Unlock review


Unlock: Escape Adventures (2017)

This is a review that comes with a few disclaimers.  The first is that while I’m reviewing the boxed set of three initial adventures, I’m going to do it without any specific reference to anything that happens in any of them.   The Unlock series scenarios are ‘escape rooms in a box’ and as such there are real risks of spoilers.   However, that’s not to say that the review is spoiler free – I’ll be reviewing with reference to a demo adventure called Fifth Avenue.  This was a promo adventure I picked up at the UK Games Expo in 2017.   It covers all the functional elements needed, and the chances are high you’re not going to lose out if this adventure is spoiled for you.  It’s really only a fancy advert for the game.   So – this is meaningful spoiler free but it does completely spoil Fifth Avenue.    I’m not going to do a walkthrough of the puzzles but I am going to act as if you don’t care about the solutions.

There is also a tutorial deck that’s available.  It lacks so much of the surrounding context of an Unlock adventure that while it would be appropriate for demonstrating mechanisms it wouldn’t at all communicate what makes the Unlock adventures worth playing.   It also doesn’t bring out many of the accessibility issues that we’ll talk about in the teardown.  As such, I’ve gone for the largely insignificant spoilers route rather than the no spoilers route.  If you want to avoid even those, stop reading here.

Okay?  Okay!  Let’s talk about Unlock.

Unlock box

A box to test your wits and whimsey

When I was much younger, point and click adventure games were very much my video game genre of choice.   I’m an old, old man and I played these right from their genesis.  I think, although I wouldn’t like to stake my life on it, that Lucasfilm’s Labyrinth was the first of these.  This was revelatory – genuinely important stuff for a kid like me absolutely besotted by the movie upon which it was based.  Labyrinth began as a reasonably standard text adventure that rapidly changed into a kind of Proterozoic point and click.   For an eight-year old boy with a Commodore 64, it was a transformative experience.   I played (and completed) dozens of point and click adventure games in the following years.  The Lucasfilm games were always best – witty, wise and with (mostly) clear puzzle design.   I’m such a fan of these games in fact that I have these hanging right behind me on the wall of my study as I write:

Lucasarts posters

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

It wasn’t only Lucasfilms (later Lucasarts) that were producing these marvelous games although they were easily the best at it.    Other popular games came from Sierra Online, and they had a much less forgiving approach to the concept.  It was (almost) impossible to die in a Lucasfilm game.   Sierra games would kill you for taking the wrong exit at the wrong time, or for forgetting some form of arcane procedure from some dusty game manuscript.

There were dozens of game development companies pumping out these adventures – dozens in a year.  Even my beloved series of Discworld books got its own, somewhat problematic, point and click adventure.   Not all of these games were good.   Most of them really were pretty bad – terrible stories, dumbass puzzles, and unengaging characters.   The best were funny, satisfying and richly observed.  They were the minority.

Many of the less enjoyable titles suffered from numerous problems so consistently observed that they might indeed be structural flaws in the whole concept of a point and click game:

  • The need to hunt through complex and graphically busy environments for a tiny reactive object that was important to the plot. ‘Pixel hunting’ was the common name for this.
  • Confusing, sometimes even wilfully obtuse, puzzle design that needed the most convoluted things to be done in the most convoluted way. Sometimes this was referred to as ‘moon logic’, and you still see this in games today.
  • A lack of granularity in guidance when you got stuck. You either got a full solution from a walkthrough or spent hours, maybe weeks, stuck making no progress.  Remember, this was before the internet was widely available.  Most games came with a premium-rate hint line that you called up with a landline phone.  Imagine that!
  • Solutions that were arrived at by experimentation rather than deduction. For many of the lesser brands of point and click adventure games puzzle solving was essentially an exhaustive process of rubbing every item in your inventory against every item in your environment until you lucked in on the right combination. ‘Ah, of course – I use the steak tenderiser with the household fan so it breaks causing shards of the motor to shatter the nearby window.   OF COURSE I COULDN’T JUST SMASH IT DIRECTLY’.
  • The prevailing philosophies of moon logic meant that it was better to have options than to have ideas, so you’d end up collecting every single item you could pick up. In the end your inventory become bloated and massive and each item likely was used in only a single part of the game.   These were often dismissed as ‘inventory puzzles’ – lazy intersections of item and circumstance without any real cleverness.  The hidden side effect of these was that people often got entirely flummoxed when an item was actually expected to be used in multiple puzzles.  It just wasn’t the Done Thing.

Truthfully, these games never really went away.  Game genres don’t die, they just evolve into more refined and elegant versions of their underlying Pokemon.  Text adventures still live on in things like the marvelous 80 Days and the absorbing Sunless Sea.  Point and Click adventures in their traditional sense still find expression in games like Thimbleweed Park and have more advanced manifestations in titles such as the Sexy Brutale (disclaimer:  a friend of mine was involved in the development of this), The Walking Dead and Life is Strange.   The interfaces have become more elegant, the gameplay more forgiving, and the narrative conventions more cohesive.   Still, I do find myself occasionally longing for the familiar warmth of something like Zak McKracken or the Secret of Monkey Island.    I loved the hell out of the Walking Dead (#TeamClementine) but it was all too railroaded to be very intellectually satisfying.

This is a fairly extensive digression, but I’m trying to bring this review around to make a point that requires context.  Unlock is the board-game equivalent of a point and click adventure game.   This is wonderful because I retain a genuine sense of joy for the format.   This is though also occasionally terrible.  The general quality of the puzzles in Unlock is reasonably good, but the Unlock series leans more towards the Sierra philosophy of design than it does the Lucasfilm.   As a result, they have a number of frustrating features that sap away at the fun to be found in the concept.

Fifth Avenue environment

The game is afoot!

Most of the Unlock game system is based on a deck with alphanumeric codes displayed on the back.  You’re given cards that represent environments, and these environments will be scattered with letters and numbers.  When you see them, you draw that card out of the (largely randomly shuffled) deck and place it in front of you. The 44 is clearly visible here on the street – in the right-hand corner is a slightly more obscure ‘F’.  Both of those represent cards you should dig from the deck and deal out to the table.

A window and a bag of tools

Don’t mind me

Many of the cards you find will have additional cards displayed on the front – finding our burglary kit (F) also gives us access to cards 37, 42, and 8:

Crowbar, lever and a grappling hook

I solemnly swear I am up to no good

These are tools, indicated by the icon in the top right of the card.  We combine these with objects in the environment to solve problems.   It’s quite ingenious really – you add the numeric values of the two cards together, and look for a card of its sum in the deck.  If it exists, then you draw that card and display it to the table.

Climbing up the wall

This probably isn’t as inconspicuous as I’d hope

Using the grappling hook (42) with the window (44) sends us looking for a card numbered 86 in the deck.

86 card found

Right or wrong? Only the card flip will know

If we find it then we flip it over.  If it’s not the right thing we’ll usually get a penalty on the associated app (oh yes, this uses an app).  If we’re right though we’ll make some progress through the puzzles.   Usually when we draw a new card we get given a list of older cards to be removed from the game – they’re done with, and play no farther part in proceedings.

The upstairs environment

A whole new pile of things to worry about

This at least constraints the possibility space of puzzles a little but that helps less than you might expect.    As discussed above, inventory puzzles already worked on the assumption that you’d only use an item once and then never again.   However, while this might seem limiting it actually expands the space for meaningful problem solving.   If you discard the grappling hook you know it’s not going to be a part of a future puzzle.  If you don’t discard it then it heavily implies it might well come into play again.   You don’t need a unique item for each puzzle, some items are used several times and you get hints as to when that’s the case.

We’ve got an hour to get through the deck and arrive at the conclusion, and you’ll spend an awful lot of time frantically staring around the cards for what you’ve missed in the environment.  This is a game in which pixel hunting is a mandatory part of the puzzle solving.  Look at this card from a later part of the Fifth Avenue adventure:

Finding a hairpin in a safe

Thank God, my hair has been a mess

You deal out card fifteen, which is your hairpin.  Good for lockpicking, we all know that from constant exposure to the tropes of crime fiction.    That’s not all that you should get from this environmental element.  it’s very, very easy to miss the thing you really need for later.

Very low contrast letters

Yep.

The app will tell you about what you’ve missed if you have switched on auto hints, but failing that you might find yourself unable to solve a puzzle purely because you haven’t found all the bits.   I actually bought a magnifying glass to help deal with that problem… it makes me feel very much like Sherlock Holmes when I use it – or it would if it didn’t have a big light built into the base.   It makes me feel like Sherlock Holmes if he’d had a visit from the Doctor to upgrade his spyglass.

An alarmed picture and its panel

The eyes follow you around the room

Occasionally you’ll be facing puzzles of a different kind – machinery and the intersection of game environmental elements across the whole of your cards.   Yellow cards (locks) have a code that needs entered into the app.  Green cards have variable value based on how you interpret their puzzle.   Look at the cards here – the alarm on the picture is powered by the panel.  You have a lever as part of your toolkit, and in order to use it you’ll need to crack the electrical panel puzzle and use the answer as the second part of the lever sum.    The lever has a value of 37 – but what’s the solution?

52?  No – BUZZ – you just took a time penalty.  No, no – the answer is to be found elsewhere.

Alarm connector using three wires

Observation skills are at a premium

See, only three wires are actually coming from the alarm to the panel, and that means the answer is 43.   You need to pay an awful lot of attention to your surroundings here – if you’re guessing at the answer based on random combinations of things, you’re almost certainly wrong.

And this is basically what Unlock is all about – deducing numerical values based on environmental clues and with only a shaky surety that you have all the information you need.   It’s a puzzle game so the answers are never entirely obvious, but that means that simply having no idea what to do is not evidence in and of itself that you’re missing something.  Within the hour you spend cracking the puzzles in Unlock you need to decide how much time to invest in searching the environment and how much into working out solutions.    Luckily this is also a co-operative game and if you’ve got other people available you can get a lot of benefit out of clever subdividing of the tasks.   One person handling the deck, for example, is so much better than everyone pawing through it.    With more eyes on the problem you have capacity you can spare.  Being able to say ‘See if you can find if we’ve missed anything while I try to work out this lock’ has a powerful effect on constraining the frustration you might otherwise experience.  Within this though there is a problem – there is nothing in the game that scales based on player count and you can simply throw eyeballs at the puzzles until they are trivially solved as a result of spare cognitive capacity.   The task of defeating a scenario as a solo experience is very different, and considerably more difficult, to doing so with six.   The whole game series is a manifestation of Linus’ Law – given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.

At its best, Unlock will make you and your friends feel very, very clever – it often manages to find the sweet-spot between the obscure and the intuitive in a way that rewards you for creative thinking.  However, it also often manages to make you feel very stupid for no real failing of your own.   This is a very smart and interesting system, and I have very much enjoyed most of the time I’ve spent with the puzzles.    However, that time has also left me yearning for adventures that are more consistently elegant in their design.

Pieces of paper

What do you do with this? Who knows.

I’ve already alluded to inventory puzzles and hunt the pixel style problems.  These are occasionally especially egregious because they lack any sense in the wider narrative of the game.    Some of the puzzles work in theory but don’t hold up remotely within the story context within which you’re functioning.   I’m not going to spoil any of the puzzles in the box, as I’ve said, but there is one puzzle in one of the cases that had me completely baffled.  Not because the solution evaded me but because I’d already discounted it on the basis of logic.  I didn’t follow the thread of my thoughts because it seemed it would only end with a time penalty.    I felt smart for avoiding the obvious trap when in the end I had basically ended up out-thinking the puzzle.

Rug

Can you guess the code you need?

And it’s here where the largest problem in the system emerges – that Sierra Online philosophy of requiring creative thinking but punishing players for experimentation.  Perfectly reasonable actions within the context of the game will often yield time penalties because they weren’t the correct perfectly reasonable action.    Many of the punishments you get are unavoidable because they’re exploring the solution space and don’t seem at all contrived.   They’re not ‘God, use the puppy with the hard drive just in case that’s the answer’.  The puzzles aren’t always as coherently designed as the ones I’ve shown above, and sometimes the solution you deduced is considerably better and more tractable than the actual solution.   Many of the puzzles in the real adventures work on the assumption that Rube Goldberg manages the filing cabinets and storage cupboards.

This disincentivises exploration in a game that is absolutely about using the constraints of your environment in intelligent ways.   I never liked Sierra games for this very reason.   It feels like parts of the game are very much designed with a ‘why are you hitting yourself?’ philosophy.  They expect people to take leaps of faith but pull the rug away from them before their feet leave the ground.    The final puzzle in one of the cases deserves special mention for being absolute bullshit that left me so angry that it genuinely soured me on the entire hour we’d spent playing the scenario.   We failed because of the way that particular puzzle completely undermined the framing conceit of the entire game in the smuggest possible way.   You make an informal contract with a game when you attempt something like this – you expect the game will play fairly within its own internal systems of logic.  Unlock, on occasion and without warning, will betray your trust.   That in itself wouldn’t be too much of a problem if it didn’t come with that time limit.  Personally, although we haven’t done it ourselves, I’d recommend you just ignore the time limit entirely.   Just put it out of your mind – the game doesn’t play fairly enough to really merit treating the ticking timer like it matters.

Worse than the penalties you get for reasonable experimentation are the moments when the machinery of the game simply breaks down .  There are times when you come up with a solution based on the environmental clues that leads you to a card that is quite obviously not part of the solution chain.   Except… ‘quite obviously’ isn’t really true in a game like this.  ‘Probably quite obviously’, but not so obvious that you don’t lose time in determining whether or not you should have the card you just drew.   It’s largely unavoidable in a game like this that there will be occasional intersections of solution and environment that sum up to the wrong numbers that just so happen to have cards associated.  That doesn’t make it any more forgivable when you’re up against a tight time limit and it’s the game mechanisms, rather than the puzzles, that are stealing your time away from you.   Each card you draw that shouldn’t have been drawn is, by itself, a spoiler for the rest of the game.    If you open an airtight box and find a happy kitten (not a real puzzle) then you have to wonder whether that’s actually what you were supposed to get.  Airtight strongly implies ‘no’ but really you don’t know and working it out will take time.   Time you don’t have – especially since if it’s the wrong card you won’t have what you need to solve the actual puzzles you still have in front of you.

Unlock box inside crate

Wait, the game was inside the crate? SO WHAT HAVE I BEEN PLAYING?

And yet, with all of this – God help me if I don’t really like Unlock.   There are more moments of satisfaction than there are moments of frustration and there are genuinely good, clever and fair puzzles in here.  It’s unfortunate that occasionally they have handfuls of crud and gravel thrown into the mix.   There are problems with the mechanisms – solvable perhaps with a larger spread of numbers in the deck – but mainly the issues are related to the larger context of the experience.   The game systems here are smart, used in creative ways, and scratch all my point and click itches in the best ways.   They’re just occasionally shackled to unfortunately amateur puzzle design.     I’ll be very interested to see what happens to Unlock as the designers get a better handle on what puzzles work, which ones don’t, and which are absolute infuriating bullshit that casts a shadow of regret over the whole scenario.

I’d recommend you pick up Unlock.   Play the scenarios, and pass them on – the deck is never destroyed in the attempt and if you don’t take the time limit too seriously you’ll find them enjoyable even with the occasional missteps.    I’ll play Unlock and likely continue on with future releases until someone comes up with a better way of handling point and click with cards and cardboard.  In other words, this will do until someone gets around to implementing Loom: The Board Game.

Ask me about Loom

Go on, ask me.

Loom: The Board Game!  No word of a lie, I’d kill each and every one of you in the most grotesque and brutal ways to make that happen.  Although now I hope you all live long and healthy lives because – well, that statement isn’t going to reflect well on me when the police come to inquire about motives for your unfortunate bloody murder.

Ahem.

Stop talking now, Michael?  Okay?  Okay!

 

 

 


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