This year has been… a lot. Staring at the same handful of walls for months has made me want to escape more than just my apartment. I’ve been seeking out excellent video game puzzlers that let me bend my reality just a bit and step into a nice dream. Here are 3 such experiences to help you round out a bizarre 2020.
Anyone who grew up with a dollhouse (or like me, a Castle Greyskull) has spent hours imagining the world inside coming to life. A Fisherman’s Tale took place in the dreamworld of a lighthouse keeper’s model of his own lighthouse. I became the puppet of the lighthouse keeper himself. When I reached into the model, a giant thing moved in my peripheral vision matching my moves exactly… the real lighthouse keeper’s giant hand! Recursive, no? It got crazier from there, but somehow made sense in the way that only dreams can while you’re in them.
Buoying the grand experience was the beautiful art of the world, somewhere between cartoonish and realistic. The professional production of the voiceovers and sound design gave life to the delightful sea creatures who helped me through my various escape room-adjacent predicaments. Likewise, the narrator of my adventure helped keep me on track when I mucked about with various unimportant props too long.
Because of the reality-warping aspects of A Fisherman’s Tale, this was an experience that can only happen in VR. It’s the kind of game that you’ll want to share with VR newbies to blow their minds on Christmas morning after you unwrap your Oculus 2 or PSVR. While it clocked in about about two hours for me, it was well worth the money grandma sent me.
A Good Snowman is Hard to Build favored simplicity in presentation right down to its apt title. Everyone knows that a snowman consists of a large, medium, and small ball of snow, in that order. Seems easy. Rising to the task as a faceless monster in the confines of a garden hedge maze proved to be much harder.
Why was I a monster rolling around a snowy English garden? It was unclear. A Good Snowman is storyless, but that was fine with me because who needs an excuse to build a snowman?
This charming indie game was perfect for an evening of puzzling. I was initially drawn in by the lovely art style, reminiscent of Untitled Goose Game, but got hooked by the challenge of snowman-building. More than once, I found myself in the cycle of flatly stating “that’s impossible” when encountering a new puzzle only to cheer my brilliance when the head of the snowman finally landed in place.
The Gardens Between was unlike any puzzle game I’d played before, and yet I had no trouble understanding the “Alice in Wonderland” logic required to make it work. Pulling off “unique yet intuitive” is quite a feat.
Falling somewhere between the time-bending Braid and the single-player co-op of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, The Gardens Between asked me to advance two young friends through the surreal islands of their shared memories. The controls were incredibly simple: move time forward or back. Doing so moved my characters and sent the on-rails camera rotating around the island to reveal obstacles I had to overcome.
The music of this world received special attention as well. Gorgeous ambient tunes accompanied my journey and calmed my mind when I was stuck. Developer “The Voxel Agents” was so proud of it that they’ve created a special section of their website where I could just kick back and relax to the soothing vibes.
No better way to slide into a calmer, saner, and more relaxing 2021.
Available on: Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Steam, iOS, Android, and Stadia
Mad Experiments: Escape Room was a beautifully designed room that had excellent multiplayer integration. As someone who has been missing real-life escaping, this first-person video game experience was a convincing stand-in.
The puzzles, however, could have used an injection of creativity. Too many of them relied on tired escape room tropes for finding keypad passcodes.
Because Mad Experiments had such a robust multiplayer offering, I would have liked to see it take more opportunities to use cooperation between teammates.
PlayTogether Studios delivered on presentation and provided solid gameplay, but left me wanting more from the puzzles. Regardless, I’d recommend checking out Mad Experiments because they have just released a second room, making the $10 price point a better value.
Who is this for?
Video gamers who want to try escape rooms.
Room escape fans who miss the social aspect of doing a physical room with friends.
Professor Cheshire and his assistant Hildeguard had invited me to their mansion to participate in an experiment of some kind. Or perhaps I was the experiment? The story was conveyed solely through Cheshire’s disembodied voice chiming in each time I finished a puzzle.
Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire was a technological step up for THE VOID from the Ghostbusters game that we experienced a few years back. The tech felt better and there was more and stronger physical feedback. Plus, it was Star Wars… and Star Wars is the cultural equivalent of comfort food.
The big catch with THE VOID was the price point. At $40 for 15 minutes of gameplay it was a big ask.
I loved a lot of what was going on in Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire; I highly recommend it to Star Wars fans. It drops you in that familiar world and just feels right. At the same time, I left really wishing that I was playing as a Jedi, not a Rebel in stormtrooper armor.
THE VOID did a lot of really smart things when they designed this game and it worked damn well. If you think that you want to play it, and you can afford to do so, I absolutely recommend it.
Who is this for?
Star Wars fans
Any experience level
You love Star Wars
It’s an engaging high quality VR shooter
Fantastic immersive detailing
Spies for the Rebellion had reported that an item vital to the war effort had been uncovered by the Empire on the molten planet Mustafar. Our mission was to recover the item from the Imperial installation in a stolen ship, disguised as stormtroopers.
Upon arrival at our start time, we were ushered into a briefing room, given the story, and then brought into a gear room where we suited up. The kit included a:
VR headset with a visor and earphones
haptic vest that vibrated when our avatar was shot, shaken, or otherwise impacted by something in the game world
Once we put on all of the gear and tightened all of the straps, we were brought into the game.
Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire was beautifully rendered and felt familiar in all of the right ways. We were free to walk about the world without cables or cords restricting us. If a wall was in the game, it was there in real life. If a chair was in the game, it was present in real life.
The world was further accented by scents, blowing fans, and other real-life stimuli that pulled the game purely out of the digital realm.
The VOID ‘s Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire was an approachable VR shooter experience.
Core gameplay revolved around taking in the world, shooting bad guys, and one puzzle.
➕ The gear was comfortable, balanced, and easy to put on and take off. Additionally, this was the first time that I was able to put on a VR headset and not once think about how to position my glasses. It just worked. I actually forgot about this entirely and only remembered when I was taking a look at my old review of THE VOID’s Ghostbusters experience where my glasses were a problem.
➕ It was Star Wars. I knew what I was getting into. There was a look, a feel, and a sound to the world and storytelling that just pushed the right nostalgic buttons. If you are or ever were into Star Wars, then there will be something here for you.
➕ The addition of physical sensations was wonderful. It added a tactile depth that is often missing from VR experiences.
➖ There was a minute or so early in the experience where the world just seemed to freeze. My teammates and I could move, see one another, and speak, but the cut scene we were watching felt paused. I don’t know what happened, but I doubt that it was supposed to go down that way. The saving grace was that it wasn’t during a combat sequence or at a climactic moment.
➖ Maybe it’s just me, but my Star Wars fantasies never involved dressing as a stormtrooper. I know that it solves a lot of avatar problems. I’m also aware that it’s supported canonically by the Death Star scenes in A New Hope. And having players clutch a rifle with two hands is a lot safer than having them flailing about with a lightsaber. I see the pragmatism, thought, and cleverness in all of this.
None of that changes the fact that my inner 9-year-old wants to be a damn Jedi when he’s inside of a Star Wars game… especially at $2.66 per minute.
❓ $40 for 15 minutes of gameplay was expensive. I’m glad that I played, but I can also empathize with anyone who rejects it on price alone; Lisa sat this one out for that very reason.
➕ You can’t really ask for an easier, more picturesque location than the center of the World Trade Center Oculus. It was lovely getting off the train and being at the venue. We tend to find Immersive experiences hidden in strange, difficult to find locations. This was a lovely change of pace.
Tips For Visiting
Parking: It’s NYC; take mass transit. THE VOID is sitting dead center in the middle of one of the city’s largest transit hubs.
Food: There are food options in the mall, but I recommend taking a short walk to The Wooly Public.
Accessibility: Check the “Accessibility” category in THE VOID’s FAQ.
Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire is currently available in Anaheim, Glendale, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Orlando, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, Plano, New York (all US), Edmonton, Mississauga, Toronto (all Canada), and Genting (Malaysia).
Book your session with The VOID ‘s Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.
In recent years, the indie video game world has been an incubator for some of the most innovative puzzle games. There’s a VR game that’s Tetris plus archery (Smush.tv). A Plinko game with D&D elements (Roundguard). Even a cooperative platformer about two dogs connected by a gelatinous midsection (PHOGS!). All were on display this year at the PAX West expo.
Since its inception in 2004, PAX West has been a fan-focused gaming expo catering to gamers of every stripe. Every Labor Day weekend, the show takes over Seattle’s Washington State Convention Center as well as large sections of many nearby hotel ballrooms.
Triple-A companies dominated most of the space with their new installments of Borderlands or Monster Hunter, but PAX always devotes ample sections of floorspace to independent games and this year was no exception.
I met David and Lisa in 2016 when they were at PAX hosting a panel about escape rooms. Respect for puzzle gamers at PAX runs deep. At this year’s expo, I went on a hunt for the best upcoming puzzle and adventure games that will pique the interest of escape room fans.
The first standout I found was The Devil’s Calculator by Cinq-Mars Media. This mobile game is likely to divide gamers into two camps at first blush: those who used their high school TI-85 calculator to craft functions that drew beautiful graphs, and those who used it to hide notes on the Pythagorean theorem.
The devil had possessed my calculator, swapping out the plus, minus, multiply, and divide functions with nefarious replacements. Sometimes keys were on fire – too hot to press. The only way to clear each level was to figure out how to make the display read “666”.
Christopher Jarvis, the game’s creator, described it as “a game of interpolation where you’re trying to solve for unknown operators.”
“I never took math past high school and I made all 70 base game levels,” Jarvis said. “95 percent of it is puzzle solving and lateral thinking.” This was good news to me as I definitely fell on the “hiding notes” side of TI-85 users.
The Devil’s Calculator is a non-profit game that is free for the first 20 levels, and totally free for educators and students. It’s out now on the Apple App Store, Google Play, and Steam.
Another indie selection that impressed me was Deleveled from Toaster Fuel. Described to me by programmer Kyle Donnelly as “a physics-based puzzle-platformer with no jump button,” this was a game that was more easily understood when played. In fact, it’s best to watch this video right now:
I simultaneously controlled two squares on either side of a platforming level made of simple lines, attempting to move all the level’s switches to “on.” Sure enough, there was no jump button so I had to fall and cause my counterpart square to bounce, then conserve that momentum to navigate obstacles in search of my goal.
I was drawn in by Deleveled’s minimalistic design and intrigued by the mind-bending levels. Level Designer Patrick Nance promises smooth ramping to train new players and unexpected twists to hold their interest to the end. As a word nerd, I couldn’t help being delighted by the way their palindromic title echoed the concept of the game.
Deleveled is planned for Steam, Switch, Xbox, and PS4 by the end of 2019.
Both Deleveled and The Devil’s Calculator were selected for the PAX10, an honor bestowed upon 10 games each year by a PAX-selected committee of 50 industry experts.
The most visually striking game in the indie sections of PAX was Backbone by Egg Nut. I played raccoon private investigator Howard Lotor in a 2-D anthropomorphic-noir world. It was set in dystopian Vancouver, B.C., and the city was Blade Runner-beautiful. In the street scene featured in the demo, neon signs reflected off puddles in the street and steam rising out of the sewer was illuminated by the headlights of passing cars. This was all the more impressive because the game was pixel art in the vein of The Secret of Monkey Island.
Unlike that classic adventure game, the focus of Backbone was less on fetch-quests and more on navigating branching dialogue trees to solve a mystery. The demo started with me trying to bribe, persuade, and threaten my way into a jazz club. There were bears, foxes, and dogs inside that I needed to question. Once there, I made a sickening discovery and by the end of the demo my character was doubled over in an alley losing his lunch. Despite the anthropomorphism, this was decidedly adult subject matter.
While Backbone was chiefly an adventure game, Eggnut co-founder and writer Alex Korabelnikova assured me that team wasn’t neglecting the puzzle elements. The puzzle in the demo occurred in close-up view, where I rearranged pieces of paper with cut-out elements to get a door code.
“There is also going to be a mechanic of Smell-O-Vision, where you can track and trace smells to figure out the clues,” Korabelnikova said. “The dialogue itself is a puzzle, because you need to figure out the approach you need to take with each character, and you need to understand what different species signify inside the world and the stereotypes that surround them.”
This is an ambitious effort but it’s off to an excellent start. Definitely one to watch.
Backbone is slated for release on nearly all platforms in early 2021. The free demo is out now for PC for Steam.
I didn’t expect to get “the feels” exploring PAX West’s Indie Megabooth, but there was one game that got me. A Fold Apart from Lightning Rod Games explored a couple in a long distance relationship struggling with the space between them. I played by flipping, folding, unfolding, and rotating the paper that made up their environment. It was a puzzle game with a strong emphasis on narrative.
Steven Smith, co-founder of Lightning Rod games, said, “We deal with communication and miscommunication. So there will be texting back and forth, and someone will say something that brings up a sensitive subject. That will send the other person into an emotional world where they work through their feelings about it and solve puzzles.” Disagreements created emotional barriers that my character had to literally fold their way around to overcome.
As someone who is currently in a long distance relationship, I was definitely moved by the narrative. A nice text message (or the absence of a message) can turn your whole world upside down. The Pixaresque animation and gorgeous score further tweaked my thrumming heartstrings.
I was able to play any combination of two-person relationship between a man, a woman, and a non-binary character.
A Fold Apart will be available on Apple Arcade, Switch, and PC this Fall. Xbox, PS4, Mac, and Android soon after. It was recently featured in an Apple Arcade promo, so it must have Tim Apple’s seal of approval!
Cool REM House
Superliminal by Pillow Castle drew influence from such mind-bending puzzlers as Portal, The Stanley Parable, and The Witness. It was a first-person experience set in a sleep institute. My character had come in for a new dream therapy meant to provide more restful sleep. However, when I woke up, there was no one there. Was I still dreaming?
In this world, perception became reality. When I lined up disjointed pieces of a painted cube, it became three-dimensional. Small objects became large when I dropped them from above me. Items refracted through distorted glass took on new properties. I was able to navigate the facility through the transformation of these items, blowing my own mind a couple times in the process.
Art Director Steve Allen described the look of Superliminal as “interesting mundanity.” Allen said, “At first it’s not too overarchingly surreal, but it just has that sort of glimmer of too much symmetry, too much color, and that clues the player that something interesting is going on in that area.” While the demo only covered the rather tame opening area of the game, the trailer hinted that it takes a dark turn as you uncover more about the seemingly mundane building.
As the most room escape-adjacent game I found at PAX West this year, this will be one that puzzle fans will want to keep an eye out for.
Superliminal will be coming out by the end of 2019. It will be an exclusive on the Epic Games Store for PC, then a year later on Steam.
NEScape! is a new escape room video game for the Nintendo Entertainment System (or downloadable ROM).
This game captured old-school escape room gameplay on old-school video game hardware… and did a generally good job.
There are 4 days left to back this Kickstarter and it is fully funded. The decision to back should be simple:
Do you like the idea of old-school, puzzle-forward gameplay?
Does playing an escape game on NES hardware sound fun?
Do you have access to a NES?
If you’ve answered yes to all of these questions, then give them your money.
NEScape! isn’t flawless. There are more than a few things that I think could improve it.
NEScape! isn’t revolutionary. It can’t be. It runs on 8-bit hardware in 2019.
For me, that was fine. Now that I’ve completed playing it, just looking at the cartridge makes me smile.
Who is this for?
Point & click fans
People who really just want to own the game cartridge
Players with at least some puzzle experience
Classic escape room puzzle play on the NES
We were in an escape room and needed to puzzle our way out. Like I said, old school.
We received NEScape! in cartridge form. That meant that the first puzzle was finding a working Nintendo Entertainment System or a high quality NES clone like the RetroUSB AVS. The Retron5 and RetroDuo (which I love) unfortunately didn’t do the job.
So… we went out to a local retro video game arcade called Yestercades to play with their toys.
Once we were up and running, NEScape! was a point & click puzzle game on an 8-bit platform. The controls were simple. We had to find objects and use them to solve the puzzles that lined the game world’s 4 walls.
KHAN Game’s NEScape! was a point & click escape game with puzzles of varying levels of difficulty and a non-negotiable 60-minute game clock that terminated the run at 0.
Core gameplay revolved around observing, making connections, and puzzling.
➕ Opening the mail and finding a translucent blue NES cartridge was utterly delightful.
➕ The colors were vibrant and made good use of the limited graphics capacity of the NES.
➕ The controls were easy. Lisa was never a console gamer and had no problems picking them up quickly. There wasn’t any action, so my decades of muscle memory weren’t particularly useful.
➕ The opening sequence was an unusual intro that taught the basics, provided a puzzle and allowed us to bypass it.
➕ There was solid point & click escape game-style play that captured the feeling of escape room puzzles from 4-5 years ago.
➕ There was a structured, self-service online hint system, should you get stuck (or, like us, be playing in a loud space, which inhibited us from solving auditory puzzles).
❓ There were a number of auditory puzzles that we had to bypass with hints. The clanging of pinball, the beeping of arcade cabinets, and the crashing of Skee-Ball at Yestercades meant that we couldn’t hear audio puzzles. It seemed like NEScape! was doing some interesting things with sound, but I genuinely have no idea how anything sounded. When I eventually replay in a quiet location, I’ll update this.
➖ At the start of each chapter, we began with the “lights off” and had to find the switch. This was hard the first time and easy, but annoying, in subsequent chapters.
❓/➕ We aren’t good at slide puzzles. We’d like to get better at them when we have a little time. We ended up sinking a little more than half of our time in our first play loop into a slide puzzle. In our second hour, we just used the hint system to power through the slide pattern. (We so appreciated that the hints included the solution pattern.)
➖ There were times where puzzle solves had no visual indication of completion. There may have been auditory feedback, but we don’t know. It made certain aspects of the game feel clunky. Sure we were playing under sub-optimal circumstances, but visual feedback of success would have been a significant improvement, even if it was just for accessibility purposes.
➖ The ball maze puzzle was visually jittery and difficult to look at.
➕ There were some really great destructible puzzles… the kind that you wouldn’t typically see in a real life escape room.
➖ NEScape! would have benefited from more puzzles that could only work in a digital environment. There were a few too many puzzles that were straight translations from the real world.
❓ We felt pretty conflicted on the rigid timer that terminated the game at 0 forcing us to start over:
On one hand, it was annoying. It felt like there was an opportunity to do something more creative at 0 or offer more outcome options.
On the other hand, unforgiving fail-states is pretty much tradition on the NES. It wasn’t a big deal because we were able to navigate through the game pretty quickly on our second playthrough to pick up where we’d left off.
➕ It’s a Kickstarter… but the full product exists. For those of us who have been burned before, knowing that a crowdfunding project is more than notional ain’t nothing.
Tips For Playing
Time Requirements: I would plan on playing at least 2 or 3 hours (unless you’re good at slide puzzles or plan to bypass it with the hint system).
Required Gear: You’ll need a Nintendo Entertainment System or a high-quality clone. We also used pen and paper to track our solutions. This was especially helpful on our second play-though.
Back KHAN Game’s NEScape! on Kickstarter, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.