Today Netflix released a brand new Carmen Sandiego cartoon.
As a kid, I loved Carmen Sandiego in every form of media that I encountered:
MS DOS games
The new show has completely reimagined the character. They have transformed her from a cunning villain into what looks like something of an anti-hero.
I have no respect for any “Why did they change it? My childhood is ruined!” nonsense. This is for kids, not people in their 30s. I’m just happy that the character is back and hope that they continue to teach geography and history through amusing crime adventures.
Playing The Old Games
That being said, I was also really excited to find that the Internet Archive has a library of browser-based emulators that allow people to play all sorts of ancient video games for free.
It was a fun stroll down memory lane.
This archive includes a ton of Carmen Sandiego titles.
Developer & Publisher: Ubisoft Paris & Ubisoft Milan
Director: Davide Soliani
Dates Played: February-May, 2018
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Duration: about 20 hours, 40 hours for completionists
Price: $44.99 on Amazon
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was turn-based tactical combat brilliantly distilled to its primary elements.
Puzzles show up in interesting places.Despite the kid-friendly Mario palette and quirky cast of characters, the game took itself seriously. It delivered a strategic challenge throughout.
As a puzzle fan new to this genre, I was impressed with the high level of forethought needed to succeed in each world. As a kid-at-heart, I fell for the Pixar-quality writing and animation of its cutscenes.
Who is this for?
Tactical combat newbies
Fans of silly humor
Puzzle play merged with action and combat
Creative and engaging strategy
Beautiful graphics and excellent music
Princess Peach with a shotgun
Story & Setup
Nintendo teamed up with Ubisoft to bring their popular Rabbid characters out of the party-game realm and into a tactical combat genre alongside Mario mainstays. Rabbids are insane rabbit caricatures with zero impulse control. They’ve been screaming their way from hijink to hijink way before the Minions ever met Gru.
The story began with the Rabbids having travelled through time and space to the bedroom of a Nintendo superfan. There, one of the Rabbids picked up a VR helmet – which got stuck to his face – and they all got sucked through a time-traveling washing machine into the Mushroom Kingdom and… it was pretty ridiculous. Like most mashups, it wasn’t worth overthinking the story’s logic.
After the story intro, a hub world led to four themed sub-worlds where my group of three Mario heroes and their Rabbid counterparts explored the land fully armed and looking for trouble.
There were two types of puzzles in Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle: battles with baddies and environmental challenges.
In battles, the task was usually to defeat all the enemies with various blasters, grenades, and exploding drone vehicles. Other times, I escorted an unarmed ally (usually Toad) through the gauntlet or got my characters to a particular zone of safety.
Each battle asked me to consider my team’s strengths & weaknesses, enemy positions, and terrain conditions. I had to plan my moves in such a way that I could set myself up for success. For example, did I have enough movement points to duck behind cover and flank my enemy, while keeping in mind that another enemy may be able to jump up and reach me from higher ground? I also had to react to unexpected behavior and the slight amount of randomness that occurred when damage was calculated.
At the end of each battle I received a grade based on how many turns it had taken me to complete the battle and how many of my teammates had survived. Higher scores rewarded me with more coins, which I used to buy better weapons, so optimization mattered.
Environmental puzzles occurred in between battles as I traversed the world. Adventure game players will be familiar with these: move these crates to push the floor switches, bounce lasers around these mirrors to hit the target, or rotate the pieces of this column to create a staircase upward.
Often times, completion of the puzzle led to a hidden chest containing in-game collectibles: a music track, a 3D model of a character, or a piece of concept art. Other times it unlocked a good weapon for use in the next battle.
+ Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was an adventure of cartoony beauty. The design was spot-on — true to the Mario universe while taking it in a completely different direction.
+ Cutscenes were cleverly written, full of personality, and professionally shot.
+ The music was fantastic. I found myself with the songs in my head long after I’d put the Switch away.
+ While the setting was whimsical, the tactical aspect of the battles would make any SEAL team proud… I was able to access the “Tacticam” which allowed me to sweep over the battlefield and analyze the movement, weapon, and special ability range of every character on the map. Enemy AI was generally intelligent despite being a bunch of wacky Rabbids.
+/- When I executed a command to attack, the camera swept into one of several action movie slo-mo modes. This added to the thrill of the moment, but occasionally the terrain blocked the camera. This was jarring in what should have been an awesome moment.
– Some worlds had too much backtracking during the main missions (especially the spooky world). Others had too much ground to cover in between the action. While I explored many nooks and crannies for those hidden chests, since I’m not a big completionist or collector, the searching lost its appeal in later levels.
? It was strange to see Luigi whip out a sniper rifle (dubbed “precision” in the game) or Princess Peach wield a shotgun (boomshot). The cognitive dissonance for a Mario fan like myself was a bit shocking at first, but I got used to it.
– Bonus challenges offered some replay value. I could also attempt the game’s battles again to get a better grade. However, as I progressed through the game, my team got stronger and acquired better weapons. This made repeating a challenge trivially easy compared to when I had first tried it.
+ Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle never forgot that it was a silly premise in a Rabbid-rules world. Throughout the levels, there were regular “points of interest” where I was encouraged to press a button to watch a Rabbid sleeping on a doghouse like Snoopy or stuffing his friend into a pipe with a plunger. These funny moments broke up the travel time a bit, before I went back to the serious stuff like commanding Yoshi to mow down enemies with a machine gun.
Tips for Playing
Once you finish a world, dive right back in and do its extra challenges. Replay any battles you want to improve your score on. If you wait until later, you’ll be too overpowered for them to be fun.
Let the game autofill the skill-tree as you build in experience. This will save you a lot of time. As your roster builds throughout the game, it’s tedious to manage so many characters’ skill-trees simultaneously. You can always reset it and build from scratch if you need a particular skill for your next battle.
Location: Breda, The Netherlands (on the Up the Game show floor, available for license by escape rooms & VR arcades)
Date Played: May 8, 2018
Team size: 2-4; we recommend 2 or 4
Duration: 60 minutes
A major video game publisher created a VR escape room:
Set in the world of Assassin’s Creed Origins, Escape the Lost Pyramid placed us at the base of a beautifully rendered ancient Egyptian pyramid where we puzzled and climbed our way to the top… along the way convincing me that I could comfortably do pull-ups.
Ubisoft Blue Byte demonstrated thoughtful escape game design by creating a collection of collaborative puzzles that could not work in the real world. Their stated intention is to continue to create virtual escape games set in their own intellectual property, for license by escape room facilities and VR arcades.
I hope that this concept takes off. I encourage escape room players to play Escape the Lost Pyramid if you are anywhere near a facility that acquires the game.
Who is this for?
Any experience level (with VR, escape rooms, or Assassin’s Creed)
Fantastic collaborative puzzles
Massive set pieces
Puzzles that aren’t possible in a real-life escape room
Set in the ancient Egyptian world of Assassin’s Creed Origins, we began at the base of a pyramid and had to work our way up to the top to earn the artifact that we sought.
Played on an Oculus Rift and wired into a PC, our gameplay area was 7 square feet with a recommended play area of 10 square feet. The controls were straightforward; we could grab/ hold items as well as teleport using one button on either controller. We wore headphones with microphones so that we could hear both the game world and one another.
Ubisoft Blue Byte’s Escape the Lost Pyramid was a virtual escape room. Core gameplay revolved around observing, making connections, and puzzling.
Escape the Lost Pyramid had us puzzling and climbing our way through a pyramid. Most of the puzzles required collaboration with another player. Video gamers will recognize the concept of navigational puzzles as current mainstays of the adventure puzzle genre. Traditional escape room players might struggle to recognize the pathfinding challenges as puzzles… but I assure you, they are.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room: Ubisoft decided to make an escape room and created a puzzle tower-climbing game. Gamers will know that tower climbing has become an Ubisoft cliche over the past decade. Ubisoft gets a lot of grief for this…
and has even made fun of themselves for it…
When I first heard that Ubisoft had made a virtual escape room, I unknowingly and sarcastically suggested to a friend that “it’s probably a tower climbing puzzle.” When I say that this concept really worked, I do so knowingly.
+ Escape the Lost Pyramid worked because Ubisoft Blue Byte presented a series of challenges that a real-life escape room could not create. They used fire, projectiles, and a ton of climbing. There was only one puzzle that could be completely recreated in a real-life escape room.
+ Ubisoft Blue Byte made great use of verticality. The vertical scale of Escape the Lost Pyramid was imposing. It was brilliant, once again, because this sort of grandeur isn’t possible in real-life gaming.
+ Escape the Lost Pyramid leaned heavily on immersive adventure. The puzzles were in trying to maneuver our avatars through the virtual space. It was less puzzley in a traditional escape room sense. This format, however, played towards the strengths of a virtual space.
+ The challenges required teamwork. We enjoyed figuring out how to work together, from different spaces in the VR, using the tools each had at our disposal. It was exhilarating.
+ When we shot arrows in VR, it felt like we were shooting arrows.
? I didn’t get a lot of Assassins Creed out of Escape the Lost Pyramid. There were whiffs of the mythology in the briefing and conclusion, but it was more environmental. I didn’t see this as an issue. In fact, I felt that it made the game more approachable for those unfamiliar with the series. If you’re looking for a lost chapter of Assassins Creed Origins, however, you won’t really find it here.
– We did a lot of climbing. Climbing was initially deceptive. With each motion, it felt like moving the world rather than moving my own body. This took some getting used to. Climbing was also too easy, as it didn’t have any weight resistance. This was weirdly off-putting. And thus, we might as well have been moving the whole world.
– Escape the Lost Pyramid was missing a culminating puzzle or a finale scene.
+ The vertical movement didn’t cause motion sickness. Even Lisa – who is generally motion sick in all VR – was happily moving up and down.
? While motion sickness wasn’t an issue, vertigo or a fear of heights could be a factor.
– The VR equipment was a small obstacle, especially the wire. We’d constantly step on it, or get tangled in it. To compensate for the small physical space in which we maneuvered, we needed to teleport a lot, even across small distances. This wasn’t initially intuitive and took some getting used to. We did, however, get used to it.
+ Players could select an avatar and make small aesthetic customizations with hats, masks, and other props. While I couldn’t see my own avatar in-game, I spent a lot of time looking at my teammate’s avatar.
+ Overall, the equipment was easy to use, comfortable to wear, and worked well. The controls made sense.
+ The world of Escape the Lost Pyramid was beautiful and detailed.
Finally, Escape The Lost Pyramid is a licensable game that will only be available through escape room and VR arcades. Ubisoft Blue Byte intends to release new virtual escape games set in other Ubisoft worlds. If this is their starting place, I’m eager to see what they build next.
Tips for Playing
If you have a fear of heights or are prone to vertigo, this may not be the game for you.
You may have slight motion sickness early on. Lisa almost always gets motion sick in VR, but she was mostly comfortable in Escape the Lost Pyramid.
Duration: 18-25 hours, 40-50 hours for completionists
Price: $9.99 on iOS, $13.60 on Android, $39.99 on Steam
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.
Who is this for?
People with any level of video game experience
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.
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.
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.
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.
+ 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.
+ 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.
Price: $5 on iOS, $15 on Windows & Nintendo Switch
Story & setup
Gorogoa was a video game that followed a boy on his quest to… do something with… an Asian dragon-y divine beast. To achieve these ends I had to help the protagonist attain 5 colored orbs. I’m not exactly sure what I was accomplishing by completing the quest within Gorogoa, but it was nonviolent and I sure had a great time doing it.
Gorogoa played through a unique interface that I can best describe as a 4-panel comic book. At any given point during the game, between 1 and 4 of those panels were filled with beautiful hand-drawn art. The gameplay was in creating interactions between the various panels.
Panels could be split by dragging one layer off of a panel, creating an entirely new panel. Panels could be aligned against one another. Panels could also be overlaid on top of each other. In taking these actions, the world within the game would change, allowing the boy to take action.
Interestingly, in Gorogoa I did not play as the protagonist. I also never took any action within the game’s world. Instead, I changed the world and the boy within it reacted to the changes. Therein lay the puzzle. How could I change the game world so that the boy within it could accomplish his objective?
It’s exceptionally rare to encounter a puzzle game that comes up with a completely new type of puzzle. When I started playing this, its innovation caught me off guard. It was different from anything else that I had played before.
Quite a few of the lengthy puzzle sequences were so much fun. I enjoyed figuring them out and seeing them through, as well as witnessing the effects that they had on the world.
The art was gorgeous. Every aspect of Gorogoa was hand drawn and colored in Photoshop. There weren’t many repeating patterns.
Gorogoa didn’t instill a sense of narrative or even adventure. Instead it left me feeling awed.
I don’t recall having to read a single word in Gorogoa. The game was entirely visual.
There were no hints or tutorials. Touchable portions of the game world would pulse if I let the game sit for too long. These pulses gently guided or highlighted actions I could take… not necessarily what I ought to do. This kept Gorogoa from becoming too cumbersome while also not dragging me through it.
At its best, the puzzles felt deeply intuitive. I eventually internalized the strange rules of Gorogoa and that knowledge became an extension of myself. I could look at a set of panels and feel my way through the puzzles.
At times I had no idea what was going on and found myself pawing at the screen hoping that something productive might happen. These were the low moments.
Due to the 4-panel layout, animation and story advancement could occur in multiple places at once. The parallel animation had a really cool effect, but made it impossible to tell where I should be looking. When these gang animation moments happened, I felt like I missed out, which was damaging in a game this intimate.
Gorogoa was short. I think my playtime was around one hour and forty minutes. (I suspect that I played it faster than the average player.) I would have loved to spend more time in this strange world.
Should I play Gorogoa?
Gorogoa offered no instructions, no tutorial, and no explanation. It presented an odd interface with gorgeous art. It never held my hand or dragged me along. I had to solve each and every puzzle for myself.
There were moments when I got stuck. After I’d looked at everything I had access to, I’d close the app. However, I’d mentally keep running through it. Solutions would pop into my mind and I’d rush to open the game again. Those were beautiful moments.
Gorogoa wasn’t serene like Monument Valley, which has always put me into a sort of zen state of calm puzzling. Learning to play Gorogoa felt like I had encountered aliens and was deciphering their language. This constant decoding mixed with the art and combined with watching the world unfold instead of acting within it left me perpetually in a state of awe.
By the final act of the game, I felt like I had learned the language of Gorogoa. And I wanted so much more. I understand the short length, given that this hand-drawn indie game involved creating and developing an entirely new style of play over the course of years, but that knowledge hasn’t kept me from wishing that Gorogoa was a little bit longer.
Gorogoa costs $5 on iOS and $15 on Windows and Nintendo Switch. I played it on iOS using my iPhone 5SE because of the lower price. I think that it would have been more enjoyable on the larger screen of my Switch, but I don’t think it would have been triple-the-price better, even for a game as innovative and beautiful as Gorogoa.
Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment was the first tabletop escape room we played… and gun to our heads, probably still our favorite. It was just as much fun when we revisited it this year when the Kickstarter shipped. A new version is now available for purchase just in time for the holidays!
Unlock! Escape Adventure is a card-based at-home escape game series with 3 games currently available. In terms of dollars for gameplay, these are a great deal… Plus, you won’t destroy them at all while playing the game! Read our full review.
Exit: The Game is series of tabletop escape games with 3 games currently available in English (more in German). Again, in terms entertainment value for your money, these are a great deal… But go in knowing that you’re going to destroy this game while playing it. Read our full review.
Journal 29 is an intriguing puzzle book with a narrative experienced entirely through puzzles and illustration. It is deeper, more challenging, and more entertaining than your average puzzle book… but it ain’t a cakewalk. This thing will fight you. It’s a wonderful companion for a flight delay. Trust me, I know. Read our full review.
Among the current selection of at-home subscription games, we recommend Escape the Crate. In each episode, we chase the villain through time to stop him from altering history. Escape the Crate games are not polished (they look like prototypes); however they make up for it with innovative mechanics and consistent quality of gameplay.Read our reviews of Chapter 1 and then Chapters 2 and 3.
Lisa and I don’t own one of these, but oh my, do we want the Dual Chain Planetary. If you’d like to spend lavishly on us this holiday season, this is at the top of our “we absolutely don’t need it, but we want it” list.
Pandemic is one of the great collaborative tabletop games. Pandemic Legacy turns it into an ongoing, episodic experience that permanently evolves, damages, and changes the board with each successive episode. It’s gaming with consequences.
This social game of deduction has one player facilitating as a ghost giving signs and the rest of the group playing as psychic detectives. It’s like Clue and Dixit had a much prettier and considerably more fun baby.
This Lovecraftian horror game is intense. It plays out over multiple campaigns and it’s shockingly challenging. If your character dies, they are gone for good. I grew so attached to my character that when he nearly perished at the end of an episode, I couldn’t sit still.
This last one isn’t collaborative, but it’s a fantastic, inexpensive, compact, and quick 2-player head-to-head game that has both players vying for political dominance in a surprisingly well-researched and thought-out card game.
I love small games that don’t require long rule readings. This is a great casual game that anyone can learn.
This puzzle isn’t a killer, but the trick is clever. No matter how many times I solve it, I love the feel of it. Note that this puzzle is best presented in two pieces. It’s trivial to solve if someone hands it to you completed.
The Cast Diamond is another puzzle that won’t break your brain. It’s just a joy to solve and feels so satisfying. Note that this puzzle is best presented in two pieces. It’s trivial to solve if someone hands it to you completed.
At 1,000 pieces, Harry Potter Flying Keys (and yes, it’s licensed) is the perfect jigsaw puzzle for escape room lovers. It’s beautiful. The New York Puzzle Company produces high quality puzzles (we reviewed a different one earlier this year).
Hey escape room owners! I sure hate picking up splinters while playing escape rooms. This especially flexible sandpaper is fantastic for smoothing over all sorts of nooks and crannies. I am a big fan… and no, I’m not kidding… I think sandpaper is fantastic.
Breath of the Wild is a modern masterpiece and a brilliant display of adventure puzzle game design. Hopefully Nintendo makes enough Switches available this holiday season. If you can get your hands on one, you will not regret the time you spend exploring Hyrule.
Super Nintendo Classic
My brother procured an SNES Classic for me and ever since our Escape Room Tour of NYC ended, I’ve been enjoying some of my all-time favorite video games once again. Mega Man X, Super Mario World, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past are three of the finest examples of game design out there.
There is so much to learn from and enjoy about these games.
The catch: These things are maddeningly hard to acquire at the moment, but if you get one, you win Christmas. I’m pretty sure that’s how this works.
Endgame is The Hunger Games for puzzle lovers. For anyone who enjoys dystopian teenager fiction and puzzles, this trilogy offers both. The first person to solve the puzzle in the first book Endgame: The Calling won $500k in gold. It’s a crazy hard puzzle.
If you’re interested in the history of game design, the early PC gaming era is a treasure trove of stories and learning. Break Out chronicles the creation of many classic Apple II games. I loved the Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego chapters.
Winston Breen is a puzzle-loving teenager. In this story, Lisa puzzled along with Winston as he got swept up in a treasure hunt. The book presents puzzles within an entertaining narrative. (Full review forthcoming.)
This documentary tells the insane story of a group of teens in the 1980s who decided to recreate Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark shot-for-shot. It took them years and thus their ages change from shot to shot. They almost killed themselves creating this. It’s a hell of a story.
The intensity and ingenuity demonstrated in this film reminds me of some of the most interesting escape room companies that I’ve encountered. It’s also streaming on Netflix at the moment.
I found Pedro and the Puzzle Palace in a local bookstore earlier this year, on a shelf promoting local authors. In this adorable picture book Pedro learns core values through puzzles. This is for real, little ones.
Spy Code offers 3 games for children: Break Free, Operation Escape Room, and Safe Breaker (reviewed individually). Each game teaches different puzzling skills through brightly colored plastic props, with some remarkably satisfying and fun interactions.
Ok, I lied. I’m repeating one thing from last year: supporting Child’s Play.
I’ve written about this a few times because I love this organization. They allow you to buy and send toys directly to children’s hospitals. There are plenty of good causes to give to, but since we’re focused on fun and games, I can’t think of a better way to give back than to provide some fun for kids who desperately need an escape.
If you purchase via our Amazon, Etsy, or Puzzle Master links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale.
Team size: 2-6; we recommend 2-6 (but if you go over 3, choose an even number)
Duration: 44 minutes
Price: from 69€ per team of two on weekdays or 79€ on evenings and weekends to 129€ per group of 3 vs 3 on weekdays or 139€ on evenings and weekends (detailed breakdown)
Story & setting
We strapped a computer to our backs, put on an HTC Vive and entered the year 3007. We were among the last human survivors living on a space station above an Earth that was devoid of life. Our crew had received a message from the barren planet below: “My name is HUXLEY and I need your help!”
Huxley’s virtual Earth was a magnificently rendered WALL-E-esque wasteland where we met a WALL-E-esque robot who was a bit angrier than Pixar’s cute creation. No detail was overlooked… and I looked.
Huxley was a 2- or 3-player game. It was also setup so that a pair of teams could race. We each wore an HTC Vive and a computer mounted to an XMG Walker harness that hung comfortably like a backpack. We each played in an isolated 4 x 6 meter space with dedicated motion tracking.
Huxley was a fantastic puzzle game. It had unusual puzzles that took advantage of the virtual world and allowed us to do, see, and solve things that are impossible in meat space.
Additionally, these puzzles required teamwork.
It really worked. The motion tracking was perfect. Lisa did not get even slightly motion-sick. Every other time she has ever put on a VR visor, she has become queazy within minutes. She spent 45 minutes in this world without the slightest issue.
The puzzles were smart. There was one puzzle in particular that I desperately want to spoil because I want to talk about it. I won’t spoil it… but I want to. It involved something that is physically not possible in real life.
Huxley was a truly collaborative escape room. Whereas our past VR escape room experiences were either solo games or didn’t include satisfying group interaction, Huxley required teamwork and made it feel natural.
We each selected a cute avatar. These were initially a little off-putting, but successfully eliminated the issues that usually arise in VR from having false, non-representative, and non-reactive bodies.
The gamespace was gorgeous. This wasn’t some homebrew virtual world made of purchased and slightly tweaked renderings. Huxley was professionally designed.
Huxley used the substantial physical space in the virtual one. The world was big and open and the mechanism for traversing it was brilliant.
Because we wore all of the gear – including the computer – on our persons, there weren’t wires in the way.
There was a little too much exposition from Huxley’s title character. He spoke a lot, but observing the game’s world was simply more interesting… so we tuned him out.
One late-game puzzle revolved around a task that felt strange in a virtual world where nothing had weight. We eventually got the hang of it, but it seemed like there could be a better interaction that would downplay some of the idiosyncrasies of VR.
There are a few things about the current generation of VR technology that were simply out of Exit VR’s control, but affected Huxley nonetheless:
The weight of the Vive put some strain on the neck over a 45-minute play session.
While the laptops on our backs were surprisingly comfortable, we started noticing them more as the game progressed.
We needed a battery swap mid-game (Update – per comments, this does not happen in every game).
While the battery swap was handled swiftly and efficiently, I think it could have been possible to work this into the game itself such that it didn’t feel like we’d paused.
Should I play Exit VR’s Huxley?
Absolutely. If you can play Huxley, you should go play it.
We’ve played a number of VR experiences over the past few years and they have been a mixed bag. Until I entered the world of Huxley, I never believed that I would truly want to play VR… not in the current generation anyway.
Huxley was a virtual escape room done right: it limited the impact of the weaknesses of VR, while creating gameplay that wouldn’t be possible in the physical world. It was a great escape game.
Huxley is available for licensing. I know nothing about their pricing, but I would love to see this game proliferate. That said, please do not license it unless you have the space and will to do it right. Don’t cut corners. This game is too much fun for a hobbled experience.
Go play Huxley and join Lisa and me among the other converts who now believe in the power of VR.
Book your hour with Exit VR’s Huxley, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.
For about a year I’ve been addicted to Mark Brown’s Boss Keys, an episodic analysis of the dungeon design and game mechanics of The Legend of Zelda videogame series.
Zelda’s legacy in escape rooms
Regardless of whether you’ve played Zelda, its fingerprints are all over escape rooms. The earliest escape room owners in the United States were big fans of Zelda. Whether you realize it or not, all of the US-based escape rooms are building off of these early videogames.
So… escape rooms are standing on the shoulders of The Legend of Zelda series… which was why it was so interesting when the concept came full circle and a Zelda escape game began touring.
Game Maker’s Toolkit
Mark Brown’s YouTube channel features his primary show, Game Maker’s Toolkit, where he dissects videogame mechanics and design decisions. This is a fantastic series, but not the subject of this post.
In preparation for a Game Maker’s Toolkit episode on The Legend of Zelda, Brown replayed every single game in the 30-year-old Zelda series and created a spinoff show Boss Keys as a sort of publicly posted series of notes. His analysis is fantastic.
Each episode looked at a different Zelda game, mapped out the dungeon design, broke down the game’s mechanics, and then evaluated how it all worked. Brown’s insights intrigued me as a lover of both Zelda and escape rooms.
Since escape rooms are at least partially rooted in Zelda game design, an analysis of Zelda design also teaches lessons about escape room design.
A few key episodes
While I wholeheartedly recommend watching the entire Boss Keys series in order – the episodes build on one another as Brown’s insights compound – there were a few episodes that I think are critical viewing for the escape room community:
This episode looked at a critical and often overlooked installment in the franchise, exploring all of the ways that the designers expanded the language of dungeon design. Watch for the breadth of locking techniques applied in the game and the smart use of backtracking to allow the player to learn from the game environment and puzzle their way towards mastery of the space.
This episode explored dungeon design where the physical space itself drove the puzzling. These kinds of puzzles are brutally difficult to design – and real life has a lot more restrictions than video games – but they are incredibly satisfying.
A Link Between Worlds
Brown’s analysis of the pros and cons of an almost completely non-linear game design directly correlates to escape room design.
This episode lightly explored the perils of bad hint delivery and went into depth on the issues of linearity and choice.
Breath of the Wild
Brown has not yet published an episode on the latest game, Breath of the Wild, but I cannot wait to hear his thoughts.
I highly encourage anyone who is interested in either escape room design or game design in general to lose themselves in Brown’s YouTube channel. His knowledge, joy, and ability to break down complexity is so much fun to watch.
Hidden My Game By Mom! and its sequel Hidden My Game By Mom! 2 were short, episodic escape room-style puzzlers with the same basic problem running through all 60 levels:
My mother had hidden my handheld video game console and I needed to find it.
It was utter nonsense. It was bizarre, funny, and entertaining.
Each level took place in an exceptionally simple 1-room or 2-room structure. Within each room, I needed to find the items necessary to recover my beloved gaming handheld.
Everything was minimalistic, but the levels were filled with instant failure traps like snakes and of course… mom.
These puzzles ranged from predictable to some of the strangest lateral thinking that I’ve seen in any puzzle game.
Many of the puzzle solution and failure states were hilarious. I actually laughed out loud at the crazy shit that went on in these games.
One of the puzzles in Hidden My Game By Mom! 2 might have had the most genuinely funny puzzle solution that I have ever encountered.
These were fast-paced, quick plays. Together, both games took me about an hour.
Both games were free.
The music, sound effects, and some of the menus got a little annoying.
Some of the puzzle solutions felt repetitive.
A few of the puzzle solutions were a bit too out there for me.
Should I play Hidden My Game By Mom! & Hidden My Game By Mom! 2?
I got a kick out of both Hidden My Game By Mom! & Hidden My Game By Mom! 2 when I played them on long flights. They were straight up strange and equal parts clever, annoying, and funny.
They were games of trial and error; level failure was inevitable. I was fine with this. In fact, as I got better at the games, I found myself deliberately failing levels when I suspected that it would achieve a particularly humorous fail-state… Hidden My Game By Mom! frequently made me giggle.
These were not high production value games, but they each provided a solid half hour of entertainment. I’m still amused that these games even exist.
Download Hidden My Game By Mom! & Hidden My Game By Mom! 2 today.