London, Feb 2018
There are very few escape games that are played outdoor, and I always seem to end up playing them in the wrong season. For Murder History, it was a bruisingly cold February morning, though one with dry and pleasant weather. I should note also that Murder History is only sometimes an outdoor game, and can also be run in an indoor location.
As the name reflects, this game’s premise is a blend of time travel and murder mystery. Your future selves have been marooned two thousand years in the past by a sabotaged time machine, but have hidden clues and resources for you to uncover that may let you prevent the sticky situation from ever occurring in the first place. Story and setting are gleefully whimsical in a style that’s somewhere between steampunk and Douglas Adams.
Strip away that style and the game’s content largely consists of, firstly, finding items in the park with the aid of pictorial hints, and secondly, using an array of clues primarily on laminated sheets to find padlock codes. I don’t mean that as a criticism, though players who’ve been spoiled with very elaborate and high-tech games may find it disappointingly back to basics; rather, I mean that the presentation and the flavour text and the style of the game are a large part of its appeal. If in doubt, take a look through the backstory text on the website: if you find it amusing and entertaining you’ll probably enjoy the game, and if not then it might not be your cup of Earl Grey.
The game starts by dropping quite a quantity of clues on the players, but it has a clear structure that helps makes sense of the mass of information. Puzzles tend to be stand-alone and to resolve in a padlock code (though they also tie into the storyline in their theming), and each padlock is labelled in such a way that it’s immediately obvious where each code should be used. Most of the game takes place under the watchful eye of the host, who when we played was the urbane and witty Professor Inkwell, and he quietly helped keep our pile of information in some kind of order as well as being ready to give hints as needed. The game continued to periodically release lots of new information in one go, but between the host’s subtle guidance, the padlock labelling and the game’s well-defined structure it was never more than briefly confusing.
While the main part of the game is a quite traditional series of puzzles, Murder History adds an extra dimension with its characterisation and story. Each player is assigned a name and backstory, provided on a helpful tag so that you don’t need to memorise anything. This includes relations with the other players’ characters, plus a dark secret or two that only that player knows about. Throughout the game, some of the information you’re uncovering fills in character history, or makes public some of the characters’ shameful secrets.
For one player, their dark secret might be that they’re secretly the saboteur who caused the whole situation in the first place, in an attempt to murder one of the others. To be clear, all players are on the same side, and must work together to complete the game: even if one player is the secret murderer, they’re not trying to undermine the team. The secret information instead acts as an additional meta-puzzle, figuring out the characters’ various stories and trying to identify the bad guy.
This element of the game is more or less optional, in that if you’re confused by the plot or struggling to keep track of the characters, you can still play it and enjoy it purely as a set of puzzles. However, as an experience it’s undoubtedly more interesting and fun if you keep track of the story and preferably throw yourselves into the roles.
If you like immersive theatre as well as escape games, or anything in the grey area between genres where actors have conversations with the audience as well as each other, Murder History adds an entertaining extra spin on the normal escape game format. Conversely, if that doesn’t appeal, or if you dislike sorting through a large amount of text in a game, you’ll get less out of it. Either way though there’s still a well-designed escape game to enjoy at its core.