Brighton, May 2018
I am of course late to the party here – anyone with sufficient interest in escape games to read this site regularly is likely well aware that Bewilder Box in Brighton has a sterling reputation, frequently appearing in enthusiasts’ lists of favourite games. But better late than never, and I was delighted to get a chance to finally try it out.
The Bewilder Box Initiative is hosted in a pub, and instead of a normal lobby area you sit down and wait to be collected. You’ll have no trouble spotting the gamemaster when he arrives; he’s the one that looks like a mad scientist amidst the crowd of normal pub patrons. From there it’s all in character, as you’re welcomed to the institute and briefed for the ‘intelligence assessment test’ to follow. There is an additional plot line involving the mysterious disappearance of the institute’s founder – who appears in video footage, and will be a familiar face to anyone who watched the 80s children’s show Knightmare.
The briefing also introduces you to D.A.V.E., an artificial intelligence who appears as a disembodied face. This is the game’s hint system, as well as an important part of its charm. I’ve heard the opinion expressed that a well-designed game should involve no interaction with the operator, from players burned by puzzles that can’t reasonably be solved; in contrast to that, D.A.V.E. illustrates how to use gamemaster interaction in a positive way. The AI is a friendly and entertaining presence in the room, providing small nudges if needed but also chatting to the team now and again in a way that soon had us feeling quite fond of him.
My team made a bit of a hash of what should have been a couple of easy beginning puzzles, in particular one that used a mechanism I tend to dislike and which I then also managed to overthink. Once that was sorted out everything began to flow more smoothly. The game area feels spacious, and has a lot that can be solved in parallel, but even so I’d suggest keeping player numbers to 3 or 4 – we played with a team of five, and I found that detracted a little from following everything that was going on. And as with many really good games, you’ll want a smaller team so that you get to enjoy more of it yourself.
There’s a danger when playing oft-recommended games that the hype sets a bar that’s impossible for them to live up to, and Bewilder Box Initiative had the added pressure of a direct comparison to their sequel game, which (spoiler!) I liked even more. A few of the earlier puzzles in the game seemed less strong than the rest, and felt like arbitrary puzzles that had little connection to the rest – although the premise of the game is that you’re undergoing a form of intelligence test, which gives a good rationale for even the most abstract puzzles. And some of my teammates felt there was too much going on at once, in a way that took away from the story for them. Even so, even at its weakest it’s a very good escape game, and at its best it’s fantastic, a sequence of puzzles that get ever more interesting and creative as they go on, backed by a story that builds to a great pay-off. That finish is particularly good: it neatly brought the last strands of the room together while giving the story a clever resolution that I didn’t see coming, with some great visual effects to boot.