There has been a veritable explosion of games in the ‘escape room’ genre over the past couple of years. We’ve already reviewed Unlock, and it would be a good idea for you to go read what we said about that before digging too deeply into our views on Exit. Simply as a consequence of the order in which we experienced the games, it’s going to be difficult to talk meaningfully about the Exit series without a comparator reference point. Sure, we could restate here the points we made there about the important context of design ethos, but we’d prefer not to repeat ourselves. Consider this part two of a multi-part series on escape rooms in general.
So, first up – there are no spoilers in this review. The pictures you see represent your view of the game components you get from the minute you open the box. That means that we’re very limited in what we can talk about and how we can talk about it – we’re going to essentially be spending a fair bit of time exploring the negative space between the games as opposed to anything directly in the boxes. That’ll also be true of the teardown, and that is going to make it an intensely frustrating document to write. There are some puzzles in this game that are fascinating from an accessibility perspective. Even more so than the ones that we couldn’t talk about with regards to Unlock. That’s a shame, but not such a shame that I feel compelled to inflict spoilers on anyone just so I can Get My Nerd On.
Is that what the kids say these days? I think it’s what the kids say. Wizard.
Really though the reason that I need to talk about Exit in comparison with Unlock is that this would otherwise be an incredibly short review that was light on information and high on implication. Unlock was generous enough to give a demonstration scenario we could spoil without serious impact on the game as it arrives at your door. Exit has no equivalent. You buy a box and it comes with a decoder wheel, a slim pamphlet that represents the bulk of your puzzle playground, and an instruction manual that is descriptive without being proscriptive. Everything else is up to you As such there’s nothing really into which you can hook your fingers. The Exit games, aside from the core mechanism of the decoder wheel, have no common threads that unite them.
Unlock has its app and its clever system of card interactions. Unlock presents a system that can be used, to considerable if inconsistent effect, to generate interesting puzzles. Unlock feels considerable more structured as a result. The mechanisms in the game are striking for their simplicity, but more notable for how they can be leveraged in innovative ways to create a constant waterfall of novelty. The downside of that is a fragility of design that can be deeply frustrating on occasion.
By comparison, Exit simply grabs a chunk of mystery, rolls it into a tight ball, and hurls it at your face. Unlock is like the intricate and extravagant flourishes of a baroque masterpiece – full of polyphonic fugues where the creativity is expressed as a function of its constraints. Exit is more like an improvised rap battle between you and the designer, where the structure of the puzzling is more freeform, energetic, and prone to occasional moments of escalating ingenuity. It’s not that the different scenarios adopt wildly different puzzle conventions but they do expect a different mental vocabulary in terms of how you contextualise them. That becomes important because of how many of those puzzles manifest as you make your way through the story.
Okay, let’s address my single core criticism of how the Exit series works. It’s a one and done system in a very literal sense of the phrase. It’s right there in the manual, written in words that bring a veritable chill to the blood:
Look! You need to tear components! Cut them up! Write on them! Fold them! The first time we had to do this, Mrs Meeple actually winced. And no wonder really – I mean, what if you’re wrong? What if the thing you cut wasn’t supposed to be cut? What if the thing you scribbled wasn’t right? What if you drew all over that single copy of a card and ruined its actual information content in the process? There’s a psychological tax you need to pay when you vandalise your game. It’s like keying your own car.
Exit encourages a disposable mindset in your relationship to the components, and that feels downright reckless. It seems harmful from an environmental perspective to take this collection of cards and paper and force players to simply throw it out at the end. More than that, it feels borderline exploitative from an economical perspective. I’m looking forward to passing my copy of Unlock on to someone else for them to enjoy. I can’t do that with Exit, which may indeed have been entirely the point. I can understand the incentive for financial self-preservation that comes along with a one-play destructible game box but it still doesn’t sit right with me on a Karmic level. You can get around this if you’re willing to add an extra burden of arts and crafts onto everything you do within the time limit of the game. Personally we found there was more than enough to occupy our attention without that.
Even this criticism though has to come with a counterpoint, because the destructibility of the game actually creates puzzles that couldn’t exist in a less disposable scenario. Or rather, couldn’t exist without a more cumbersome design to the product. There is no puzzle that we have encountered that couldn’t have been represented in a format that left the game unspoiled. It would though have involved considerably more effort on the part of the designers to create the circumstances for inflicting self-immolation on their own sales figures. I can forgive this, in other words, even if I don’t like it.
Perhaps the only truly irreplaceable thing this approach achieves is that it creates a game that can play about with the concept of functional fixedness. The spatial relationship between puzzle components in the game isn’t necessarily set in stone – you can change it. Things that make sense in one context suddenly adopt a new meaning as a consequence of evolving configuration. Some of the nicest puzzles in the game are made possible through breaking the fourth wall through the medium of mangled components. With Exit you’re essentially getting a box of what were once called ‘feelies’ even if some of them you have to cobble together yourself as a result of uncertain leaps of intuitive logic.
This is an important point too, because it sets the context of the puzzle scope in a way that is far more effective than in Unlock. A minor spoiler here, but there is at least one puzzle in a scenario of the Unlock system that is also in the Exit series. I even alluded to this puzzle in the Unlock review. When I encountered it in Exit I wasn’t angry – not because I already knew the solution, but because the solution has been effectively foreshadowed by an earlier puzzle in the game. Exit is more respectful of the contract it forms with you – it doesn’t suddenly move the goalposts in the final minutes of the match. It emphasises the abstraction of the exercise with its folding, tearing and cutting out of components. You’re not interacting with the thing, the framing of the game suggests, you’re interacting with a representation of the thing. When Exit breaks the fourth wall, it has already nudged you in the side and pointed out its existence. Exit works with you to build buy-in for the context of the puzzles to follow. Exit is often difficult, but never once did it feel unfair.
However, like all puzzle games in this ilk it does have the issue of sending you occasionally down a logical dead end. The puzzles in Exit are great – wall to wall, they’ve all been satisfying. There have been a couple though where minutes, sometimes many of them, have been wasted because one of us came up with a solution to a puzzle that turned out to not be the solution. Here eventually we had to take a hint card because we couldn’t work out what we were supposed to do, only to find ‘that perfectly appropriate thing that you worked out just so happens to not be the perfectly appropriate thing you needed’. This is always going to happen with free-form puzzles – you will occasionally find its not the puzzle that stumps you but rather the perception that you’ve solved something. You can get trapped in a kind of local optima where you think the barrier to your progress is that you just haven’t yet found the lock into which your key will slide. Sometimes though when you look closer you find your key is actually for a door to a puzzle you never get presented. I’m not sure it’s possible to design an escape room where that isn’t a feature. I will say that Exit has only a handful of circumstances where that was true and that by itself is genuinely remarkable.
This solidity of puzzle design is part and parcel of the way in which Exit handles the evaluation of a solution. The decoder ring will direct you to a card, and if that card is the right one it’ll then have an additional step of validation that asks you ‘what puzzle were you trying to solve here?’. If those don’t line up you don’t make any progress. It’s still possible to arrive at the right answer through the wrong chain of logic. We didn’t encounter though a single puzzle where we were given credit for something we hadn’t been attempting to solve. It might not be elegant, but this additional ‘checksum validation’ system gives a robustness to the game that is solely lacking in Unlock. That decoder ring feels weirdly anachronistic in a world of apps, but the extra step it gives you, and the additional sense of ‘Oh, we might be on the right track!’, has a powerfully positive effect on the game.
Exit is also a game that doesn’t at all discourage experimentation – there’s no cost or penalty that comes with checking a solution. Technically that means you can brute-force your way through the game but there are hint cards with full solutions you can check if that’s what you want. Essentially Exit gives you the freedom to decide how much help you want and when, and leaves you to potter about otherwise. That’s wonderful in a game series that also has, at least to date, nothing that would count as an inventory puzzle or a pixel hunt. While Exit doesn’t bring to mind the aesthetic and ludic framework of a point and click game, if it did it would draw more heavily from that of the Lucasfilm tradition than that of Sierra Online. However, it might be more appropriate to change the frame of reference. Its lack of systems or a common vocabulary for interaction marks it more in the territory of a board-game version of an old style Infocom text adventure. It’s freer, more experimental, and more consistently considered in the puzzles it puts in front of you.
Twitter user @jdavidh97, in a conversation we were having about the different escape room puzzle series, put it this way:
The Exit games make me feel like I am clever. The Unlock games make me feel like the designer is trying to show me how clever they are.
— James (Social Jedi Warrior) (@jdavidh97) January 5, 2018
I couldn’t agree with this more – Unlock often comes across as being disproportionately enamored by its own cleverness. Much like myself, really. Genuinely good puzzles though are the same in any context, whether it’s interactive fiction, video games, board games or puzzle books. Genuinely good puzzles are there to make you feel smarter for having solved them. Andrew Plotkin, in the excellent documentary Get Lamp, put it this way:
“Here is something, some action that the player can do which is not obvious and not insane. It’s surprisingly clever. And I mean that in a very specific criterion. When the player thinks of it, he’ll be surprised at how clever he is.”
There are some puzzles in Exit that, after we had finally worked out the solution, I couldn’t do anything but applaud. When viewed through the clarity of hindsight all of the clues were there. Never once did I yell ‘Oh come on, that’s bollocks’. Several times though I said, ‘Oh wow that was so clever’. Exit is simply more confident than Unlock with regards to its puzzle design. It’s more respectful of those that attempt to solve its mysteries. Exit treats you like it expects you to be clever, but it never once demands that you prove it. That’s genuinely very endearing.
Now, all of this has to come with a whole bundle of provisos. I’m talking about Exit here as if it’s a single, holistic board game. It absolutely isn’t. It’s a set of stand-alone scenarios you buy independently and there is absolutely no guarantee that the one you play will show it off to its best potential. Currently, at the time of writing, there are six of these available for purchase. I only own three – I don’t know if what I say above will be true of the others purely because each is very much its own ecosystem. The puzzle design I have experienced is first class, but that doesn’t mean the quality won’t dip later. I suspect as more of these make their way into the market there will emerge a consensus on which are to be savoured and which are to be circumvented. All I can do here is tell you what the first entries in the series are like to play, and they’re real good.
Really though perhaps the most important bit of review content is this – I bought three of them sight unseen. I bought the Abandoned Cabin, the Secret Lab, and the Pharaoh’s Tomb. I’ll be buying the rest of them as time goes by and other copies will likely find themselves being a regular feature of Christmas gift purchases. If the real mark of a reviewer’s seal of approval is ‘how interested are they after the review is concluded’, then mark me down as ‘in this for the long haul’. I might flirt with later entries in the Unlock series, but I’m making a real, lasting commitment to Exit.
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