We Talk Spoilers on No Proscenium’s 150th Episode

Congratulations to our good friends over at No Proscenium for releasing episode 150.

We’ve been on No Pro a few times and had so many wonderful conversations with Noah. This is by far my favorite discussion that we’ve ever recorded. (I wish that we had recorded our in-person conversation about consent in experiences that we had over dinner and drinks a few months ago.)

In This Episode

Michael Andersen of ARG.net joined us to discuss spoilers, when they matter, and the nuance of how they affect the experience. It’s a fun philosophical conversation that Noah did a fantastic job of grounding.

This was the first time that we got to speak with Michael, which was incredibly exciting because we’ve been fans of his for a long time.

Also, there was a little bit of lag and overlap between our recordings so transition points sound like we’re stepping on each other just a bit. There are also some long pregnant pauses that are a byproduct of the same problem. 

No Proscenium Episode 150 – NoPro Gets Meta

The conversation starts up at the 11 minute mark.

Around the 40 minute mark I start up on a rant about companies with beautiful games, but who refuse to publish photographs.

Referenced Materials

Here are the posts, articles, and videos that we referenced in this episode:

  • Felicia Day plays The Basement (YouTube):

IndieCade <3 Escape Games

We recently met up with professor Celia Pearce in an adorable little coffee shop outside of Boston. Celia teaches game design at Northeastern and oh my did we get lost in conversation with her.

Eventually we found ourselves talking about IndieCade, the independent gaming conference that she helped create. IndieCade sounds like a blast… and it turns out they would love to feature more real life games on the cutting edge of game design. We figured that we’d help get the message out there.

Room Escape Artist: What is IndieCade?

Celia: IndieCade events and showcases highlight innovation in independently- produced games and interactive experiences. We provide a venue for games that are on the margins of the mainstream game industry, as a way to acknowledge and reward creativity and originality in interactive media and games.

The IndieCade black & orange logo.

Since we launched our first events in 2007, the indie game scene has gone from a small niche to a vital part of the larger game ecosystem. Our role has expanded to include facilitating game creation and distribution (such as publisher-developer matchmaking) and connecting new tech companies with creators.

Why are escape rooms interesting to IndieCade?

Innovation is central to our mission.  Physical and tangible forms of games, such as escape rooms, are innovating.

In the last couple of years we have seen a movement that I call “Beyond Screens” where people are trying to extend play and interaction beyond screens in the traditional sense. There is a lot of innovation happening in this kind of “post screen” environment. This includes digital forms, such as mobile, AR (augmented reality) and VR. It also includes physical and tangible forms of games, such as escape rooms, performative forms of interactive media, and hybrids, such as Un-Destined, an ingenious Taiwanese escape room where one person in VR collaborates with another player solving physical puzzles, all of which continue to demonstrate variety and creativity.

Un-Destined - Someone wearing a VR kit in space-y escape room like setting.

We tend to gravitate wherever the most innovation is happening. Immersive theater and escape rooms are a big area for that right now.

On a personal level, I started out my game design career in the theme park industry and I have a soft spot for physically immersive, socially interactive experiences. I feel like we need more face-to-face fun in our lives.

Who attends IndieCade?

We have four core constituents:

  • Indie developers: Any work that is not funded by a publisher is indie in our book. That includes work by game designers, fine artists, university researchers, and students. More recently, it has come to include immersive theatre folks and location-based game designers, in other words, escape rooms and their ilk.
  • Publishers: Publishers come to see what’s new and take advantage of the market- testing entailed in observing who is lining up at which games. Publishers take advantage of our pre-festival matchmaking event where we introduce developers to sponsors. Matchmaking is now extended to tech platforms (for instance, helping Oculus Rift to identify VR developers). Escape room creators looking for someone to design puzzles or for some cool new tech to license could take advantage of this as well.
  • Press: At E3, the show floor is predictable. Everyone waits in line for three hours to play the new Nintendo or PlayStation release. Our showcase gets a lot of attention from press because we offer something unexpected. We also offer press the opportunity to talk to developers. Big companies rarely bring designers to expos or festivals. At our events, developers attend, which is a real value-add to members of the press. We also have a Media Choice award that we let the press vote on.
  • General public: Few international festivals in the US are open to the public. Our events enable game fans to see the hottest new things and give developers exposure. For instance, we’ve had a number of studios time their Kickstarters to coincide with IndieCade events. Many of the games are self-published and they don’t have a lot of money for advertising. An emerging escape room company would get some prestige and public attention at IndieCade. Our Audience Choice Award puts some decision-making in the hands of the general public, which is a lot of fun.

An escape room could submit their work to IndieCade as an indie designer. What would IndieCade look for in a submission from an escape room company?

Innovation is always the watchword; the more inventive and original the better.  Since the escape room is a relatively new genre, the ratio of innovation is particularly high.

As escape rooms become more popular, I suppose more and more of them will be derivative, a problem we see with many digital indie games now. People see an indie game they like and make a clone and somehow think they are being innovative by copying someone else’s innovation.  So, that’s what we are not looking for.

We are more interested in design than production value (although good production value is always a plus.) We’d rather see an innovative prototype than a slickly produced copycat experience.

I recommend browsing our website indiecade.com to get a sense of the work we’ve shown. A few examples on our website include Un-Destined, which I mentioned earlier, Beautiful Corner, or variations such as Tracking Ida, which is more of a puzzle box, or Escape Room in a Box, with which your readers might be familiar. We’ve also shown Six Ghosts and a Pie by Two Bit Circus, so that kind of gives you the range. Just ambling around the website will give folks a sense of what we are about.

Tracking Ida Banner: An gramophone in an old study.

When and where will IndieCade take place?

The IndieCade Festival, our flagship festival, takes place annually in Los Angeles in October.

IndieCade @ E3, our annual showcase at the big game expo, will be June 12-14 in Los Angeles.

We also host IndieCade East, a conference and exhibition, in New York, as well as IndieCade Europe, which usually takes place in late fall. We’ re currently in discussions to launch IndieCade in Asia.

The Call for Submissions for the fall events, The IndieCade Festival and IndieCade Europe, is now open. When are submissions due?

The Call for Submissions can be found at https://www.indiecade.com/Submissions. The regular deadline is May 28th, the late deadline (with a slightly more expensive fee) is June 25th.

Note that we take great care in jurying. Whenever we get site-specific projects, such as escape rooms, we draw on our pool of jurors to find someone with appropriate expertise to go and play the installation. Creators should not hesitate to submit because they think we won’t be able to jury their game. If you send us a game that is only installed on the moon, we’ll launch someone there to play it!

What are the top 3 reasons an escape room should submit to IndieCade?

  • Press exposure
  • Audience exposure
  • Networking with developers and designers

Collaborations are born at IndieCade. We’ve helped cultivate many relationships where indies are hiring each other to work on projects or creating new work together.

What can IndieCade offer escape room players?

Escape room players will be able to:

  • See some of the most cutting-edge demos in the genre
  • Put their hands on new tech (including pre-market tech that nobody has seen before)
  • Experience a wide array of games and different genres of play: digital, board, live/physical, VR, mobile, etc

If you like to explore, play and solve puzzles, IndieCade is definitely a worthwhile adventure!

Escape Room NJ – Awaken [Review]

Puzzception!

Location: Pompton Lakes, NJ

Date Played: April 30, 2018

Team size: 1-18; we recommend 4-8

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $25 per ticket for public bookings, scaled rates based on team size for private bookings

Ticketing: Public or Private

REA Reaction

Awaken grabbed our attention with a captivating grayscale set and a large quantity of interesting puzzles. It was hard to connect with the narrative, however, and the concluding sequence didn’t quite stick the landing. With just a bit more tweaking to the later half, Escape Room NJ could transform this strong escape room into something truly brilliant.

If you’re anywhere near Pompton Lakes, NJ, this one is worth checking out.

In-game: The front of a greyscale home with a clothes line running towards it.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Any experience level
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • Creative gray scale set
  • Strong puzzle game
  • A lot of content

Story

In the year 2059, professor Paul Carpentier, the creator of a psychic surgical technique, required his own treatment. As his students, we were given the responsibility of saving his life by administering that treatment: diving into his dream state to find and preserve his pillar memories.

Our mentor’s life was in our hands.

In-game: The front of a greyscale home with a telescope on the porch and a light on in the window.

Setting

The entirety of Awaken existed in the dreams and memories of our mentor. In keeping with the fiction, Awaken was presented entirely in grayscale. The few colored items corresponded to the pillar memories needed to restore Carpentier’s mind.

The setting itself carried us through key memories, all centered on his home. The exterior looked especially phenomenal.

In-game: A glowing street lamp with an apple hanging in front of it by a fishing line.

Gameplay

Escape Room NJ’s Awaken was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, puzzling, and making connections.

Analysis

+ I loved the grayscale aesthetic of the set. It effectively communicated that we were in a dream.

– The story didn’t come through very strongly. We knew that we were mucking about in a man’s memories, but we never became emotionally invested in him as a human being.

+/- The additional concept of colored items representing pillar memories was brilliant. However, the colored items lacked vibrancy, diminishing the effect of this smart design choice.

Awaken had a good mix of lock- and technology-based gameplay that allowed for the unexpected to occur.

– A critical interaction was entirely too worn. In being gentle with it, we failed to use it properly.

+ There were a lot of puzzles to chew on and they were generally quality challenges. There was a lot of content; we were always puzzling.

– 18 people in this game? lol

+ There came a point where we accidentally broke the sequence of puzzles by solving a puzzle with partial information and concluding that this was part of the puzzle’s design. Our gamemaster was brilliantly attentive and intervened to prevent confusion.

– Much of the content in this escape room could be intentionally or accidentally bypassed.

+ The endgame had some nifty things going on.

– The final puzzle involved guesswork. It was missing a metapuzzle to pull the experience together.

+ The home’s exterior was a wonderful place to start the game and puzzle. There were moments that I found myself returning to it simply because I found it an enjoyable place.

Tips for Visiting

  • There is a parking lot behind Escape Room NJ.
  • We recommend Thatcher McGhees for a convenient post-game meal.

Book your hour with Escape Room NJ’s Awaken, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Escape Room NJ provided media discounted tickets for this game.

 

Komnata Quest – The Vault [Review]

Pack your Pip-Boy for the apocalypse.

Location: New York, NY

Date Played: April 16, 2018

Team size: 2-6; we recommend 2-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $40 per ticket on weekdays; $50 per ticket on weekends

Ticketing: Private

REA Reaction

In The Vault, Komnata Quest blended action and comedy in their Fallout themed experience. This was an easy, straightforward, linear adventure-based game that felt like the escape room world’s equivalent of the summer action flick. A little more depth in puzzle design would have been an improvement, but we had a good time traversing its large set and playing with all sorts of interesting toys.

If you’re in Manhattan and looking for an approachable, beginner friendly adventure, give The Vault a shot.

In-game: A welcome screen with instructions about a first aid kit.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Story seekers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Sci-fi fans
  • Any experience level
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • A fun exploration of the Fallout world
  • A humorous artificial intelligence overseer
  • Some great tangible interactions

Story

Nuclear Armageddon had rendered the surface of the Earth uninhabitable. To avoid the radiation, diseases, and mutant monsters, humanity had retreated to the safety of underground vaults. Unfortunately, the vaults were no longer the safe haven that humanity had relied on. Our squad was dispatched to investigate and neutralize the threat.

In-game: A pair of boxes, one is labeled

Setting

Leaning heavily into the mythology of the Fallout video game series, The Vault dropped us into a subterranean ark of sorts, designed to protect and preserve humanity after the Earth’s surface was rendered insufficient for civilization. The Vault was loaded with Fallout references and had a sterile, military-meets-laboratory feel.

The gamespace was surprisingly large for a Downtown Manhattan escape room. There were many spaces to explore.

In-game: A Nuka Cola cabinet.

Gameplay

Komnata Quest Manhattan’s The Vault was a standard escape room with a lower level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, puzzling, communicating, and making connections.

In-game: The door to the research unity, it looks like there are monsters on the other side of it.

Analysis

+ The Vault was based on the Fallout series. The interactions that pulled on the source material were fun and memorable.

In-game: a large binary switch.

+/- A lot of the escape room was informed by a critical prop. This thing was awesome, but also failed to provide key feedback to let us know that it was working.

+ The lock nerd in me was incredibly pleased with one of the puzzles in Vault.

+/- The in-game “artificial intelligence” was funny.

– However, in-game audio was challenging to hear. Consequently, it was also difficult to tell the difference between audio clues and AI taunts. This was frustrating.

+/- The set was large, especially by Manhattan standards. For all of the space that Komnata Quest had for Vault, it felt light on content and challenge.

+ I have a personal love of nixie tubes. Discovering them in an escape room makes me happy.

Tips for Visiting

  • For upscale dining nearby, we recommend sushi at Haru.
  • For casual dining nearby, City Acres Market offers Vanessa’s dumplings.
  • There are not a lot of dining options open late in this neighborhood.
  • Parking is a challenge; consider a subway or ferry for transportation.

Book your hour with Komnata Quest’s The Vault, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you using the coupon code escapeartist to receive 10% off.

Disclosure: Komnata Quest comped our tickets for this game.

Escape the Netherworld – Nosferatu [Review]

Dracula’s antique lock collection.

Location: Stone Mountain, GA

Date Played: March 23, 2018

Team size: up to 8; we recommend 4 or 6 or maybe 8 (an even number)

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per ticket

Ticketing: Public or Private

REA Reaction

Nosferatu put an interesting twist on escape rooms by adding individual roles and goals. The set was visually impactful from the opening moments and maintained the intensity through dynamic interactions. The late-game sequence brought the level of excitement we’d expect from an escape room created by a haunted house.

If you find yourself anywhere near Stone Mountain, GA, go visit this crypt.

Nosferatu team post-game photo.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Creatures of the night
  • Amateur locksmiths
  • Best for players with at least some experience

Why play?

  • Beautiful sets (and lock collection!)
  • Exciting moments
  • In-character gamemastering
  • Individual goals

Story

In Victorian London, a mysterious man named Van Helsing had hired each of us for a mysterious mission. We had arrived at his designated address, each with our own secret agenda. We learned that if we were to survive, we had to band together and determine how to slay the legendary vampire Nosferatu before he rose and feasted on us.

In-game: An Egyptian sarcophagus in a Victorian setting.
Image via Escape The Netherworld.

Setting

Nosferatu’s unique set looked almost church-like with an unusual mixture of Gothic and ancient Egyptian influences. It looked fantastic.

Gameplay

Escape the Netherworld’s Nosferatu was a standard escape room with a few twists and a higher level of difficulty.

The main twist: we each had an individual goal. While we all won or lost the escape room together, individual players could complete bonus assignments along the way. Some of these assignments put players into passive conflict with one another. This is why we recommend that you play with an even number of teammates.

The second twist: we had to make a choice.

Analysis

+ The set design was top-notch.

+ There were some brilliant effects that added a lot of drama to the immersion. This was especially true of the closing series of interactions.

+ The individual bonus assignments forced us to strategize and solve outside of the regular gameflow. This kept everyone engaged.

– One of the individual assignments was ambiguous.

+ There were a lot of carefully selected locks in Nosferatu. Some were antique; some simply looked the part. All of them fit the aesthetic of the gamespace.

– If you don’t know your way around locks, the volume of them would get annoying.

+ There was a lot to do in this room escape.

– Because there were so many interactions, only one or two people experienced many of the really cool moments.

– There was also a whole lot of reading.

+ The choice was clear. We were able to anticipate the impact of our decision on the outcome of the game.

Tips for Visiting

  • Parking: There is parking out front.
  • Food: We enjoyed the nearby Metro Cafe Diner.

Book your hour with Escape the Netherworld’s Nosferatu, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Escape the Netherworld comped our tickets for this game.

Odyssey Escape Game – Towering Inferno [Review]

Fire drill.

Location: Alpharetta, GA

Date Played: March 25, 2018

Team size: up to 12; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per ticket

Ticketing: Public

REA Reaction

Towering Inferno was dramatic. It had stakes. Despite some tedious early puzzles, it built excitement.

If you’re in the area and looking for adventure, go put out this fire.

In-game: The Theron Tower office. It looks very corporate.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Story seekers
  • Any experience level
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • The unique staging
  • Setting off the fire alarm
  • Escalation

Story

It was the grand opening of Theron Tower, a new skyscraper. As Chief Engineer, we’d detected electrical hazards throughout the tower, but the Chairman of the Board had refused to push back the opening. With the event in full swing, and fires starting throughout the tower, from our top floor office we needed to enable fire suppression, shutdown electrical junctions, and escape to the roof for a helicopter rescue.

In-game: The tower's rooftop.

Setting

We occupied an office on the top floor of Theron Tower. It had white walls, bright lights, and computer stations in cubicles. Our office had various diagrams of the facility as well.

The set nailed the big corporate office aesthetic far better than most of the office escape rooms we’ve played. As the game pushed forward, we found ourselves working through more unusual sets.

In-game: A cubical with a computer desk.

Gameplay

Odyssey Escape Game’s Towering Inferno was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching and puzzling.

Analysis

+ Despite the office decor, we were energized by the unique theme. We’ve played as Firefighters, but never as engineers fighting fires from our computers, working towards a roof-top helicopter rescue.

+ The escape room gave backstory to the impending disaster. It created our character, as well as the others at Theron Tower, with context and motives. The story made sense and our role in it was clear.

+ Our gamemaster clearly stated that we would have to push the fire alarm as part of the game. I can’t overstate how important this pre-game preparation was.

In-game: A fire alarm push button locked behind a clear plastic casing.

– The firefighting puzzles were computer-based, tedious, uninteresting, and inaccessible to most teammates.

– The computer station puzzles were imbalanced. One could be completed much more quickly than the other. Because of this, the flow was disrupted. We spent a lot of time waiting on our teammates.

– The computers presented repetitive-task puzzles. Once we’d determined how to solve them, we had to play along as the computer continued to present versions of the scenario so that we could repeat the same solve logic. Unlike computer games, however, these didn’t reward mastery with a harder version, nor did they offer a “speed up” button as we set each version to solved. 1 person continued to plod away with this, with 1 other giving input, and the rest of the team looking on. These mini-games dragged.

+ Odyssey Escape Game had built a neat graphic to show our progress through the suppression of the fire.

– While we liked the idea for this escape room, the fire extinguishing scenarios didn’t make any sense in light of human and machine capabilities and fire safety. Narratively, it didn’t hold water.

+ The culminating scene was dramatic and exciting. We enjoyed the set juxtaposition: bright and dark, ordinary and unusual. Towering Inferno escalated well.

Tips for Visiting

Book your hour with Odyssey Escape Game’s Towering Inferno, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Odyssey Escape Game provided media discounted tickets for this game.

 

Empire Rooms – Ravenwood Grove [Review]

A Hitchhiker’s Guide To Geek References.

Location: Fairfield, NJ

Date Played: April 9, 2018

Team size: 2-8; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $25 per ticket

Ticketing: Public or Private

REA Reaction

Ravenwood Grove justified this heist escape room. It was fun, puzzle-focused game in a pretty standard setting. It was even more fun for those of us who caught all the nerdy references.

If you’re in the area, check this one out, and don’t get too distracted by the Easter eggs.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Pop culture nerds
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Geeky references
  • Strong puzzle game
  • Solidly written and justified narrative that didn’t get in the way

Story

Our team of thieves had been planning this heist for months. Our tech guy would disable the security system and we would sneak in and steal a rare piece of art from a collector. The plan was perfect. What could go wrong?

In-game: A study covered in art.

Setting

We were in a home gallery setting. Our mark was a collector of rare and nerdy artifacts. The set had an office/ gallery vibe that wasn’t inherently exciting. The fun of the set came from all of the hidden and not-so-hidden nerdery laced throughout the environment. There were many entertaining details to appreciate.

In-game: a small book case with symbols on the books.

Gameplay

Empire Rooms’ Ravenwood Grove was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching and puzzling.

Analysis

+ Empire Rooms did a great job of setting up the story, justifying our presence in the game, and establishing the role of the gamemaster. It’s details like this that cost an escape room company absolutely nothing, but go a long way towards building a strong fiction.

+ There was a ton of content in Ravenwood Grove, in terms of puzzles as well as nerdy references and Easter eggs.

+ The Easter eggs were great. We probably spent 5 minutes pointing them out and explaining them to one another.

– There were a few too many locks with similar digit structures.

– One of the niftiest props in the game did nothing at all. It was the kind of prop that just screams, “PLAY WITH ME!” We wished it had been incorporated into a puzzle.

+/- There was a narrative twist that was simultaneously cool and kind of a let down.

+ Ravenwood Grove flowed well. It mixed old school play with strong, tech-driven moments.

Tips for Visiting

Book your hour with Empire Rooms’ Ravenwood Grove, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Empire Rooms provided media discounted tickets for this game.

 

Salt Lake City & Park City, Utah: Room Escape Recommendations

Looking for an escape room near Salt Lake City or Park City, Utah?

During our few days in Salt Lake City, we experienced some of the most entertaining, in-character gamemastering we’ve seen to date.

Here are our recommendations for escape rooms in Salt Lake City & Park City, organized into categories.

Stylized image of the cathedral at Temple Square in Salt Lake City.

Market standouts

  1. Prison Bus Escape, Alcatraz Escape Games
  2. Mine Trap, Escape Room Park City
  3. Zombie Apocalypse Escape, Alcatraz Escape Games
  4. Reactor Room, Getout Games 
  5. Dracula’s Castle, Mystery Escape Room
  6. Sherlock Holmes and the Great Charade, Lockbox Mysteries (play at home)

The set & scenery-driven adventures

The puzzle-centric

The newbie-friendly

Competitive Play

The spooky & scary

Games with actors

You are always welcome to contact us if this recommendation list doesn’t answer your specific questions.

The Witness [Review]

Puzzling Nirvana

Developer/Publisher: Thekla, Inc.

Director/Producer: Jonathan Blow

Dates Played: January-April, 2018

Platform: Windows, MacOS, Android, PS4, Xbox, iOS

Duration: 18-25 hours, 40-50 hours for completionists

Price: $9.99 on iOS, $13.60 on Android, $39.99 on Steam

REA Reaction

The Witness asked me to observe and to think. It was puzzle bliss.

Designer Jonathan Blow took a simple puzzle concept and built upon it in brilliant and unexpected ways.

The resplendent environment and clever puzzles left me wanting more, even after 25 hours of play, most of it spent thinking.

In-game, and array of basic puzzles that build in complexity.
A series of starter puzzles.

Who is this for?

  • Patient puzzlers
  • Digital aesthetes
  • People with any level of video game experience

Why play?

  • Immersive world
  • Innovative puzzle design
  • Excellent difficulty curve
  • You will be smarter by the end

Story & setup

The Witness began with no backstory. I walked down a long, dark hallway and found a panel. On the panel was a line with one circular end. Touching the circle and dragging along the line opened a door to a gorgeous island. That first panel I had encountered was the simplest version of a seemingly endless series of line mazes found on puzzle panels everywhere.

It’s easiest to describe this game by what it wasn’t. It didn’t have any items, characters, music, dialogue, or written words. There was some light philosophy in the form of audio recorders I found lying around, but other than that, it was pure puzzle zen.

In-game: A lush forrest with a dirt path running through it.

As I wandered around, I was initially reminded of the island in Myst. The structural similarity was obvious, but graphically, it had come a long way since then. The colors in The Witness popped. There was an orchard of bright pink cherry trees and a desert temple that gleamed in the sun. Even the salt mine was beautiful in its own way. When an early boat ride around the island included a trip through a shipwreck, I started to realize how big this island was.

The exploration was rewarding. Even after investing my first ten hours into the game, I found a new area and wondered how I could have missed it. New perspectives on familiar areas also delighted my aesthetic side. Statues I found throughout the island weren’t puzzles at all but rather subtle nudges to look at everything from a different perspective.

Gameplay

Every puzzle panel in The Witness was an iteration on that original line maze I had encountered at the beginning. And there were a ton of panels – more than 500. Prior to jumping into The Witness, I wondered how it could sustain one concept through an entire game, but after just a few hours of play, I understood its genius.

In-game:
Something quite a bit more complicated.

The puzzles in each area of the island introduced me to a new variation. Sometimes I was required to use the environment to guide my solution: shadows or branches that had fallen upon the panel, for example. Other times I had to decipher the symbols on the puzzle (with a certain amount of trial and error) to learn the new rule required to solve it.

It created its own visual language as I built on my successes. I began to see line patterns both in the game world and in real life.

Analysis

+ This game was an epiphany generator and I quickly became addicted.

+ The Witness was an open-world game with essentially one type of puzzle. Despite this, I found myself engaged throughout. New concepts were introduced gradually. The puzzles didn’t overstay their welcome.

+ This game was a work of art. Certainly aesthetically, but also in its masterful creation of fun, fair, creative, and challenging puzzles. It taught concepts without coddling, trusting that I was smart, determined, and patient enough to see it through to the breakthrough moment.

– There was one sound in the game that I found grating. As I sat working with my trusty line (sometimes for hours at a stretch), there was always a low hum coming from the panel. The mute button became my sanity-saver.

-/+ The Witness always rewarded me for solving a puzzle with the same thing: more puzzles. As a lover of games, I’ve been conditioned to expect something to happen when I make progress: more XP, an improved weapon, a fun cutscene. I had to leave those expectations aside and accept that this game was a unique animal. My own intelligence was leveling up and that was better than any bit of digital swag I could have received.

+ Creator Jonathan Blow didn’t want you to feel smart playing The Witness. He wanted you to understand that you are smart.

+ When The Witness was released, Blow begged people not to watch walkthrough videos. After my first major puzzle roadblock and subsequent breakthrough, I understood why: I didn’t want to deny myself that rush as my brain grew a little larger.

+ After occasional periods of frustration, there were times when I thought I would never fire this game up again. Every time I did, however, I would get through my roadblock and wonder why I’d almost given up.

– There’s no hint system and no manual. When I did find an overly obtuse puzzle, I eventually had to give up on it. Thankfully, The Witness doesn’t require you to solve every panel to reach the end.

+ Beyond the beauty and craftsmanship of the island and its puzzles, the most significant strength was its balance. I rarely found the easy puzzles too tedious or the hard ones too taxing.

– When I completed a puzzle, there was barely any sound effect aside from the gentle clunk as power was supplied to the next series of puzzle panels. If you’re still addicted to Candy Crush, this absence of dopamine rewards will bother you.

+ The best teachers make you feel like a genius when you reach the lesson they’ve been gently guiding you toward all along. In its best moments, The Witness felt like a Buddhist monk showing me the way to enlightenment. The road was long, but it was incredibly satisfying.

Tips for Playing

  • Don’t watch walkthrough videos. You’ll miss out on the reason to play.
  • Perfect for a long flight. Los Angeles to Singapore will feel like nothing.
  • Spend some time away from the puzzle panels and just look at the world.

Purchase your copy of The Witness on Xbox One, PS4, iOS, Mac, or Steam.

(If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale.)

Up The Game 2018 – 7 Thoughts

We’re home from the Netherlands and filled with thoughts and feels.

Wide shot of the Up The Game show floor in the Breda Prison Dome.

1: Dutch Escape Games

The escape rooms in the Netherlands continue to impress us. We ventured beyond Amsterdam on this trip and found brilliant and innovative games in many other cities. The bar is so high in the country and the creators keep building better games.

If you don’t believe that it is possible to convey story and emotion while still presenting a strong puzzle game, take a trip to the Netherlands.

We’ve heard talk of crappy games in the Netherlands, but we’ve played about two dozen escape rooms there thus far and we still haven’t found a one. Granted we’re playing based on recommendations, but still, no duds.

View of the glass floor of the Breda Prison Dome.

2: The Prison Dome

The Breda Prison Dome was a fantastic conference venue. Its layout was a little awkward for a conference, but its personality and vibe more than made up for this. It was charming, imposing, and beautiful all at the same time.

Additionally, we got to play the massive Prison Escape game inside of the Prison Dome, which was an unforgettable experience. Our review is forthcoming.

3: The Talks

Maybe we chose well, but we saw some of the best talks we’ve ever encountered yet at Up The Game.

Yolanda Chiu’s talk on the Asian escape room markets was fun and incredibly interesting both from a game design and a business standpoint… and a little shocking.

The guys from The Room in Berlin delivered two fantastic, demonstrative, and useful talks. One covered how to create a high end experience in 2018 and the other addressed sound design.

The team from Sherlocked in Amsterdam talked about mixed realities and how to create experiences that extend beyond just time locked in a room.

Jasper Wille’s talk on meaningful choice articulated many of our own thoughts on what makes for more satisfying and interesting immersive entertainment, but he did it better than we could have.

4: Discussions on Quality

In big cities, the larger, early-to-market escape room companies can – and frequently do – get by with strong SEO and average or mediocre games. If you aren’t one of these early movers, that playbook won’t work for you.

I walked out of only one talk at Up the Game. It involved a first-in-city owner talking about how he successfully markets games that are only good enough. In 2018, this approach is the fast lane to bankruptcy for new companies. The market is a lot more mature. While the early pioneers had plenty of struggles to deal with, competing for search engine placement, media attention, and market share were not among them.

I have so much respect for the early companies that continue to innovate both in game design and customer care. New owners can learn a lot from these pioneers as long as they don’t blindly follow their strategies.

Many of the wonderful talks at this conference provided helpful guidance for creating higher quality experiences without dropping tons of money. So many details of customer service and game design cost very little.

5: Ubisoft’s VR Escape

Ubisoft Blue Byte will soon release a VR escape game set in the world of Assassin’s Creed Origins. I attended Cyril Voiron’s talk, which demonstrated that Ubisoft is really thinking about the right things.

Actually, I lied. I walked out of this talk too, but that was only because as it wrapped up, I realized that Cyril was about to tell us that the VR escape game was available to play at the conference… I left early to beat the crowd to sign up for a time slot.

Someone playing the Ubisoft VR Escape The Lost Pyramid escape room set in the wold of Assassin's Creed Origins.
I have no idea who that is.

I got to play it in full. It was a great game. A full review is forthcoming.

6: Our Talk

We really felt like we came into our own on stage this year. Last year we were nervous. We hadn’t played many escape rooms in Europe. In spite of the research we had done, we weren’t certain that we had written a talk that would resonate with the audience.

Lisa & David in Room Escape Artist t-shirts on the Up The Game show floor.

This year we returned having played many games in Germany, Hungary, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. We knew the audience and we had played many top tier games in Europe. This allowed us to come back with a stronger talk that we knew would fit in among the other talks at Up The Game.

Coming off of this, we’re psyched to speak in Nashville this summer.

7: Community

Up The Game had great talks and a really cool venue. It took place in a country filled with outstanding escape rooms. The reason to attend, however, wasn’t any of these things. The true reason to attend was the community.

I don’t know if it was luck or design or some combination of the two, but the people attending this conference were incredible. Our favorite moments all involved one-on-one or small group conversations. We got the most out of talking about game design, the business, and people’s successes, struggles, goals, motivations, likes, and dislikes.

If we have a request for next year, it would be for Up The Game to further foster this dynamic. Have more dinners where people are free to move around and converse. Turn the music way down at the party so that people can speak comfortably. Create more places where people can go during the conference to simply get to know one another.

For us, escape rooms are primarily about sharing an experience with other people, and conferences are an extension of that.

For all of you that we met, we hope to see you again next year. If we didn’t get to meet, let’s make sure to connect next year.