London, Apr 2017
It really lifts a game when the physical location has been decorated with care and skill. When the designers have put in the work to include clever, creative ideas that not only go beyond just ‘solve a puzzle to get the code for a padlock’ but also smoothly fit into the theme, it can take a game to a whole different level. And yet, if the underlying puzzle design is wobbly, it undermines all the rest. Alcatraz illustrates all these points.
There are no shortage of prison escape games, and a sizeable number of them are specifically themed as Alcatraz, so this is a familiar setup. Like many others in the genre, players start in separated cells (we were informed of that in the pre-game briefing, so I’m not counting that as a spoiler). A particular sequence here illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of this game: I’ll avoid details, but it has multiple steps involving ‘thinking outside the box’ uses of what’s available, with everything fitting smoothly into the setting. Another room with the same theme might have, say, some puzzle written on the wall that gives you a code to unlock the door, which is of course highly artificial – why should a prison door use a numerical padlock at all, let alone one for which the code can be found in the cell? Adventox aim for a much more naturalistic style of game, and this section could have been outstanding – had it worked as intended.
However, it just didn’t. I only know how it was intended to work because the operator told me, and he also told me they’d had to add a backup method of completing the task, which was the one we’d used, and which was also problematic. Our second and third teams each improvised a different approach again, which they found clunky and frustrating.
There was a catalogue of other problems, the most egregious and frustrating of which was an electronic puzzle which wasn’t wired up correctly. In their defence, it sounds like the problems only occur when the players try incorrect combinations… but it’s sloppy either way, and undermined our confidence in the room. We also found various clues overly ambiguous or – in one instance – surprisingly over-specific in a way that caused confusion.
One other design point: a room should never give players what appears to be a clear clue that they can attempt and follow correctly, at a point earlier than it can be used successfully. It’s dispiriting and frustrating to try something that seems correct but has no effect, only to subsequently discover that the room arbitrarily wanted you to wait until a later point for it.
Despite all those frustrations, I didn’t hate the room and we still broadly enjoyed it, even if we emerged feeling a bit frazzled. It’s such a shame though – the potential is here for Alcatraz to be in London’s top tier of rooms. I really like the ideas and the intention behind the game design, it’s just the implementation that’s weak. Since this is a new venue I’d worry that the flaws are simply early teething problems that will be sorted out, but when I played it had been open just under two months, which ought to be enough time for the game to settle in. And it appears that with the sequence mentioned above, the problems have been identified and patched in a way that only partially resolves them, and which introduces some new issues.
And still: the room looks great, has plenty of nice ideas, and excellent use of audio that both reinforces the theming and heightens tension. Despite all the points of unnecessary friction, there was enough that was very good that the game still worked. It could and should be outstanding; but as it is the good and the bad balance out as acceptable.
It also annoyed me that they told us not to use something, which I took to mean “don’t touch it” – which then turned out to be essential. Too many potential red herrings.