For the videogame medium to be so often lauded for providing its players with a sense of escapism, it’s surprising how few games dare to revolve around actively escaping things. Sure, they can often provide relief to those looking to take a step away from the world around them, but as Escape Academy proves, there’s something distinctly more rewarding, and ultimately more freeing, about being withheld that relief until your brain melts trying to earn it.
Relief was the sensation that lingered with me the longest after my time with Coin Crew’s virtual escape room simulator, though that may have had something to do with the context I played it in. Streaming into a joint game with TheGamer’s Andrew King, I realised nothing quite applies pressure like having to prove you have perfectly normal brain function to your peers – and under a time limit, no less.
I had felt that particular pressure once before, in my singular experience of a real-world escape room. Leading up to my preview session, it had dawned on me just how unintentionally threatening I found Escape Academy co-creator Wyatt Bushnell’s words when he mentioned in the previous day’s Q&A that his and fellow co-creator Mike Salyh’s specific desire for the game was to “bring physical escape rooms into the digital space.” That one real-world escape room experience had not been a good one.
For my friend’s birthday, a group of us banded together to escape the Titanic before it sank and killed us all. Only a few of us had ever been to an escape room before, and, somewhat tellingly, those experienced hands immediately grouped up and set to work unravelling mysteries – a tactic that the birthday boy and I foolishly disregarded, deciding instead to lone wolf the experience.
Thus, I set about frantically discovering clues that people had already deciphered and reading much too much into stray charts and images that were not so much red herrings as they were standard, unassuming set dressing. At one particularly low point, I was informed that the flag I had been carrying around with me for twenty minutes had not only already been used to solve a puzzle, but that it was one of the first puzzles the other groups had solved.
It was these memories, of deciphering flavour-text charts and trailing from room to room the long-discarded clues of more able peers, that had my brain sweating as I logged in for my preview. We had survived the sinking of the Titanic in spite of my ship-sinking efforts. My journalistic colleague and I were digitally entered into a richly detailed headmaster’s office that may as well have been littered with so much fake boat literature for all my panicked mind could make of it.
With a ten-minute timer counting down, we were given a simple task – find out the headmaster’s full name to escape the room. I set to work busily repeating past mistakes, spinning off alone to count miscellaneous items and decipher codes my brain had just finished inventing. To my surprise, however, I had stumbled headfirst onto the solution that, had I known back in 2019 as I stood upon the hollow second floor of an optometrists that had been dressed up vaguely like a famous boat, would have assuredly left me with only positive memories to draw upon: I had begun communicating what I was actually doing to my peer.
I believe it was the practicality-first design credo of Escape Academy’s co-creators that thoroughly dragged this healthy, reasonable approach from me. Being able to explore a 3D space freely and to see my teammate doing the same across the room, it became second nature to just start calling out what we saw to each other and to try and pool our information together. Leaning in close to a bookcase and being able to read all the titles on the books, or crouching down to find a secret keyhole in a dresser, you soon find that any one element in a room can carry meaning, and so every square inch must be analysed closely so as to not miss or rule out too quickly any stray piece of information.
Before I knew it, Andrew and I were unravelling secret codes and finding hidden passageways to further clues. We split up at various points when there was a code to be read somewhere and a code to be entered somewhere else. We quickly found ourselves making up for the other’s weaknesses – when he didn’t know the rules of Sudoku, there I was; when I would stare for five minutes at a stray number or abstract image interpreting, he would step in and pull me away from the analytical abyss with a straightforward answer.
By the end of my experience with Escape Academy, I felt awash with relief. Suddenly, it was as if I had escaped not only a series of challenging puzzle rooms with my social dignity mostly intact, but also my own Titanic-themed shame at having let my hubris steer my own physical escape room experience into a metaphorical iceberg of not having a good time. If that kind of therapeutic breakthrough doesn’t sell Escape Academy to you, your therapist is clearly doing a far better job than mine.