Room-in-a-box, May 2018
Trip 1907 describes itself as an “interactive escape the book game”; many will immediately notice the resemblance in style and presentation to Journal 29, from which it readily acknowledges drawing inspiration. It has not only the same format of one puzzle per full-page spread, with a website used to verify answers, but the art style feels reminiscent of the earlier book too. (Full disclosure: I backed this book on its crowd-funding launch campaign.)
One major difference is that where Journal 29 had only an introductory paragraph of story, Trip 1907 has an entire novella. Each solved puzzle releases a new page of story, forming a single narrative involving a sailor on a ship full of hideous secrets. The tale that unfolds is squarely in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft, and while the plot arc is easy to predict it’s written proficiently and links the varied puzzles together without making them feel shoe-horned in.
Trip 1907 also has a help system built into the website, where two hints are available for each puzzle. These come at a cost: on starting the book you have 100 points of sanity, and each hint costs 4 or 6 of those points. Repeatedly viewing the same hint only subtracts the cost on the first occasion, and you also slowly regain sanity points as you solve puzzles. In the abstract I love this idea: as well as acting as a form of keeping score for those who care about such things, it beautifully ties the game mechanism into the Lovecraftian theme of the story.
In practice, this hint system was one of several reasons I found Trip 1907 hard to enjoy. There’s something dispiriting about resorting to a hint to solve a puzzle, and the more often you have to do it the stronger that effect is. But my experience with the book was that the hints were more than a last resort – a number of puzzles felt too obscure, or too open to multiple interpretations, without one or both the associated hints. That was true of only a small proportion of the puzzles in the book, but there were enough to undermine my confidence that subsequent pages could be solved without hints. That trains lazy habits, and I then found myself resorting to hints whenever a puzzle didn’t immediately yield, where it would have been entirely possible, and much more satisfying, to spend a little longer and crack it without any clues. Naturally, the laziness is purely on me; but as soon as you begin to think of the hints as having integral information, instead of of being a last resort, it’s difficult to resist looking at them.
Of course, that isn’t really a problem with the hint system, it’s a problem with the puzzles. There are plenty of inventive ideas packed into this book, even if perhaps a few too many of them involve finding the shapes of digits in some way. However, there are also instances of confusing wording or misleading instructions, other pages where the solution felt like a wild leap, places where additional artwork is included on the page in a way that introduces red herrings, and art choices (mainly the faux-handwriting font, and the ‘weathering’ effect on the pages) that look good but sometimes obscure or confuse. The puzzle answers are numbers or recognisable words, except sometimes they aren’t; the story text isn’t relevant to the puzzles, except when it is; a certain type of prompt shows the format to use for the answer, except when it’s used to mean something else. That might sound like laudable creativity, a way to keep players from getting lazy; but the effect is actually to generate confusion.
It becomes easy to get stuck not because the puzzle is interestingly difficult, but because solving it requires an approach that, based on previous puzzles, you’d ruled out of consideration. Or you solve it correctly, but get something that doesn’t look like the previous answers, so you ignore it and keep looking for other solutions. When that happens it feels like the book isn’t playing fair, like playing a board game with someone who keeps ‘remembering’ new rules to his own benefit partway through.
Despite all that, I don’t want to write off this book. I certainly didn’t get the impression that this was a cynical ‘me too’ attempt to produce a knock-off copy of Journal 29; it’s a well intentioned attempt to take what was good about that book and add in new elements – such as the story and the themed hint system. The story is decent and adds to the puzzles; as does the excellent artwork, all of which give weight to its claim to be an ‘immersive adventure’ not just a book of puzzles. Unfortunately, a product like this lives or dies on the quality of its puzzles, and this one falls short. Even so, it’s only flawed in places, and more forgiving readers may have no problem enjoying it; despite all my criticisms I’d still be willing to have a go at a sequel, should one be published.