For someone who doesn’t get a lot of time to blog I seem to be spending a lot of time on one subject, eh? Now that I’ve got all that qualifying stuff off my chest I can hopefully be a little more objective. This post will be about the Red Bull Mind Gamers televised finals (or what we could see of them ‘live’ as I haven’t watched it since).
I’ve been on the TV a few times before (why yes that was me on Countdown in October 2009) but never as an audience member, nor at a live event, so it was interesting to see how it all came together. As I understood it we were somewhere between 30-60 minutes ahead of the live broadcast, allowing time for quick edits and do-overs. Our seating arrangement was less than ideal. I’m sure it was a complete coincidence that we were assigned a tiny pedestal off camera, and nothing to do with our grumbling about the earlier game. Despite us all being sat together (and having attended the same dinner party the night before) officially we were still ‘under embargo’ from discussing the qualifying event, so people were largely unsure of who had made the final. France and Slovenia were whispered as the only teams to complete the course during day one. Wild Card 1 were rumoured to have ‘shown their experience’ in semi-final two. When Slovenia and, more so, Ukraine were announced as finalists there was a genuine feeling of surprise in the room. Luckily for us we were placed next to Ukraine (no it wasn’t alphabetical; Oman were on the other side) so once they left to prepare we were able to move in on to their stand (make your own political joke) for a better view.
The finalists then left to change into their final uniforms. Yes, they did have uniforms, but you probably didn’t notice. Every team were asked to provide four t-shirts of a single colour (not matching, just the same colour) to the organisers that would be ‘customised’ by them should you qualify for the final. The white shirts worn by Slovenia looked reasonable, but the mismatched shades of blue (let’s not get into colour variation again) sported by Ukraine just looked wrong. With who knows how many thousands of £/€/$ spent on the event the decision to skip maybe £200 (at worst) on two sets of t-shirts seems bizarre. Anyway, the teams left to get changed. To fill the time the show hosts seemingly randomly, and completely without warning, came to speak to some of the teams. The interviews that followed were presumably edited down (out?) for the broadcast as they were toe-curlingly painful.
The final itself was arguably a lot more ‘escape roomy’ than anything we’d seen in qualifying. I felt the racing tasks were a good mix of physical and skill with just a touch of mental, at least on the coloured (I said let’s not) croquet game. My issue with them was how the race was implemented. With such short tasks even a few seconds head start was a big advantage, so with Slovenia getting to each station first it was highly unlikely that Ukraine would ever catch them. I think each challenge having a definite start and end would have been a lot fairer.
The last head-to-head challenge turned out not to be head-to-head at all; the teams had to cooperate to complete it. At first I loved this. Two of the questions I often ask in escape room is “why is that like that?” and “what is different about this situation?” In this case the fact that both teams were now in the same space should have clued that they had to approach it differently to the earlier events. But on reflection I like this idea less and less. Firstly because I hate it when, however loosely established, rules are broken/bent. It’s akin to saying “each item will only be used once, apart from the one you have to use twice.” How are you supposed to work with that? Secondly, and as many other people have pointed out, this was a competition, and a cooperative task is by definition not competitive, rendering it pointless other than as a time sink.
Next we moved on to the sequential challenges, and the now infamous Vortex Tunnel 2. In many ways this task typified many of the frustrations that people had experienced in the qualifying. There was nothing contained within the puzzle that clued how it worked. 9-6-3 was obvious, but that it was a sequence was not. I think they realized this at the last minute and tried to compensate by scrawling numbers on the wall (the numbers in paint above the console were literally added just minutes before the show started) and giving people verbal instructions before they started, “you need to enter one digit into the console”. Except those instructions were never delivered, at least not as intended. Whether due to language problems or the pressure of the situation, speaking to both sets of finalists later, both understood the message to be “enter one number into the console” which is significantly different. What followed was about 30 minutes (in real time) of more excruciating awkwardness as the teams guessed blindly on what the designer/builder was thinking. And let’s not even mention the ‘cards that are not part of the solution’, or red herrings as we usually call them. Puzzles and challenges in escape rooms shouldn’t need instructions.
Finally we got to the final, or should that be the final insult. We’ve “gone full circle”, all the way back to the cube that was part of the qualifying process back in each individual country. There were gasps from the live audience as they were shocked by this ‘twist’. But for me that was shocked and appalled. One of the questions that has come up time and again during this experience is “is this an escape room?” The answer deserves an article of its own (and might get one at some point) so I’m not going to get into it now. But the majority opinion of the international qualifying process was that it definitely was not an escape room; it was a computer game* that tested some of the attributes that you might use in an escape room. And now here we were in the “escape room world championship” playing a computer game to determine the winners. SMH (as the young folk might say).
Oops, I’ve been negative again. I honestly didn’t think I would be when I started, but I guess I can’t ignore the facts. Come back for part 5 when I finally wrap this thing up, and explain while I still smile when I think back on the whole thing.
*Part of the reason we were ‘The Average Gamerz’ was a pop/pre-emptive excuse for if we didn’t do well in qualifying, because “we’re very good at escape rooms but pretty average (computer) gamers.”