Outside the room
You’d think booking a room would be easy: I want to play, I’m willing to play, just take my money. That probably would have been the case, but I signed up via the Groupon offer and each side said the other was responsible for taking the actual booking. I emailed Escape Games London about ten times over the space of the month before we finally got our reservation. That left me with a distinct worry about the place but I figured it was probably down to teething issues and a lack of experience with Groupon vouchers and almost certainly unrelated to how good they are at designing games.
We turned up at the venue and my worries eased. There’s a nice café-style waiting area (currently not serving anything, but perhaps when they get busier it will be a nice way of debriefing after the game) and clean toilets. We were greeted on arrival by one person and then the host came out at about the time we’d booked. For a game that’s going to be running every hour with large groups, that breakdown probably makes sense, and it gave the impression that this would be a slick operation.
The first thing we have to do is split up into two teams. Now, in fairness, I realised that this was a risk before I booked. Escape Games London is a ticketed game for up to 30 people. Yes, you read that right – thirty people! In fact, it’s really for up to two groups of fifteen, so they split every group into two teams. We’d turned up with nine people and would happily have split in half but the other group playing in our slot was a five-player team and it seemed mean to force them to play as a two and a three, so two of our team joined them. In retrospect, the host should just have let us play as a 9 and a 5, but we didn’t know how little bearing the teams had on each other at the time, so we went with it. Fortunately, the group we played with were friendly enough, although still didn’t tend to involve us in the game as much as our team would have done. Bottom line: if you’re going along in a group, be prepared to be split up but also push to not be!
Next up we had the briefing but, just before that happened, they decided to turn the music up. The result was that it was almost impossible for some of the team to hear what we were being told. The good news was that the answer was “almost nothing” – those of us who could hear were little the wiser for having been given the briefing.
You’re locked in a theatre and have to escape. Or, if you read the website: “You are a VIP guest attending a film premiere taking place in an exclusive 300 seat cinema in the heart of Westminster. As one of just 30 guests, you have been invited in early to hear the Director talk about the making of the film – ‘The Image of Sarah’. You take your front row seats when suddenly the lights in the cinema go out! An announcement is made asking all guests to stay seated and remain calm! The lights are restored but the power has tripped and the doors to the cinema remain locked. The film projector switches on and the screen comes to life. But all is not right, the film has been replaced with a furious message from lead actress – Margo De’Ath. The stage is set…”
Inside the room
After the briefing, and based on the website description, we entered the room expecting to be shown a short film giving us a bit more context but, instead, we were just told to get on with it immediately. Fortunately, the room was pretty impressive – a proper lecture theatre, complete with stage and seating for a couple of hundred, which definitely helped to bring a little more gravitas to the experience. Over on the other side of the theatre, the other team had also made their entrance and it was clear (although I’m not entirely sure it was ever spelt out) that we should keep to our own halves.
I guess that, as with all “duplicate” rooms, the idea is to feel a bit of added competition. Being in the actual same room was an interesting idea – in theory that would make it abundantly clear how much progress your competitors were making, but it never worked as well as I expected. In a true team-building event, where everyone in the room is from the same company, and potentially different departments, I think that could be quite an interesting tension. For me, it just became a bit annoying because their noise was distracting and the host would have to go and help them from time to time, leaving us to fend four ourselves (and, as will become apparent, the amount of help we were going to need from the host was significant).
For a group of beginners, the rest of our team dived in quite happily and were soon working on a couple of puzzles so, while they were getting started on those, I did some more searching and hit jackpot: I found a couple of padlocked boxes in some drawers. I brought them out to the front but, a couple of minutes later, when our host wandered over, she looked at the boxes and said we shouldn’t have them yet. It turned out that she hadn’t put the padlocks on the drawers I’d opened. Sigh. Well at least it wasn’t too painful – she took one of the boxes away (I don’t know why only one) but she didn’t put the padlock on the drawer again so a few minutes later my team mate found it again. At some point we found a code we couldn’t use anywhere until someone realised that it belonged to the padlock we’d never had to open. In any other room the host would have been apologising profusely but here it was matter-of-fact. I don’t think this is a rare occurrence. In fact, our colleagues on the other side of the room had a very similar experience with a lock not being shut.
While all this was happening, we were making progress on the puzzles and getting snippets of story. The problem was that, with so many people involved in the game, not everyone got every piece of information, so we didn’t really get to see the story unfold. It was only afterwards that we managed to put together the narrative and realise that they’d really missed a trick by not making it a little more prominent. It felt like they’d tacked the storyline on to the side rather than weaving it through the puzzles, with the result that it was all too easy to bypass. Maybe it’s a fundamental problem with a big room, maybe there are ways round it or maybe our team was just stupid, but the end result was that we were unsatisfied with the narrative.
The centre-piece of the game was a nice piece of kit that required you to solve a logic puzzle. I felt the puzzle was a bit ambiguous, a little bit “homeworky”, but we worked out what the clues probably meant (or maybe my teammates were just cleverer than me) and got what we thought was the solution. Nothing happened. We looked at it for a while, utterly convinced that we’d got things right. Eventually the host checked everything (well – got us to tell her how we’d set it all up so that she could check on her cheat sheet) and also decided we’d got it right but that the mechanism was broken. Again, she didn’t seem at all surprised by this and manually triggered the device.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, our teammates were convinced the puzzle didn’t make sense and eventually had to solve it with the help of the host. Now, I wasn’t with them, but they were absolutely adamant that their clues didn’t make sense and, given what I’ve seen of the rest of the room, I’m inclined to believe them. It’s worth highlighting at this point that this was one place where the room did very nicely; each team had pretty much the same setup, but they’d changed all the puzzles subtly so that seeing what the other team was up to didn’t give you a major boost to solving your own puzzles. In a room where you share the same space, that was a nice touch to fix a potentially significant problem while not making the games entirely incomparable.
We escaped in about 40 minutes, a minute behind the other team. Along the way we took several clues, although how many of them were clues because the game was broken, I’m not really sure. Humorously, a member of the other team found the exit key early on in the game but realised that he obviously wasn’t meant to and so put it back and let the rest of the team continue none-the-wiser.
This was a truly terrible game. Some games are terrible through all the puzzles being dull but, in truth, there were several moments that I thought were done well in this game. The problem was that everything that was vaguely positive had a major downside. This game just wasn’t close to being ready for prime time. The staff aren’t well enough trained, the turnover time is too short to let them do the job properly, the story, while interesting, is tacked on the side and, with full teams, no one is likely to see much of it, there aren’t enough puzzles for fifteen people, the split in the theatre didn’t add anything, the props are broken, the padlocks weren’t reset and, well, the whole thing was a shambles. To take such an amazing venue and produce such a disappointment is a travesty.
We came out shell-shocked and spent the next hour putting together how everything had worked. We’ve had similar experiences in “big” games before but the piecing together has been a fun addition. Here it was more like a support group, talking through a painful experience in the hope that we could move on with our lives.
The meal was certainly the highlight of our evening – we headed down to Victoria Tower Gardens for a picnic. A view of Westminster and the Thames on a nice warm evening would have been the perfect build-up to a good escape game.
Detailed Room Ratings