Surprise! One of the most delightful video games this year is an interactive escape room

Coin Crew Games was created with the love of playing in real world physical spaces. From the beginning, the local firm had a mission: to prove that those boxed arcade games never went out of style.

Video games for the Coin Crew team meant virtual worlds that were silly, wacky, highly social, and hopefully addictive. Everything was designed to nod to an era of gaming for anything, when the medium was new and a premium was placed on madness. Coin Crew games are pointless. How about competitive bowling between spaceships and cowboys? of course And your intended audience? “Little kids” and “drunk adults,” according to the “Battle Bowling” field.

In case it wasn’t clear, there wasn’t a big theme of “universal morality,” says Coin Crew co-leader Wyatt Bushnell. Adds partner Mike Mohammed Salyh: “I think having a cheerful tone can break down barriers.”

Oh, so there’s a thesis behind Coin Crew’s infancy: games, Bushnell and Salyh believe, are for everyone.

But if “Battle Bowling” and the previous arcade game “Hot Wheels: King of the Road” had a crazy pace and a party-focused game with instantly accessible controls, Coin Crew matured a bit during the pandemic. The team’s first home video game of its own, “Escape Academy,” takes Coin Crew’s love of party-centric games and adds a slightly mysterious narrative with some really irritating puzzles. Setting the game in a university dedicated to escape rooms, the team chose colorful settings in which to set their participatory challenges: think spacey computer labs, Hogwarts-style decorated libraries, and cafeterias with poisoned potion antidotes on the menu.

A video game that still shows a room lit by a fireplace.

A look at one of the puzzle-filled rooms of the mysterious “Escape Academy”.

(Coin Crew Games / iam8bit / Skybound)

“Escape Academy” is best with others, and it is recommended to have paper and a pencil handy. More than an escape room translated to home computers and Xbox and PlayStation video game consoles, “Escape Academy” has a light narrative that will be reminiscent of the point-and-click adventure games of yesteryear; think LucasArts titles like “The Secret of Monkey Island.” ” — as it sets its puzzles in a lively, slightly comical environment with an exaggerated cast of characters. And it’s designed to minimize frustration, complete with a built-in hint system and a forgiving countdown timer that allows puzzles to be spread out rather than forcing players into laborious retry modes.

If Coin Crew ever boasted that their arcade games were potentially enhanced by alcohol consumption, consider “Escape Academy” to be welcoming and tolerant of puzzle and game newbies, and the kind of title that begs to be played with friends. , romantic couples and families, no additive substances are needed. None of that means its puzzles are easy, but it’s blissfully accessible, the kind of game designed to sit on a couch and swipe a controller. In other words, it’s the rare console video game of 2022 meant to be shared with gamers and non-gamers alike, a reflection of Coin Crew’s all-user ideology informed by work in the arcade sector.

“Whenever we’d playtest, we’d say, ‘What part is the problem here?'” says Bushnell, the son of Atari co-creator Nolan Bushnell. “We’re going to do less harm. That’s been our development philosophy.”

Such doctrine spoke to iam8bit, the local marketing company, gallery and retailer of video game collectibles. With “Escape Academy,” iam8bit, a company best known for its work in video game soundtracks, ventures into the game publishing business for the first time. There will be more to come, say co-owners Jon Gibson and Amanda White, but for now, think of “Escape Academy” as the company’s own thesis statement for what it hopes to bring to the video game space.

A still text video game from "the Director"

“Escape Academy” is more than just a collection of escape rooms, as we discover a whole universe dedicated to puzzle craft.

(Coin Crew Games / iam8bit / Skybound)

Over the years, iam8bit has collaborated with numerous video game publishers, but usually for in-person promotional events, such as creating a “Fortnite”-branded carnival outside of a pre-pandemic event at the Forum. The firm even dedicated itself to escaping. rooms, creating a theme for the “Resident Evil” franchise, as well as a more immersive real-life game inspired by the theater tied to the movie “Alita: Battle Angel,” an installation that was released in Los Angeles, New York and Austin. With “Escape Academy”, iam8bit saw a game that could capture the emotional feel of his projects in real life, meaning a game that felt open to everyone regardless of their level of controller experience.

When it comes to creating in-person gaming events, Gibson likes to track down those who enter an escape room-like experience and express skepticism. “You hear this comment all the time: ‘I’m not good at that kind of thing.’ Well, wait, because you will be,” Gibson says. “It’s empowering to design something that encourages and takes advantage of everyone’s special ability. That’s ‘Escape Academy’. Even if you’re not playing, the magic is that maybe it’s you and your spouse, and grandma is behind you yelling at the TV. She doesn’t want to touch the controller, but she wants to participate.”

Not everyone had that instant reaction.

To launch the game, iam8bit partnered with Skybound Entertainment, whose managing partner Ian Howe wasn’t exactly looking for an escape room game. They come with some preconceived notions: little replay value (as you escape and finish), little story, an over-reliance on cryptic puzzles, and the very appeal of making an escape room: being in a physical space with others under a time crunch. . — doesn’t necessarily translate digitally. “A problem,” says Howe, “that I didn’t necessarily need to solve.”

“Escape Academy,” he says, proved him wrong. The college setting of the game allows it to feel expansive and creates a sense of forward momentum. Players aren’t just solving puzzles, they’re developing a world and discovering this strange school dedicated to puzzle craft, with a bewildering cast of characters: high-strung students, serious teachers, the occasional bum, maintenance staff with strange obsessions. . They are also unraveling a mystery with some faint hints of conspiracy. After all, at the start of the game, players feel as if they’ve essentially been kidnapped and put into this escape room school.

A photo video game of a switch room illuminated in purple

One of the puzzle rooms in “Escape Academy”.

(Coin Crew Games / iam8bit / Skybound)

“Totally, it’s deviant enough,” Howe says, adding that he was relieved that it avoided “by-the-numbers” escape room tropes and had an underlying narrative. “I love games that are a little off the wall. It challenged my preconceptions of what an escape room game should be.

But to fully understand what makes “Escape Academy” unique, you have to get a sense of the kind of escape room experiences that Bushnell and Salyh had created in real life. There was a bit of luck. Bushnell’s brother, Brent, is one of the stars of downtown’s Two Bit Circus, a modern carnival-themed arcade with an emphasis on group-centric gaming. Two Bit’s escape rooms are called ‘story rooms’, as it’s not so much about finding a way out as it is about discovering how an alternate world works – think operating in a puppet where the organs look like candy and blood, we’re counted, see of unicorns

Before Two Bit opened in 2018, Bushnell was helping the team with one of their story rooms. Salyh learned that Two Bit was looking for an escape room designer. He had been trying to come up with an escape room-in-a-box concept for the past few years, but it never came to fruition. “I had a mutual connection with Two Bit Circus, and an artist there said, ‘Hey, they need an escape room designer for this thing.’ I said, ‘I’m an escape room designer.’

One problem: Salyh had never designed a proper escape room. “I didn’t say a professional,” he says.

What Bushnell and Salyh worked on became Two Bit’s “Space Squad in Space,” a story room that puts players on a starship bridge. There are a lot of mini-games, a lot of shouting and a lot of racing between stations to avoid disaster. Video game fans may see a resemblance to the mobile hit “Spaceteam,” which Bushnell cites as an influence. The “Space Squad” partnership led the two to create Coin Crew but also solidified their love for a particular brand of escape room.

“I think of an escape room as a bit like a point-and-click adventure game, where there are all these parallel lines where you’re solving things at once,” says Bushnell. “One of the things that allowed us to go digital is that an escape room is about the theme of the room. Like in our computer lab level, most of the puzzles are around computers and are informed by that. Our classroom of art is about perceptual puzzles. I don’t think there’s a specific type of escape room puzzle. The best escape rooms are the ones where you take that room and say, “How do I hide things in plain sight in this room?”

The construction of physical spaces informed the game in several ways. In real-world escape rooms, there is a tendency for guests to try to touch everything, open everything, and throw everything off the walls. Escape rooms must be built to last. But that mindset can quickly lead one to become overwhelmed in a digital space, frantically moving the cursor to try to touch virtually everything on the screen.

“Escape Academy” makes an effort to account for this player habit. Most objects on a table or a wall are clickable, but the gameplay is very straightforward when an item is simply an environmental detail versus something that can be fully interacted with.

“He’s very thoughtful,” says Bushnell. “It’s like, ‘Don’t focus on this. Focus on this. This is just a play on words. There is no puzzle reference. As we sat and thought about what didn’t feel right, I realized that I’ve never had a red herring where [was] like, “Yeah, I love a good red herring!”

Given iam8bit’s experience building physical spaces, a natural question is whether the company is planning a real-life escape room inspired by the game. White smiles and suggests that the thought has crossed his mind, but for now the iam8bit team is not moving forward. First, Gibson says they hope to redefine what an escape room game can be, and part of that will require surprising those who think they know what an escape room game is all about.

“The common thing we hear over and over again is, ‘Wow, it was a lot better than I expected,'” says Gibson. “That’s one of the highest compliments you can give anything, really. Because we’re under-promising and over-delivering in every possible way. That’s what you want from a theme park. That’s what you want from a concert. That’s what you want from anything.”

Under-promise and over-deliver is not the most conventional motto, but it is suitable for a game that presents itself as a modest collection of puzzles and ends up full of surprises.

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