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How Pedro Pascal—and Some Clever Uses of AI—Brought Guests Inside the Real-Life Merge Mansion

Metacore celebrated its latest mobile game update with an activation that was part immersive theater, part escape room...and then dreamt a bit bigger using AI programs like ChatGPT and Midjourney.

The 'Merge Mansion' with Pedro Pascal
In the kitchen, the team brought the game's "merge" aspect to life by asking guests to make a Hopeberry pie (the end result of which held another clue). When players put various items into the dumbwaiter, they "merged" to create something new—like two creams being replaced with butter while the door was closed, for example. "I loved the idea of taking a mechanic directly from the game, like merging, and seeing it in real life," said creative director Kali Heitholt. "There were so many digital ways we could have done that, but we wanted a more tangible experience—to see people engaging and reacting IRL rather than through a device.”
Photo: Getty Images for Metacore/Merge

LOS ANGELES—If you’re a fan of the wildly popular mobile game Merge Mansion—or at least its viral ad campaigns starring the likes of Kathy Bates and, more recently, Pedro Pascal—you’ve probably dreamed of stepping inside its puzzle-filled world. For a few lucky fans, members of the press, and VIPs, that became possible on March 28.

To coincide with the game’s biggest-ever update, which lets players inside the Boulton family mansion for the first time, game developer Metacore took over a real-life mansion in Los Angeles on the same day. Described as “part live-action theater, part escape room, and part lore museum,” the live experience featured actors playing in-game characters, who guided guests through the space to find clues, solve puzzles, encounter props related to the game, and even dig their hands in real pies and crawl through a fake fireplace. The 'Merge Mansion' with Pedro PascalLA's Paramour Estate was chosen to evoke the in-game mansion. In teams, guests could explore a large portion of the 18,000-square-foot venue, interacting with live actors who played characters from the game and helped them solve clues.Photo: Getty Images for Metacore/Merge

“Metacore as a company has really high ambitions, and we always think of the players first—which means we’re always trying to think of new ways to entertain them and immerse them, and to tell our story,” explained Sandra Fenyo, Metacore's vice president of brand marketing, in an on-site interview with BizBash. 

To bring the concept to life, Metacore worked with Finnish creative agency Reaktor and experiential agency Jack Morton Worldwide, along with Scout Expedition Co. and JFI Productions, on the scenic design and immersive theater experience. “What’s so great about this universe is the lore, the fans, and the way people just connect and engage with the story that’s in the game,” said Kali Heitholt, creative director at Jack Morton. “So we pitched, ‘Why don’t we actually allow guests into the mansion itself?’” The 'Merge Mansion' with Pedro PascalThroughout the day, Metacore hosted several groups for the experience, including members of the press, a group of Merge Mansion superfans who had won an Instagram contest, and celebrities including Pascal, Jesse Williams, and Ashley Benson (pictured, center).Photo: Getty Images for Metacore/Merge

After a week of “mansion shopping,” Heitholt said with a laugh, the team settled on the Paramour Estate, an 18,000-square-foot, 1920s mansion and event venue in LA's Silver Lake neighborhood. “What was really cool was that while we were designing the activation, [the Metacore team] was still designing the interior of the mansion in the game,” Heitholt added—meaning that it became a sort of collaborative process, with both teams sharing ideas for things to include. “So we’re feeding off each other along the way, which was super unique. We were getting inspired by the IP, but the IP was also getting inspired by what we were doing.” The 'Merge Mansion' with Pedro PascalFans who had been chosen were sent an email from main character Maddie Bolton, inviting them to come investigate the mansion. Key celebrities and influencers (like YouTuber MatPat, pictured) were also sent mailers with details like a burner phone, a case file, and other fun on-theme details.Photo: Getty Images for Metacore/Merge

Another unique aspect? The Jack Morton team’s use of artificial intelligence to bring the experience to life. AI was used to create artwork, personal documents, clues, and other details that further immersed guests in the game's world—all aiming to evoke the feeling of stepping into a lived-in mansion and rifling through personal documents. Artwork using Midjourney was seen in postcards from the fictional town of Hopewell Bay, for example; it was also used to design all the props and labels in the house’s kitchen. ChatGPT, meanwhile, generated copy seen in the house, on invitations, and in a voicemail inbox recording that guests could call pre-event. 

Heitholt stressed that AI wasn’t used to replace any human jobs. Instead, it was used to enhance the universe in ways they couldn’t have done on their own in the necessary time frame. “This would be hours and hours of work for designers—but now, they could really focus on what’s key and what matters, and then go in there and build so much more," she said.The 'Merge Mansion' with Pedro PascalThe Jack Morton team used various AI tools to create artwork, clues, and personal documents. "AI was also useful in the brainstorming and connecting phase,” Heitholt added. “We would come up with an idea and be able to do a quick render in AI to say, ‘What do you think about this?’…There are so many times we’ll have an idea for something, but we don’t know exactly how to visualize it yet. So it’s nice to put those prompts in there and some visualizations that we can leapfrog off of and figure out how to take it even further.”Photo: Getty Images for Metacore/Merge

The Merge Mansion game launched in September 2020 and quickly garnered as many as 40 million users—in part due to its viral ads, including the recent spot with Pascal that has been viewed nearly 37 million times and counting since its initial release on March 10. "I'm super happy with how the campaign is performing," said Fenyo, who is conscious of the challenges that come with making players feel immersed in a mobile game. "We wanted people to experience it in different ways, to really feel what it is to be in the Merge Mansion universe...We always want to do something different and do something really exciting. We are really happy with the results."

Scroll down to see more from inside the mansion... The 'Merge Mansion' with Pedro PascalGuests traveled from room to room looking for clues that could open the mansion's ballroom and discover "What's Grandma hiding," the game's tagline. Experiences included a study, an escape room-style space where teams had to open a safe to find their next clue. Guests even chatted on cell phones with actors portraying characters in the game.Photo: Getty Images for Metacore/MergeThe 'Merge Mansion' with Pedro PascalFun details and Easter eggs throughout the mansion included a secret bookshelf, which opened when players solved a riddle and pulled on a specific book. "What's so great about the Merge Mansion universe is the lore; there are so many YouTube videos of people with their own theories about what's happening within the game," said Heitholt. "We knew this needed to be something immersive, inclusive, and interactive."Photo: Getty Images for Metacore/MergeThe 'Merge Mansion' with Pedro PascalAt one point, guests crawled through a faux fireplace in a bedroom to find surveillance cameras, which they studied for more clues.Photo: Getty Images for Metacore/MergeThe 'Merge Mansion' with Pedro PascalDetails like strobe lights and fog added to the immersive experience.Photo: Getty Images for Metacore/Merge

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