London, Oct 2017
The question here is, how to fairly review something which is a thoroughly different type of experience to everything else on this site? Mind Horror is a virtual reality escape game, so far a rare beast in the UK but gradually creeping into the escape games scene.
While purchasing game designs is not so unusual with physical escape rooms, very few companies have the resources to create their own VR games and so buying from an external supplier is standard. By an unfortunate coincidence, the first two companies to open a VR game in London both bought the same game, Mind Horror, which I believe is written by the Barcelona-based company Avatarico. Your task is to navigate the twisted mind of a serial killer before he dies, to find out the location of a kidnapped child and escape safely.
As with a physical escape room, the experience starts with a team briefing, though instead of the usual instructions to avoid force and use each item once, here the intro demonstrates which arm gestures to use to fly and to shoot. As that implies, puzzle solving is only one part of this game, mixed in with more standard computer game elements of exploration and combat.
All players are seated throughout, and play co-operatively. Each other player’s avatar is visible in the virtual environment, usually in a completely different relative location to their actual position in the room. Some sections of the game have the avatars fixed in place, allowing you to look around and reach out but not move about, and others allow free flight in zero gravity using arm movements to guide direction and speed.
The gameplay also shifts in style between different stages. Perhaps half of the stages are puzzle-based, but unless you struggle with these a great deal they occupy much less than half the play time. Don’t expect anything particularly mentally taxing; the challenge in each is solely to work out what the game expects you to do – as well as to overcome the sometimes clumsy way the avatar handles object manipulation.
The VR immersion is simultaneously both clunky and remarkably effective. I imagine that with practice it becomes much smoother, but for me moving objects around had all the grace and fine motor control of a drunkard convinced he’ll be able to juggle on his first attempt. We lost several minutes attempting to fling small objects at one another with hilarious incompetence. In the sections involving combat it was just as difficult to aim even approximately in the right direction.
Movement, on the other hand, became second nature almost immediately, and interacting with large simple objects such as levers was straightforward. The game mostly plays to its strengths, requiring neither very fine object control nor precise combat skills, instead carrying you through the story with pauses as you work out how to overcome the newest task.
At the same time the virtual environment is instantly convincing, as well as spectacular. We had to remember not to physically lean on virtual surfaces. If you haven’t tried a VR headset before, then it’s worth giving Mind Horror a go for that experience alone.
That immersion comes at a cost, however. Three of our four players experienced at least a little motion sickness, one severely. However spectacular the visuals, it’s difficult to enjoy them with a constant background nausea, and if that’s your body’s reaction there’s not much you can do to cure the feeling. Since the game also can’t continue without all players, it’d be tricky to bail out midway, too.
Less serious but still irksome was the audio delay. If you’ve ever tried to speak on a phone where you can hear your own voice echoing back half a second after you speak, you’ll understand how off-putting that can be. I wondered why they bothered having our voices come through the headset, since we could hear each other speak anyhow, but perhaps the point is to make your teammates’ voices come from where their avatars are in the game, not from where they’re physically located.
Was it fun? Absolutely. Was it an escape room? Only in the loosest sense. If this qualifies, so do a great many computer games. But that was more a stylistic choice of this particular game rather than a fundamental limitation of the format. It leaves me thinking that VR is a platform with great potential for escape rooms, which Mind Horror only starts to explore. The awkwardness of interacting with virtual objects is a limiting factor, though one that will improve as VR technology moves forward and as players become more familiar with VR games.
In the meantime, I can’t really assign a rating to Mind Horror in the way I would to a physical escape game. But given that it’s a similar price and a similar length of time, I can rate it based on how strongly I’d recommend it relative to a normal game. And despite the cool virtual environment, I’d encourage people to pick any strong physical escape game over it… but as an experience it’s competitive with an average to decent game. It’s also worth going to for sheer novelty value alone, if you haven’t tried a VR headset before. Just be braced for possible motion sickness.
We discussed some ways you might try and improve the nature of a game like this. For instance, as this is a VR experience and the complexity and volume of its content is controlled by software, it ought to be possible to guarantee a 60 minute experience. Ours lasted a little over 35 minutes. It was great and we didn’t feel like we’d particularly missed out by that, but equally it would have been enjoyable to spend the remaining time in VR, too. (Pressures for a venue we’d like to think are reduced as there’s no reset time required between games…)
With this in mind, how would you keep the element of challenge alive? We figured that a move to a points-based system might help to preserve that across a fixed-length game and keep things fun. There are physical games that have adopted this strategy too, such as the two games at Enigma Quests (Million Dollar Heist, which scores by your takings at the end of the game, and School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which awards you various achievements as you progress), and a similar approach could work even better for VR games.