Last weekend I had a chance to try Puzzle Break, which bills itself as live-action room escape. You’re locked into a room with your team and have an hour to find the key; to do so you have to search a location and solve puzzles.
The nature of the thing is that it’s a physical setup in specific locations, so if you’re not within range of Seattle or San Francisco you’re out of luck. (Edit: there are, however, thousands of other live-action room-escape games in different cities across the world.) Also by nature, each game can only be played once by any given player, and is very vulnerable to spoilers, so I’ll be vague about the exact content. (They do change the setup periodically – the one we did was the second iteration, since some of the group had already done the first.)
You also need a group of friends to play – twelve is the recommended number, though it felt as though we were stumbling over one another a little; I think you could do just fine with the right nine or ten people. I definitely don’t recommend dragging anyone along if they don’t already enjoy puzzles. (I don’t usually categorise myself as someone who likes puzzles, but that’s largely because I know a lot of people who really, really like puzzles. Given the right puzzle I do okay.)
There are three big parts to the game, really: locating all the clues, solving the puzzles, and figuring out which clues go together with which puzzles and how they relate to one another. Efficient and clear communication is a huge deal: it’s essential to have a designated leader who’s able to track all the separate threads and identify where things link up, but it’s also important to have people who can self-direct. None of the individual puzzles or metas are extraordinarily hard, as puzzle events go; nothing close to the difficulty of Mystery Hunt here. There are some mild narrative elements, but really they’re just there to provide some thematic content.
In-game hinting is provided by a handful of facilitators, whose role is mostly to gently steer you away from horrible errors – if you’re about to abandon an approach despite being very close, if you put a crucial clue into the Solved pile despite it still containing important information, or if you think you’ve searched an area but really you missed something.
There are other, common-sense constraints: no outside help (phones are a no-no), no climbing or smashing or taking things apart with multitools – very like IF constraints, and for similar reasons. Similarly, there is – I think this isn’t too much of a spoiler – a point at which solving a mid-level puzzle opens up a second room, full of as many goodies as the first: that feeling of the new wealth of content beyond the unlocked gate is every bit as compelling in live-action. Suddenly you have new material to plug into puzzles that were growing a bit frustrating and stale, and everything’s exciting and new again.
Honestly, the part of the game that I enjoyed most was the searching. Searching doesn’t take up a high proportion of your time, since the environment is intentionally sparse; this makes sense given the one-hour constraint, since players will miss objects quite often enough without making it really difficult. But – you know how some games suggest the shape of another, better, vastly more impractical game? This made me think of something closer to live-action classic IF, with richer, less artificial-feeling environments, slower pace, more focus on the searching, specific tools permitted, more narrative-oriented puzzles. Live-action Crazy Uncle’s House. If I ever have a few million lying around and nothing better to do with it.