Online, May 2020
Reviewing remote play games is a curious shift where most of the factors that make a physical room good or not still apply, but where the gamemaster and the technology and the way they operate the game end up mattering as much or even more. Alchemy was a game that was well run where the venue had clearly put a lot of thought into making it work remotely, where I still found it hard to ignore the added friction of playing via a video link.
This game is of course themed around magic and alchemy, with a certain amount of Harry Potter influence mixed in. Your job is to find the Philosopher’s Stone, as part of a sort of graduation test for aspiring alchemists. Solving the puzzles felt like we were being asked to demonstrate a range of occult knowledge and spell-casting abilities (from clues in the room not from outside knowledge, of course), in a way that really fitted with that premise.
Supplementing our host’s camera viewpoint was a set of webpages, giving us initially a set of pictures of the room plus close-ups of items of interest. Clicking on certain items gave us a prompt to enter a code; this would be either the actual code used to unlock a padlock in the room, or (for other types of mechanism) a keyword provided by the gamemaster when we solved the relevant puzzle. In some cases the webpages would provide multimedia content that wouldn’t have come across the Zoom call clearly. The quantity of content (including sometimes accompanying text) was such that they wouldn’t need to add much more to make it playable as an unhosted online-only game; they even provide a Spotify playlist as background music.
That was all absolutely invaluable in helping us get a clear view of how the room was laid out and what we’d found, and allowed our fairly large team to play with little bottlenecking. At the same time I found myself struggling rather to keep track of the many tabs I’d opened and making sure I’d got the right password to enter in the right place to unlock whatever we’d just found. The number of tabs I actually needed open was quite manageable, but keeping track and pruning obsolete tabs was an overhead that distracted somewhat from the game itself.
The original room has a number of nice effects designed to give an impression of magic happening. These were still there and an enjoyable part of the game, but dulled somewhat by happening on the other end of a video link – probably because I was usually focusing first on managing my array of tabs and making sure I had the latest password, it felt like the emphasis was on the result not the experience, ‘great, now we have a code for the padlock’ rather than ‘wow, this item has magically changed colour!’. Ultimately it’s more important that players have a clear sense of what information’s available to them, and if the hosts are focusing on that then that’s entirely sensible; still, I think they could go further to let the strengths of the physical room come through in the virtual experience.
The result was a decent remote game that I’m confident I’d have enjoyed more in person, translated to a remote design in a way that made it entirely playable but became a little drier in the process. On the other hand, most of us aren’t likely to have a chance to play games in Melbourne any time soon, and even if being there would be better, their remote play adaptation is a pretty good proxy version of the experience.
Disclaimer: We played this game on a complementary basis. This does not influence the review or rating.