Beyond the Crystal Maze: Oubliette and the continuing rise of escape games
I really don’t want to give anything away. There’s a door. Behind the door is a room. In the room are other people. Let’s say six other people. They’re all nervous. You’re surrounded by machines and locked compartments. There’s a timer on the wall. It’s ticking down.
The reason I don’t want to let any more details slip is because Oubliette is an “escape the room” game – the latest in a growing number of rooms where the aim is to get out of the sealed space by solving a mesh of puzzles. If you grew up watching The Crystal Maze, you’ll have some idea of the quick-fire logic chasing required, albeit in a much smaller space. While Londoners will need to wait a little longer for a live version of that particular 90s throwback, experiences such as Oubliette show that the genre is evolving into something that goes beyond nostalgia.
This is or isn’t something Plato said
“You find more about a person from one hour of play than in a year of conversation,” Mink Ette, co-designer of Oubliette tells me before I start the game. “I hope that’s a Plato quote. It doesn’t sound like something Plato would’ve said. It sounds too snappy.”
The quote isn’t from Plato – I looked it up – but here’s one that is: “Friends have all things in common”. “All things” might be stretching it, but our troupe, including fellow journalists Vaughn Highfield and Jordan Erica Webber, definitely had at least one thing in common during our hour of being locked in a room. Mink Ette tells me having that singular focus to get out of a trapped space brings a lot of implicit relationships to the surface.
“We should be paid to provide psychoanalysis reports,” she tells me. “It’s been really fascinating to watch some people go in and barge other people out of the way, take charge and just be kinda aaaggghh and take over everything, and then there are other teams where everyone is a well-oiled machine.”
Well-oiled or not, we managed to escape with 9 minutes 41 seconds left on the clock. Did I manage to uncover more about my team members in one hour of play than a year of conversation? I certainly learnt a lot about the different dynamics at play, and a great deal of that stems from the physicality of the experience. Even though there are clear parallels with video games, that sense of presence has a lot in common with theatre.
Immersive theatre in a box
Mink Ette and co-creator Dave Aldhouse have a background in immersive theatre, having both worked as set designers for Punchdrunk, the company behind shows such as The Drowned Man and Sleep No More. In those productions, the audience is free to wander labyrinthine spaces, glimpse moments of performance and uncover a narrative through clues in the environment. Turning that brand of theatre, already very much in debt to the style of storytelling found in video games, back into a game is a move that makes a lot of sense.
“Much like a Punchdrunk show, a lot of the story is told through the objects that live in the room,” Mink Ette tells me. “The players have to ask themselves: ‘Who would inhabit a place like this? What kind of people think these things should be locked away? Why should I help them?’ As they play and figure things out, they tell each other their version of the story.
“I grew up playing adventure games like Myst and Day of the Tentacle,” she adds, “so I have a particular love for puzzles solved by working out the way the game world internal logic works, that same feeling of realisation that ‘of course’ water levitates near fire because the algae in it hates heat, and ‘of course’ you need to put spaghetti on that mummy’s head if it’s to win a beauty contest. Both these things are ridiculous, but if they make sense to you then you’ve fully immersed yourself in a new world”.
In terms of Oubliette’s design and story, Mink Ette cites influences including George Orwell’s 1984, Richard Ayoade’s film The Double, Lucas Pope’s game Papers, Please and Neven Mrgan and James Moore’s iOS game Blackbar. The aesthetic is dystopian, but Mink Ette admits that the game isn’t intended to be political. The themes of bureaucracy and surveillance in the game have become much more prescient since work started on the game two years ago, she says.
This raises the question of what a political escape game would look like. With the focus being on a specific, practical goal, is there scope for escape games to tackle social issues, or would that emphasis upset what is essentially an hour of escapism? National Theatre Wales tackled the issue of border-crossing in 2014’s Bordergame, for example, but that production was accused by some of turning the plight of refugees into a piece of entertainment. It’s a fine line to tread.
Above: National Theatre Wales’ Bordergame
More generally, with a growing number of escape the room games popping up in the UK, why is there such an appetite for them? Is it an outcome of video games moving into mainstream culture? Is it a generational nostalgia for The Crystal Maze? Is there something to be said for a subconscious hankering for physical risk in the face of innocuous digitality?
So many questions, and that timer is still ticking down. Regardless of the reasons behind the genre’s rise, Oubliette was an enormous amount of fun. It was my first time playing an escape game and traditional rooms now seem pathetic by comparison.
Oubliette is open from now until 20th April 2016.
Images: Oubliette Entertainments and National Theatre Wales