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After Thursday I could barely find time to sit down and actually write the blog. And if there was time, I opted for sleep instead. So I decided to finish off my trip in one fell swoop when I got back!
Here we go!
Canadian Bumpkin Status- Skyrocketed To 200%
I experienced my first real travel anxiety attack. We were running a bit late and suddenly all the possibilities of all the appointments and travel deadlines I would miss and the unfamiliarity with the country I was in came in at me in one overwhelming swoop. I became a silent, worried mess. Thankfully it’s good to have friends around who will shove you in a cab so you can get to your AirBNB and tell you things will be fine. Things were fine.
Also, friends who do all the planning are awesome. Thanks Lisa of REA!
I learned in the Netherlands that cars will stop for people but cyclists will not. The cyclists are mad with power.
There is no such thing as a cheap meal in Europe. However there is no tipping so I think it sort of works out in the end.
Amsterdam is lovely. I want to live on a houseboat but it is 1.2 million euros to live in one.
Canals are so cool!
The European transit system is amazing. The buses seem to come every five minutes and you can pay your fare with your credit card instead of standing awkardly with not quite enough change. And they have paper tickets you can tap on an electronic reader! I gawked at it like the bumpkin I am for a full five minutes.
Every person I came across in Breda warned me of pickpockets in Amsterdam. I tried my best to put on my “I don’t care about your life” Toronto face and walk confidently down the street while at the same time discreetly glancing at the precious blue line on my map which would tell me where to go. I was not pickpocketed but I don’t think it was due to my attempted ruse.
I realize that before GPS we used these things called maps. I am glad I did not have to read a map myself but am secretly glad there was no way I could get lost.
Speaking of which, I missed the straightforward gridlike structure of Toronto streets. These medieval streets were pretty but lacking in all logic or sense.
We went to the strangest, hippest Thai restaurant/clup called Chin’s Club (or something like that). It had a wall of waving cats, Nintendo decorations, rude waiters and expensive hip food.
I discovered kroketten. They are meat mixed with gravy/flour deep-fried in batter and wrapped in bread. They were the best Dutch food I had.
I got propositioned. Twice.
On to the important stuff! Which Escapes did we do?!
Friday I was travelling with David and Lisa of REA and Juliana of Escape Room in a Box! The first stop was a beachside town called Zandvoort to visit Escape Room Zandvoort (note: we would have easily stayed in that town just to hang on the beach for a week).
We did two rooms there: The Boat Trip and The Goldmine. Since Lisa and David were doing these rooms and we all gave our thoughts afterward I will let their reviews speak for most of my thoughts.
They were fun, but they did remind me of a lot of other Canadian rooms puzzle and set design wise. These were not the fabled Netherland experiences I had heard so much about. However they were still mostly solid and did have some fun tech elements I have not seen in Canadian rooms all that often.
After that we rushed to Amsterdam and did Boom Chicago. The room was movie themed and did some neat things with the space Again, since David and Lisa also did it with me I would read their review since we all had the same thoughts on it.
Then there was Sherlocked’s The Vault.
Oh man. The Vault.
I was not originally going to do this room. The main reason was my lack of an available team (the secondary reason is heist rooms make me nervous ). My friends seemed to have already done or were doing it at times I was not available.
Then lo and behold who should message me but a complete stranger who was looking to do it that very evening! It turned out it was a newlywed couple on their honeymoon who had booked the room only to later learn they needed a minimum of four. They joined the enthusiast group with the express purpose of finding someone and were shocked at the number of potential players currently in the Netherlands (they had no clue there was a conference going on)
Because I was in the midst of my travel freakout I waffled on actually going, but David said that I of all people needed to play this room. I am so glad I did.
The Vault is by far in my top 5 escapes of all time. THIS was the experience I had heard all about. From the moment you book the room, the focus is all on immersing the player into the world of the game. You do not even walk into an escape room upon arrival. You are texted a location to go and meet your contact.
From that moment it felt like I was in a movie. That feeling remained throughout the escape. The combination of actors, narrative, lighting, set, sound and puzzles all made for a fantastic experience.
There was one element toward the end though that almost took me out of the experience. I hesitate to call it a tech failure but that’s probably the closest term to what occurred. The most I can say was that physical brute force was absolutely necessary. I had been warned about this aspect ahead of time and I’m glad I was. Most of the players I have talked to who completed it also had complaints about this part of the game. If they tweaked just this element, it would be a near perfect experience.
Still! Go play Sherlocked’s The Vault if you get the chance! It is an unforgettable experience.
Most of Day 6 was Introvert Tourist Day! Again, I was a bad enthusiast but having never traveled I think I made the right call by booking alone time throughout my trip just to take in the sites.
Canadian Bumpkin Status- Tacky Tourist
I wen to the Anne Frank House. I hate to say something like “I enjoyed it” about such an experience, but it was an important museum I wanted to see and although it was sad I am glad I got to see it. I am even more glad the museum gift shop consisted only of copies of the diary. I seriously dreaded what kind of stuff might be there.
I ate a Dutch pancake. It was apple bacon. It was amazing. The syrup however was not. It was thick and tasted odd to me. I missed maple syrup.
The Dutch seem obsessed with being American. There were always American options on the menus or American roadhouse style restaurants all around.
I went on a canal cruise! It was a beautiful day and a lot of locals were on the water. Their boats had really comfy seating and space to put their food and drinks. The people of Amsterdam know how to live.
I stopped by a tack tourist booth and bought tacky tourist magnets. In Toronto I laughed at tourists who bought Canadian souvenirs. Now here I was…one of them.
I ate Indonesian food which I was told was really good in the Netherlands. My friends were right.
I spent my last few coins taking tacky tourist pictures like this one. Gotta support local artists?
I went full Canadian bumpkin when our Dutch friend suggested we sit somewhere illegal to have some drinks (or at least just somewhere the public aren’t supposed to go). I was practically stamping my foot in panic. They relented to my cowardly/law abiding ways and we sat by the canals. I assured them that were it an escape room, I would be one of the first over the fence. Maybe.
I was also weirded out by drinking alcohol so freely out in the open on the streets. I quickly got over that.
There was only one escape for Day 6: Logic Logiclocks’ The Catacombs.
This. Was. Terrifying. And awesome. Awesomely terrifying.
This game appealed to me even moreso than the vault because of my love of ghost stories and horror. And boy did it deliver. Much like the Vault, the pre-game experience seemed to be just as integral to the game as the escape room itself. Also like the Vault, which was housed in a real bank vault, the Catacombs was located in a real church catacombs.
I played this game with my new British enthusiast friends Sera and Sharon. The game designers dialed back the jump scares a bit due to the fact that Sera has a heart condition. It was pretty easy to see where they would have appeared though and I appreciated that even with the jump scares they would have used them sparingly.
What the room did really well was slowly ratchet up the tension and creepiness with small, well placed scary moments. They do what horror does best: let the players fill in the gaps with their own imagination and let the fears fly!
And fly they did. Sharan was the brave superstar of our group, and we readily sent her into the most terrifying situations of the room. This backfired a couple of times when the two scared people of the group suddenly found ourselves alone in the room with no brave player to protect us. It all worked out though.
Again, it felt like a movie. I felt like a paranormal investigator in over their head. The actor was probably one of my favourite actors of all the escape rooms I played that week. The energy he brought just completed the experience.
It all came to a huge climatic ending that of course I won’t spoil. I mention it though (and Sherlocked’s the Vault) because these rooms have something a lot of escape rooms here lack: a satisfying ending for a lose state. Not every team will win, but every team will get an ending that at least feels just as complete as if they had won.
The Catacombs also had something that I do not see enough of (to be fair, I have not played as much as some enthusiasts): they managed to use subtle environmental storytelling and weave it into the puzzles.
Subtle sounds we had heard throughout the experience at first seemed like just great ways to scare us. But they also held important clues for later puzzles. At the same time, the sounds were not beating us over the head with meaning. When the puzzles eventually appeared later, the aha came to us organically. It was really nice, little touches like this that launched this game into my top 5 as well.
I did not realize while playing, but the Catacombs is a scored game. Some of the scoring depends on how closely you have been paying attention to the narrative. I had not seen that done anywhere in scored escape rooms before. It usually just depends how many puzzles you complete and how fast you solve.
Best of all: this game had credits at the end! Credits! That named everyone involved! I really wish more escapes did this!
It was such a great way to end my time in The Netherlands. Afterward my friends and I bought a bottle of wine and drank along the canals nerding out about escape rooms. It was the perfect conclusion to the whole trip.
Stay tuned for my final summary and thoughts on European escape rooms!
Now that the conference is over, it’s time to focus my rapidly dwindling energies on my very first European escape rooms!
There were offers to do some escapes in Rotterdam for the day, but three days of non-stop action has finally been catching up to me. I decided to be a bad enthusiast and use the day to chill and explore a little more of Breda before the Prison Escape in the evening.
I am glad I did it! It’s been wonderful meeting so many people but talking takes a lot out of me. It was nice to meander through the city center and try out whatever I came across.
These things included:
A park with random chickens and roosters.
A castle that was sadly not open.
A dollhouse/miniature museum! It was really crazy!
A begijnhof, which was a sort of convent/cloister for a group of women who were not really nuns but wanted to live the lives of nuns. There was some neat history there.
Canadian Bumpkin Status- Back up to 80% thanks to my crappy Dutch and a woman scaring me with stories of pickpockets in Amsterdam
As predicted, I have quickly abandoned any Dutch I learned and have switched to English. It’s easier on all of us. It has driven me to want to learn more though. Still, I feel bad to abuse my English privilege.
The walk signals at traffic lights emit quick machine-gun like sounds when it’s safe to cross. This prompts me to try and dash across as fast as I can.
Tipping is not a thing. Or maybe it is? Sometimes if I say nothing the waiters just give me the bill and tell me the price and I silently hand them my credit card. If I reveal my Canadian bumpkin status, they tell me the space I can use if I want to add “extra”. I always add extra. It feels weird not to.
I have discovered that buying a coke is the same price as buying a beer here. The Netherlands is turning me into a beer drinker purely because it’s more cost effective.
The roads in Breda are a medieval design, which means it’s mostly pedestrians with a few bikes and scooters racing by followed by the occasional car that just tries to clear a path for themselves through the crowds. My weirdest moment came watching a car drive through followed very closely by children on roller blades.
And now! The Prison Escape!
Well, that was an experience.
For those that do not know, the Prison Escape is a large, theatrical interactive escape experience that involves being incarcerated in an actual prison.
The project is insanely ambitious. It involves 80 actors, usually 400 players (in our game it was only the 100 from the conference), and multiple storylines that are impossible to see in one playthrough. The setting of the Prison Breda dome only increased the immersion factor. So I really appreciate all of the work that went into it.
The beginning worked well to get us into our roles as inmates. The guards made sure we knew our place. In fact, most of the first hour was spent simply being integrated into the system: receiving our bades, our prison uniforms, being led from one line to the next and finally meeting our warden.
Admittedly, I felt bad for those that arrived first. They had to stand in a silent line and wait for the rest of the players to get ready. From what I heard, that aspect grew tedious.
We were then randomly placed with our cell mates (mine ended up being David Spira…so not so random). And then the game began!
I’m obviously not going to reveal many of the details of my playthrough of my time behind bars. My overall experience amounted to a lot of wandering around lost interspersed with moments of tense fun.
Listening to other player stories, there seemed to be some inconsistency in the experiences. Some players found every single minute to be packed with excitement. Some players started out strong but then ended up with nothing for the second half. Some players, like myself, spent much of the first half either figuring out what to do or performing somewhat pointless tasks and then having a really exciting second half.
There were instances where it sounded like the other players were doing very interesting things while I simply waited in my area for something to do. Sometimes when I volunteered for a task, it led nowhere. Finally, I managed to get a task that led to a really fun interaction with a prison guard.
The ultimate goal was to escape and luckily I succeeded. I ended up being swept up in one of the plots and the ending was a very satisfying one that made for some great stories. I kind of wish my entire experience had felt like that. The general consensus was if you did not manage to get on a good storyline fast enough, you were pretty much doomed to watch other players have more fun.
I think what was frustrating for the losing teams was that they did not get an ending of any sort. A team does not need to necessarily succeed to receive a satisfying ending. Fail states are something I would actually love to write about someday.
Overall though I still had fun and would recommend. In fact, I think I would play it again now that I know how it works. I liked there were multiple paths you could take depending on what clues you found early on. I liked the interactions I did manage to have with the actors. I LOVED my ending. I just think there were aspects that could be tightened up.
Having run similar events in Toronto, I know how insanely difficult it is to plan out player flow on such a large scale. The fact that the team mostly managed it with multiple story endings is impressive. I love seeing an escape company trying such new and big things. I will be interested to see what they come up with next for sure.
In the meantime…my feet are sore…prison floors are hard.
Today was the final day of Up the Game! It was just as great as the first day.
But first! How did I fare in my European adventures?!
Canadian Bumpkin Status- Still Bumpkin, but with 70% less scared eyes
I figured out the shower. My relief knows no end.
I am having extreme paranoia about my outlet converter. I keep watching my various appliances wondering if they will explode at any second.
You know what? I LIKE that the toilet is separate from the bathroom. I don’t know how I will deal when I get back to Canada.
So. Many. Bikes. Bikes rule the road in the Netherlands. That much is clear. God help you if you are a pedestrian and you walk into a bike lane by accident. The lack of helmets is still weird to me.
On the flip side, the sheer amount of pedestrian friendly areas is astounding to me. I am getting spoiled for sure.
Macarons are awesome here. That is all.
Back to the conference!
Much like yesterday, I had a lot of trouble figuring out what talks to attend.
First I attended Ariana and Juliana’s (of Escape the Werewolf Experiment fame) talk on how escape rooms can expand their business without building whole new rooms. They of course had great ideas.
One bit of frustration with the conference so far has been the way they handled activity registration. The first frustration was that we did not really know where to sign up for activities. By the time we found out, they had all been booked.
The second frustration was that not even the staff really knew what classified an “activity” and whether they even needed a sign up. This led to my confusion about how to get a spot on Ubisoft’s new VR project. They were not in the official schedule nor were they on the showroom floor, so no one knew how exactly you got to try it out. By the time I found out of course, it had been booked up for the day.
*Note: I know how difficult it is to organise these things. This was just my individual experience.
Crestfallen, I followed Lisa down to the basement where she was scheduled to try the VR game. My hope was her game partner would not show up and I could take his place. It was almost a lost cause, but suddenly a man came out of the room, looked at me and asked if I wanted to play. It seemed his wife was trying it out and discovered she had a fear of heights. They needed someone to replace her. What luck! (Well…luck for me…poor woman).
It was super fun! Honestly, I can’t wait until the game launches officially! I can’t say much about it alas due to the press freeze but more info should be coming soon! All I can really say is that trying to aim with your left hand when you are clearly right handed might be a bit…dumb…really dumb….
I attended three more talks that day. One was on safety in escape rooms. This was the first talk in which the language barrier made it a bit difficult to understand. From what I heard though, the Russian escape community had a lot more safety rules to implement (think chainsaws with sparks again).
There was also a world building talk from Andrew Preble of Escape My Room! It was really interesting and gave some practical advice for how to build your escape world with every resource you have. This could be from the room itself right down to your website.
Then of course there was Lisa and David Spira’s talk on the good and bad habits of the escape room industry as a whole. What can I say…if you have the chance, watch this talk when it comes up on youtube. It said everything that was in my brain, supported it with examples AND was well spoken to boot.
Finally I joined Bill and Dani on their live show of Escape This Podcast! I really wish more people had come but it was a tough time slot and there was a lot of confusion over whether it was considered an activity and thus had to be signed up for. Regardless, those that did show up were engaged and laughed. Dani and Bill were both energetic and fun as ever.
I had such a blast being a guest. My fellow guests Nick, Ethan and Ken all had a sharp wit that leant itself well to the podcast format. I really hope they get to do it again next year. I would watch in a heartbeat.
I missed SO MUCH during this conference but I have been assured the talks will be available online. When they become available I would highly recommend you check them out!
With the conference concluded I and all the other participants headed to a nearby bar for the after party. In the tradition of all after parties, the music was far too loud and the people far too awesome. I made some more friends and swapped conference and escape stories.
I will admit that I am coming at this conference from the perspective of a newcomer. Up The Game is unlike any conference I have ever attended. That is not the case for everyone though.
For some, this was the second time they were attending. And when I inevitably asked how they enjoyed the conference, a few replies came back as “It was good. But not as good as last year’s. I really liked meeting people, but I wish they had talked about such and such more.”
This was not everyone’s opinion. But it is important for me to keep this in mind when writing of my experiences. For myself, I rarely get to be in a room full of like minded individuals to talk about immersion. It was incredibly fulfilling for me.
But for others, they had hoped either for a bit more evolution or a for a few more practical examples of how to accomplish their lofty goals. They still enjoyed themselves, certainly, but they did hope for more from the content being presented.
All that being said, I would absolutely attend this conference again. I think it’s important to keep these types of talks going. More importantly, I think it’s important to keep the community going. The more we talk to each other, the more we can grow as an industry.
I had so much fun at Up the Game :D. The things I learned, the discussions I had, and the people I met made the trip more than worth it. If I manage to save my pennies again I would definitely go next year.
That is not the end of the blog series though! Tomorrow is some sightseeing and a prison escape! From a real prison! With actors!
My hope is that I can be the prison snitch. I always fancied myself a Wormtongue.
Today was Day 1 of Up the Game!
It. Was. Awesome.
Canadian Bumpkin Adventures
Europe is still amazing and I keep finding new ways to fail at it.
I had troubles figuring out my shower.
The complete lack of bike helmets concerned me.
I managed to get completely lost on the way home. Luckily the locals were helpful and it was only a little scary.
When I finally got home I could not work the lock correctly. I had to wake up my poor AirBNB host.
Still I am having a grand time and can’t wait to explore it more!
Enough about that. What about the conference?!
Pretty much everything in Europe so far has been at least twice as pretty as whatever we have in Ontario. The Prison Dome in Breda is no exception.
This place is huge and such a unique way to use the old prison space! It is also the location of the prison escape I will be doing on Thursday, which I am super excited about.
The dome itself provided a space for exhibitors as well as a general meet-up area for attendees. This is pretty much how I met up with everyone I already knew.
Speaking of which…
I cannot say enough how fantastic everyone I came across was. I got to reconnect with friends I had already met, meet online friends in person for the first time, and meet entirely new friends altogether.
Everyone was incredibly friendly and welcoming despite my awkward conversation blunders. We nerded out all day about escape rooms. Naturally there were rants, but we managed talked about what we loved as well :D.
The most interesting conversations I had were with owners from around the world as we compared the trends happening in the industry. Was one country more tech obsessed? Did another just get out of that phase? And so forth.
Apparently in Eastern Europe there is a haunt in which you are chased down a hallway by a maniac with a chainsaw. A real, running, spark producing chain saw.
..nope. Just nope.
I would list everyone here but…there were so many people. They will more than likely be mentioned or heard in the podcast recap later.
This is the first conference in which I had difficulty deciding what to watch. There was SO much going on often at the same time and I had to make the agonizing choice of what to miss.
I managed to get to three talks today in between chasing attendees for podcast interviews.
The first was a talk from my friend Ken and Sera of The Logic Escapes Me about player experience. Even if they were not already my friends, I would say this was chock full of valuable information for owners. It covered bigger topics like flow but also went more detailed like how to be careful how you use colour in a room.
Also they had the best slide.
I saw another one on meaningful choice in rooms. This was probably the most philosophical I have seen a talk about escape rooms get. It was really interesting and not a topic I see get covered a lot (at least not a constructive one with possible solutions).
A lot of people wanted to talk to the speaker, Jasper Wille, afterward. I don’t blame them. I was one of them.
(Side note: Jasper later spotted me wandering hopelessly around the streets of Breda and leant me his WiFi signal to get me directions. So that makes him double awesome)
I missed out on many other fun talks such as one on VR, one on the future of the industry, one on playtesting, one on breaking the fourth wall…
You get the idea.
On top of all that I got to be on a storytelling panel! I was in heaven. Well…also nervous. Nervous heaven.
If I were a good blogger I would have gotten the full name of my fellow panelists. Instead I am listing them by first name like the amateur chump I am.
Except one! Lisa Spira of Room Escape Artist (okay I already knew her but it still counts). There was also Bart who was from Belgium, Zohan from the UK, and Emmi from Finland. They were all pros and really had some interesting ideas.
It was different being in a room of like minded individuals. When I talk about story, I am used to defending the need to have story in rooms (although this is becoming less frequent).
Here, everyone already agreed on that point. We could now focus on the actual “how” and the evolution needed. It was a lot of fun. I talked way too much.
I ended up buying a ticket for the dinner event at a nearby pub. I am glad I did! We got to relax, have some drinks and just gossip about escapes.
There was also SO MUCH MEAT.
So far I have been loving Up The Game. I can’t wait for Day 2!
Most of my friends are now well aware of my recent nerdy obsession: escape rooms. Since they became popular in North America a few years ago I have made them my primary creative focus in life.
So far I have played just over 200 games (I think…it’s hard for me to keep count), run three large scale theatrical events and even have a podcast devoted to all things escape rooms. Much like Myst when I was a kid, there is little else I will talk about.
But it is not just the thrill of seeing my favourite adventure games come to life in the real world or the fun of working with my friends that draws me to them. It is fascinating to see a potential art form from its inception. Read the rest of this entry
So there is a new genre of game out there. They are called Walking Simulators. Why? Because that’s what the majority of the game play involves. Walking…and story…and some interaction and minor game play…but mostly walking!
I’ve become a sucker for these games. I mean, I love a puzzler or shooter or candy crusher as much as the next person but sometimes I only have a couple of hours of free time and just feel like getting involved in a good story. Read the rest of this entry
I love the wonderful experimentation that’s been going on in video game narratives in the last few years. But every once in a while I crave a good nostalgic classic adventure game of ages past. Kathy Rain turned out to be the perfect way to spend my downtime.
Taking place in my beloved 1990’s, Kathy is a hardened, sarcastic and witty journalism student who visits her hometown after finding out that her grandfather whom she lost touch with has passed away. Naturally, not all is as it seems and Kathy soon finds herself elbow deep in government cover-ups, cults and good old fashioned super natural entities. Read the rest of this entry
Last September I and a small group of fellow escape room enthusiasts took it upon ourselves to create a large scale escape event that incorporated more story and interaction as well as puzzles. It was called Night at the Speakeasy and was a huge amount of fun. The feedback was so incredible that despite our exhaustion, we decided to make another event! It would be called Night at the Wedding and we decided on April.
It was, once again, a huge amount of work but so worth the effort. April 9th has come and gone and we honestly could not be happier with the results and the people involved. It was fantastically fun! Read the rest of this entry
A new video! The first in a long time! I decided to try my hand at editing again. It…mostly worked :D. I am still a big dummy when it comes to using the program. But I am still pleased with the result 😀
I have this problem often when I buy a tea. I may or may not have burned my tongue doing this.
I have been to Casa Loma in Toronto twice now. Both of those visits were for escape rooms. One of those escape rooms just happened tonight.
This particular escape room, King of the Bootleggers, is set in the 1920’s during prohibition. You play a team of bootleggers looking to cash in on the lucrative business of forbidden alcohol. Being that the mafia is involved, there are of course obstacles in the way like snitches, guns and far too many bruised egos. Read the rest of this entry