Berlin, Nov 2017
Anyone who’s spent enough time playing the right computer games will immediately recognise the name of this game as a reference to the Fallout series, and Vault 13 follows the original starting premise of those games: you survived a nuclear apocalypse in an underground shelter, and now, after many many years, its time to emerge onto the surface. In Claustrophobia’s game, the vault’s safety systems are reluctant to let you out and it’s up to you to find a way round them to reach the outside.
Of the many things to say about Vault 13, the most startling is that it breaks the number one rule of all escape rooms: don’t use physical force! The pre-game briefing included a heads-up of this, and the operator nervously stressed that it would be clear when and where we were supposed to use force, and it did not mean we should just go around smashing our way through the game.
That warning was wise. They say that when you have a hammer you start seeing nails everywhere, and even our experienced team, given that license, was ready to cause all kinds of destructive mishaps when the right prop emerged. Fortunately caution prevailed, and once we spotted the actual intended use it was indeed very clear. While I have doubts about anything that makes players more likely to resort to force in escape games, there didn’t seem to be much risk of that here, and it did provide a cool moment that was all the more memorable for being transgressive. Or rather, multiple moments – since a couple of other points used physical violence in smaller ways too.
Despite the big, detailed play area it still somehow felt a little empty, partly due to the Claustrophobia minimalist style where nothing is included unless it’s part of the game, and partly because we ended up spending quite some time casting around unsure of how to proceed, and therefore checking over every available item and corner three or four times.
That’s an experience I’ve had with one or two other Claustrophobia games before: imaginative puzzle ideas that are a beautiful fit for the setting and story, complemented by a stunning set, which somehow just don’t seem to flow very well. I think that’s caused, as here, by a linear game structure where some of the steps are not very intuitive or which have an ‘either you see it or you don’t’ characteristic; while one conclusion could be that we just weren’t playing the game well enough, the design style doesn’t provide many small victories or tasks on which you can make gradual progress. You’re stuck until you solve the current step, and then moments later you’re stuck again until you figure out the next one, such that you either finish very quickly or spend a fair proportion of your time bashing up against a brick wall. The likelihood of that dampening your experience depends on how well you do and how reasonable the required steps seem in retrospect.
With Vault 13, some of those steps seemed tenuous, most of all a particular fun piece of equipment which we immediately knew where and how to use, but was still too unclear to give a useful result. That was not the only point where working out what to do was much easier than actually doing it, due to fussiness or sensitivity of the equipment. Other points where we got blocked were more reasonable, caused by us not spotting things that seemed difficult to notice but not unfair.
All of that is in the context of a sophisticated, original game full of clever and unusual ideas. Looking back over my notes, the puzzle sequence as a whole forms a gorgeous, almost cinematic sequence as your team slowly break and hack your way past the vault’s security systems until you gain your freedom. A lovely set looks even better if you’re familiar with the Fallout computer games and can catch the little (and not so little) nods to that franchise. Go into this game expecting a certain degree of frustration, but as long as you take that in your stride it’s a great game.