Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
It’s been a bad couple of years for… well, most people, honestly. It has been an awful couple of years for most people.
But in this specific case, I’m thinking about what a bad couple of years it’s been for escape room nerds, that crew of puzzle-obsessed dorks who crave the thrills that come from being fake-locked in a room with their real-ish friends, and tasked with Myst-ing their way through a series of carefully constructed puzzles. Given how much the hobby relies on proximity, enclosed spaces, and screaming “WHERE’S THE GODDAMN COMBINATION” at each other at maximum spittle, escape rooms have been predictably hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As one such nerd—really, there’s nothing in life I love more than being encouraged to put on a cape and solve “The Wizard’s Conundrum” in a converted strip mall office—I’ve become well-versed in the various workarounds the industry has come up with to try to keep the baying hounds from tearing them apart, presumably in hopes of finding a secret key hidden in the gory wreckage.
I’ve played online escape rooms (ranging from “Here’s a series of Powerpoint slides that you have to tell the GM how to navigate through” to “We have an actual actor in a room somewhere who you have to give instructions to for how to solve stuff”). I’ve done every manner of rooms-in-a-box, rooms-in-a-card-deck, etc. I’ve even gone back to make sure that weffriddles.com is still alive and active. (And if you’re a puzzle nerd who’s never lost days of productivity to that lengthy series of increasingly nasty brainteasers… have fun falling down the rabbit hole.)
All of these substitutes have been kind of neat, kind of clunky, and kind of not exactly what I was looking for. Escape Simulator, the new online escape room game from Pine Studio, comes closer than most, though.
The “video game escape room” genre is a weird one in the first place, seeing as it’s an attempt to replicate a real-world phenomenon that was explicitly patterned off of old video games in the first place. (The original trend runs roughly through games like Myst and The 7th Guest, into single-room Flash games that propagated online years back, and then back into the real world circa 2010.) I’ve gotten a lot of pleasure over the years from games like Gordian Rooms 1, The Escaper, and especially my beloved The Room series, all of which offer up beefier takes on the old Flash games of yore. But they all have two major problems: They’re fundamentally lonely, and they’re fundamentally one-shot experiences.
Escape Simulator—which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, a system for allowing you to wander around rooms, pick stuff up, push buttons, etc.—fixes both these issues. First, it has online co-op, allowing players to accurately recreate the feeling of either a) getting mad at your friends for solving puzzles too slowly, or b) getting mad at them for solving them way too goddamn fast. (We paid $100 to be in this fake science lab, Derrick. No one cares if we “beat the room record.”) And second: It comes with a robust workshop mode to allow you to make your own rooms, and an active community that’s already pumping out puzzles that are just as good as the built-in materials.
Sure: The implementation can be buggy in places, and the mere fact of player-generated, loosely curated content means y0u’re going to hit some zonks. But the idea that I could fire Escape Simulator up right now, click three buttons, and be in a brand new, fully functional escape room with my friends, is genuinely thrilling. It’s not a perfect substitute for the glamour of having a bored gamemaster on minimum wage beg you not to overturn the furniture or unscrew the power outlets. But it’s the closest that gaming has probably come so far.