Published on December 5th, 2017 | by Dean Love1
Ctrl Alt Esc, Margate – Frankenscape
Sometimes a game will try something new and clever, and it’ll be wonderful and raise the game to new heights. Sometimes a game will try something new and clever and it’ll crash and burn leaving the game a disaster. Ctrl-Alt-Esc try something new and clever and it works just fine, but you sort of wonder why they bothered.
So to address the game on its own merits first: it’s really good. It has a very impressive opening sequence: the briefing uses a neat theatrical trick to increase the immersion, which on reflection seems obvious, but I’ve never seen another game employ it. Then you enter the first stage of the game and… well you know when you first enter a room and you often feel transported to an entirely different and unexpected place, utterly at odds with the briefing area, and it feels really cool? Well this game does just that better than nearly any game I’ve played. And it’s weird because it’s not an impressive setting – it’s no space station or Aztec tomb, in fact it’s the sort of place you probably see many, many times on the average day. It’s hugely pedestrian by that measure. But it’s also entirely unexpected within the context of where you are, and the building you’ve just walked through. This not only creates surprise but also a little bit of unease. Which is a good thing because, as the name suggests, there’s a light horror theme to the game.
It’s worth stressing it’s not a horror game as such: there’s a few jump scares and a spooky soundtrack but it’s not going out of its way to terrify you. However it does leverage the Dr. Frankenstein theme extremely well in terms of the puzzles and environment. Most of the game plays out in the lab of a genius inventor, and yes, it does involve a Frankenstein’s monster at some point. And it’s a good time. It’s a slightly longer game than usual at 90 minutes, but it never feels like its outstaying its welcome. The additional game time is created by just adding a little more content to bulk the game up from your regular game, rather than by having a bunch of really difficult or time consuming puzzles. Rather the puzzles are all quite logical, fun and varied. It all comes together into a finale that requires you to have been paying attention throughout and provides some fun moments.
So, to the unique element of the game: it’s fully automated. What does that mean? Well from a player perspective it just means no padlocks, it’s all alternative means of inputting solutions to puzzles. But beyond that it means some clever stuff is going on behind the scenes: the room can dole out audio clues based on what you haven’t solved by certain times, and it can also trigger certain elements semi-randomly on a timer or whatever. Which is… well mostly fine. But it creates some weirdness. Now here’s the thing: much of that weirdness stems from having played a bunch of escape rooms, having a basic understanding of how things work, and then making assumptions which this game doesn’t follow. So it’s not entirely fair to say it’s a fault of the game. To give a concrete example: firstly, a few things in the game happen on a random timer, which means you can be trying to solve something but you don’t have all the required information. Not because you’ve missed anything, just because the game hasn’t triggered the event that leads to getting that information yet. This doesn’t have to be a negative – indeed it’s arguably more true to life than most games – but it’s different to what you might be used to.
The automation does have some drawbacks though. One of the reasons padlocks are great is that you know when you’ve solved them. And when solved, you know exactly what they’ve now given you access to. With a fully automated and linked room, it’s a bit different. Firstly it’s not always obvious when you’ve solved a puzzle. There is a firm audio indicator that something has been solved, but by necessity it seems to come a good few seconds after the solution has been found. To give a made-up example, you might need to set a watch to the correct time, but the game can’t let you just spin the hands until you happen upon it, so you need to get the right time and leave it for a good few seconds before it actually triggers the effect for completing it. Which is fine in principle, but the delay is long enough you might walk away thinking it hadn’t worked. And in a non-linear game like this one, you might have people working on things all over the place – so now we know one of us has solved a puzzle, but who? This feeds in to the second part of it: it’s not immediately apparent what solving the puzzle has got you. You’ll need to look around the space to see what has unlocked – the connections are not always obvious. Put these two issues together, and you can actually end up in a position where two of you are working on different puzzles, something happens in the room and so you know one of you has solved the puzzle, but you’re not entirely sure who, so you don’t actually even know what puzzle you’ve now completed. Or maybe neither of you did and it was one of those aforementioned random timer events!
It’s worth saying none of this was obvious at the time: we were mostly enjoying it, and just had a couple of moments of confusion where we weren’t sure if we had something right or not. But it’s interesting to talk about. The game essentially networks the entire space together, which is cool, but there are problems in design that rooms that don’t do this have already solved by necessity. Padlocks aside, if puzzle A is clearly connected to item B, it’s clear that solving A will make B do something. So I’ll know when A is complete. If solving A could cause literally anything to happen in the entire space, then that’s a bit different. It’s all easy enough to overcome by just making the connections more thematic, or having the puzzles themselves give obvious feedback when they’re done (by changing colour or such) – indeed, the game already does a bit of this with audio cues to direct you to look in certain places.
The last thing worth saying is the flip side to the fact that this didn’t get in the way much when we played, and that is, it didn’t add anything to the game. It makes no difference to me as a player if the room is cleverly detecting when I do the right thing, or a member of staff is just carefully watching me ready to manually trigger the appropriate effect. In some ways, “cheating” like that can feel better. In the above made up example with the watch, it’s easy for a staff member to hear someone shout “try 4.45 on the watch” and then see someone try it, and trigger the right thing immediately because they know the puzzle has been solved. Not something a machine can do.
That all sounds quite negative, but it’s not. This game is trying something interesting, and if you’re an escape room owner it’s probably doubly worth your time to see a very different approach to building a game. For a player, it’s just a really good game with the odd slightly awkward bit, which is par for the course in most games, automated or not.
(Okay one last thing. When writing up this review I realised they’re actually called Ctrl Alt Esc styled in exactly that way. They’re not Ctrl Alt Escape. Although I guess when you pronounce Ctrl you say Control. But I don’t pronounce Esc as Escape, it’s more essk. Bit weird.)
Result – we escaped in 43 minutes
Date played: 23 September 2017
Team: Dean, Sera, Sharon
Summary: A great game that's well worth playing. Behind the scenes there's some clever stuff going on, but ultimately it neither massively improves or is detrimental to the game.