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.

PAX West 2019 Roundup

In recent years, the indie video game world has been an incubator for some of the most innovative puzzle games. There’s a VR game that’s Tetris plus archery (Smush.tv). A Plinko game with D&D elements (Roundguard). Even a cooperative platformer about two dogs connected by a gelatinous midsection (PHOGS!). All were on display this year at the PAX West expo.

PAX West logo

Since its inception in 2004, PAX West has been a fan-focused gaming expo catering to gamers of every stripe. Every Labor Day weekend, the show takes over Seattle’s Washington State Convention Center as well as large sections of many nearby hotel ballrooms.

Triple-A companies dominated most of the space with their new installments of Borderlands or Monster Hunter, but PAX always devotes ample sections of floorspace to independent games and this year was no exception.

I met David and Lisa in 2016 when they were at PAX hosting a panel about escape rooms. Respect for puzzle gamers at PAX runs deep. At this year’s expo, I went on a hunt for the best upcoming puzzle and adventure games that will pique the interest of escape room fans.

Satanic Functions

The first standout I found was The Devil’s Calculator by Cinq-Mars Media. This mobile game is likely to divide gamers into two camps at first blush: those who used their high school TI-85 calculator to craft functions that drew beautiful graphs, and those who used it to hide notes on the Pythagorean theorem.

The devil had possessed my calculator, swapping out the plus, minus, multiply, and divide functions with nefarious replacements. Sometimes keys were on fire – too hot to press. The only way to clear each level was to figure out how to make the display read “666”.

Christopher Jarvis, the game’s creator, described it as “a game of interpolation where you’re trying to solve for unknown operators.”

“I never took math past high school and I made all 70 base game levels,” Jarvis said. “95 percent of it is puzzle solving and lateral thinking.” This was good news to me as I definitely fell on the “hiding notes” side of TI-85 users.

The Devil’s Calculator is a non-profit game that is free for the first 20 levels, and totally free for educators and students. It’s out now on the Apple App Store, Google Play, and Steam.

Maintaining Momentum

Another indie selection that impressed me was Deleveled from Toaster Fuel. Described to me by programmer Kyle Donnelly as “a physics-based puzzle-platformer with no jump button,” this was a game that was more easily understood when played. In fact, it’s best to watch this video right now:

I simultaneously controlled two squares on either side of a platforming level made of simple lines, attempting to move all the level’s switches to “on.” Sure enough, there was no jump button so I had to fall and cause my counterpart square to bounce, then conserve that momentum to navigate obstacles in search of my goal.

It was like a combination of Super Meat Boy and a Newton’s cradle.

I was drawn in by Deleveled’s minimalistic design and intrigued by the mind-bending levels. Level Designer Patrick Nance promises smooth ramping to train new players and unexpected twists to hold their interest to the end. As a word nerd, I couldn’t help being delighted by the way their palindromic title echoed the concept of the game.

Deleveled is planned for Steam, Switch, Xbox, and PS4 by the end of 2019.

Both Deleveled and The Devil’s Calculator were selected for the PAX10, an honor bestowed upon 10 games each year by a PAX-selected committee of 50 industry experts.

Zootopia Noir

The most visually striking game in the indie sections of PAX was Backbone by Egg Nut. I played raccoon private investigator Howard Lotor in a 2-D anthropomorphic-noir world. It was set in dystopian Vancouver, B.C., and the city was Blade Runner-beautiful. In the street scene featured in the demo, neon signs reflected off puddles in the street and steam rising out of the sewer was illuminated by the headlights of passing cars. This was all the more impressive because the game was pixel art in the vein of The Secret of Monkey Island.

Unlike that classic adventure game, the focus of Backbone was less on fetch-quests and more on navigating branching dialogue trees to solve a mystery. The demo started with me trying to bribe, persuade, and threaten my way into a jazz club. There were bears, foxes, and dogs inside that I needed to question. Once there, I made a sickening discovery and by the end of the demo my character was doubled over in an alley losing his lunch. Despite the anthropomorphism, this was decidedly adult subject matter.

While Backbone was chiefly an adventure game, Eggnut co-founder and writer Alex Korabelnikova assured me that team wasn’t neglecting the puzzle elements. The puzzle in the demo occurred in close-up view, where I rearranged pieces of paper with cut-out elements to get a door code.

“There is also going to be a mechanic of Smell-O-Vision, where you can track and trace smells to figure out the clues,” Korabelnikova said. “The dialogue itself is a puzzle, because you need to figure out the approach you need to take with each character, and you need to understand what different species signify inside the world and the stereotypes that surround them.”

This is an ambitious effort but it’s off to an excellent start. Definitely one to watch.

Backbone is slated for release on nearly all platforms in early 2021. The free demo is out now for PC for Steam.

Origami Meet-Cute

I didn’t expect to get “the feels” exploring PAX West’s Indie Megabooth, but there was one game that got me. A Fold Apart from Lightning Rod Games explored a couple in a long distance relationship struggling with the space between them. I played by flipping, folding, unfolding, and rotating the paper that made up their environment. It was a puzzle game with a strong emphasis on narrative.

Steven Smith, co-founder of Lightning Rod games, said, “We deal with communication and miscommunication. So there will be texting back and forth, and someone will say something that brings up a sensitive subject. That will send the other person into an emotional world where they work through their feelings about it and solve puzzles.” Disagreements created emotional barriers that my character had to literally fold their way around to overcome.

As someone who is currently in a long distance relationship, I was definitely moved by the narrative. A nice text message (or the absence of a message) can turn your whole world upside down. The Pixaresque animation and gorgeous score further tweaked my thrumming heartstrings.

I was able to play any combination of two-person relationship between a man, a woman, and a non-binary character.

A Fold Apart will be available on Apple Arcade, Switch, and PC this Fall. Xbox, PS4, Mac, and Android soon after. It was recently featured in an Apple Arcade promo, so it must have Tim Apple’s seal of approval!

Cool REM House

Superliminal by Pillow Castle drew influence from such mind-bending puzzlers as Portal, The Stanley Parable, and The Witness. It was a first-person experience set in a sleep institute. My character had come in for a new dream therapy meant to provide more restful sleep. However, when I woke up, there was no one there. Was I still dreaming?

In this world, perception became reality. When I lined up disjointed pieces of a painted cube, it became three-dimensional. Small objects became large when I dropped them from above me. Items refracted through distorted glass took on new properties. I was able to navigate the facility through the transformation of these items, blowing my own mind a couple times in the process.

Art Director Steve Allen described the look of Superliminal as “interesting mundanity.” Allen said, “At first it’s not too overarchingly surreal, but it just has that sort of glimmer of too much symmetry, too much color, and that clues the player that something interesting is going on in that area.” While the demo only covered the rather tame opening area of the game, the trailer hinted that it takes a dark turn as you uncover more about the seemingly mundane building.

As the most room escape-adjacent game I found at PAX West this year, this will be one that puzzle fans will want to keep an eye out for.

Superliminal will be coming out by the end of 2019. It will be an exclusive on the Epic Games Store for PC, then a year later on Steam.

12-Hour Crossword Marathon to Benefit The Ocean Cleanup

Hi, I’m Steve. I’ve been writing puzzle video game reviews here for over a year.

On Wednesday, July 24, I will be putting my puzzling skills to the test as I embark on a massive crossword marathon.

Steve snorkeling.

I will be spending 12 hours going through as many Tuesday crosswords as possible from the New York Times archives. The crossword marathon will run from 10am-10pm Eastern (7am-7pm Pacific).

Whom Does This Benefit?

The stream will benefit “The Ocean Cleanup.”

This organization is developing and implementing technologies to clean up plastic in The Great Pacific Ocean Patch. Through the work of their 80 researchers and engineers, they expect to clean up 50 percent of the plastic in five years’ time.

Check out the incredible videos of their efforts at: https://theoceancleanup.com/

Contributions of any size can be made at: gofundme.com/crosswordmarathon

The crossword marathon will run live on several sites at once:

Come join me and help me conquer these crosswords!

Wednesday July 24th, from 10am to 10pm EDT

Follow updates on Twitter: @steveblog

I Expect You To Die [Review]

Do you expect me to talk?

Location:  at home

Dates Played: November – December, 2018

Platform: Playstation VR, Rift & Vive on PC

Duration: about 5 hours, 7 hours for secrets and commentary

Price: $24.99 on PSVR and Steam

Publisher: Schell Games

REA Reaction

I Expect You to Die was a series of five lovingly designed VR escape rooms in a 007-esque world. It embraced the storytelling advantages of having me in a VR environment while mitigating the challenges of having me escape these rooms while swiveling in a chair.

The attention to detail and love for both the spy genre and escape rooms continued through to the last mission. This was the way to do VR escape rooms at home.

Who is this for?

  • Escape room players of every stripe
  • Quick thinkers who are cool under pressure
  • James Bond fans with a sense of humor

Why play?

  • Solid, well-clued puzzles
  • Excellent graphics, VR physics, and immersion
  • Surprises galore 

Story

I began I Expect You to Die in my spy office. My unnamed boss, speaking through the intercom, walked me through the basics of being a modern spy.

My mission changed from level to level, but they all involved foiling the nefarious plans of the evil Dr. Zor of the Zoraxis Corporation. In my first mission I started off captured by Dr. Zor. To escape, I simply had to drive a malfunctioning car out of an airplane that was filled with poison gas at altitude.

My boss was with me the whole way, providing a bit of guidance in my ear when I tried to do something I wasn’t supposed to do and scolding me when I “wasted time” doing something silly like shoot a doughnut with a gun.

I Expect You to Die followed the escape room industry trend of giving me a mission rather than asking me to actually escape a room. One level had me neutralizing a bio-weapon while posing as a window washer. Another had me in a one-man submarine at the bottom of the ocean. Each was creative and became thrilling as the events unfolded.

Setting

The environments were realistically constructed with a dash of cartoonishness. It was real enough for me that at one point I attempted to put my real-life controller down on a solidly virtual desk.

The five levels were also unique to one another. Perhaps most importantly, the various situations would be at home in any James Bond movie but didn’t feel ripped off from any existing installment of that franchise.

Gameplay

The game was built to be played while seated in one spot (although some swiveling was necessary). I wasn’t limited to items within my reach, however, because the spy agency had fit me with telekinetic implants. I could point at something I wanted in the distance and bring it right to my hands. I could also freeze items in midair for easy access in the heat of the action.

Puzzles were a mix of linear and non-linear. Most solutions relied on my ability to observe, make connections, and improvise when a bad situation got worse. There were few traditional puzzles. At times, the solution was straightforward: use this item with that item. Other times it was necessary to understand the presented concepts on a deeper level for me to be successful. It was an extra challenge when I had to do something urgently or with good accuracy in an attempt to quickly save my skin from Dr. Zor’s devious traps.

However, like the best Sierra & Lucasarts adventure games, part of the fun was dying in hilarious ways. Because this was a video game, each mistake taught me what not to do and I got faster as I tried it again. In fact, each level had a “speed run” time. I often dove back in to see if I could do a level in 45 seconds, one which had originally taken 45 minutes to beat the first time through.

Analysis

➕ One worry I often have with VR simulations is whether the items will behave as I expect them to. In I Expect You to Die, physics were not a problem. Flammable things burned when lit, plastic cups bounced while ceramic ones did not, and lasers shined in a straight line.

➕ Attention to detail was fantastic and took full advantage of the VR environment. When I was posing as a window washer, I was able to look over my shoulder at the city below me, even though there were no puzzle elements there. In the train level, I looked out off the bridge and saw flocks of birds flying by.

➕ I knew I was in good hands from the opening credits. I was drifting through a two-tone 3D animation that riffed on every famous Bond opening title sequence. Bullets flew by my head and missiles launched from below as an excellent Shirley Bassey-style ballad soared through the theme song to “I Expect You to Die”.

➕ I was rewarded for messing around. Eat a moldy sandwich! Put a hat on a bear! Light your cigar with a burning log! When I finished a level, the game presented me with extra goals called “souvenirs” that hinted at other fun things I could have done. This added greatly to the replayability.

➕ The telekinetic ability to summon objects from afar was a clever narrative and mechanic workaround. Most VR goes the route of allowing the player to teleport around the environment; telekinesis felt considerably more grounded in this scenario (even if it was fantastical).

➖ My telekinetic implants allowed me to freeze items in mid-air. While this was useful for hovering code-breaking sheets where I could see them, it was just plain weird and oddly reality-breaking. It bothered me more than opening a cabinet from 20 feet away. I expect this mechanic was invented for players using traditional controllers, but it would be nice to disable it for VR controller users.

➕ What I Expect You to Die did best was surprises. Moments of victory were followed by unexpected moments of peril. Then having survived it, an even greater feeling of accomplishment.

➖ Some levels contained items like bundles of money that had no purpose. While not strictly red herrings, they occasionally got in the way of items I actually did need.

❓ In some worlds, it was possible to lose items I actually needed. While throwing stuff over my shoulder was immensely satisfying, I learned to think twice about whether I may need the thing in the future.

➕ After I had completed the main story, I had the option of turning on commentary! This was something I had never expected. There was lots of it and it was full of interesting insight into the design decisions of making the game.

Tips For PLAYING

  • While this game can be played with a traditional controller, it’s more immersive to play with two VR controllers.
  • Try everything. Sometimes there are multiple ways to solve a level, and lots of fun things to discover!

Purchase your copy of I Expect You to Die on PSVR or on Steam for Vive & Rift.

Pode [Review]

Pode

Rock-Star Love

Developer & Publisher:  Henchman & Goon

Date Played: August – September, 2018

Platform: Nintendo Switch

Duration: 10-15 hours, 20 hours for completionists

Price: $24.99 on Nintendo eShop

REA Reaction

Pode was a gorgeous platform puzzler that never fully matched its beauty with puzzle brilliance.

Playing Pode felt like walking through a Scandinavian fairy tale. I discovered ancient art embedded in the rock walls and made it glow. I turned drab landscapes into verdant gardens. In the end, I helped two elemental beings puzzle their way up a mountain to find their eternal happiness.

Glo and Bulder looking into one another's eyes with the mountain in the background.

Some levels garnered a satisfying “aha moment;” others left me with the experience of deja vu. The diversity of the environments was so impressive that I wished such consistent attention had been put into the puzzles.

Pode is best for those who want to see beautiful video game art shine while tackling some mostly-good platform levels in an adorable couch co-op.

Glo and Bulder blushing holding hands on a stone in the middle of lava.

Who is this for?

  • Co-op loving couples
  • Patient parents who want to teach their preteens problem-solving
  • Fans of Wall-E

Why play?

  • Adorable character interactions in an aesthetically lush environment
  • The joy of collaborating with your partner to overcome a challenge

Story

Pode began with a star named Glo falling from the sky. She despaired at her fate on Earth until she met a rock named Bulder. He offered to help her get to the top of the highest peak in the land and back into the heavens.

Glo and Bulder looking at each other with an aurora glowing behind them.

Glo and Bulder each had special qualities. She was lighter than air. He was magnetic. Their auras inspired Mother Nature. Wherever Glo stepped, plants sprung from the earth. Bulder loved crystals and they erupted from rock faces as he passed by.

After some early success, their hands touched, revealing the slightest spark. Could this be the beginning of a beautiful relationship?

Setting

Pode took place in caves leading to the top of a mountain… but it was far from a dank and dismal place. Through our special abilities we felt like demi-gods, commanding nature to bloom, blossom, shine, and sparkle.

Backgrounds felt hand painted and the lighting details added to the artistry of the world’s creation. When Glo walked past a stalagmite, her light cast shadows and lit the facets of the rock in all the ways they would in nature.

Glo and Bulder holding hands and looking upon the mountain.

Gameplay

In each area of Pode, we aimed to get from the starting point of an area to a seemingly unreachable exit by coordinating the talents of Glo & Bulder. The power of nature was our constant companion, but just as often, it was the source of an obstacle before us. We encountered waterfalls, darkness, and a seemingly endless number of cliffs that were slightly too high to jump up to.

I played the first half of Pode with a partner who didn’t have a lot of experience with platform puzzlers. She was drawn in by the visuals and the characters, but loved the fun of getting here-to-there. Pode had a good tutorial area at the beginning and she and was offering solutions right away.

Unlike most platformers, there were no enemies to avoid. This makes it more approachable to inexperienced gamers. If both co-op partners are new to platformers, they will find some frustrating moments. My ability to jump accurately, for example, helped a great deal. When we did miss jumps, we were forced to repeat multi-step processes to get back into position.

Glo and Bulder holding hands while walking down a narrow path into a volcano.

Analysis

➕  Pac-Man style interludes between levels moved the love story along in a subtle but touching way. It was cute without being cutesy.

Glo and Bulder holding hands in a beautiful cave with glowing crystals, and luminescent plants.

➕  Fun moments delighted me and my co-op partner. The first time I (as Bulder, the rock) stood on her head (as Glo, the star) to get across a pond, we literally LOL’ed.

➖  The game uses a hub-world system where we could access two areas at a time. This led to a mostly linear experience. When we were stuck in an area, we were stuck good.

➖ At around the midpoint, cluing largely dropped away and I was convinced I was missing something obvious, which led to frustration.

➖ After our heroes grew all the plants and crystals in a level, the Switch sometimes experienced “chug” or slowdown. There were too many objects to render everything in real time. In a game where jumping accuracy was important, this was an unwelcome complication.

➕ A fast-travel system allowed me to go back to areas where I didn’t finish a puzzle or find a collectible.

Glo activating her power in a beautiful volcano.

➕ The attention to sound was well done. The folk-inspired music was appropriately mystical and added a lot to the overall experience. Glo & Bulder’s expressive chirps and grumbles inspired fond memories of Wall-E.

❓ There was no dying in Pode. When we fell off platforms, we popped back up unharmed. That was nice, and most of the time we returned to a place that made sense. Occasionally though, it sent us back too far and we’d have to repeat several steps.

Pode left me wishing there was more to it. Each character only got one additional ability as the game progressed. The levels’ solutions were similar throughout, rather than gradually upping the difficulty. The puzzles in final area were particularly easy to solve.

❓ I had seen many of the core platforming elements (wind, pressure pads) executed more inventively in other platformers, but the puzzles worked and inspired us to do the occasional victory fist-bump as we progressed.

Glo and Bulder holding hands in a cave.

Tips For Playing

  • Glo could use her shine to find hidden art in the walls of the caves and Bulder could open metal flowers. While lovely, these collectible elements were completely optional and had no effect on forward progress in the game. The only exception was the cave art at the end of each level. It often helped us solve the final puzzle.
  • Pressing “Y” allowed us to swap our controls between the two characters. This was useful when one player had an idea for solving the level but they needed the abilities of the other character. Without this, there would have been a lot of controller-swapping.