Athens, May 2019
When researching games for our weekend in Athens, several people mentioned Escaped in general and Zygote in particular, as an impressive and challenging game. Athens has plenty of long games, and at 100 minutes Zygote is substantial even by local standards. The name has nothing to do with the biology of human reproduction (!); instead, you’re in a section of disused metro track sealed off after the discovery of an alien craft.
First off: Zygote is utterly spectacular. Plenty of games look highly impressive while still requiring suspension of disbelief. Zygote looks and sounds like you’re genuinely at an underground construction site, even before you enter the game itself. All players are equipped with hard hats before entry, and while these are essential (I’d have hit my head half a dozen times without mine) they also help build immersion. Wandering round the space, shouting over the ambient noise while torchlights dance over the tracks and discarded tools, it feels like you’ve stepped into a Hollywood set, one where you keep nervously checking over your shoulder.
Making it more creepy is the knowledge that you’re not alone down there. Zygote is not a horror game, but it does involve live acting and is happy to startle its players where it can. The acting is less central to Zygote than it was to the other game we tried at the venue, but even though it’s a non-threatening role it was an excellent way to increase the game’s tension.
The large-scale industrial set design comes with puzzles to match, with satisfyingly large and solid components that in one case required some actual strength to handle. I get the impression that the longer game times in Athens are connected to the frequency of live acting – an actor-led game may have roughly a normal amount of puzzle content, but give players a longer time limit to allow for time spent on actor interaction. But with Zygote the long game time reflects the bumper quantity of puzzles to get through.
As with Escaped’s other room, and in fact with most of the Greek games I tried that had live acting, I found that the actor’s involvement didn’t always improve the game. That was no fault of the actor, who performed his role very well; but to the extent that an NPC is providing instructions, the player experience becomes more passive and therefore less satisfying – at least, for me. Each time the game became more NPC-led I felt the puzzles became weaker (in that they were more reliant on external input) and less pleasing to solve – although that only affected some sections of the game, and depending on your tastes may not bother you at all.
Even so, Zygote is just in a different league to most escape rooms – ‘atmospheric’ is too mild a word for it. From the entrance build up right through to the final panicky dash for the exit it delivers in spades, a magnificent adventure that knows how to create anticipation and then deliver a payoff. Definitely play it – unless you’re an escape room owner planning your next room, in which case you might find it depressing to see how high Zygote sets the bar.