Bucharest, May 2018
Many of the escape game owners I chatted to in Bucharest were themselves enthusiasts, who gave mostly overlapping recommendations for games to play in the city. Trapped’s What If? was an exception to that, a game that was mentioned usually as a ‘love it or hate it’ game that different players had wildly different reactions to – which naturally raised my curiosity.
I don’t think it’s revealing too much to say that it’s a variant of the ‘white room’ idea, where you start in a more or less featureless space with blank white walls, floor and ceiling, whose secrets unfold one piece at a time. That’s an idea that’s been attempted in various locations with varying degrees of success; the two versions of it I’ve played in the UK were both crude and low quality, but it’s been done much more effectively elsewhere. Trapped’s game is a high tech version with the gleaming sterility of a sci-fi laboratory, based on screens and touch sensitive panels not physical mechanisms.
The briefing tells you to pay close attention to what you see and hear, and both observation and lateral thinking are important skills for the game. Puzzles are strictly linear, with exactly one puzzle available until it’s solved, at which point it’s replaced by the clues for the next one.
Perhaps surprisingly, the game has a story that advances as you play. Since it’s not given either on the website or in the briefing I won’t describe what it is, but it both justifies the theme and ties together the puzzles, some of which are purely abstract and some of which are tied to the narrative. The way the puzzles advance the story is highly effective and makes creative use of the space, even one point metaphorically taking you out of the room in a way that I won’t describe for spoiler reasons, which could quickly become tiresome but which for us lasted exactly the right length of time.
The low point of a game was a logic-based puzzle that appeared at first tricky, and on closer inspection confusingly ambiguous. It then added insult to injury when the touch-sensitive panel repeatedly refused to register our attempts to press something – although to be fair it was an incorrect answer we were trying to press. We persisted with that until frustration overtook our pride, and took a hint; the pictures slid under the door gave us the solution rather than a helpful nudge. And when we asked the gamemaster to explain it to us afterwards, the explanation given seemed to be clearly at odds with the actual written clue. That might well be a translation problem, since we were playing the English version of a Romanian game, but appeared to be a flagrantly broken puzzle.
We also struggled with a tricky later stage that needed an intuitive leap we failed to make. This time the hint didn’t give us the solution outright, but it still fed us more pieces than we felt were necessary to unstick us. But perhaps the operator had at that point decided she’d better err on the side of giving us too much help than too little.
I greatly enjoyed pretty much everything else about the game. It’s imaginative and unusual, taking advantage of the format to present puzzles that would otherwise be difficult to use. The use of touch screens gives it a ‘digital’ feel that might be off-putting for some, though they’ve balanced that with judicious use of a few physical objects. We felt the designers had missed an opportunity to do more with the story, perhaps even giving players a choice to make for how the game ended, but what there is works well. The hint system is also a missed opportunity, where a custom themed system would have worked brilliantly but instead they went for the simple option of pictures under the door. Even so, it was really only the one-and-a-half dodgy puzzles that soured our enthusiasm for What If? – the rest was a cool and distinctively different escape room.