3 Video Game Puzzlers for Bending Your Reality

This year has been… a lot. Staring at the same handful of walls for months has made me want to escape more than just my apartment. I’ve been seeking out excellent video game puzzlers that let me bend my reality just a bit and step into a nice dream. Here are 3 such experiences to help you round out a bizarre 2020.

A Fisherman’s Tale (VR)

$15 on Steam

Anyone who grew up with a dollhouse (or like me, a Castle Greyskull) has spent hours imagining the world inside coming to life. A Fisherman’s Tale took place in the dreamworld of a lighthouse keeper’s model of his own lighthouse. I became the puppet of the lighthouse keeper himself. When I reached into the model, a giant thing moved in my peripheral vision matching my moves exactly… the real lighthouse keeper’s giant hand! Recursive, no? It got crazier from there, but somehow made sense in the way that only dreams can while you’re in them.

Buoying the grand experience was the beautiful art of the world, somewhere between cartoonish and realistic. The professional production of the voiceovers and sound design gave life to the delightful sea creatures who helped me through my various escape room-adjacent predicaments. Likewise, the narrator of my adventure helped keep me on track when I mucked about with various unimportant props too long.

Because of the reality-warping aspects of A Fisherman’s Tale, this was an experience that can only happen in VR. It’s the kind of game that you’ll want to share with VR newbies to blow their minds on Christmas morning after you unwrap your Oculus 2 or PSVR. While it clocked in about about two hours for me, it was well worth the money grandma sent me.

Available on all VR platforms.

A Good Snowman Is Hard to Build

$10 on Steam

A Good Snowman is Hard to Build favored simplicity in presentation right down to its apt title. Everyone knows that a snowman consists of a large, medium, and small ball of snow, in that order. Seems easy. Rising to the task as a faceless monster in the confines of a garden hedge maze proved to be much harder.

Why was I a monster rolling around a snowy English garden? It was unclear. A Good Snowman is storyless, but that was fine with me because who needs an excuse to build a snowman?  

This charming indie game was perfect for an evening of puzzling. I was initially drawn in by the lovely art style, reminiscent of Untitled Goose Game, but got hooked by the challenge of snowman-building. More than once, I found myself in the cycle of flatly stating “that’s impossible” when encountering a new puzzle only to cheer my brilliance when the head of the snowman finally landed in place.

Available on Steam, iOS, Android, & itch.io

The Gardens Between

The Gardens Between

$20 on Steam & Consoles / $5 on Mobile

The Gardens Between was unlike any puzzle game I’d played before, and yet I had no trouble understanding the “Alice in Wonderland” logic required to make it work. Pulling off “unique yet intuitive” is quite a feat.

Falling somewhere between the time-bending Braid and the single-player co-op of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, The Gardens Between asked me to advance two young friends through the surreal islands of their shared memories. The controls were incredibly simple: move time forward or back. Doing so moved my characters and sent the on-rails camera rotating around the island to reveal obstacles I had to overcome.

The music of this world received special attention as well. Gorgeous ambient tunes accompanied my journey and calmed my mind when I was stuck. Developer “The Voxel Agents” was so proud of it that they’ve created a special section of their website where I could just kick back and relax to the soothing vibes.

No better way to slide into a calmer, saner, and more relaxing 2021.

Available on: Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Steam, iOS, Android, and Stadia

Mad Experiments: Escape Room [Review]

First-Person Cluer

Developer & Publisher: PlayTogether Studio

Date Played: Early June 2020

Platform: PC, Mac, Steam

Duration: about an hour

Price: $9.99 on Steam

Group Size: 1-6 players

REA Reaction

Mad Experiments: Escape Room was a beautifully designed room that had excellent multiplayer integration. As someone who has been missing real-life escaping, this first-person video game experience was a convincing stand-in.

The puzzles, however, could have used an injection of creativity. Too many of them relied on tired escape room tropes for finding keypad passcodes.

Because Mad Experiments had such a robust multiplayer offering, I would have liked to see it take more opportunities to use cooperation between teammates.

PlayTogether Studios delivered on presentation and provided solid gameplay, but left me wanting more from the puzzles. Regardless, I’d recommend checking out Mad Experiments because they have just released a second room, making the $10 price point a better value.

Who is this for?

  • Video gamers who want to try escape rooms.
  • Room escape fans who miss the social aspect of doing a physical room with friends.

Why play?

  • Beautiful design
  • Multiplayer integration

Story

Professor Cheshire and his assistant Hildeguard had invited me to their mansion to participate in an experiment of some kind. Or perhaps I was the experiment? The story was conveyed solely through Cheshire’s disembodied voice chiming in each time I finished a puzzle.

Continue reading “Mad Experiments: Escape Room [Review]”

Statik [Review]

Quarantine Your Hands

Developer & Publisher: Tarsier Studios

Dates Played: Nov-Dec 2019

Platform: Playstation VR

Duration: about five hours

Price: $14.99 on Playstation Store

REA Reaction

From the comfort of my living room, my hands have deftly escaped a series of excellently designed escape rooms… or rather, escape boxes that my hands were trapped inside, while a blurry-faced man analyzed my progress…

Through the ingenious use of Playstation’s Dualshock controller, Statik expertly captured the spirit of real-life escape rooms in a seated VR game. 

While I’d seen some of its elements before in real-life escape rooms, the box-on-my-hands mechanic made them feel fresh. Statik mixed in whimsical elements, an immersive environment, and unique puzzles that would only work in the virtual space. 

Everything about the puzzles felt tactile. For a virtual medium set in a realistic environment, this is essential. Proper sound design and accurate movement of the boxes’ mechanics worked together to complete the illusion.

I recommend this to anyone looking to slip into the PSVR puzzle world and escape their quarantine reality.

Who is this for?

Why play?

  • Solid, well-clued puzzles
  • A wholly unique concept
The first room of the game. The player examines the puzzle box around their hands as Dr. Ingen looks through a window.
The first room I woke up in. Dr. Ingen studied me from afar.

Story

In Statik, I played as an unnamed test subject of the Statik Institute of Retention. Every day I woke up with a new puzzle box strapped to my hands. My only guide was Dr. Ingen, who often sat in on my sessions, but he wasn’t there to give me hints. His official role was just to observe, make notes, and whistle tunelessly every so often. As his unofficial job, he saw fit to mock me.

In truth, my goal was not to free my hands. Just as each box had been solved and the feeling of satisfaction had washed over me, I looked down to see my permanent IV line inject me with a sleeping agent and the test was over.

Another puzzle room, darker, with four indistinct monitors in the distance. The IV line is seen on the left arm.
What does all this stuff do? Step one: push every button.

Setup

Statik cycled me through three different types of rooms: the main puzzle rooms where I solved the box locked to my wrists, an underwater room where I progressively assembled a puzzle cube each time I returned, and the psychological testing room where Dr. Ingen recorded my responses to various visual and auditory stimuli. 

This last kind of room simply displayed an image on a screen and asked me to respond “happy” or “sad.” A lie detector of sorts was bolted to my hands for this room and occasionally the needles flew all over the place. I later learned that these answers had no bearing on the game and this room was simply a fun moment of distraction.

The overall vibe of Statik borrowed from games like Portal and Bioshock. Think 1980s technology with the forced-smile aesthetic of Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe.

Yet another puzzle box, this time with a rotary dial on it. A computer monitor is on the table in front of me and Dr. Ingen sits in a chair, his face blurred out in my vision.
Phoning a friend did nothing. Dr. Ingen soon became bored of me.

Gameplay

Core gameplay centered around experimenting, observing, and making connections.

The puzzles were mostly linear with easy to moderate difficulty. Non-gamers can approach Statik without apprehension; there was only one room where I had to input commands quickly in order to be successful.

Analysis

➕ Given the limitations of PSVR, where movement was mostly limited to turning and leaning. Statik did an excellent job making the world feel large and giving me a lot to do.

➕ The VR interactions felt tactile. Boxes contained audio cassettes, robot arms, and laser beams. Switches and knobs were the most common components. Every element worked just as I expected it would have in real life.

➕ The character of Dr. Ingen was well written and professionally voiced. Like Portal’s GlaDOS before him, he was a master of subtle, funny digs at my intelligence, and they came infrequently enough that they didn’t get annoying.

➖There’s no hint system. It seemed like a missed opportunity to use Dr. Ingen as a hint device, marveling at my lack of aptitude and giving me some attitude along with three levels of hints.

➕ There was a non-standard use of blacklight! I had to leave myself a reminder note to mention it here.

➖ In between the box-on-hands levels, there were some underwater rooms (my “stasis chamber”?) where I was asked to manipulate holograms of shapes to make a cube. It was progressive — with each visit, I completed more of the cube. It simply wasn’t very fun compared to the clever boxes. While I came to learn there was a narrative reason for this series of puzzles, the break in the flow was unwelcome and felt like filler to me.

➕ There’s no way I could fail, and no way I could die. As strange as it sounds for someone who was imprisoned and tested upon by an unknown entity, it was actually pretty relaxing just to work through the puzzle knowing I wasn’t about to be killed by a deathtrap if I didn’t do it in time.

➖ Occasionally the PSVR system got confused about the position of my hands and placed them in a wrist-breaking upside-down orientation or extended my arms way out to the edge of the room. Tarsier Studios was apparently aware of this bug, because they suggested in-game that I shake the controller at the Playstation Eye camera if this happens.

My arms stretch impossibly out in front of me, demonstrating the bug mentioned just above.
Whoa! Stretchy arms! What did they give me…?

Tips For Players

  • Space Requirements: Best played seated, because your character is. You should be able to turn a bit and look around.
  • Required Gear: PSVR unit, PS4
  • Don’t forget that you can press in on the DualShock thumbsticks.
  • Feel free to look behind you, but there’s no reason to turn your body physically all the way around. The hand-orientation bug seems to happen when your body blocks the PSVR controller.
  • There’s no hint system but there are walkthroughs on YouTube if you’re seriously stuck. My favorite was by “Polish Paul VR”, who is hilariously self-deprecating.
  • There is a difficult meta puzzle throughout that leads to a secret ending.
    Spoiler: Meta Puzzle Hint

    Keep your eye out for clues that seem to belong to levels you’ve already completed.

    [collapse]

Buy your copy of Tarsier Studio’s Statik, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Buy Statik

Escape the Room 2 Alexa Skill [Review]

Escaping the Echo

Location: At home, on your Alexa-enabled device

Date Played: January-February 2020

Team size: as many people as you can fit around your Alexa speaker, but 1-4 is best

Duration: 30-60 minutes

Price: $5, $4 for Amazon Prime Members

REA Reaction

Escape the Room 2 is an Alexa-based audio escape room skill (what Amazon calls Apps) we played on our Echo device. The skill contains three escape rooms: The Hospital (free), The Zoo (free), and The Spaceship ($5). This review is specifically for The Spaceship.

We attempted to escape our disabled spaceship by using the simple verbal commands “look”, “inspect”, and “use” combined with an object in our inventory or environment. 

As an at-home alternative to physical escape rooms, The Spaceship succeeded in recreating the experience of exploring, discovering clues, entering codes, and progressing through an escape room scenario. However, it committed some cardinal escape room sins by requiring outside knowledge and taking leaps in logic.

In addition, the audio medium provided a layer of frustration. We had to word things in a particular way, and reassure Alexa that we were still thinking in between commands.

While this was ostensibly a sequel to Escape the Room, not much has improved. We came out of the experience simply wishing we’d had more fun.

Second generation Amazon Echo device.
Amazon Echo

Who is this for?

  • “Zork” and adventure game fans
  • New Alexa device owners looking to try all its abilities

Why play?

  • An escape room you can do in your bathtub
  • No time pressure
  • Good value

Story

Our spacecraft’s captain had been attempting to weave through a debris field, but he had made a terrible miscalculation. After an explosion, we had woken up injured and alone on the ship. Our only hope of making it back to HQ alive was to get the ship’s power back on and install new engine parts.

Escape the Room 2 logo.

Setting

The Spaceship was small, consisting of two distinct spaces to explore. We kept imagining the bone-shaped Satellite of Love from “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”

Gameplay

This was an audio experience played through Alexa. The game required us to imagine our space and figure out what items would help move us forward.

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

Analysis

➕ The story elements of The Spaceship that used voice actors and sound effects were well produced.

➕/➖ The puzzling felt like it was from an early escape room. We collected lots of items and tried them everywhere until they worked. We recorded all the letters and numbers we heard, then mixed, matched, and did a little math with them until they were accepted by the room’s locks.

➖ Several solutions required outside knowledge. We had to keep a second Googling machine close by.

➖ In order to give ourselves time to work the clues, we had to tell Alexa “give me more time.” Every 60 seconds she asked again if we needed more time to think. This quickly became annoying and made us feel dumb. Unfortunately, this is just part of the deal when doing an Alexa escape room.

➕ The Spaceship remembered where we were in the game if we quit and came back to it. This was a good way to avoid the 60 second check-ins to see if we were still thinking. We quit the game, worked out some possible solutions, booted it up again and tried them.

➕ Trying multiple codes on the same lock was streamlined so that it went quickly. Upon getting an “incorrect” message, I simply had to say, for example, “enter 4321” rather than “use keypad” again.

➖ The hint system gave the same vague hint over and over. At any given point in the game, we couldn’t get any more direction than that one hint provided. It would have been helpful if the hint system had started by giving a vague hint, then if asked a more specific one, and finally something close to the answer.

➖ While the two free episodes were shorter, they weren’t easier. This is mainly due to the fact that they were buggier and required larger leaps of logic than The Spaceship.

➖ We couldn’t restart the game. After stepping away from it for a few days, it would be helpful to be able to start the game again from the beginning to take a fresh run at the mission.

➖ The game unexpectedly quit several times, ripping us out of the experience.

Tips For Playing

  • Take copious notes on a piece of scratch paper, especially of codes you’ve tried.
  • Remember that if you reinspect something, you can always interrupt the game by saying “Alexa” and your next command. This will save you from listening to the descriptions multiple times.

Enable the Escape the Room 2 skill and tell them that Room Escape Artist sent you.

BUY The Spaceship

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Scott Weiss’s Virtual Escape Rooms – Communing With Nature [Review]

Imagine Bearded Dragons

Location: At home

Date Played: September 17, 2019

Team size: best with 2 (including an adult), but up to 2 additional kids may be added

Duration: 45-90 minutes

Price: $15 per group with option to donate the fee to suggested charities

Ticketing: By appointment

REA Reaction

Communing With Nature was an enjoyable hour full of audio gameplay that included entertaining mental images and solid puzzles.

Inspired by Escape This Podcast, Scott Weiss has created two virtual escape rooms that are played over Skype or Google Hangouts and geared toward families.

While Communing with Nature required a lot of initial note-taking, as we learned about the setting, it soon got rolling with well-crafted puzzles and fun moments.

Check it out if you’re looking for a convenient at-home puzzle fix that’s great for the whole family. Added bonus: no risk of random people joining. Scott is a seasoned puzzle creator with a patient disposition. You’ll be in good hands.

Who is this for?

Why play?

  • An escape room from the comfort of your home
  • No ticking clock
  • Good value

Story

It was our first day volunteering at the Waterstone Park Nature Center. Our stern supervisor was Ms. Turner. Our task was to feed Matilda, the albino tree python.

Setting

Scott painted a vivid picture of the nature center though his description of the many animals found there. The design of the center was clearly well thought out and clued in such a way that we could see in our minds how pieces of the overall puzzle went together.

A screenshot of a Google Doc puzzle: "Count the Animals!". It involves illustrations of animals. The image of a single bear has been selected.
One of the visual aids for a puzzle.

Gameplay

Communing With Nature was a virtual escape room geared towards families, with a moderate level of difficulty. The puzzles will likely require one adult to assist.

This was a primarily audio experience. After we said hello to Scott and heard the rules of the road, Scott turned off the video feed on his end.

He started with a setup of the story, including dialogue from the nature center supervisor. We also received a simple diagram of the room via Google Docs. With the basic layout in front of us, we navigated the room and interacted with objects by verbally stating our intent. Scott responded with the result of our actions, D&D style. When we encountered puzzles through our exploration, we received them via Google Docs. Scott monitored the progress of our puzzle-solving conversation and interjected as needed.

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

Analysis

➕ There were word, math, logic, and lateral-thinking puzzles. The variety ticked every part of our brains.

➕ Scott offered hints at appropriate moments and walked us through puzzle sticking points with the patience of my favorite elementary school teacher.

➖ Most of the puzzles had an associated Google Doc that contained the information we needed. Their appearance was basic. With a little dressing up, they would help with the immersion of the virtual world.

➖ We spent a lot of the early-game walking from cage to cage in the room and hearing about the contents of each (as well as the books on the bookcase.) There were a lot of details we needed to keep track of and we spent substantial time writing. We would have welcomed a written description of each cage for reference after we’d heard about it.

➕ Scott rolled with the punches. Like any good 1980’s computer adventure, when we tried to do something unexpected, he improvised a funny response to get us back on track: “As you attempt to open Ms. Turner’s desk drawers, she crosses her arms and fixes you with an icy stare. You decide to stop doing that.”

➖ Because a virtual escape room doesn’t require an actual set, we’d love to see an even more ambitious story and surprises.

➕ The nature center was an ideal setting for kids, most of whom love animals to begin with.

Tips For Visiting

  • Have multiple sheets of scratch paper on hand.
  • Scott’s website lists times and dates that he’s available. Choose one and fill out the form at the bottom of the page to book your appointment.

Book your hour with Scott Weiss’s Communing With Nature, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.