Wolverhampton, Jun 2019
Alleyway had so many elements that I’d have expected to put me off it. A dirty, dusty environment, a fairly narrow space in which we squeezed past each other in the darkness with not enough torches to go round, with a design that was happy to use gotchas and fakeouts – all the ingredients were there for me to hate it. And even so, I found it a solidly enjoyable game.
It’s called Alleyway because it’s set in an alleyway, the scene of a crime which you need to investigate so as to find the identity of a serial killer. You have six suspects, each described in detail on a set of infosheets provided in the briefing. Although you need to solve puzzles to escape the alleyway, you also need to work out which of the six is the culprit; and in an unusual twist, the game is counted as a victory if and only if you get the right suspect – even if you haven’t got out, as long as you solve the murder mystery it’s still a win.
A back-alley murder scene is an ominous setting, and Clockwork set the tone before the game even started, with a briefing area dark enough that we had to take a moment for our eyes to adjust before we could navigate it at all. Guiding us in was our host, dressed in full steampunk regalia, larger than life with the confident automatic patter of an experienced thespian or carnival barker, humorously brusque or gleefully foreboding. If you’ve looked at Clockwork’s webpage or Facebook page, you’ll have seen that those put the host front and centre, something almost no other venues do, and his theatrical introduction did indeed add a lot to the experience.
Perhaps even more important was the skilful gamemastering, which kept the very low in-game light levels from becoming too frustrating, and which kept gameplay on track where we might otherwise have ended up going in circles from a search fail or one of the ways in which the game design misleads players. As a result, I was able to appreciate the game’s strengths much more than I otherwise might have. The tricks and fakeouts were one such strength, as was the murder mystery.
Murder mystery puzzles are (yet) another thing I usually find underwhelming, due to too-often loose logic; but Alleyway’s central puzzle provides more than one way to converge on the correct answer, and doesn’t require you to make any dubious ‘mindreading’ leaps of logic to get there. As part of that they’ve used some standard horror-room props in a clever way that may not have made narrative sense but which worked very well as a game device. I imagine it also provides a good way to allow teams who were unable to complete the room leave on a high, since even if they’re a few puzzles short of the end they may be able to make an informed guess at the killer and thereby get a technical victory.
Alleyway could easily have been excruciating, but ended up being entirely fun. I would still recommend most players pick one of Clockwork’s other games ahead of it, but if you have time to include it in your schedule then it’s worth doing so.