The Witness [Review]

Puzzling Nirvana

Developer/Publisher: Thekla, Inc.

Director/Producer: Jonathan Blow

Dates Played: January-April, 2018

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

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

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

REA Reaction

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

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

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

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

Who is this for?

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

Why play?

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

Story & setup

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

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

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

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

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

Gameplay

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

In-game:
Something quite a bit more complicated.

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

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

Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tips for Playing

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

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

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

Gorogoa [Review]

Mind-bending beauty.

Platforms: iOS, Windows, Nintendo Switch

Publisher: Annapurna

Date played: Mid December, 2017

Duration: Approximately 1.5 – 3 hours

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.

In-game: A panel showing a young boy and an old man kneeling and holding a bow with 5 colored orbs eblow a large multicolored dragon.

Gameplay

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.

In-game: a 4 paneled layout with two active panels. One on a rooftop, the other in a livingroom.

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?

Standouts

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.

Shortcomings

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.

In-game: a beautiful multicolored series of circular repeating patterns surrounding an eye.

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.

Download Gorogoa today.

iOS / Steam / Nintendo Switch

 

Room Escape Lover’s 2017 Holiday Buyer’s Guide

Now US-, Canada- & UK-friendly!

REA logo wearing a Santa hat.

‘Tis the season for gift giving… and stressing over finding great gifts. We’re here to help you find the perfect gift for your escape-rooming, puzzle-loving friends and family.

We’re not repeating anything from last year, so check out our first 2016 Holiday Buyer’s Guide for additional inspiration. 

Tabletop escape games

Let’s start with the obvious…

Escape-Room-Photo

Escape Room in a Box

(Amazon US)

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 Box Art

Unlock!

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

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.

In-game: A mess of cards, the decoder wheel, images of the cabin's rooms, and a book that reads,

Exit: The Game

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

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.

Journal29 1

Journal 29

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

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.

Many of the game's props and components staged. There are ciphers, grids, flags, maps, and photos.

Subscription – Escape The Crate

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.

Home

A strange clock made of many gears and bicycle chains.

Needlessly Complex Clocks

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.

A while ceramic cup with black 1s and 0s imprinted all over.

inaeent ceramics

This Etsy shop has dozens of beautiful, strange, and unique bowls, plates, and cups. I love the Binary Wine or Tea Cup.

A chain standing upright, magically floating a bottle of wine.

Magic chain wine bottle holder

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

This simple illusion proudly floats a wine bottle in our dining room. It’s amusing. Note that it doesn’t like wide-mouthed bottles. 

Tabletop games

These are a few collaborative games that escape room players will love:

Pandemic Legacy Seasons 1 / Season 2

(Season 1 – Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

(Season 2 – Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

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.

Mysterium box art.

Mysterium

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

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.

Arkham Horror the Card Game box art.

Arkham Horror: The Card Game

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

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 game also has a boatload of expansions with more on the way. I’ve played them all and I love them.

Cold War: CIA vs KGB box art.
This box is far smaller than it appears.

Cold War: CIA vs KGB

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

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.

Puzzles

A silver metal loop made of two interlocking pieces.

Cast Loop

(Puzzle Master US/UK/CA)

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. 

A cast metal diamond of silver and black materials. They snugly fit together.

Cast Diamond

(Puzzle Master US/UK/CA)

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. 

A bronze cast metal layer cake puzzle.

Cast Cake

(Puzzle Master US/UK/CA)

You want something hard? Try separating this layer cake into 4 pieces. I’ll wait.

This thing took me forever to figure out and I’m not ashamed to say so. It’s tough.

Rubik's Triamid assembled but color jumbled.

Rubik’s Triamid

(Amazon US, Amazon UK)

I wrote a full review of this long forgotten puzzle that captured my imagination as a child.

A multi colored ball made of up of tiny gears.

Gear Ball

(Puzzle Master US/UK/CA)

I am terrible at Rubik’s Cube-type puzzles and have zero chance of solving this thing. Ever. However, this crazy ball of gears is so psychologically satisfying to manipulate that it doesn’t matter.

It’s absolutely purchasable as the thinking person’s fidget spinner.

The art for the Harry Potter Flying keys 1000 piece puzzle.

New York Puzzle Company – Harry Potter Flying Keys

(Amazon US, Amazon UK)

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).

They have many more puzzles to choose from if you’re looking for something different.

I am Lion, Wolf, Panda, & Horse

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

These animal head jigsaw puzzles are beasts to solve. They have irregular edges, large swaths of repeating patterns, consistent coloration, and unusual piece shapes. They range from 550-700 pieces.

“I am” is a pun because if you want to have a prayer of solving these, begin with the animal’s eyes.

If you love difficult jigsaw puzzles, this is a must-buy… but know that you’re playing on hard mode.

Tools

Sugru

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

It molds like silly putty and hardens into rubber. It’s insulated against electricity and it’s heat- and cold- resistant. This was one of the first things that we published about on Room Escape Artist over 3 years ago… so like 5 people have seen that post. I use it all of the time to repair and customize things around our home.

Fun fact: I once brought Sugru to a humanitarian crisis and fixed a whole bunch of things around a UN field office with it.

3M SandBlaster ultra flexible sanding sheets logo.

Sandblaster Ultra Flexible Sanding Sheets

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

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.

Video Games

Nintendo Switch+ The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

(Nintendo Switch – Amazon US, Amazon UK)

(Zelda– Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

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.

A hand holding the tiny Super Nintendo Classic in the palm of a hand.

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. 

Books

The three installments of the End Game series. The gold covered first volume is on top of the pile.

Endgame Series

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

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.

Break Out book cover features an Apple II with Oregon Trail's load screen.

Break Out – How the Apple II Launched the PC Gaming Revolution

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

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.

The cover art for the first volume of The Puzzling World of Winston Breen.

The Puzzling World of Winston Breen

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

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.)

Movie

Movie cover for Raiders! depicts the 3 main characters dressed in their costumes.

Raiders! : The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

(Amazon US)

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.

Stocking stuffers

3 in 1 flip book cover

Flip book!

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

Ok, I was skeptical too, but this thing is mesmerizing, beautiful, and so damn cool.

Packaging for 4 different gear ties. Art illustrates the flexibility and versatility of the product.

Nite Ize Reusable Rubber Twist Tie

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

We’re always on the move, electronics in tow. These reusable rubber twist ties are perfect for securing the cords for our phones and earbuds.

A quirky PowerCurl neatly wrapping a MacBook power cable.

Quirky PowerCurl

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

For our laptops, we swear by the Quirky PowerCurl for taming our Macbook power cables. Be sure to get the right size for your power cable. 

Escape room

Escape Again logo stylized.

This one might seem obvious… but you can give the gift of an escape room.

I recommend, however, that you plan out the entire excursion instead of buying a gift certificate. It’s better to provide the full experience rather than a gift card that’s likely to get lost.

Kids

Cover art. Young Pedro standing in front of a castle made of puzzles.

Pedro and the Puzzle Palace

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

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 Games

(Break FreeAmazon USAmazon CA)

(Operation Escape RoomAmazon US, Amazon CA)

(Safe BreakerAmazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

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.

Box art and traffic jam puzzling components of Rush Hour Jr.

Rush Hour Jr.

(Puzzle Master US/UK/CA)

Rush Hour Jr. is a fun spatial puzzle for kids as young as 6. If this one seems a little too basic, try the version for adults instead.

Book cover for Top Secret, looks like a brown folder being held by a pair of black gloved hands.

Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

This fantastic book is perfect for helping kids learn the basics of cryptography… as well as the roots of so many escape room puzzles. It’s also a great read if you design escape rooms (full review).

Charity

Child's Play logo

Child’s Play

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.

Thank you!

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.

Please share this buyer’s guide far and wide.

We truly appreciate your support.

Exit VR – Huxley [Review]

This made me believe in VR.

Location: Berlin, Germany

Date played: September 3, 2017

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!”

In-game: three beams of light shooting down towards a wrecked Earth.
Image via Exit VR

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.

In-game: a disabled Huxley hanging from the ceiling of a strange cathedral to him.
Image via Exit VR

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.

Puzzles

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.

Standouts

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.

In-game: a pair of avatars with a head and hands on a dead Earth.
Image via Exit VR

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.

Shortcomings

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.

In-game: Lisa in her dedicated space wearing the VR rig.

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 a local perspective, see Escape Maniac (in German).

Full disclosure: Exit VR comped our tickets for this game.

Boss Keys – An Analysis of Zelda Dungeons

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.

The Boss Keys logo

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.

Boss Keys

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:

Link’s Awakening

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.

Majora’s Mask

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.

Minish Cap

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.

Mark Brown – YouTube

Hidden My Game By Mom [Review]

Weird A.F.

Platform: iOS & Android

Price: Free – ad supported

Overview & setup

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.

Hidden My Game By Mom title screen features the main character, his mom, a couch, and a chest.

Puzzles

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.

In game: Game over screen. The main character looks distressed after opening a closet and revealing his mother.

These puzzles ranged from predictable to some of the strangest lateral thinking that I’ve seen in any puzzle game.

Standouts

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.

In game: The stage clear screen featues the main character triumphantly holding his gaming device in the air.

These were fast-paced, quick plays. Together, both games took me about an hour.

Both games were free.

Shortcomings

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.

Download iOS

Download Android

Sherlocked – The Vault Mobile App [Review]

An app to train for the real thing.

Platform: iOS & Android

Price: Free

Overview & setup

Created by the famed Sherlocked in Amsterdam, The Vault mobile app was a free iOS & Android game that served as a training/advertisement for real life The Vault escape room.

In game: An old safe's number dial with the Sherlocked cross-keys logo on the knob.

This short game was a heist-style escape room complete with puzzles and mechanical interactions. Most of these bore no resemblance to puzzles or interactions in the real The Vault escape room.

The game emphasized learning how to operate an antique safe. This set piece did play a role in the real life The Vault escape room where its operation was a serious challenge.

Puzzles

The puzzles were pretty typical digital escape room-style puzzles; they were neither great nor terrible.

In game: An old safe on a small table in the middle of a large room.

Standouts

The Vault was entertaining. It was also free.

While it was not required training for the real life game, it was great for getting in the right mindset and learning how to operate a particularly cumbersome safe.

In game: An invitation to play the game in real life. It reads: "Well done. You've passed our test. Your job awaits you in Amsterdam."

It may have been an advertisement… but it was a really good one.

Shortcomings

There was no hint system and a few of the interactions were not quite intuitive. When an interaction didn’t click, the game ground to a halt. At that point the only options were to:

  • Poke and swipe at every object until something happened.
  • Hand the game off to a friend and hope that that particular thing would be a little more intuitive to them.
  • Check out a YouTube walkthrough video

Should I play Sherlocked’s The Vault Mobile App?

I’d say so. Here’s my math:

If you’re going to play The Vault in Amsterdam (which I highly recommend), then it is a cute primer for that escape room’s most challenging input mechanism.

If you’re not going to be able to play The Vault in Amsterdam, then it is an interesting innovation for both escape room pre-game care as well as advertising.

It’s fun and it’s free. Why are you still reading this?

Download Sherlocked’s The Vault Mobile App today.

Download iOS

Download Android

Tormentum: Dark Sorrow [Review]

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.

In game: A dark dungeon with a menacing horned knight stating: "This place will purge you of all evil hatched within your bowels.
All of the character talk purdy.

Puzzles

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.

In game: A dungeon with a woman trapped in a small cage that hangs from the ceiling. A strange looking demon statesL "But why am I telling you this. Leave and don't wassste my time, human!"
A demonic guard just casually forgetting his place and giving puzzle hints. The usual.

Standouts

The art was gorgeous. Everything looked like a bleakly beautiful hellscape. It worked.

In-game: The hooded main character in a room filled with mummies and sarcophaguses.
Book your vacation in the next 5 minutes to receive one additional night at no cost to you!

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.

Shortcomings

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.

In-game: A massive demon stating, "It is easier for a thousand crows to fly through a fiery mountain than it is for you to pass safely through my entrails, wretched human."
And they squeezed in a few stage bosses from Contra for good measure.

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.

Download Tormentum: Dark Sorrow today.

Download iOS

Download Android

Download Steam (Don’t play it on Steam, $12 is too much to pay for this game)

Haunted Rooms: Escape VR Game [Review]

Haunted with ads.

Platform: iOS & Android

Release date: November 12, 2016

Price: Free – ad supported

Story & setting

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.

In game: a ghost in a hallway holding a chainsaw.

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.

Puzzles

Calling Haunted Rooms: Escape VR Game an “escape the room” was a generous description. The puzzles were non-existent.

In game: a piece of paper reads, "5-30-7" above it a message displays reading, "This might be a clue!"
No kidding?

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.

In game: a door, a message reads, "It's locked. Maybe I can try shooting it?"
I’m not sure what I should do. Could someone give me a hint?

Standouts

It looked pretty great, especially for a free game.

Shortcomings

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.

There were jump scares, but they didn’t impress. These were seriously overused.

Every milestone triggered an ad. Exiting the game triggered an ad. Opening doors triggered ads. (Don’t get any ideas, escape room owners.)

Should I play Rabbit Mountain’s Haunted Rooms: Escape VR Game?

Haunted Rooms: Escape VR Game was not an escape room game. It was a reasonably pretty ad-supported tech demo.

This app got a lot of press, so I figured it would be worth playing at the low cost of free. I was wrong. It wasn’t worth my time.