Anaheim, Nov 2018
Zoe has the reputation of being the scariest game in Los Angeles. I haven’t played enough horror games in the city to say whether that’s the case or not, but I can say this: if you’re not fond of jump scares, this is not the game for you. I’ve played many horror themed games elsewhere, with varying levels of gore and terror, a handful of which aimed to be as frightening as possible, but of all those Zoe is the slickest and most successful at terrorising its victims.
Its premise is vague but in classic horror movie style, with an ominous house that appears in your nightmares and draws you to it despite your better judgement. The titular Zoe appears to be both victim and malevolent spirit, and your task is to retrieve a certain possession of hers… but she’s not the only thing in the house you need to worry about.
Dim lighting and creepy music built enough of an atmosphere to have us on edge by the end of the briefing, before we’d even started. Due to what I assume are physical constraints of the building layout, we were then led back outside and round to the entrance to the game proper, an interlude of sunny normality that rather undermined the carefully created apprehension. But they lost no time in plunging us back into their house of fear.
It’s not easy to solve puzzles while terrified out of your wits, and in common with pretty much every other genuinely scary game I’ve played, Zoe is light on puzzle content. It has fewer puzzles and they’re easier to solve, with more emphasis on simply finding the necessary items and putting them in the correct places than anything more intellectually challenging. Solving is secondary to the theatrics, with puzzles separated by (and sometimes interrupted by) set-piece sequences that aim to leave you a quivering wreck.
A couple of the puzzles in fact struck me as weak, with mildly ambiguous clues that in one case had us resorting to a bit of trial and error. It uses a linear structure that in a different game would turn into a sequence of bottlenecks. But here it barely matters if only a couple of people can look at a puzzle at a time, because the rest of the group isn’t standing around bored, they’re hiding in corners or desperately trying to hold doors shut.
In horror movies the monsters are often a bit inconsistent in when and how they appear, in when they let characters go and when they don’t. That unpredictability is a big part of what makes it frightening, since you never know what might happen next. Zoe shifts from one trick to another in a way that similarly keeps you off balance. I couldn’t help being aware that our tormentors took care to never quite catch us, a break in the illusion that was particularly noticeable when I fumbled the key to a lock midway through making a frantic escape, in a way that really should have meant we were caught. But that can’t be helped, and the pursuers were skilful at always giving an impression of being just one step behind.
With one or two honourable exceptions, most of the really fear-focused escape rooms I’ve tried have been disappointing. The frights were too repetitive or predictable, the puzzles too illogical, the gamemaster hinting too heavy-handed. Fair enough if a game aims for fear not puzzles, but if the main emotion it instills is frustration then it’s failed on its own merits. And it’s in those terms that Zoe is so successful. From the briefing and the blindfolded start through to the moment you stumble out blinking in the sudden Californian sunshine, it is relentless and successful at creating spectacle and emotion. Even if you have nerves of steel you’re pretty much guaranteed to startle and jump, and to find yourself approaching those darker corners only gingerly. Most normal people can expect to be properly terrified.
Even if the fear doesn’t get to you there’s a great deal to admire in the dramatic staging. Its best moments are as memorable as scenes from a movie or a play, with the difference that you’re there part of it. I can imagine Zoe genuinely giving players nightmares.
As a scare experience it’s superb. I’m reviewing it as an escape room, and it’s light on puzzles and a couple of them could stand a bit of tightening up. However, I don’t think that matters. Well-judged hinting got us past any puzzle problems without making us feel dragged through them, and as a result they didn’t distract from the experience. It’s certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those inclined to subject themselves to Zoe, it delivers an experience you won’t forget.