Birmingham, Sep 2017
I’m a sucker for most sci-fi themes, so with a choice of games for a morning slot at Clue HQ’s Birmingham branch I went straight for A-I-9’s story of battling a rogue artificial intelligence. Also, the alternatives were their Cell Block C and Bunker 38 rooms which have been franchised to a wider number of locations across the UK, so it made sense to go for the harder-to-find game.
Clue HQ is one of the UK’s large escape chains, with currently three core branches and close to a dozen franchise locations (plus a few in other countries). This shows in an experience that is slick and well-honed, though perhaps feels less personal. The briefing area uses funky blue lighting and an aesthetic I associate with lasertag venues, the friendly staff are employees not owners, and there are loyalty cards to encourage multiple visits. Similarly inside the room, where clues are often large custom-printed slabs that use a suitably computer-y font to match the theme, and everything has a slightly chunky, robust feel to it.
A-I-9 is not a physically large game. It looks like a room full of puzzles much more than it looks like an actual control room for an out of control artificial intelligence, but the component quality is polished and professional; and lighting, audio and video give it plenty of atmosphere. The AI you’re attempting to shut down features in the intro video and also butts in as you make progress, to bluster and threaten.
The game takes place in a very self-contained area where most of the game puzzles are available from the start, so there’s a lot to look at as you begin and plenty of padlocks to deal with. Once you find a starting point though there’s little confusion as to what you should be looking at. At least, that’s what I thought, and I spent the first twenty something minutes thinking it was a strictly linear game. In fact there are parallel streams that divide up well across a team of players – our team of two ended up doing everything sequentially, but could have and should have worked independently.
Despite that, the game structure is exceptionally clear. We almost never ended up unsure which padlock to try a code on because there was an obvious order to them. Moreover, each individual puzzle had its own theme. This was perhaps the most satisfying aspect of A-I-9’s design: you’re gradually wresting the AI away from one part of society after another. So for example one puzzle has a health theme, and the solution unlocks the padlock labelled for the national health service, and lets you disable a switch with a satisfying thunk to disconnect the AI from the NHS systems; and similarly for transport, banking, communications, and so on. The effect was both to give a great sense of progress and also good engagement with the story, so that the team isn’t just solving arbitrary puzzles but actually battling against the AI.
Enthusiasts are only a tiny portion of the market for escape games, and Clue HQ is very well set up for first time teams and for those who’ve only played a few games before. To me this style feels a little corporate, an mass-market experience where everything has rubber corners. However, it’s done very well, with slick audio-visuals and solid, not too tricky puzzles that let teams enjoy a rapid-fire series of quick wins. The design is such that even people to whom escape rooms might not particularly appeal will probably have a great time here; and people who love escape rooms will find it a perfectly acceptable game too.