Athens, May 2019
I’d noticed Escaped’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea being mentioned as a highly recommended game ever since I started keeping track of which European games players enthused about, so was pleased to get the chance to finally try it. Escaped are prolific creators, with 11 games currently on offer across two locations, and the majority of those involve live actors – including this one.
With a plot inspired by Jules Verne, you’ve found the legendary submarine of Captain Nemo. Naturally, the submarine is set to self-destruct, although in 90 minutes’ time not 60. As the website description tells you, you can expect to encounter both Nemo himself and also Professor Aronnax (the narrator in Verne’s book), and a large part of the game revolves around dealing with these two characters. Despite references in the description to Nemo having been ‘transformed into a monster’ this isn’t at all a horror game, and perfectly suitable for nervous players.
I reliably enjoy encountering and talking to actor NPCs in games, and 20,000 LUTS’s acting was performed well. Even so, I’ve concluded that in general I prefer my escape rooms without actors – or rather, I dislike a setup where the NPCs are helping you and telling you what to do. In theory there should be no difference between finding a written clue saying to search in a particular area and receiving that information from an actor. In practice, I find that the latter feels more like receiving a gamemaster hint, and leaves me feeling that I’m being walked through the game instead of solving it myself. As a result, my enjoyment of the game fluctuated wildly according to how much we were left to our own devices.
That’s very much a matter of personal taste, of course. What also helped was that the game deliberately keeps you unsure how much you can trust each of the two characters. I think they could have gone further there in, say, building into the story a meaningful choice for the players to make, but even so the ambiguity worked well at keeping us on our toes.
More than the actors though I suspect it was the set that really gained 20,000 LUTS its reputation. It’s been open at least a couple of years now, and must have been pretty revolutionary when it first opened; it remains very cool, and also benefits from some good eye candy. While it also had engaging and mostly very good puzzle content, my impression was that the design sometimes leaned on the NPCs to point us in the right direction, in a way that was less satisfying than the sense of organic flow you get when the game structure itself keeps you on track.
Notwithstanding those reservations, it’s hard not to be impressed. Escape rooms have evolved from ‘escape’ to ‘escapism’, with have an increasing focus on making players the stars of an adventure, and 20,000 LUTS has all the elements: a beautiful and dynamic environment to explore, a story to unravel, and even a supporting cast to deal with. And you’ll enjoy it all the more of you think of it in those terms, as an interactive adventure first and foremost; play for the theatrical elements as much as for the puzzle solving.