Gravesend, Nov 2018
Two things to note up front for this review. Firstly, while it’s not a full on horror experience, The Happy Institute is definitely not suitable for nervous players. And secondly, much like the Gilman Hotel game it replaced, some elements of the game work best when you have no idea what to expect. I’m not going to give any spoilers for anything that’s not covered on the website or ahead of the game’s start, but if you want maximum impact you might want to stop reading until you’ve played it.
All clear? Read on at your peril. The main thing I don’t want to spoil for those who’d prefer to play the game with zero advance knowledge is that, as stated on the website description: the game involves a live actor. In a horror-themed game this normally means that someone periodically jumps out at the players or chases them around, and while you can expect to be startled, the interactions here are more complex and closer to immersive theatre.
The first ten minutes of Happy Institute had me completely won over. This was one part due to the cleverly immersive intro sequence, and another part due to the first few puzzles. It’s tricky to define exactly why they worked so well, since the underlying mechanisms were standard enough; but in their presentation they somehow managed to convey a slight sense of dislocated reality that worked brilliantly with the setting.
Sadly, I thought that the rest of the game didn’t manage to match up to that superb start. Several things combined to let the air out of our excitement, the first being a confusion over what was or was not part of the game. This was because a small part of the content is only supposed to be used with larger teams. I’m not sure whether that part was intended to be accessible at all, though our gamemaster was quick to tell us that we didn’t need to look at it. The problem here though was that our gamemaster was in character as someone who couldn’t be trusted, so my immediate reaction was to eagerly press on. Once we twigged that maybe we should take him at his word, the resulting uncertainty punctured all the great atmosphere built up beforehand. There’s not much that damages immersion as much as stopping to think about whether something is part of the experience or intended to be taken at out-of-character face value.
After your faith in a game is shaken it’s difficult to recover it, and a central section with relatively subtle signposting left us second-guessing ourselves and making only painfully slow progress. If you have confidence in a game, then you assume that anything confusing will resolve in a way that makes complete sense, and you’re then more likely to find that resolution. Once you start to doubt that, you begin chasing all sorts of tenuous ideas because they seem equally likely to be correct. Happy Institute has solid, well-designed puzzles that make complete sense – but in a way that may not be obvious while you’re still working on them. As a result, if you lose the flow you may find it tricky to get it back.
I also thought that as the game went on, the immersive elements drifted away from the witty, creepy and original style in which the game started to something more standard, closer to a clichéd horror setting. As a result I went from absolutely loving the game to being much more ambivalent about it.
The live actor is a critical part of how Happy Institute works, and I’m certain each gamemaster who runs it develops their own style. That means it’s inherently a more variable experience than ‘normal’ escape rooms. No criticism is intended of our host, who performed his role with skill and gusto, even if I liked some parts of the results more than others. But for that reason your mileage may vary even more than with a normal escape room.
Some of the factors that brought down our experience were specific to our visit. Others were not: no glaring weaknesses but some flow issues and a puzzle sequence that seemed to lose some of its initial energy. So my impression is of a game that has the potential to be amazing, but which instead ends up merely pretty good. But that’s a tentative opinion – you might find it significantly better or worse according to your tastes and how it’s run for your group.