Escape rooms are what happens if you take puzzles and mix in some theatre. I don’t think there’s a word for what happens when you take a bit of theatre and add some puzzles, but there should be. A Place In Time does much more than that, though. Shhh! Maman le Mot is part immersive theatre, part puzzle, part game, part dining experience. That’s a pretty ambitious production but it’s not their first rodeo – the well received Tick Tack Club took place earlier this year and while, from reading reviews, there wasn’t the same emphasis on the games, there was still plenty on offer.
After a very brief welcome outside the venue, we were ushered inside to get our identity cards before being shown the introductory video. It was a reasonably humorous way of setting the scene and explaining how the evening would work but, in my opinion, it went on a little too long; I was keen to get inside and see some action. There seemed to be a surprising amount of bureaucracy in the early stages as we traipsed from area to area: queuing outside the venue and then again for our identity cards, filling them in, and then going into the cinema, back outside again and finally into the venue.
Although part of the bureaucracy was undoubtedly theatre, it felt a little too stop-start, whereas the later parts of the evening had us flowing smoothly from scene to scene. On the plus side, as we walked through these different stages we were greeted by some impressive sets and fun acting. They’d really managed to capture the feel of wartime Europe. Or maybe ‘Allo ‘Allo but, whichever it was, it worked.
After grabbing a drink from the bar, we started reviewing our missions. Part of the fun of these shows is getting over your inhibitions. It took me a while to get started but I eventually plucked up the courage to jump in. First impressions last – I decided to really go for it but, because of the nature of the mission (which didn’t involve any of the actors), I wasn’t rewarded for my enthusiasm. This became a theme during the game, with several missions that came down to the luck of the draw: if you happened to be observed, you might get points. My feeling is that you can take this sort of experience one of two ways: make it either obviously not very serious or scrupulously fair. If you make it look serious but then leave elements of unfairness in it, that can leave participants with a bitter taste.
Perhaps it’s because I have more experience with games than with immersive theatre, but I kept finding flaws in the game side of the event. For example, dinner during the experience left you with a tension – we were trying to enjoy our meal but the game encroached on the experience. Conversely, had it not, we’d have felt like we were missing out on some gameplay. To take another example, one part of the game discouraged you from going into a particular area but, if you didn’t go in, you missed out on another part of the experience. It’s obviously not uncommon to have to choose between two different experiences in a game, but this felt like an artificial and unnecessary restriction. The biggest flaw on the puzzle front was one that just didn’t work. The fact that a fundamentally broken puzzle had made it through their playtesting was seriously disappointing. Although it may in theory have been only one small part of the evening, because it seemed like it should be very tractable, it was under discussion from the moment we got it before dinner until pretty much the end of the evening (when I was finally able to Google it and found the site that it had been taken from, complete with the same flaw).
So, yes, there were flaws in the game, but it was also incredibly ambitious. There were so many different games and missions for you to take part in which would appeal to a whole cross-section of players, whether reconnaissance, subterfuge, acting, puzzles, searching or games of skill appealed to them. It was structured in such a way that we were drip-fed games, which prevented us from getting overwhelmed at the beginning or bored at the end. For me the best games were – pretty much inevitably – those that pitted teams against each other, taking advantage of mismatched knowledge. One in particular, where we were on the losing side, was spectacular, even if at the time we felt incredibly frustrated at losing.
At the end of the evening, they called us all together for the awards ceremony. In a nice touch, they rewarded pretty much every team for some element of their gameplay, whether it was a particularly bold move, impressive costume or consistently good play in one aspect of the game. Although in the end our team won the overall prize, I couldn’t help but feel, based on my experience and those of my teammates that we talked to, that the scoring must have been somewhat arbitrary. I’ll never know.
This was an undoubtedly ambitious project and, from an objective point of view, they pulled it off well. The set was amazingly well done, there was plenty to keep you occupied, the actors were fun caricatures and, if you wanted, there was an enjoyable meal to be had on site. Personally, I came away disappointed but, in retrospect, I think that was partly because I had become fixated on solving the broken puzzle and partly because a couple of the missions I had undertaken had gone seemingly unrewarded, which left me wondering whether the game mattered at all. My lasting feeling was that, if a company with a gaming background (say the likes of Fire Hazard, for example) had been involved, this would have been a truly amazing experience.
We ate in the French bistro that formed part of the game. The food was very good although, as noted above, the gameplay permeated the whole event, which both enhanced and detracted from having a sit-down meal. If I were to play again, I think I’d probably opt for a non-dining ticket.