Sunday a group from the London IF Meetup got together to tackle the Enter the Oubliette escape room. This was my first contact with escape rooms, though I’ve heard about a number from friends who’ve either played or worked on creating them. (If you’re in Seattle, here’s Sam Ashwell on the work of Puzzle Break. In London, I’ve also heard good things about Time Run; in fact, here’s a whole blog about escape rooms, biased towards but not exclusively focused on London, with a review that gives Oubliette five stars.)
Enter the Oubliette was put together by project members who have Punchdrunk experience, and indeed a number of things about the props did remind me of Punchdrunk things I’ve seen: the meticulous documents with retro design, paper types, and illustration; the functioning retro technology; the inventive use of sound, film, lighting, and smoke effects as well as space and objects to create a particular experience. The room wasn’t as crammed-full-of-stuff as the setting of a Punchdrunk stage production, but that was a mercy: we already had plenty to search and already had to have some strong hints to guide our attention to some missed items.
With something like this that thrives on novelty and where each person who sees spoilers is a person who can’t realistically be a customer, it seems actively hostile to give too much away. So I want to be extra careful not to do that.
If you’re just looking for advice about whether this is worth doing: we liked it. We had a great time with a mixed group; most of us hadn’t been to any kind of escape room before. We had different degrees of self-confidence about our puzzle solving ability, but we did fine and everyone got to contribute in meaningful ways. And although you might try to place it by saying it’s a bit like a cross between immersive theatre and a graphical adventure game, in practice it is still really, really different from either of those things.
Below are some fairly general comments about how this experience worked as an interactive story experience, which I will still cordon off in case you don’t want to see even those.
— it is, unquestionably, a puzzle-first-story-later kind of thing. Solving various locks and puzzles is the main activity. Relatively little that we encountered required actually understanding a plot point in order to proceed. Except in a couple of specific spots, there’s also not much by way of role-playing. In order to solve the puzzles, you need to be communicating constantly and openly with your teammates; it would be counterproductive to be acting secretively at the same time.
— given the puzzle-focus, though, it’s impressively themed. They’d obviously given thought to the frame story, why we were supposedly there as characters, how to reinforce their choice of genre, and how to carry that aesthetic through all aspects of the game. There was an in-story motivation for why each of the puzzles existed; but more than that, I felt as though the Orwellian setting of New Pelagia was surprisingly real.
When a puzzle required us to pay close, detailed attention to a particular object, that object was often one that had a world-building function as well as a generic operational function.
Likewise, the hint system was well tied into the surveillance-state themes as well, and it was fun to use! It’s great when a hint system feels enjoyable and interesting and part of the experience, rather than making the player feel like they’ve sort of ruined things by resorting to it. Our relationship to the hints was part of our story.
— when, as a result of puzzle-solving, a new bit of story occurred — and again I’m being intentionally vague here — it generally ramped up the anxiety and threat level. I’m used to story-as-reward in video games, but here there was story-as-punishment. Solve the puzzle quickly? STORY GETS MORE WORRYING. This felt like a pretty natural and pleasurable extension of the existing principles. And it wasn’t as though we were going to stop trying to escape the room in order to avoid having more story bits happen to us!
The pacing ramped up smoothly into the end game, so that at the beginning I was feeling fairly relaxed (and the puzzles were fairly easy) but by the endgame I was really struggling to block out worrying distractions while executing a particularly fiddly task.
Speaking of pacing, I have no idea how much the organizers may have been tweaking elements of the experience in response to our behavior, but this also felt really well targeted to take all of our available time and keep it very ambiguous whether we were going to be able to win.
— also, there were several actors/organizers involved in putting this on, filling roles in the framing story and ushering us towards a solution, as well as operating the mechanism that gave us hints when we wanted them.
Again, I don’t have a huge range of experience with this form, but I thought they did a great job. In particular, when we got to the final puzzle we almost had it but flubbed one bit until after the clock ran out; in response, they improvised the narrative to acknowledge both the successful and failed aspect of what we’d done, and made us feel like the story was genuinely accommodating the quirks of our group’s performance.
So overall, this didn’t feel like a LARP exactly, or a story in which my personal choices were going to be hugely important. There were no moral questions about what we ought to do, and our characters had no individuality, just a general role in a situation. (But I would assume that that is usually true in this field?) But it did feel like a case where we had fair agency over how close we came to a positive solution, and the fact that a semi-positive solution was improvised for us really fed into that. Likewise, at a character level, there wasn’t what you’d call a deep development of NPC personalities, except for the behavior of the characters who were actually enacted by the actors. (Those were fun, and inflected with a healthy dose of attitude.)
Meanwhile, the framing provided just enough ominous hints to make me feel like (or rather, to help me pretend?) there were some real stakes to what we were doing.
And a bonus observation, not about story: it’s really fun solving puzzles that involve physical machines! I’m not going to describe any more than that, despite strong temptation, but a puzzle that would have been modestly fun in a graphic adventure became substantially more fun when it was made of actual working objects I could touch.