Online, Oct 2020
Red Lantern are an escape room venue in California, and The Hardin House Mystery is their online game. This is a hosted virtual game which uses mostly static photos to illustrate your surroundings; you tell your host what you wish to look at and do, and he describes the outcome verbally, sometimes with updates to the picture on screen to show you what you’ve found or changed.
Visually this is a bit like playing a point ‘n’ click computer game. However, it has the huge advantage that you have a real person providing feedback, so instead of three variations on ‘sorry, that’s not possible’ repeated over and over as you try things the game’s designers didn’t anticipate, you get a sensible response that’s at least a little tailored to what you’re trying to do. This didn’t seem to go as far as rewarding out-of-the-box problem solving, and we needed to find the expected way to progress not try wacky left-field ideas, but it certainly made the process of finding that expected solution smoother.
Hardin House is set in the 80s, and you’re bravely attempting to find a schoolmate who has vanished from their house, a house with a history of mysterious disappearances. That might sound like a spooky theme, but visually Hardin is less of a creepy haunted house and more a showpiece apartment from a glossy estate agent’s brochure. Play proceeds through a linear series of stages, where each stage is a relatively quick set of puzzles. Although each step individually doesn’t take too long, there are quite a few of them, and that meant it felt like a quick-paced game with a lot of content to deal with.
Each step also reveals more of the story, via the device of pages from the diary of the friend you’re seeking. It’s a nice touch that they pause the timer during each story reveal, making sure you’re not distracted by the time pressure.
The format is fairly simple; the implementation is smooth. Perhaps a couple of the puzzles felt a little tenuous, in that when we tried their solutions it was as a guess not in confidence they would work; but those were the exceptions, and quickly forgotten in the rapid-fire progress. The game also takes advantage of the format to use puzzles and solutions that you couldn’t place in a physical escape room; and the soundtrack added a hefty dollop of 80s nostalgia which had some of my teammates singing along instead of solving. It’s a well-presented hour of puzzles which is easy to enjoy; if the format appeals to you you should find it a reliably fun option for a game.