London, May 2017
On seeing the pre-launch website for this company I mentally marked it down as one to get excited about. The ‘urban fairy tales’ concept presses my buttons, and the description suggested a very promising focus on immersion and drama. A room full of puzzles can be great fun, but all my favourite games have been driven by story and immersion, or at least by atmosphere and theme.
The initial description of their first game then sounded surprisingly mundane. A woman is missing, and you’re asked to come help with the bar and piece together the cause of her disappearance. From that, I wasn’t entirely sure if the game would turn out to have a real-world, social drama premise – which would be intriguingly different, but also a bit strait-laced in a pastime mainly dominated by heists, spaceships, psycho killers, and other such florid themes. However, the website was under-selling it (and has since been updated) – the game has a flamboyant theme that I won’t reveal but which is much closer to my original impression.
The game starts in a bar, hidden away in a warehouse / industrial area in a part of London that not so long ago have been classified as ‘dangerously rough’, which in typical London style likely means in ten years it’ll have been utterly transformed into ‘unaffordably chic’ and taken over by luxury flat re-developments. Actually, in a sense the game starts earlier than that, since the booking confirmation email is largely in character, and there’s a suggestion that you can send them a pre-game message on social media for some pre-game world building, something I regret not trying.
Once you’ve found the place, the immersion continues in a similar theme; the operator doesn’t break role until the game is over. The briefing area doubles as the first room of the game, and it unfolds from there.
As a room of puzzles, The Escapist is solid and has some nice ideas but isn’t stand-out relative to the ever more sophisticated standard of new escape rooms. The game’s strength is in its story-telling. Everything’s based on the background narrative, and while there is a point where the puzzle style gets closer to the more traditional design of finding hidden numbers and trying them in numerical padlocks, even then I felt it was used as a way of pushing players to engage more with the story. Other than that the design is pleasingly physical, with the more obviously puzzle-driven parts of the room justified with a nod to dream-logic and the idea that perhaps you’re no longer quite in the waking world.
On solving what turned out to be the final puzzle I wasn’t sure until the exit door opened whether there’d be an additional section still to come or not. I wouldn’t say the game has too little content, but it could be improved by adding one more large puzzle or a handful of smaller ones. We didn’t use any hints and I’m not sure what the hint mechanism was: there was no hint screen or walkie talkies, and although the operator could definitely see us I didn’t notice any cameras.
The game builds to a memorable finish, with a last task that includes an entirely appropriate instant fail condition – though one that’s decently forgiving of slip-ups. We’d have left happy even without the free sweets.