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Those who sign up for Footprint Mysteries start their journey at ReThreads on State Street, where they find a cryptic letter inside a dark leather jacket.

Sign up for the interactive storytelling experiment Footprint Mysteries Madison, and you’ll promptly get an online message from an anonymous stranger (a fictional one, anyway). A man in town just found a brown leather jacket lying on the street, says the message, and sold it to ReThreads, a consignment shop on State Street.

“Too bad he didn’t check the pockets better. If he did, he might’ve kept it,” the stranger tells you.

And with that, the game’s afoot: Footprint Mysteries Madison sets groups of two to five people on a real-world adventure, a unique downtown social experience that its creator, Ryan Bradetich, describes as a blend of a scavenger hunt and a mystery novel. To play costs $10-$15 per player.

Those who follow up on the tip can go to ReThreads and ask to look at the jacket, which is still behind the counter, only recently turned in. Search the pockets, and you’ll find a letter on blue Tibetan paper addressed to a woman named Frannie and warning her of some unknown danger.

Players then decipher instructions from the cryptic letter, leading them on an investigation that zigzags around State Street businesses like the Soap Opera and the Madison Modern Market, and even into the Madison Public Library’s downtown branch. At each location, players follow leads, find artifacts and peruse microfilm to help untangle the mystery.

All told, the experience includes seven stops. It takes a little over an hour, said Bradetich, although the pacing is entirely up to the players. 

“If you want to stop off and get some coffee, stop off and get some coffee,” said Bradetich.

Bradetich said the inspiration for the mystery was partly from escape rooms, businesses in which groups of people work together to solve puzzles in order to break out of a room they’re locked inside of. He also found some inspiration from the smartphone game Pokemon Go!, in which players venture out into the real world to catch fantastical beasts from the popular Japanese video game franchise.

“I’m just not doing that digitally — I’m doing it physically, with things,” said Bradetich. “The world is part of the fun.”

Bradetich works as a project manager with REM Wisconsin, an agency that provides specialized care for people on the autism spectrum, as well as for those with brain trauma.

By night, he writes. He’s been working on short stories and screenplays for the past 10 years, and is now working on his first novel.

“For the last three years, I’ve been able to share things with other people without turning bright red,” said Bradetich.

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That writerly sensibility is part of what sets Footprint Mysteries apart, said Bradetich: Compared to an escape room or a video game, the emphasis is less on solving puzzles.

 “It’s not just undoing padlocks. This is about storytelling,” said Bradetich. “I wanted people to feel like they were entering into something that felt like real life, like it felt serendipitous that you even knew about this thing.”

Bradetich said that the story will give people something to chew on: While he couldn’t reveal too much to avoid spoilers, he said that the mystery is about the concept of value, and “living with dark decisions of the past.”

“I hope it resonates with people — that they learned something, that they can talk about it,” he said.

Bradetich has been working on Footprint Mysteries for about two years, although the debut of the experiment has been open for people to try out for a month. It’s an enterprise with little overhead, he said. Most of his energy is now focused on marketing, as well as periodically calling the businesses he partners with to ensure that managers and staff are still in the loop about the mystery.

He’s named this first mystery “Chapter 7.” (“Don’t ask me why,” he said. “I guess I thought it was cool.”) He sees it as a proof of concept. He said he wouldn’t mind expanding the enterprise to other neighborhoods, like Atwood Avenue or Williamson Street.

Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.