Room-in-a-box, Jul 2017
There are ever more play at home escape products available these days, but Enigma Files was one of the very first. You’d be forgiven for having missed it though – it’s only available direct from the website and from the physical venue Escape Game Brighton, which is operated by the same company. They previously offered three different play at home games, ranging from the relatively cheap Enigma Files, consisting of an envelope of mostly paper-based items, up to a suitcase-based game available for rent. The two more expensive games are currently unavailable, pending a relaunch.
Each play at home series I’ve tried has had its own distinct style, as does this one. Each has also had clear instructions and an obvious starting point, which this does not. Okay, that’s an exaggeration – there is certainly an instruction sheet, which gives the backstory, the time limit, and details on how to get hints and to verify your final solution. What the instructions do not do is give you any information on how to approach the puzzles, other than the suggestion of spreading all the components out on a table for inspection. (I loved that the instructions also say that the world’s leading investigators have failed to crack the Enigma code, and they expect it could take you up to 60 minutes to do so. Clearly they have great faith in your abilities!)
The three of us obediently spread out the game components, and stared at them. And stared at them some more. Not only was there no conveniently signposted starting point, there was also nothing that screamed ‘I’m a puzzle!’. Instead, there was a disparate collection of clippings and other fragments, along with some reference information, some parts of which seemed to have connections but almost nothing which had an obvious use. Eventually, with close inspection we started to spot ways to make progress, and things started to roll. And then – dead end.
Having solved most of the game, we were left with what we guessed was a single puzzle, which we just. couldn’t. crack. Trading increasingly wild theories, we brainstormed every possible way to use the remaining information, and nothing worked. After 35 minutes of fruitless frustration, the timer ran out. So we brute-forced the victory URL, found the correct answer, then tried to reverse engineer the puzzle from that, working out with reasonable confidence what information we thought the clues needed to give us so that we could end up with that answer. And still got nowhere. There was just nothing in the game that could provide that answer, via means plausible or not so plausible.
The game’s hint system is very simple: you send an email asking for help. While admirably flexible, it’s not set up for volume sales, or for instant responses. But after we’d exhausted all other avenues I sent an email asking for help on the insoluble puzzle and eventually discovered… that my copy was missing one piece. The missing piece, naturally, had precisely the information we’d been unsuccessfully trying to derive from all the other components.
Despite that fiasco, I actually enjoyed the game quite a lot. There are two physical escape games I’ve played where you walk into the venue, the door closes and you realise the game has already started. Both times it was a big thrill, the adrenaline feeling of being thrown straight in the deep end and needing to start swimming. Enigma Files shared the same appeal, not in the unexpected start but in the absolute lack of up-front hand-holding. It’s like being treated as an adult when you’re used to being spoon-fed.
Physical escape rooms are limited in the level of difficulty they can provide. A puzzle that requires most teams to sit and stare at it and brainstorm ideas for fifteen minutes is a puzzle that doesn’t belong in an escape room. Play at home games have the luxury of being able to provide more difficult puzzles, since if they don’t insist on an arbitrary 60 minute deadline, there’s no reason why players shouldn’t take a much longer amount of time over the game. (For that matter, my ideal home escape game would provide enough content for several evening sessions instead of trying to squeeze it into 60 minutes – much better value that way, and unlike with a physical game there’s no need to limit one team’s time so that the next can start.)
I don’t want to exaggerate the difficulty of Enigma Files. Without the missing component, we’d have comfortably finished in under half an hour. The puzzles aren’t easy, but they’re not that complex; KOSMOS’s Exit series has some puzzles that are harder. The difficulty of Enigma Files is in the lack of guidance. Once you get to grips with it, they’re tractable, and also very few in number.
There’s a lot that lets this game down. First and foremost, it doesn’t have enough content. (Based on the review by The Logic Escapes Me, apparently it used to have a significantly more difficult bonus puzzle which they’ve since removed.) It has fragments of an interesting story that doesn’t really go anywhere. The final goal is a bit of a let down, with the final answer essentially being just a URL, without any narrative pay-off or connection to the rest of the game. It also contains some pure red herring information added in as distractions. For all those reasons, it’s not a game I’m rushing to recommend.
And yet I still liked it. It’s a game for enthusiasts, who recognise genre tropes and who’ll enjoy that initial bewilderment of being faced with nothing but a bunch of unconnected bits and pieces. The exploration and discovery required to work out what to do at all made the ‘a-ha’ moments hugely satisfying, when they eventually happened. And one or two sly references to pop culture boosted the game with humour too. At £19 plus postage it struggles to justify the price tag, but if that doesn’t bother you then consider giving it a go.