Online, May 2020
In between The Panic Room’s various CSI-themed online games, My Dearest Emily sticks out rather. In stark contrast to the usual escape room themes of peril and world-saving, it’s set in a lesser-known part of 19th Century US history, and tells a gentle but heart-felt love story in the form of a series of letters. This particular pair of lovers have a predilection for puzzles, which immediately gives a perfectly reasonable excuse for why each of the twelve letters solves to a hidden word or phrase.
You proceed through the letters in order, with each solution unlocking the next. It’s a simple format given atmosphere by the presentation (I was thankful that they picked a handwriting font that’s decently legible), plus soundtrack audio. There’s also the option of listening to the letters in audio form, but I’m far too impatient a reader to do so.
With the exception of one puzzle near the end, we never felt tempted to look at the hints, and never spent very long stuck on any stage – in most cases we rapidly knew what to do. Even so, the twelve steps of this game took us over an hour to finish, mainly because several of them are relatively time-consuming to complete. Because of that, and because a game designed as a series of letters inevitably involves a fair amount of reading, be prepared for a game that feels a little more like hard work than some.
But this is a game that works best if you engage with it on its own terms, paying attention to the content of the letters and to the music provided. It sets out to strike a particular emotional tone, something I’d like to see more escape games do. If you take the letters purely as window dressing for an abstract set of puzzles then you’ll miss the appeal of the game.
I suspect this will be a ‘Marmite’ game that divides opinions. The game’s tone may be cloyingly sentimental for some, and others may find its letters to be too much reading or just not exciting enough compared to, say, solving a murder or saving a planet. For me it stood out for exactly those reasons – the puzzles were enjoyable but the game was memorable for doing something different, for building an atmosphere and a fictional but convincing piece of personal history. And its quiet theme rather suited home play, where becoming engrossed in private fragments of long-gone strangers’ lives requires less suspension of disbelief than do more common themes.