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Surviving lockdown with a play-at-home escape game

When lockdown measures were announced on 23rd March 2020 our Swindon escape room venue entered hibernation mode. While we completely agreed it was the right thing to do, this meant we would not be able to share our unique creations with visiting teams for at least three months. Neither would we have a source of income. After calling a crisis meeting at the kitchen table, Sofie and I decided that there were two options. Firstly, we could sit back and wait until able to safely reopen, relying on savings and any government grants we might qualify for to see us through. Or, secondly, we could use this as a perfect opportunity to push our creativity in new directions, developing a fresh product for our customers. Several cups of tea later and we were already sketching out the first ideas for our ‘Oldervik Online’ play-at-home escape room series!

As the name implies, we wanted these games to follow a new story set within the same universe as our award-winning physical game, Professor Dunstan and the Search for the Ancient Statuette. Of course, players wouldn’t need to have experienced this beforehand, but those who had might find a few hidden Easter eggs as a bonus. We did also consider running live-hosted versions of our existing escape rooms and portable hire game (where team members join a conference video call and together direct an avatar), however it was clear that many of the puzzles and interactions would not translate well to remote play without considerable modification – if you’ve played our very hands-on Sub Terra or Captain’s Treasure games, you can probably appreciate why! For us, a play-at-home escape room was the way to go.

With the theme and overarching story agreed, the real challenge was to design a game system that re-creates the core feelings of being inside a real life escape room. In my view, these boil down to: the ability to physically manipulate objects, a sense of exploration and discovery, and being immersed in the game environment. And, of course, don’t forget the puzzles!

Physical elements
It was clear from the beginning that the most accessible method to add physical elements was through a print-and-play format. It sounds obvious to point out, but A4 printouts are extremely versatile and can bring a puzzle to life through cutting, folding, drawing or the crafting of objects. Still, we were mindful that printers (and ink) were likely to become precious commodities in households working and schooling from home under lockdown, so economy in design was also important. Printable pages therefore had to be relatively few in number, presented in black and white, and require a low amount of ink. Thankfully we were able to meet all these requirements and for those without easy printer access we even offer to print and post the necessary game files for a very small extra cost.

Exploration and discovery
The key here was to find a way to surprise players with new information and puzzles as they progressed through the game. Sure, some of the A4 printouts could be kept aside, but it is all too easy to sneak a peek at them in advance. In the end we decided to deliver a large portion of the game content online, which means much of it will gradually be unlocked after successfully entering a puzzle solution or interacting with a web page in the right manner. To keep the game feeling dynamic and to allow individual players to ‘move around the room’ independently of one another, the online elements are accessed after scanning QR codes on a mobile device. Depending on the situation, this can represent you exploring a new area, investigating a recently discovered item or speaking to an in-game character.

Immersive environments
Without a beautiful set to fall back on, immersion is perhaps the most difficult aspect to capture in any play-at-home escape game. As a result, a strong emphasis had to be placed on weaving the puzzles and story together into a compelling narrative where nothing felt out of place. Add to this a series of colourful hand-drawn illustrations and Oldervik’s world really comes to life.

It’s a tough challenge to create something that appeals to lots of different people, but we’re so pleased that our Oldervik online game has been very well received. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed working on this new project and will continue to do so as lockdown is gradually lifted because there is more of the story to tell! It’s also been a fantastic opportunity to give back to our community, with a portion of our sales being donated to the NHS Brighter Futures charity (£600 raised so far!). We look forward to welcoming players back to our Swindon escape room venue when it is safe to do so and in the meantime hope we’ve provided great entertainment at home.

Oldervik Online is an episodic adventure – Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 are already available, with Chapter 3 currently in the works.

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