We're big fans of escape rooms and used to do real-life ones regularly before the start of the pandemic, so we were excited to find a number of online versions to meet our puzzling needs during lockdown.
In fact, we've been doing online puzzles even longer than real-life escape rooms (does anyone else remember Puzzle Donkey?) but those tended to be standalone riddles or logic problems. New style online puzzles usually have an overarching story and use a variety of media for an immersive theatre sort of experience. With clever use of tech, you can search for clues and uncover mysteries through simulated phone or zoom calls, watching mocked-up CCTV or "hacking" into email accounts or secure systems.
Some of the online puzzles been hosted virtually by a human, but many use pre-recorded video and audio with automated hints to guide you through the puzzles. This makes sense as there's no limit to the number of groups who can attempt the puzzle simultaneously, and you can do it at your own pace and convenience rather than needing to book a slot. Best of all, we can video call friends or family to crack the puzzles together. In one hosted online experience we were in a group with a stranger; it was fun but not it's an ideal situation to meet someone new.
The challenges are different to real-life escape rooms; rather than being locked in a room with only your ingenuity to solve clues, you have the whole internet at your disposal. Instead of a physical space to search, there are social media channels to trawl through and Google maps to look for hidden clues in. We're always trying to beat the clock, of course, but solving puzzles from the comfort of your sofa doesn't generate the same level of anxiety and pressure as being locked in a room with a timer counting down, which is part of the fun (for us). The most enjoyable puzzles have a cinematic sense of drama and clever interactive ideas which draw you into the story.
Of the online interactive games that we've tried, we'd recommend the Plymouth Point mysteries on the trail of an ancient and shadowy organisation with nefarious plans. Rita's Cult Following is a point-and-click puzzle in a series of illustrated screens that look and feel like a virtual version of a real-life locked room. Our most recent experience was Tunnelling through Time based on the Brunel Museum Thames tunnel; collaborations like this are a great way to promote historical or cultural sites. The website Escape the Review lets you search for online/at home puzzles from across the world; it lists formats that we haven't tried yet such as puzzles to print at home and solve, and puzzles-by-post.
Naturally, we were inspired to create our own online puzzle. Coming up with the puzzles is harder than it looks! It's interesting to see how online puzzles are evolving as more time is spent on developing stories and environments. Hopefully they are here to stay - although nothing beats the excitement of a real-life escape room.
If you have any recommendations for online puzzles or virtual locked rooms, we'd love to hear them.