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.
Point & click escape rooms had a baby with Iron Maiden’s entire catalog.
Platform: iOS, Android, & Steam
Price: $4.99 on iOS, $3.99 on Android, $11.99 Steam
Story & setting
Your mysterious cloaked protagonist began Tormentum: Dark Sorrow imprisoned in some sort of medieval fantasy steampunk inquisition dungeon. In typical escape room fashion, the goal was to escape.
The entirety of Tormentum was beautifully painted from the characters to the panoramic settings. The art had a Frank Frazetta heavy metal style about it that gave the game a unique feel.
Tormentum: Dark Sorrow was a point & click, pixel hunt digital escape room. It leaned heavily on searching. There were some entertaining puzzles, but they were not the centerpiece of the game; the art was.
The art was gorgeous. Everything looked like a bleakly beautiful hellscape. It worked.
I enjoyed the fictional world of Tormentum. It felt like a heavy metal album had been turned into an escape game.
There were some great puzzle designs.
While I liked a lot of the puzzle designs, I found myself wishing that they had leaned into their ideas, pushed beyond basic execution, and asked me to more thoroughly master those puzzles.
The pixel hunt searching overstayed its welcome. It was easy to completely miss critical things within the game’s elaborate art.
On more than a few occasions I made critical in-game moral decisions, by accident, without any intention or understanding of what was about to happen. These moments kind of pissed me off. If I’m gonna murder someone, I want to know that I’m about to do it.
Should I play Tormentum: Dark Sorrow?
Tormentum went all in on the art. If you like point & click escape rooms and this game’s art direction appeals to you, then it’s worth a few bucks and a few hours to play it.
If both the game format and the art don’t speak to you, then I don’t think it’s worthwhile. There were some great puzzle designs, but they left me wanting more. I found Tormentum’s interactions were often too opaque, especially when it came to moral choices, which frustrated the hell out of me.
If Tormentum feels like a fit for you, it’s got a dark and twisted beauty about it.
A self-described “escape the room” virtual reality game playable with Google Cardboard or as a standard point and click escape game, Haunted Rooms: Escape VR Game was straightforward: I was trapped in a haunted house and needed to escape.
Haunted Rooms: Escape VR Game was broken up into 6 episodes, each playable in less than 5 minutes.
It looked and sounded pretty good:
However, look and sound only carried it so far.
Calling Haunted Rooms: Escape VR Game an “escape the room” was a generous description. The puzzles were non-existent.
At best this was a virtual scavenger hunt. Items either screamed “USE ME! I’M BRIGHT RED!” or, on a couple of occasions, they required pixel hunting because they were the same drab color as the background.
If I touched a thing that needed “solving” it straight up told me what to do.
It looked pretty great, especially for a free game.
There was no depth to the story, puzzles, or frights. It was staggeringly one-dimensional.
The puzzles were lame and would barely even qualify as puzzles.
A brilliant and approachable walk through the history of code/cipher making and breaking. I am in the middle of reading this one and I learn new and exciting things each time I turn the page. (Paperback) (Kindle)
Do people still gift movies in the age of streaming? If you do…
If you know someone who loves the overlap of art and technology, Tim’s Vermeer is a strangely moving documentary about Tim Jenison’s mission to recreate Dutch master Johannes Vermeer’s photo-realistic painting “The Music Lesson.” Produced by Penn & Teller, the documentary follows Jenison, a Texas-based tech entrepreneur who had never lifted a paintbrush in his life, through his discoveries, triumphs, and failures as he seeks to uncover a 350-year-old secret.
A Cryptex is a common locking mechanism in room escapes, but most use the junkie Da Vinci Code replicas (and yes, both are junk, even the more expensive version).
Justin Nevins, the creator of the first Cryptex, handcrafts this insanely solid Cryptex. They start at $300 for the normal version and become increasingly expensive for exquisite versions inlayed with wood and marble.
They are the perfect escape room prop, conversation piece, or proposal puzzle device. (I considered using this when plotting out my wedding proposal.)