Ipswich, Dec 2017
Suffolk Food Hall is a rather wonderful food emporium on the southern fringes of Ipswich, with everything from local produce to garden supplies… and also a pair of escape rooms. It’s one of the more surprising venues I’ve seen, but I guess they had spare space and decided to dip a toe into the new craze. Vanished is their second game, and its premise draws on the food theme: the scientist whose disappearance you’re investigating was working on a revolutionary new strain of beef, and you’ve been enlisted by the menacing corporation funding her work to put together the notes she’s left and recreate her discovery. The game seemed to have slightly mixed messages about whether the missing scientist was victim or perpetrator, but there were enough cow-related puns along the way I didn’t mind too much.
Design purists may find this game cluttered. Laboratory games often use quite minimal decorations in a bare room; Vanished adds plenty of bits and pieces to leave the white walls feeling convincingly like a busy academic’s work space. I actually quite liked that, finding the result more realistic than many other lab-themed games I’ve played.
A couple of factors detracted from my enjoyment of the game. The first was the cold, and will only affect you if book the game in winter, which I heartily urge you not to do. It appears the space they’ve built the games in has no central heating, and I had to take a pause between this game and the one after to get a hot drink and let my frozen fingers thaw out.
More importantly, this is a very non-linear game where most of the puzzles result in one part of the solution needed for the end of the game. That last step involves an auto-lockout mechanism with limited tries before escalating time penalties. An auto-lockout is a reasonable choice to take away the temptation to guess, but it absolutely requires that players be able to be confident in the solution once they’ve found it so that they don’t have to guess.
In Vanished, when we found our initial guess at that solution wasn’t right, we then went back over our answers to all the earlier component puzzles and identified two that we had little confidence in plus a couple of others that could plausibly be wrong; in fact, it turned out to be none of those, and instead had been a silly mistake elsewhere. That’s actually a point in the game’s favour, in that although some of the answers seemed weak, it was still the case that the most plausible (or least implausible) candidate answers were the correct ones. Even so, any team that reaches that point and doesn’t have the correct set of answers is then basically at the mercy of the gamemaster’s hinting, or will end up playing Russian roulette by trying alternative answers in the auto-lockout mechanism.
When we played, the gamemaster’s hints were by way of him walking into the room, when we knocked on the exit door or shouted for a clue. That seems to be a temporary measure for a recently opened game though – he apologised for it and said that they planned to use walkie talkies in the future.
I found the result to be a game that was playable but didn’t have a huge amount to recommend it. In its defence, it’s probably better suited to larger groups who haven’t played escape games before. The structure means there’s lots for different people to work on at the same time, and where I experienced a couple of the steps as tiresome busywork, that style of task means there’s plenty of all players to get involved in.