Nottingham, Oct 2017
Escapologic’s 13utcher/Butcher game is somewhere between infamous and legendary. On any visit to the venue whether you’re due to play it or not, you’re likely to hear stories of how extreme it is, how it’s the only 18-rated escape game in the UK (which is not quite true, there’s at least one other), and of how many players bail out mid-game or even during the initial briefing. That reputation was enhanced for us at least from the previous time we’d visited Nottingham and played Curio – that game is physically adjacent to Butcher and we’d been able to hear roars, screams and other blood-curdling sounds through the wall.
Horror themed games, particularly gory ones and ones that set out to terrify, are divisive: some players love them, others want nothing to do with them. I’m not particularly a fan – while it can be fun to be scared witless now and again, my experience is that many horror games get a bit formulaic, particularly serial killer stories (oh look, another plastic severed limb). They often rely too much on darkness, restraints and uncomfortable environments at the cost of creative or interesting puzzles, and after the adrenaline wears off you’re left with a mediocre game. However, there are certainly exceptions, and from its reputation I had high hopes Butcher would be one of them.
Sadly the game turned into a damp squib for us, for a variety of reasons, though I’m hesitant to judge the game too harshly based on that, since it’s clear that we were particularly unlucky in how it worked out.
The first issue was in grabbing a particular item, which seemed to not be where it should be; we knew where to look thanks to a clue, but there was no sign of it. That was plausibly our error not a genuine reset error though, and was eventually addressed by the operator (in an effective way in keeping with the theme). Perhaps because of that incident, one area of the game was thereafter left completely unlit, which according to the host was not as intended, and which left us quite blocked. And finally, one critical item was entirely missing, with the host entirely unable to find it in the debrief.
As a result, the game’s immersion slowly bled away as we found ourselves completely stuck, trying to explain the problem via the games clue system (which was clever and immersive, but hampered clear communication a little) and receiving back only suggestions for things we’d already worked out, for far too long a period until the sixty minutes finally ran out.
Having got the grumbles out the way, I can see a lot of potential in the game, even if disappointingly we missed out on it. The setting is good, forgoing lazy options such as simply leaving the lights off. The appropriately grotty basement is packed with ominous items and gruesome detritus, and great care appears to have been taken to achieve the right degree of ghastly neglect.
It’s an intentionally ‘messy’ design for a room, which is perfectly on theme but which carries the risk of introducing accidental red herrings. The game’s puzzle design largely minimises that risk, with a few quite flagrant exceptions where features of the room looked like puzzle components but then turned out not to be used. The quantity of puzzles is lower than in Escapologic’s other games, which is fair enough given the more experiential and theatrical style of the game, and there is an emphasis on physical tasks and on searching.
Escapologic’s games are unusual in the degree to which they rely on the gamemaster to operate the room, and I believe that Butcher above all gives the operators a lot of leeway to find their own preferred style in which to terrify the players. It provides a toolbag of tricks to keep the players scared and off-balance, which the lurking Butcher can employ as they see fit. We had a Butcher who seemed to prefer quiet menace and ominous noises; from what I overheard when playing Curio, it seems that other teams may get a much louder and more aggressive Butcher. Perhaps because of that, I thought that our experience didn’t match up to the game’s ferocious reputation; though particularly early on I guess it was nerve-wracking enough.
I’m left a bit ambivalent about the game. Had there been no problems with the lighting and the missing item, I think I’d have found it a high quality horror escape room with great decor plus some excellent jump scares and theatricality, while still falling short of the way it was billed. As it was, it fizzled out until we were left pretty much standing around waiting for the Butcher to come in and put us out of our misery. I don’t believe that’s representative of the game and hopefully you’re unlikely to have that experience. Quite apart from the issues our visit had, it appears that the Butcher experience can vary quite a bit depending on the team and the host, and if booking in you should be aware that there’s a degree of chance in what flavour of Butcher you end up with. There’s clearly the material for an excellent hour’s terror here though, so if you like scare games it’s worth taking a chance on it.