Margate, Jul 2018
While I guess by normal standards it’s pretty weird to go to a seaside town and spend the whole day indoors, the quality of the five games I played across the two escape companies in Margate was so high that I had no qualms about missing the beach. Of those five, The Pit is the newest game from The Escapement and was the one I found most impressive of all, an ambitious subterranean adventure with a Hollywood disaster movie plot where you need to descend into the depths to restart the rotation of the Earth’s core.
Appropriately, it’s located in the venue’s basement, and uses a variety of tricks to create the sensation of being deep underground. (I’d expect all but the most severe claustrophobics to be fine playing it, but if in doubt ask the venue.) All players are given hardhats with head torches, though I was relieved to find the game is mostly quite well-lit: imagine abandoned engineering tunnels fitted with lighting and electrics rather than potholing.
The naturalism of the design goes well beyond the decor, though. The story casts you as engineers (albeit comically underqualified ones sent in desperation after all the professionals have failed), and all the way through the game feels like ‘doing engineering’ – at least, like a fictionalised movie version of it. Rather than a set of identifiable puzzles themed to the story, the actions you’re taking are, broadly, things that wouldn’t be obviously out of place in an action movie. The gamemaster interaction adds to that: in character on the other end of a walkie talkie, he was an active part of the game rather than only chiming in when we hit a dead end.
As well as realism the puzzles are notably creative. These days it’s rare I find anything in an escape room that’s completely novel to me, but this one had several moments that were both original and fun.
I played Pit about six weeks after it opened, and the venue was continuing to make tweaks to its design. It did feel not quite as slickly polished as their other two games, although that may change after another couple of weeks of adjustments. For example, one step suffered from seeming easier to solve with some informed trial and error than by neatly working it out from principles; both our groups ended up solving it that way.
However, that impression was I think also because it’s tougher than their other games. One major section is particularly challenging in a way I liked a great deal, needing a complex synthesis of many different pieces of information in a way that can easily trip up careless teams (such as ours, naturally…) but which makes perfect sense when you consider all the information available. What’s unusual there is that most escape room puzzles come in smaller chunks, perhaps chaining one to another but still possible to complete one piece at a time, whereas this was impressive in needing players to grasp the whole so as to understand what to do with its component parts.
But while I admired that from a puzzle design perspective, it’s the drama and the verisimilitude of the game that will leave you buzzing. I’d suggest beginner teams start with Escapement’s Pirates game before playing this one, because the higher difficulty level makes it a little less immediately accessible. But for anyone up for a challenge, this is a fantastic adventure that fully delivers on the website’s promise to be “highly immersive and full of theatrics”.
The third and latest room in the Escapement arsenal is The Pit. The room opened in June 2018 and promised a step-up from their already superb Pirate and Egyptian themed games.
This was a bit of an unusual game for me – playing alone, with owner Lewis in the game area to provide a second pair of hands as I asked – the mining apprentice, as it were.
The storyline is thankfully light hearted — it revolves (ha!) around the fact that the Earth has stopped spinning, drifting from the Sun due to some problem with its core. Only we can restart it, naturally.
What’s more interesting is the level of immersion from the outset – a humourous intro with in-character briefings (think Time Run) and of course the same set theming spilling out into the corridor and starting the experience before the game even begins.
A dramatic set of stairs, carefully designed to give the feeling of entering a much lower space starts the game off, arriving slightly unexpectedly straight into the first mine chamber.
The initial thought I had was one of surprise – this is an extremely carefully designed space, realistic to the closest possible level of detail. Nothing was anachronous, nothing felt out of place. Big, heavy cabinets, metal gates and ducting work give a modern-industrial feel to what often manifests in mine-themed escape rooms as some sort of bizarre mash up of a gold rush era mines, and a dodgy 80s building site.
My progress through the first section was pretty swift, stalling only on my ability to not find things hidden in escape rooms. The puzzles were clever, clear, and more than just on theme, they were integral parts of the story unfolding. For once, with the combination of theatre, the physicality of the sound, the set and lighting the game felt like I was the protagonist. I was inside a story, trying to navigate the mine shafts and ante chambers, communicating via radio with HQ, saving the world.
The third of three related puzzles in the first area was one I’ve never seen before in an escape room and particularly fun for those of a science or engineering slant. Enthused, I carried on. The deep rumblings of the mine, the hum and seemingly acrid blow of the ventilation system all form part of the game at different points. In some cases players experience snippets of being (slightly) uncomfortable, and unnerved — adding realism to proceedings.
New sections of the mine open up over time, and I traveled deeper towards the core of the earth. Subtle sound deadening gives a feeling of genuinely being deeper, whilst grappling with increasingly novel puzzles, mixing technology and old-school mining paraphernalia with aplomb.
A superbly theatrical (if a little telegraphed if you’re paying attention) game ending played out with genuine panic and urgency in my actions, resulting in me having saved the world yet again. Plus, I scored the second fastest escape at the time of playing.
This game — no, experience — is as good as anything I’ve played around the world. It’s not just a great set with some puzzles, it’s a great set, a genuine story and puzzles which are never unfair, or not directly related to the storyline.
This is a brilliant adventure game — I’d suggest a team of 3 or 4 would be the ideal group size for enthusiasts just so everyone sees everything.
Co-owner Lewis explained in the post-game briefing that his grandfather was a miner, and a mine themed game was always part of their master plan. Only now with build experience, could they do it justice. Which they definitely have. A nod to his family’s mining past is baked into the game, too. And, quite literally, that’s the real difference – the attention to detail, the quality of the puzzle content, and finally the personal touch, the “customers as friends” approach to hosting games. That’s why we play.