London, Aug 2018
Whitechapel seems to be the place to be in London this year, at least for escaping, with three companies opening new games in the area in a short space of time. London Escaped have launched with two games, both using Russian-made room designs that also exist in Los Angeles and have attracted praise there for their high quality sets and physical puzzle mechanisms. (This game, The Prisoner, is known there as Bloody Elbow.)
Initial impressions on arrival at the venue were mixed. Their lobby area boasts an impressive array of entertainment for waiting teams (table football, console games, a mini pool table, …). On the other hand, our gamemaster gave one of the most awkwardly brief summaries of a game’s plot I’ve heard anywhere; and they could put a lot more work into the transition from the lobby into the game room, to make sure players are in the right frame of mind when they start.
However, the room itself rapidly dealt with that. It was immediately clear why the design is well regarded in the U.S.: between the faux stonework, the straw-strewn floors and the gruesome props, it’s an impressive reproduction of a medieval torture chamber. Where other horror games might use tacky plastic body parts, here they have far more convincing Halloween nasties, genuinely creepy to touch.
The hint system is also well-themed, as whispered hints from another prisoner. This should be an excellent way to deliver them. In practice it was often hard to hear, and restricted the gamemaster to a menu of pre-recorded messages. (They do have the ability to speak directly to the players to give other hints, though didn’t use that with us in this game.) That meant the messages often didn’t quite address what we were stuck on, or pointed us back to things we’d already dealt with. The message ‘that won’t help you’ illustrated particularly well the limits of using canned messages – any time the gamemaster wants to use that, it’s likely that the team is spread out looking at multiple things, meaning the message may be misinterpreted to accidentally warn them off something they need.
That became an issue when a mis-set left us stuck – it later turned out that an earlier group had left a critical item in a place that made it inaccessible at the time we needed it. (In the gamemaster’s defence, it was in a very hard to spot location, the sort of thing that can only be caught by following a comprehensive reset script.) Things like that happen, particularly in the early days of a venue’s operation; the more serious issue was the degree to which the hint system constrained communication with the gamemaster. Eventually a hatch popped open to let us continue, which at the time I assumed was a gamemaster override, but may actually have been a timed release to help any teams too far behind schedule.
Up until that point the game had got off to a great start, in particular with a brilliantly novel step that was a perfect match for the setting. All the way through it avoids anything that smacks too much of being a puzzle – everything is based around physical manipulation or working out what item to put where. Whether that appeals or not will be a matter of personal taste, but it’s a stylistic choice that fits the theme very well. I’d say it deepens immersion, but that’s not quite the right term here: the style of The Prisoner is closer to a haunt house with puzzles instead of scares, where the grisly decorations are deliberately over the top, and you’re intended to grimace or shriek not take them too seriously.
The effect of a bad mis-set is pernicious, and causes a worse impression of entirely unrelated parts of a room. Case in point: the ambient lighting in The Prisoner is really quite dim, and for some of the game I felt it was frustratingly too dark. But in retrospect I think there was very little that the darkness actually hindered. However, while we were flailing around stuck, I didn’t know if we’d just failed to notice something due to not being able to see it properly. All the things I found most frustrating about the game – such as the darkness and the inflexible hint system – would have mostly gone unnoticed under other circumstances.
Take those away and you’re left with a fun game with top-notch components whose main flaw is that it’s a bit short on content. I visited right after the venue had first opened, probably too early, and thought they would benefit hugely from one or two experienced gamemasters to mentor the others; but either way I imagine they’ll gain polish over time.
The underlying game design is very strong. In its current form I think it falls somewhat short of its potential. That may improve over time, but even if not there’s still plenty to enjoy. Don’t expect an intellectual workout, it’s much more of a hands-on escape room; but if anything that gives it appeal to a broader audience. It’ll likely improve as it beds in, so no huge hurry to try it; however, if you like a big slice of gruesome and gory with your games, you should find plenty to enjoy either way.