Published on October 2nd, 2017 | by Dean Love0
The Panic Room, Gravesend – Old Father Time
It’s such a cliche to call something “a game of two halves” but damned if that isn’t exactly what this was. I’ve never been so beguiled by a game for the first half only to find myself so frustrated by the second. But let’s rewind a little.
Old Father Time is a fairy-tale style game that tasks you with finding out what happened to Old Father Time on New Year’s Eve, or time itself might end. It’s designed for both kids and adults, and the theme bears that out but the mechanics… well maybe not so much. On entering the game you’re in a fairy tale forest, with a large storybook on the table, that’s narrated for you over the speakers. Parts of it are locked away, and that sets up the obvious objective of the room: end the story by unlocking the whole book. Also a handy way to see how far you’ve progressed in the room.
And the first fifteen minutes or so were lovely. It reminded me a lot of hidden object adventure games on the PC. Find an object, use it in a fairly obvious interaction, get a bit of story and a key that unlocks another object, then repeat. The occasional mini-game (or dexterity challenge) is thrown in along the way. It’s gentle but enjoyable. The game looks great, and does a good job at creating an outdoor environment within an indoor space. You can imagine younger children will just really enjoy being in this fairy-tale space.
But then came the music puzzle. It’s nothing particularly new: you find a mechanism via which you can make some sounds, you hear a tune in the background and have to repeat it. And so we did. I’m not great at musical stuff but Katherine plays piano and is always shit-hot at this sort of thing. The tune played, she repeated it, nothing happened. Try again. Nothing happened. And again. Still nothing. She tried playing the tune at the same time as the background music. Nothing happened. She tried playing it really quickly. Nothing. Slowly. Nothing. In a call-and-response fashion. Nothing. We must have spent almost ten minutes and played that tune well over twenty times to no avail. Eventually we get a “clue” (via the screen) which tells us three of the six notes we need to play. She plays a different tune and it works and triggers the next part of the game. Now, to this day Katherine swears that she was playing the right tune to start with, and the one she put in at the end wasn’t right. My musical abilities are limited, but I’m not tone-deaf, and having heard the thing over twenty times it sounded right to me too. But that’s not really the point. I can accept we maybe screwed it up, maybe we were playing it in the wrong key or something, who knows? But after the fifth time of us trying the same tune, a quick nudge from the host via the clue screen to say “wrong tune” would have been helpful? Surely after the tenth? That’s all we would have needed. It was pretty obvious to see that at no point were we even contemplating the notion that we had the tune wrong. We weren’t thinking along those lines at all. We playing the same tune 20 times. Everything we were trying were just different ways of entering the same tune. As noted, we did eventually get a clue, but it basically gave us half of the answer and Katherine guessed at the other bits and it somehow worked. But, as ridiculous as it might sound after the previous rant, that clue was also too much. It basically robbed of us of the chance to ever work out what we were doing wrong. A smaller nudge, much earlier on, would have let us rethink the puzzle and realise what we got wrong. To this day, we’re still not even sure.
Now there’s a strange thing that happens with escape rooms: if you find one part of a game frustrating or unfair, it also means you’ll probably be spending a disproportionate amount of time on that puzzle. It’s probably the one single element of the game you spend the most time engaged with. The bits you like, you tend to get through more quickly. This can have a strange impact on your appreciation for the room. I find if there’s one of these problematic puzzle, it’s generally fine and forgivable. But if there are just one or two more, those frustrating elements quickly grow to take up around half of your game time. And Old Father Time had two more. They weren’t as bad: one relating to an item with a very finicky mechanism, which required the application of real-world logic in a game that had been relying on escape room logic to this point. The second was the penultimate puzzle where, according to the way we read the instructions, we had a valid solution, if not the solution most people would get by following it through in a logical order. And it didn’t work, so we were again stuck wondering what we had wrong, before being given a clue that basically solved it for us, without actually explaining the logic behind it. Asking the host after the game, he was able to tell us how to reach his solution, and it absolutely made sense, but still couldn’t tell us what was wrong with ours. It made sense to be given a more direct clue at that point as we were running very low on time, with just a few minutes left. Of course, we wouldn’t have been had things gone differently earlier…
The final puzzle, incidentally, was beautiful. And the rest of the room was lovely. But my overriding memory of Old Father Time is always going to be those three frustrating puzzles, probably because we spent over half our time in the game butting our heads up against them. It’s certainly not a bad room, and if your minds don’t work like ours there’s a good chance you’ll avoid the frustrations we ran into entirely. But for us this one didn’t quite come together.
Result – we escaped in 58 minutes
Date played: 5 September 2017
Team: Dean, Katherine
Summary: A solid game that was let down by either bad puzzle design or poor hosting. I'm still not sure which is more responsible. Still worth playing if you're in Gravesend for their other games though.