Okay, I know why you’re here. You want to see me pass some opinion on the Red Bull Mind Gamers World Championship. Maybe even get ‘controversial’. Maybe, but first:
I want to talk about biscuits. Wait, what? Stay with me here. While we were out in Budapest a much bigger event was taking place on Twitter: The World Cup of Biscuits. This was intended as a bit of fun and charity fund-raiser, with UK TV presenter Richard Osman asking people to vote for their favourite biscuits, and make a donation to Comic Relief if they were enjoying the competition. But generating almost as much traffic as the votes themselves were countless arguments about what counts as a biscuit. There was the long running debate over whether a Jaffa Cake is a biscuit or a cake. And there were new controversies over whether things like Clubs and Kit-Kats were biscuits in the same context as Hobnobs and Chocolate Digestives. It was an absolute minefield but expertly navigated with the clear answer of “whatever I say goes”.
Now let’s come back to escape rooms. We’ve just had the World Championship of Escape Rooms (name to be debated later). It has kicked off all the exact same debates; what constitutes an escape room? What constitutes an escape room style puzzle? What even is a puzzle? And the answer is also exactly the same: “whatever the organiser says”. It’s subjective, it makes it difficult to set expectations, it doesn’t meet all definitions of ‘fair’. I get it and accept it. I understand it. I need you to understand my understanding before I move on. Got it? Good.
Puzzle one in the qualifying semi-finals, Virtual Reality, made perfect sense thematically and narratively. It was using VR to enter into a computer. It was Lawnmower Man (ask your parents, kids). It was ‘clever’. But other than theme it was one of the worst puzzles I’ve ever encountered. It ruined my day and I hate it for it.
How do I loathe thee. Let me count the ways:
- Let’s start with an obvious one. Shortly before our run was about to start, apparently by accident, the organisers were alerted to the fact that one of our team has quite bad colour blindness. This is only partially true. Actually three members of our team struggle with some level of colour vision deficiency. Usually this is not an issue as in the rare case that exact colour clarity is required (certain flashing light puzzle anyone?) then we can discuss and confirm exactly what we are seeing. But whilst wearing a headset (or playing a game configured in this way) ‘we’ aren’t seeing anything. Everyone is playing their own game, so the ability to work as a team is almost useless. We were given a sort of workaround that only three of us had to complete the challenge, but with just that small change you’re immediately changing how the group might approach it. I don’t know if other teams were given the same option but I don’t recall being asked anything about colour blindness on any of the paperwork so how would they know?
- As just mentioned, this was a VR configuration where you all played an individual game. But everyone played the same individual game. When does that ever happen in an escape room? Usually when you’re split up it’s to force you to work together on a challenge; you have a code that someone else needs, or you’re the eyes while someone else mans the controls. This seemed only to be a test of how quickly you could work out how quickly you’re playing the same game. From there you could suggest that it was about doing collective trial and error to work out the solution as quick as possible, but:
- Incorrect moves in this game were penalised. And I don’t mean in the sense of having to start over, I mean a big flashing PENALTY on your screen. The kind of thing that suggests you’ve just cheated and caused your team a big problem. So to avoid penalties on this puzzle you had to work out the method instantly and do it right first time. Again, not something I equate with escape rooms, or at least I’m warned about it in advance, e.g. this safe will lock out if you guess.
- There was absolutely no guidance on how this puzzle was intended to work. You were told it was virtual reality and you had to get to the end before removing your headset. Normally you would find hints and instructions on how a puzzle works, or be able to stand back and analyse it as a group. This threw you into a puzzle, a visual interface, and a whole experience that you had no reference for, and gave you nothing to work with except colours and what appeared to be cell references.
- The puzzle required external knowledge! I’m pretty sure that it’s universally accepted in the world of escape rooms that you shouldn’t assume any external knowledge other than recognition of letters and numbers (and possibly colours, but we’ve already discussed the problems with that). Yes, we were given a ‘research paper’ in advance and told to read it, but all four of us interpreted that that was intended to introduce us to a few theories and terms that would be used in the game. Not that you were supposed to learn a whole new concept (to me at least) in complementary colours and be expected to implement it without warning.
- We have no idea what lies before us. For one of very few times in my life I’m nervous. I just want to dive in, solve a puzzle and get a feel for what’s going on. Instead I, and we, fumble my way through something with no idea how it works. I’m fully aware that there are many types/forms of puzzles that are beyond me individually. I’ve seen them in online puzzle hunts and Puzzle Grand Prix. I know they exist but I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve been expected to solve them, under time pressure, under weight of expectation, with a group of people who are great at escape rooms but unproven (at best) on more abstract logic puzzles. And this hits me hard. I immediately start to think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew; I’m out of my depth; this is going to be painful/awful/horrendous. For the next few minutes I’m steered by my team-mates and we’re able to make progress, but my head isn’t where it should be. I’m not enjoying what I’m doing. And an escape room at any level, of any type, has got be fun.
And that was the first five minutes of my qualifying run. Tune in next time to see what I thought of the rest of it.