Swindon, Aug 2017
Professor Dunstan and the
Unfeasibly Long Room Name Search for the Ancient Statuette is buried an industrial park on the east side of Swindon, and it took some searching and a couple of calls to the operator to find our way through the maze of business units to find it. (We visited when it had only been open for a few weeks, so it’ll likely have more signposting by the time you read this!)
As a very broad rule, that type of location isn’t a very promising sign for an escape game – many of the more interesting games are set in old or unusual buildings and make good use of their location, whereas generic business/commercial space takes that much more effort to turn into something convincingly atmospheric. By the time we were being led to the room down a very dull corridor from a sparsely decorated lobby area, I was braced to be underwhelmed. That initial impression changed dramatically for the better the moment we got into the game itself.
The backstory is that you’re investigating the home of an archaeologist friend, who has vanished in suspicious circumstances after discovering a mysterious statuette, which other parties may be over-eager to get their hands on. A friend’s living room may sound like an excuse for a lazy theme with some old furniture and padlocks, but that’s emphatically not the case here.
I wrote recently in a different review that there’s a particular recognisable style of decoration in games from larger companies, who create multiple copies of a game in different locations. Professor Dunstan exemplifies the opposite of this, and is packed with unique, striking objects. The story places you in the study of an archaeologist, and it was no surprise to learn that the designer has personal expertise in the field – the room design suggests a deep familiarity with the subject that underpins everything with a feeling of authenticity, and boasts a catalogue of curios that would otherwise be difficult to assemble.
More than that, it’s full of gorgeous items and clever handmade mechanisms. Pretty much everything in the room is relevant to the game, including items that I initially wrote off as pure decoration. In truth, I’m a little worried about how the game will fare after a couple thousand energetically careless teams play through it! Half a dozen items seemed selected for beauty not robustness. For now at least it’s all in excellent shape, and I hope it’ll stay that way.
Uniquely in my experience, the game has a sliding scale of difficulty that’s set based on the team. The larger and more experienced the team is, the harder the game is. This is achieved by a couple of adjustments in how it’s set up, with a couple of puzzles left out or made harder, with the majority of the content remaining unchanged. As a team of four enthusiasts, we were given a version that was just a little short of the maximum difficulty and made it out in the last few minutes. Since it’s also fairly non-linear, it’s a good opportunity for enthusiasts to play in a larger team size than usual, with four or even slightly more players.
Adapting the game in that way to better fit the players is a clever idea that was executed well. I can see some potential for slight confusion with it – for example, there was something that I expected to be used as part of a puzzle which instead went unused, and which would have been part of the additional puzzle added for the maximum difficulty version. Nonetheless, it allows the game to be accessible to beginners while simultaneously providing a decent amount of challenge for experienced teams. I also felt that a couple of the individual puzzles here worked my brain harder than those in most escape rooms.
Professor Dunstan isn’t as lavishly large-scale as some of my other favourite games, but it shines with quality throughout: in its elegant decorations, in its interesting and clever puzzles, and in its gorgeous objects and mechanisms. It’s a lovely game that satisfies both aesthetically and intellectually, and it succeeded so well at taking us into another place that it was a shock to step out of the room back into a Swindon industrial estate.