooky with virtual reality with “The Dark Ride Project” – an online archive of haunted amusement park attractions. 


We Do A Bit More of Everything

Outside of checking out the latest VR creations or following online theatrical productions, we’re also doing other things for our well-being as we work from home. For example, Ethan Jackson, design manager, has been living on his patio during the warm Los Angeles weather. “I have weights out there, a chair/table to eat and work, and a hammock to rest in. With all the social distancing we need to be doing, my patio also has a view of the apartment complex’s pool for me to watch all the actors and waiters who lay too close to each other as they tan poolside,” he laughed. “It’s about as L.A. as you could get.”

Montreal Skyline

Meanwhile in Montréal, the President of Thinkwell Studio Montréal, Hugues Sweeney, has a morning routine he maintains to help keep his mind going while he works from home. “Every morning before sunrise I ride to the top of Mount-Royal by bike to have daily contact with nature and to see my city awaken from above (Mount-Royal is a small mountain in the middle of Montréal). So a little endorphin rush, trees, and deserted streets all help to start the day,” he recounted. “In order to feed my ears, I get my daily dose of music via NTS, an incredible web-radio that broadcasts DJs live sets 24/7 from London and L.A. For my neurons, I am a member of Quartz, a media outlet of new perspectives on international geopolitics, the global economy, and leadership of change.” 

Work from home fitness

Expanding further across the world, Managing Director of Thinkwell’s Abu Dhabi office, Amin Rashmani, purchased a treadmill literally two days before the lockdown went into effect. “In six weeks, I’ve run over 175 kilometers in a period of over 24 hours of total run time,” he enthusiastically stated. “I’m starting to use the line, Never have I been more active than by staying at home!” For news, Amin has been keeping up on Gulf News to get updated on the regional market. “I also regularly follow the Worldometer website to get a status update of where we are with the Coronavirus,” he stated.

As you can see, Thinkwellians around the world use a wide array of news, creative outlets, and daily routines to keep a level of mindfulness about them as they work from home. We’ve found ways to adjust to life in this new normal, and we hope that these listed items help inspire you in new ways, to perhaps start a new routine or find a new place to get creative.