clueQuest: Plan52 (London, August 2014)

ClueQuest2I feel like I’ve spent all bank holiday carping about people more creative than me. Time for something a bit more positive: clueQuest. I played this in London a few weeks ago and it was a lot of fun. Definitely recommended. Not so recommended that I don’t have some criticisms (of course!), but it was an unusual hour well-spent and worth the money. Part of the enjoyment was due to the ingenuity of the puzzles, so I’m going to arrange this review in order of increasing spoilerness. At the request of the game staff I’m not going to spoil many specifics, but if you’re in the London area and this seems like something you’d like to do, stop reading about halfway through.

clueQuest in just one example of a growing trend for live room escape games. There are a lot of online Flash games with a similar premise, mainly from Asian creators, but there were also a few examples in the awesome 90s gameshow extravaganza The Crystal Maze.

You play in teams of 3-5. You’re shut into a room that’s filled with puzzles and other knick-knacks. There’ll be plenty of locked boxes, drawers, cupboards and ultimately the door to freedom. Solving puzzles gives you a key or a combination that you use to open one of the locks. That will give you a new item, code or key to unlock another lock, and so on until you eventually escape. Naturally the appeal is in the ingenuity of the puzzles, rather than the actual unlocking. In clueQuest you have an hour to escape, with a monitor showing you how much time you have left. If you’re stuck or too far behind, the helpful people in the control room will put a hint up on the monitor, but the puzzles are well-designed enough that I don’t imagine people would need a torrent of hints.

ClueQuest1Without spoilers there’s not much more to say. The puzzles were all fair (we only needed one hint, and I think they were probably a bit overzealous in giving it to us). We escaped with just a few minutes left, so they had the right number of puzzles for the hour. The puzzles were all quite simple, but I think that’s the best strategy for designing an experience like this. The fun was in how ingenious the puzzles were, not the actual triumph of solving something difficult, and being stuck for twenty minutes working on the same puzzle would have been no fun at all. The designers understand that the “a-ha” moment of working out what to do is where the fun is.

Although the room is nominally in English (the hints, clues, red-herring objects etc.), none of the puzzles actually require any language skills, beyond being able to recognise Latin script. That’s a wise move, as it keeps things accessible. There was still a very broad range of puzzles, from intuitive leaps to construction to spatial manipulation to visual. There were also some clever surprises, especially towards the end. Everything was generally accessible, another big plus. One of our team was on crutches and had no problems, and the whole experience was on one level, so it’s wheelchair friendly, although someone in the team will need to be quite mobile as items are hidden absolutely everywhere. Although there were some audio tracks to enhance the experience, there weren’t any sound puzzles.

Taken purely as a puzzle, I was delighted. As a narrative experience, it left a lot to be desired. The frame story was a mess. Luckily it doesn’t affect the puzzle side of things, but if you’re going to bother creating a frame story, you need to do it properly.

It’s by no means an easy task. The first problem when creating a frame story for this kind of puzzle is that’s all it can be. The actual business of deciphering clues to open combination locks is so far from anything you’d do in reality that there’s always going to be narrative dissonance. This is related to my dislike of villains who leave puzzles in mysteries and thrillers. If you don’t want someone to find something out, the best thing to do is not give out any clues. If you DO want someone to find out, you just tell them, preferably in a way that only they will understand (this goes for password reminders for yourself). What you don’t do is hide the information in a safe, then encode the combination to the safe in puzzle pieces scattered around your room, remembering to hide one of them in a locked cupboard, the key to which you toss under the sofa etc. etc.

But actually clueQuest hits on one of the few stories that actually makes sense. The idea is that you’re all secret agents in training and this convoluted puzzle box is your final exam to qualify. That’s pretty good. And while it’s only one step up from just saying “here’s a room of puzzles I made, wouldn’t it be fun to solve it?” that one step is probably enough.

Unfortunately they then proceed to bollocks it up with all kinds of other guff.

Not only are you secret agents in training, the final exam is held in the apartment of Mr Q, the head of the organisation. Why? Who knows? Not only that, but Mr Q is so paranoid that he’s rigged the room with a bomb to go off if you don’t escape within an hour. That seems like another good reason to NOT do it in his own apartment, but okay, maybe you’d want to eliminate people who fail your final exam, to protect the identity of your organisation. But not only is there a bomb, it’s such a powerful bomb that if it goes off it will destroy the whole universe! (Really.)

Why do we want to be members of this organisation again?

And why the whole universe, why not just the people inside the room? It’s possible for stakes to be TOO high. This is the kind of story a six-year old would come up with after too much sugar. It’s not even a twist or a revelation halfway through the game; you’re told all this at the briefing before you go in (a briefing that, unsurprisingly, the Shoreditch younglings they’ve hired to run the experience have difficulty selling).

The room itself is apparently subtitled “Plan52”, but if there was any reference to this outside the website I didn’t see it.

And then once you’re inside, the clues and items are mainly related to unmasking a crime syndicate, and nothing to do with Mr Q and his bomb at all, except for his coat at the very beginning and a message towards the end. And while “unmask a criminal crime syndicate and get out in an hour” is another perfectly good frame story, it’s got absolutely nothing to do with the two (contradictory) stories they’re already trying to tell, and it doesn’t resolve itself. It just stops about a half-dozen puzzles before you leave the room.

Mr QOh and Mr Q is some sort of mouse in a trenchcoat…

Which is weirdness I could get behind if it was referenced anywhere other than the game’s logo. It feels like this has all been put together by someone who’s been told there needs to be a story and just accepted it, rather than thinking about why there should be a story, and what a story might add to the players’ experience.

It’s a total mess, and while it doesn’t ruin the puzzles, it does diminish the experience as a whole. While it’s never going to be possible to make this into a seamless narrative, a frame story that isn’t completely incoherent isn’t too much to ask for. I think what they came up with is actually worse than not having one at all. I’ve ridden rollercoasters with better plots.

A few other negatives: while many of the puzzles were ingenious, the room itself was a bit shoddy. All the furniture was the sort you’d get from charity shops, and many of the items felt like they’d gone “that’ll do”, rather than trying to source something to really enhance the experience. The initial set of simpler puzzles to ease people into the experience was particularly underwhelming, even though having a tutorial section is a great idea. There were some lovely physical artefacts towards the end of the main puzzle sequence, but also a crucial construction puzzle that involved fiddly bits of Lego, when it could easily have been something larger and bespoke. Also there was a multi-stage puzzle involving acetate transparencies that needs to be redone – continued use has worn a lot of the writing off.

This may all sound very nitpicky, but it’s not cheap to play. Apart from the final section, it felt like the kind of thing a very enterprising set of friends could have put together for fun, rather than a professionally designed experience.

But possibly the second room they’ve recently installed addresses all these issues. I certainly had a fun enough time that I’ll be heading back to give it a go. Recommended for puzzle fans, but not for people seeking interesting story experiences.

(Bonus Video: Nothing to do with anything, but this must be the best Crystal Maze clip?)

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