Blackpool, Apr 2018
At the foot of the iconic Blackpool Tower is the Blackpool Dungeon, the local iteration of the tourist attraction involving actors in gruesome make-up and some grizzly local history; and which now offers an escape room. The website wasn’t completely clear on the game’s theme, and having been told to wait in the bar area for the ‘Executioner’ to collect us, I was starting to wonder how grim a tone they’d have gone for. But I guess they’ve decided a light touch goes down better with the punters, since although the premise is that you’re witches condemned to death, that’s handled in a light hearted style that stays well away from anything frightening or disturbing. The decor is theme park style: full on without aiming for immersion or any kind of historical accuracy, mixing in cheerful anachronisms without hesitation.
The briefing informed us that we’d need to cast six spells to escape. ‘Casting spells’ turned out to be an exaggeration; it’d be more accurate to describe it simply as six puzzles. However, the clear structure was a strength of the game, with an immediate reward each time we solved something, and in a couple of places the ‘spell’ theming managed to be go beyond being just a framing device to having players perform ‘magical’ actions to progress.
This game has a great deal of potential. The Dungeon clearly has plenty of know-how at making an set look impressive, and also at hitting a balance between giving a horror themed experience while still staying comfortably inside pretty much everyone’s comfort zone. The costumed gamemaster dropped into her role enough to be entertaining while not letting it distract her from giving a clear briefing. And the game combined plenty of appropriately physical items with some nice technical effects backed up by skilful use of audio.
All of which ought to add up to a high quality game. But the satisfaction of playing an escape room is in solving it, and without that the experience is flat, no matter how well-built it may be in other respects.
Not long into the game, we noticed that the gamemaster was being very quick to give us hints, more or less telling us what to do before we’d really had a chance to think about it. That’s not so unusual, particularly at a venue that mainly sees first-time teams, and although it can be annoying it doesn’t mean the game is bad; usually the solution is to just ask the host to hold back a bit more. We did so (deliberately avoiding looking at the hint on the screen), and I think she did then hold back a bit. The problem was that we then found that the puzzle was rather baffling. When we did eventually resort to the hint provided, the required answer seemed quite arbitrary. That is, it fit with the clues provided, but not clearly or neatly, and I felt it needed a bit of a leap to get from the information given to the expected solution.
That was also true, to varying degrees, of most of the rest of the game. Any lingering doubts I’d had about whether I was just not quite ‘getting’ the puzzles were swept away by a particularly egregious example: I’m confident that if I’d been left in the room for several hours, on my own it would never have occurred to me to take the actions required. That appeared to simply be how they expected the game to work: the hint system wasn’t there to help players when they got stuck, it was there to walk players through the process of solving the game. I can’t say whether the puzzles were designed with the intention that players be able to solve them on their own; I’d imagine so, but if so that appears to have since been abandoned.
I’d also complain that the room used low lighting with no moveable light sources provided, making it unnecessarily difficult to read some of the clues, particularly since some of the clues were also quite faded; but compared to the main flaw of the game that was small beer.
It all struck me as a terrible shame, since it seems like it would take relatively little tweaking to turn this into a quality game, and one that for a lot of its players is probably the first escape game they’ve tried. My impression was that they’ve brought a lot of talent into the game’s design and construction, but that their skills had a large gap where puzzle-setting and escape room design are concerned. I imagine many of their clientele leave very happy with it; if you’ve never played an escape room and treat it as a themed experience that the host walks you through, you might find no reason for dissatisfaction. It’s less well suited for enthusiasts.
Two things left me feeling more kindly towards the game. One was the finish, which was both well-themed and intentionally silly, providing a welcome bit of fun to finish on. The other was the host; while I wasn’t a fan of how she gave hints, in other respects she threw herself into her role and did a great job of keeping us entertained.