Canterbury, May 2017
Crime & Punishment Lab is built within the Westgate, Canterbury’s medieval gatehouse, a local landmark and grade I listed building, among the most spectacularly authentic locations I’ve seen used for an escape game.
Although the towers date back to the 14th Century, the game is set in Victorian times, drawing on a more recent part of the building’s history when the Westgate was used as a gaol. The game uses genuine old cells as well as plenty of historical equipment and curios. In the initial briefing the operator asked us to treat the site with respect, and that was something the game conveyed strongly: a great respect for the heritage of the location. The game isn’t just located in an amazing location, it’s designed and built for that location, full of inspiration from its history.
It’s also complemented by good production values, with background mood music for heightening tension, plus a costumed operator dressed to the nines who has the knack of dramatic scene-setting. Everything says ‘labour of love’.
Some of the objects looked a bit anachronistic to my uninformed eyes – that is, everything was completely authentic, but some came from a period of the tower’s history a few decades more recent than the game’s official Victorian setting. But I was happy enough to grant creative licence there, because the game components are quite enough to make a local history buff drool with pleasure.
I’ll avoid details, but the physical location is used cleverly to give a clear structure to the game, while simultaneously not making it too linear. Puzzles are very much designed around the theme, and in some places around story too, although beyond the immediate goal of ‘escape’ the game narrative wasn’t hugely clear or consistent. The game cleverly plays with expectations at times too. Perhaps almost too much so, in fact – I found the game’s flow to be a bit disjointed now and again, though what it loses in flow it arguably makes up in creativity.
Hints are provided via a screen, but with an unusual twist. Before the game started, the operator demonstrated the ‘bong’ sound that indicated a clue on the screen, plus the siren that would mean we were endangering ourselves or the set, which is all standard enough. But he also had a third sound, that of a ticking clock, which indicated that we were wasting time.
Perhaps it’s an indictment of our group (!), but while we got only one official clue, we had a whole lot of tick-tock sounds directed at us. Now, the operator was obviously doing his best to be helpful with it, and I appreciate the idea of using a more subtle form of help than an outright clue. But in practice, I hated it more and more as the game went on. The problem was that it’s ambiguous: it wasn’t clear if it meant ‘the thing you’re looking at is a red herring’ or ‘keep doing what you’re doing, but hurry up’. With four of us often looking at different things, it also wasn’t clear who it was aimed it. And where it meant ‘hurry up’ (which was definitely the intention on some occasions), that’s a spectacularly useless instruction for any team, unless players have decided to sit down and talk about the weather! The result was that it became more annoying than helpful, and on at least one occasion guided us away from something that turned out to be important.
As a result I finished the game feeling a bit frustrated, even though we did successfully escape. But as that fades, I’m increasingly impressed with the game’s many strengths. It’s a clever game designed skilfully, with loving attention to detail and a whole lot of care for the local history that it draws upon. And if you need more convincing, players get complementary entry to the museum and tower itself, plus a bar discount. 🙂
This is a beautiful game that exceeded my expectation. We haven’t played many games that were built into bars or existing tourist destinations that I’d recommend. I’d recommend Escape from the Tower.
The stone and plaster cells in the tower lend themselves wonderfully to an escape, and the game itself does not disappoint. We were pleasantly surprised from the very beginning. Some games pop a bag over your head to make the initial entry a little more scary. This time it certainly created a feel that we were prisoners being led to our cell – but also it helped to conceal the actual complex of rooms we were being brought through.
We had a great time with the props – which all fit rather neatly together to form their own style of pseudo-steampunk equipment.
The game advances you nicely, allowing you access to new parts of the complex as you go along. The puzzles have a great variety, and are fun to solve (with a few great ah ha! moments to be shared out amongst your team).
One difficulty we had was with the hinting system. There was definitely an attempt to help guide us in interesting ways – with different sound effects. However, as there was no real way to distinguish between “not that” and “go faster” (which isn’t a particularly helpful message anyway) we were sometimes left wondering if we should abandon a particular line of reasoning, or double down on it!
That said, the game was immensely fun.