London, Feb 2019
This was a temporary pop-up game, and is now closed
February in London means the Vault Festival is back, with a smorgasbord of theatre, comedy and more experimental shows; and escape room company Mostly Harmless return with another pop-up escape game. This one moves away from their previous sci-fi designs to an escapology theme, where you play a Houdini-esque performer (plus assistants), attempting to get out of a set of restraints on stage. Unlike their Vault pop-up a year earlier, it’s designed for 2-4 players with no competitive setup or public booking system, which probably makes it much harder for them to cover costs but gives a vastly better experience for escape room enthusiasts. [Edit: this isn’t entirely true – see the comment at the bottom. With a team of two you may be paired with strangers; more than that and you can probably count on having the slot to yourselves.]
Ominously, the game description talks about a straitjacket and ‘cold water rising’. The water is of course simulated – no-one need worry about getting wet. The straitjacket is not simulated, and one player must volunteer to wear it, restrained to a chair not just for a brief intro section but for the entire 30 minute game.
This sounds like a catastrophically misguided design decision, and it’s certainly a brave one, that some players will hate. However, as the player in restraints I found I was able to take part in the game much more than I’d expected, for reasons I won’t go into since they’d be spoilers. It’s certainly frustrating at times to not be able to physically explore the room with the rest of your team, and in a longer game it would become too much of an annoyance, but my experience was that it worked far better than I’d have predicted. Just make sure you go with teammates who’ll remember to keep you in the loop with what they’re doing.
The gamemaster is as energetically engaged as in their last game Phobos 17. He provides hints where needed by popping his head round the curtain, a back-to-basics approach that ought to be distracting but actually worked well. The idea of the gamemaster entering the room to deliver hints has a terrible reputation, due to bad mass-market games where a bored minimum wage employee walks in and asks the team what they’re stuck on, but this is a world away from that – the host presents as a helpful stage manager, and any interventions add to immersion instead of undermining it.
Also adding to the immersion is the audience – since you are, after all, supposed to be performing on stage. This is a virtual audience projected on a wall, but it’s an audience which reacts to your successes with approving cheers, and sometimes boos when you’re doing something you shouldn’t. In a short game with a lot to get through, this provides valuable feedback and encouragement to keep you on the right track. It’s a clever bit of tech that does wonders at taking you from a small cellar in the Waterloo Vaults to a Victorian theatre stage.
A couple of clues struck me as a bit weak, in that we were unsure which puzzle they were intended to help with, or whether or not we still needed them; sometimes designers try to make a cryptic puzzle easier by adding in a cryptic clue for it, but end up just introducing an extra source of confusion. But the points where we struggled were due to our blindspots and search failures, and the puzzles were well-designed, varied and logical.
Your aim is to find five keywords with which to complete the magic phrase that’ll release you, and although it’s well suited to smaller teams it’s non-linear enough to keep multiple players busy at the same time. Complementing the unusual setup with the straitjacket, puzzles use the conjuror/escapology theme with creativity and verve, with the kind of ideas that put a big smile on your face when you spot a solution.
At half the play time of most games, Escape the Jacket is a short experience, but I’ve seen 60 minute escape rooms that had not much more content, and if you need extra entertainment to justify the trip to Waterloo then it combines well with whatever else at the Vaults takes your fancy.
Mostly Harmless continue to come up with clever, ambitious ideas, and with Jacket they take a risky design and make it work thanks to a combination of smart design and sheer gusto. It may be a bit on the tricky side for beginners, but enthusiasts should make efforts to catch it while it’s on.