Staines, Sep 2018
With a name like Xscream Escapes, this venue’s games were never going to be about bunnies and rainbows, and their first two rooms are set in an old asylum and a serial killer’s den. Even so, these are not the intense horror experiences you might expect: both are atmospherically creepy but perfectly reasonable options for nervous players.
Bedlam is of course their asylum game. The backstory is vague on exactly how and why you’re there: the institute is abandoned (inevitably so, since they can hardly fill it with live inmates!), and you are investigating the history of a patient once imprisoned there while also trying to make your own escape.
Different venues manage the transition from reception to game in different ways. The carefully designed ambience of a room can be undermined if, on first seeing it, there’s an open doorway to a brightly lit lobby. Xscream handle this by extending their decor beyond the game rooms to the connecting corridors, so that by the time you’ve followed the host to the entrance past ominously flickering lights you’re already in the right mindset. The same careful attention to atmosphere extends to the game, with artfully decayed walls under sallow lighting from yellowish lamps. (Those lamps are dim, but with one torch provided to each player we had no problems with excess darkness.)
Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Bedlam’s design is how much reading it involves. Your path is guided by pages from the diary of the vanished patient, which provide clues and piece together a picture of who she was. This approach of providing a journal full of clues is often a heavy-handed mechanism, but here worked well, for several reasons. Firstly and most importantly, the diary pages arrive a few at a time, not as a single mass of information dropped on the players at the beginning. Secondly, the designers haven’t tried to pack out the diary with cryptic red herrings to distract from the clues. And they’re presented in a way that manages to look authentic while remaining completely legible, not in a handwritten scrawl. As a result I had no problem with it as a way to deliver clues and actively enjoyed the way the fragments gradually built up a cohesive image of their author. Still, if you reliably hate poring through written clues such as letters and diaries, be warned that it’s a fairly major part of this game.
Bedlam is also unusual in reusing some items in multiple different places. But that avoids causing confusion thanks to clear signposting, with the rest of the design following the usual single use rule. More dubious is that it includes a couple of intentional red herrings, with apparent puzzle components that lead nowhere. Those could have been highly frustrating if we’d wasted lots of time on them. As it happened we paid little attention to them and so they didn’t impact on our game at all; your mileage may vary.
Even where it uses some familiar, oft-used puzzle ideas, it frames these in a way that neatly ties them into the story and setting. That raised the diary pages from simply a source of clues and narrative to a central thread that really brought the game together. Those drawn by the venue’s name in search of a terror experience may be disappointed by the lack of gore and scares, and I suspect Bedlam won’t be to everyone’s tastes – it actually feels quite cerebral. But if you don’t mind a bit of reading as part of your escape, then you’ll likely find it an atmospheric and distinctive room that’s well worth a visit.