Unlock accessibility teardown


Unlock: Escape Adventures (2017) – Accessibility Teardown

Context of Document

This is not a review of this game. You will find the review linked in the introduction.

Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.

Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then please stop reading now. This will not be the blog for you, and we have no interest in debating with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.

Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.

Version Reviewed

English first edition (non-U.S.)

Introduction

The disclaimer from our three-and-a-half star review stands – we’ll be spoiling the Fifth Avenue demo adventure in this post, but we won’t stray into the actual boxed scenarios.  We will however have to obliquely reference some of them – hopefully not in a way that potentially spoils your experience.  Rather in a way that, after the fact, you can say ‘Ah right, that one – you know, it would have been good to know that was the one in advance because this is about accessibility, dumbass’

Wow, there’s no need for that tone.  You are free to take your business elsewhere if you do not care for the way we approach things.  Good day.

I SAID GOOD DAY.

Unlock also presents a few challenges here in that the observations we make are not necessarily going to hold true in all scenarios, or to the same extent in different adventures.  At best here what I can do is point out where accessibility challenges have precedent.   Future adventures will likely introduce new accessibility complexities of their own as they remix and reinterpret what the mechanisms permit.   Bear that in mind – the teardown here is an imprecise vehicle if you’re looking to purchase individual scenario packs, and may not be representative for adventures that will be released in the future.  Suffice to say though – the potential for inaccessibility is high in every category.  Short of spoiling every adventure that is published from now until the end of the series this teardown can only be indicative at best.  Sorry!

Colour Blindness

It’s not so much that colour is used as the sole channel of information, but rather colour often has important significance in puzzles.   In terms of the standard game systems it’s used to help disambiguate categories of cards (such as machines and doors) but these always come with a complementary icon:

Colour blind icons

You can at least tell which cards are which

Colour is more problematic in other areas of the game.  For one thing, it sometimes has an impact on the contrast of the art and this can make it easier, or harder, to see objects hidden in the environment.  The most obvious examples of this require images from puzzles in the game proper so I can’t show them here.  While it’s sometimes helpful it’s also sometimes a problem.

More significantly, many of the puzzles make use of colour as one component or another in their design and this can make it very difficult to come up with the correct solutions.  For example, in this Fifth Avenue puzzle:

Colour blind panel

A perplexing puzzle for the colour blind

Similarly in the tutorial:

Tutorial puzzle and colour blindness

‘I’m staring and staring but I just can’t work out what I’m supposed to do here’

If playing collaboratively with other players it need not be a deal-breaker but the problem manifests at unpredictable times and sometimes without warning.  It also comes with the risk that unless the presence of colour as a key clue is signposted it might mislead players into providing a wrong solution (and racking up a penalty) because they didn’t realise the colour was important.   It’s not always the case it’s going to be obvious.  Unlock uses colour a lot in its puzzles and this as you might imagine has a powerfully negative impact on its accessibility here.

We very much don’t recommend Unlock for people with colour blindness concerns, and even more so if it’s planned as a solo experience.  If you have a group where at least one person has fully chromatic vision the problems will be alleviated but that happens largely as a result of locking you as a player out of the proceedings.  Or at least forcing you into other, less significant, tasks within the scenario.   It becomes ‘Hey, you can watch while we have fun’.  Not constantly, not permanently, but certainly often enough to make the experience deeply frustrating.

Visual Accessibility

The spatial distribution of cards can occasionally be important for context – knowing one card represents an item across from another will sometimes be important, as will the adjacency of cards in the environment.   It’s not often core information, but placing cards in situ does mean you end up having to visually navigate a spatially explicit environment that can change rapidly as solutions are uncovered and elements are discarded.

Layout of cards on a table

Puzzles and Relative Positioning in Space. PARPIS.

The cards themselves are reasonably accessible in structure, but the problem here is that they are actively trying to hide clues as a natural part of the game systems.  Consider the hidden V that we saw in the review:

A hidden V in the game

I have some Vs of my own to send your way

The lack of contrast here isn’t an accidental accessibility problem – it’s a very conscious part of the game design.  It’s supposed to be something people don’t necessarily see unless they pay very close attention.  Lots of puzzles in the game require you to find hidden letters and numbers in the environment.  The provided app allows you to ask for hints with regards to this and that’s good.  Hints though somewhat take away the joy of discovery that comes from noticing something you know the designers were trying to hide.

Coupled to this too, often the clues you find in the game are diegetic.  That’s a fancy way of saying ‘within the world’.  The pages you find torn from an old book for example might be aesthetically presented in a way that makes them difficult to read.  Again, not an accident – this is an intentional part of the way the game presents itself to its players.

Torn pages from a book

Readability is not a key aspect in a lot of the clues

Rotation, orientation and spatiality all have a role to play in presenting the game puzzles.  Consider this keypad as an example:

Keypad puzzle

LESLIE. Text me ,okay?

I’ll leave off one of the accessibility issues here for a later category, but this puzzle is much easier to appreciate if you can freely rotate the cards and assess visual clues in a way that is not necessarily directly comparable.   The letters on the note are not the same in font or style as the numbers on the keypad.

Puzzles occasionally have tiny, complex text to go with them – particularly machine puzzles.  They might present key information at an angle that skews towards unreadable, or use natural patterns of the environment as a way to obscure the solution.    The electrical panel shown in the review is one of the less egregious examples of this but you can see both the text is quite small and the specific information you need to solve the puzzle is (again, intentionally) presented in a way that becomes a visual challenge.

Panel puzzle

Some puzzles might have a dozen or more of these little symbols, sometimes poorly contrasted against a complex background

The intensity of these problems will vary from puzzle to puzzle and from scenario to scenario, but that’s the whole problem with an escape room – you don’t know in advance what puzzles will arrive and what skills they’ll need.   A visually impaired player will certainly be able to contribute in a large group because sometimes the solution requires a leap of logic or thought rather than intense visual parsing.  Those are definitely going to be easier to make though if someone also has access to the visual state of the game, and as such we don’t recommend Unlock in this category.

Cognitive Accessibility

Unlock is a puzzle solving game, and unsurprisingly it’s not very compatible with the kind of issues we normally discuss in this section.   Numeracy, and sometimes quite sophisticated and conditional numeracy, is required for many of the puzzles.  Literacy is needed on regular occasions and often the text of a message is only a front for its real content.  Occasionally puzzles need you to look behind the words and into the meaning.  You sometimes need to consider how the text and the message is specifically presented.  Consider the LESLIE example above – mental gymnastics are needed here to convert those letters into a keycode.   Importantly too the meaning of numbers and letters in the game is malleable.   Just because a number is presented on a card, it doesn’t mean that’s the number you need.   Some very clever puzzles work on this system, but it needs intuitive leaps of understanding to arrive at the solution.

I’d tell you my favourite of these, but – you know, spoilers.

The game state is often very complex and it’s your job as a player to make juxtapositions and take calculated risks.   You’re not really manipulating a game state but exploring a possibility space, and the nature of the game mechanisms means it’s not necessarily obvious how to get from A to B.   Insight can be deferred until later in the adventure, and it’s entirely possible that you simply won’t have the information you need until more of the puzzles have been solved.   Dealing with partial information, and importantly understanding when it’s partial information, is a key skill in the game.

Unlock relies significantly on general knowledge and situational awareness, but erratically.  Knowledge of a real-world context might be hugely important in one puzzle but actively problematic in another.     You’re often punished for making mistakes, so knowing that a thing is true in the real world can be useful in avoiding a trap unless this is one of the puzzles where it’s not going to be honoured.  Uncertainty rules in everything you do here.

You discard cards once you’re done with them, and you can go back and look at discards if you feel it’s necessary, but it’s also a game that taxes memory by ensuring that you have to remember what state particular puzzles are in and what you’ve actually tried.    You can take notes, but that’s always going to be a time tax in a scenario like this.  Remember, you’re doing all this against a time limit that adds additional stresses and pressures across the board.

It’s not that there isn’t a role to play to for people with cognitive accessibility needs – it’s just that it’s mostly at a very shallow level such as examining cards, working the app and finding cards in a deck.  It’s the least satisfying part of the job, but someone has to do it in any case.   However, even within this there are cognitive challenges – it’s not actually easy to find a card in the deck because they arrive shuffled so you don’t know in advance whether particular combinations of cards have a corresponding entry in the deck.  Numeracy is needed for deck management although the level required is restricted to counting.

We don’t at all recommend Unlock in the fluid intelligence category, although we might very tentatively recommend it in the memory category provided a group is present for support.

Emotional Accessibility

Collaborative games usually fare quite well here because they bind winning and losing into a shared context.   There’s a camaraderie that comes with failing as a unit.   The problem here is that in Unlock you fail in a scenario that is entirely about how smart you are, at least within the narrowly defined parameters of puzzle solving.   That can sting because some (but certainly not all) of the puzzles are somewhat unfair and you get penalised for making reasonable attempts to solve them.  If you’re rating your own intellect by the speed at which you solve the challenge it can be galling to see success falling out of reach because of repeated inaccurate guesses.

I mentioned in the review the solution to one puzzle in particular is absolute bullshit of the worst kind of fourth-wall breaking bollocks.   I was genuinely angry because while it’s not a bad puzzle in and of itself it works by completely undermining the conventions of the game that had held true until that point.  It does this without ever giving you any hint that it was going to do it.   As such, we worked with what we had available to come up with reasonable interpretations of the game environment, none of which worked at all.   The end result is that we went from having three minutes left to being twelve minutes past the deadline.  As soon as we asked a hint the puzzle itself was solved in ten seconds.   Those fifteen minutes of penalties were aggravating precisely because of how ridiculously the puzzle cheated the basic contract we had formed with the game.

There’s not a lot of that specific issue but there are other examples of baffling ‘escape room logic’ standing in place for common sense.  Again, I stress the majority of the puzzles are good and sensible.  Some though are genuinely infuriating.    I personally find the LESLIE puzzle intensely annoying because the much more sensible solution is ‘Reverse engineer the word LESLIE into keypad letters’.  I mean, think about it – if the code is 735713 WHY WOULD IT STILL OPEN THE DOOR IF THE 7 KEY DOESN’T WORK GODDAMNIT?   The whole clue suggests ‘enter a word as a number’, and I think any reasonable person will think ‘like a phone’ before ‘like a calculator’.  I mean, kids today right?  They have their smartphones and their Switches and their neural jacks that connect directly to the Matrix.   Is writing ‘boobies’ into a calculator as a way to pass the time even really a thing any more?

Keypad

LESLIE! You were supposed to bring balance to the game, not destroy it!

While this isn’t at all the worst example, there are several instances of escape room moon logic and in attempting to avoid the penalties the app will inflict you’ll find yourself second guessing the puzzles and often coming up with better solutions that don’t receive the proper credit.  They get penalties instead.

And yes, I know that converting LESLIE into numbers on a phone keypad still results in a 7 in the code, but it’s still a more sensible solution to try.  The only thing that makes the real solution more viable is that codes are always four numbers long, but even that doesn’t change the underlying nonsense of the puzzle.     And irritatingly if my solution had been correct I would have had less cause to be so angry at the one I referenced above because it would have effectively communicated that there were cases where external knowledge was required for play.

The ticking time limit creates moments of intense and escalating stress – that’s good for keeping everyone on edge for the whole thing but it’s also troublesome in this category when you may find yourself receiving penalties for doing perfectly reasonable things.   Within the narrative of the game you have to interpret these as fruitless tasks that take up time but that’s not even coherent in a lot of cases.  There is at least one puzzle that gives you decent warning of what will happen if you make the obvious deductive leap, but plenty of others that dock you minutes of time for activities that would take at most a few seconds.   The game doesn’t end when the time limit is up, but really once you’ve failed to meet the deadline all the energy goes out of the experience.  You may as well fail by an hour as by a minute, so you can start throwing random guesses into codes until something works.  All the tension of preserving those minutes goes away and so does the electricity of play.

We tentatively recommend Unlock in this category, with a few conditions.  The first is that everyone has to treat the timer as an inconvenience rather than a mark of validation.  The second is that everyone needs to be prepared for some of the answers to be aggravatingly obtuse.    The third is that it has to be treated basically like an old-fashioned point and click adventure – explore the puzzles, have fun, but don’t treat them as an IQ test since the underlying logic isn’t coherent enough for that to be valid.  If you can do this, you can have fun with Unlock.  If not, keep well away.

Physical Accessibility

Orientation matters, and close inspection of cards is often needed.  You might find it necessary to use things like magnifying glasses to easily visually explore locations, and the quality of the light you have available will make a big difference to how easily you can extract key information.  All of this comes together into a game where you interact with it quite physically despite it only working off a deck of cards.   A lot of this can be done with support provided there are other players involved, but it’s not as simple as giving one player a set of cards and saying ‘That’s your puzzle’.  Puzzles often expand over multiple cards and those cards might have utility in a range of different puzzles.  It might not even be obvious which cards belong to which puzzles.

You’re going to have to experiment a fair bit with layout of cards in other words to ensure all the necessary information is circulating around the table.  That means that the game state is likely going to have to be based on player convenience rather than spatial relationship within the world of the game.  That won’t be a critical problem for play but it can be very helpful to see things in terms of how they relate to other things in the environment.   There are very few puzzles where this is the difference between success and failure, but more where success is more likely if you consider the physical location of items in the space within which you’re working.  Similarly being able to rotate and reorient cards can make a number of the puzzles much easier to solve.

When solving a puzzle, mostly what you do is call out a number for someone to see if a matching card is in the deck.  One player, for convenience, should be doing this anyway – it’s not a shared responsibility of the table.  In that respect, verbalisation is well supported.  However, most verbalisation is going to be about navigating the graphics of the card and that might be considerably subtler in how it has to be done.  It’s also not at all obvious when it’s actually necessary.

We’ll very tentatively recommend Unlock in this category.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

There’s very little gendered art in the game.  You spend most of your time looking at environments, not at people – they’re reflected in terms of secondary commentary about their presence and outcomes.    The manual doesn’t default to masculinity.

Unlock box

“Do I really look like a clown with a plan?”

Someone pointed out on Twitter that for consistency’s sake I was going to have to be as savage about the business model of Unlock as I was about that of the Arkham Horror Card Game.  And damn it, they’re right even if I don’t personally feel it to be quite so egregious.  You are basically spending £25 on three hours of entertainment and each of the three scenarios is a one-shot affair.  In terms of pure value for money it’s even worse than Arkham Horror.  All of the counter arguments I might marshal to suggest it’s actually worth the money in the end are equally true of AHCG.

But… it somehow doesn’t feel quite so exploitative, and I wonder if that’s simply a matter of framing.  With Arkham Horror, you’re buying a game – a game that needs to keep expanding to maintain any novelty (in my view – others disagree).   It sets up a story that you need to purchase new content to explore, and as such you’re constantly being left without a sense of catharsis until the very end.   The Unlock adventures are explicitly pitched as one-shot escape rooms.  I think it’s just the difference between something that is sold on the basis of being a game (and all the expectations of longevity to go with it) and something sold on the basis of being a puzzle.  You know with the latter that replayability is practically zero – after all, no matter how good a crossword puzzle might be there’s very little point in erasing your answers and doing it again.   When you’re done with Unlock you can pass it on to a friend to play, but that’s true of Arkham Horror too.

So, while the game doesn’t feel quite as nakedly opportunistic in its business model it’s still incredibly hard to recommend in this category.  There are so many other games that will give more entertainment, for longer, and with fewer moments of intense frustration.    In my heart I think I would probably give this a D based purely on my emotional reaction to how the game is pitched but for consistency and fairness sake it has to get the same F that the Arkham Horror Carrd Game received.

Communication

There is an awful lot of complex, sophisticated communication that goes into Unlock if you’re playing it in a group setting, Most of the scenarios, save for the last, are entirely possible to play solo.   Any kind of co-ordination though is going to involve often high-speed discussion with consequences of failure and long periods of intense silence.   Explaining the logic behind your solution to a puzzle might involve a fair degree of convincing others that your chain of assertions is stable.

Sound is used for a number of the puzzles, and the sound itself is often not entirely accessible in how it is presented.  Remember that for everything in Unlock the game designers are trying to explicitly conceal information from you and that extends to the few sound clues it provides.   Literacy is required, and often in sophisticated ways.  Nuance and meaning and the like all play a part in some of the puzzles.

We’d (tentatively) recommend Unlock as a solo experience although with caveats given that some scenarios make use of sound files and if you’re not comfortable with the language the game will be troublesome.  We wouldn’t recommend it at all in a group setting.  We’ll split the difference between the C and E and arrive at a ‘we don’t recommend’ judgement overall.

Intersectional Accessibility

Well, this is easy!  The highest grade we give in any category is a tentative recommendation.  Given the nature of the game, it’s fair to say any intersection would invalidate those tentative recommendations.   It’s a massive intersectional problem to play Unlock because so many of the puzzles straddle so many categories, and while there will certainly be parts of Unlock that anyone can do there is no scenario that everyone could do.

Unlock does at least allow players to drop gracefully out of play – the task becomes more difficult for everyone involved because there are fewer people to throw at the puzzles, but nothing actually changes in the game itself.   That’s good, because while Unlock only lasts an hour it is a very intense hour and it’s just the kind of thing that could cause or exacerbate issues of distress or discomfort.

Conclusion

Blood Bowl is dethroned – Unlock is now the least accessible game we’ve looked at on Meeple Like Us.  But, before we set up a coronation it’s important to throw all kinds of asterisks and caveats onto that judgement because it is a deeply unfair statement.  Unlock is inaccessible because it is designed to be an inaccessible, inscrutable experience for everyone.   The problems that we’ve outlined here in Unlock aren’t flaws or oversights for the most part – rather they are inextricable features of the game.   Unlock has been savaged in this teardown for being exactly what it set out to be.   It might be the case that escape rooms as a genre of game are simply not possible to do in a broadly accessible way – we’ll find out as we examine more of them as time goes by.

Colour Blindness E
Visual Impairment D
Fluid Intelligence E
Memory C-
Physical C-
Emotiveness C-
Socioeconomic F
Communication C

A case could be made then that as far as a ‘moral victory’ goes it should still be Blood Bowl that retains our collective opprobrium.    We cannot blame the scorpion for stinging.   To argue that would be to miss our key purpose with these teardowns – not to issue blame but to explore the contours of the accessibility landscape.  It doesn’t matter if a game is intentionally inaccessible.  The intention doesn’t matter.  The inaccessibility does.

We gave Unlock three and a half stars in our review – the scenarios are uneven, the puzzles occasionally infuriating, but when it works it is almost erotically satisfying.   It’ll massage your brain until you have multiple mindgasms.    Whether escape rooms as a genre of gaming can ever be accessible we can’t say from this one data point.  What we can say though is that Unlock is likely a game that you should avoid if accessibility is a consideration in your game library.

 

 


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