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

Coin Crew Games was created with a love for playing in physical and real-world spaces. From the start, the local company had one mission: to prove that these boxy arcade games never went out of style.

Video games for the Coin Crew team meant silly virtual worlds, bordering on the absurd, very social and, hopefully, extremely addictive. This was all designed to nod to an era of gaming where anything was possible when the medium was new and a bounty was placed on insanity. Coin Crew games don’t have to make sense. How about competitive bowling amid spaceships and cowboys? Sure. And their target audience? “Little children” and “drunken adults”, according to the battle bowling ground.

As if it weren’t clear, there was no big “universal morality” theme, says Coin Crew co-leader Wyatt Bushnell. Adds his partner Mike Mohammed Salyh, “I think having a light tone can break down barriers.”

Ah, so there’s a thesis behind the childishness of the Coin Crew: Games, Bushnell and Salyh believe, are for everyone.

But if battle bowling and previous arcade game Hot Wheels: King of the Road were both blazingly fast and focused on party-focused party play with instantly accessible controls, Coin Crew has matured a bit during the pandemic. The team’s first real home video game, escape academy, takes Coin Crew’s love of party-oriented games and adds a slightly mysterious narrative with some truly vexing puzzles. By setting the game in a university dedicated to escape rooms, the team had their choice of colorful settings in which to set their participatory challenges – think spacious computer labs, ornate Hogwarts-style libraries and cafeterias with antidotes to the poisonous potions on the menu.

escape academy is better with others, and having paper and pencil handy is recommended. More than an escape room translated to personal computers and Xbox and PlayStation video game consoles, escape academy has a light-hearted narrative reminiscent of point-and-click adventure games of yore – think LucasArts titles such as The Secret of Monkey Island – as it sets its puzzles against a lively, slightly comedic backdrop with an exaggerated cast of characters. And it’s designed to minimize frustration, with a built-in hint system and a forgiving countdown timer that expands puzzles rather than forcing players into laborious retry modes.

If Coin Crew ever boasted that their arcade games were potentially enhanced by drinking, consider escape academy welcoming and tolerant of newcomers to the game and puzzles, as well as the kind of title that begs to be played with friends, romantic partners and families, no additive substance is needed. None of that means its puzzles are easy, but it’s perfectly approachable, the kind of game designed for sitting on a couch and passing a controller around. In other words, this is the rare 2022 console video game meant to be shared with gamers and non-gamers alike, a reflection of Coin Crew’s universal ideology informed by working in the arcade industry.

“Every time we did a playtest we were like, ‘What’s the part that’s wrong here? “,” explains Bushnell, the son of Atari co-creator Nolan Bushnell. “Let’s disappoint less. That was our development philosophy.”

One such doctrine spoke to iam8bit, the local marketing company, gallery, and retailer of video game collectibles. With escape academy, iam8bit, a company known for its work in video game soundtrack publishing, is venturing into the game publishing business for the first time. There’ll 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 for what it hopes to bring to the video game space. .

Over the years, iam8bit has collaborated with many video game publishers, but usually for in-person promotional events, such as setting up a Fortnite-branded carnival outside of a pre-pandemic event at the Forum. The company has even dabbled in escape rooms, creating one themed around resident Evil franchise, as well as a more immersive theater-inspired real-life game tied to the film Alita: battle angel, an installation that took place in Los Angeles, New York and Austin. With escape academyiam8bit saw a game that could capture the emotional feel of its real-life projects – that is, a game that felt open to everyone despite their level of controller experience.

When it comes to creating in-person gaming events, Gibson likes to track those who enter an experience such as an escape room and express their skepticism. “You hear this comment all the time, ‘I’m not good at this stuff.’ Well, wait, because you will,” says Gibson. “It’s empowering to design something that encourages and harnesses everyone’s special abilities. That’s what escape academy is. Even if you’re not playing, the magic is that it might be you and your spouse, and grandma is behind you screaming at the TV. She doesn’t want to touch the controller, but she wants to participate.”

Not everyone had this instant reaction.

To release the game, iam8bit partnered with Skybound Entertainment, whose managing partner Ian Howe wasn’t exactly looking for an escape game. They come with a few pre-conceived notions: little replay value (when you escape and are done), little story, an over-reliance on cipher puzzles, and the very appeal of making an escape room – being in a space physical with others under a lack of time — does not necessarily translate digitally. “A problem,” says Howe, “that didn’t necessarily need solving.”

escape academy, he says, proved him wrong. The game’s college setting allows it to feel expansive and creates a sense of forward momentum. Players don’t just solve puzzles, they unbox a world and discover this strange school dedicated to crafting puzzles, complete with a confusing cast of characters – nervous students, serious teachers, occasional slackers, maintenance staff with weird obsessions. They also unveil a mystery with some slight hints of a conspiracy. After all, at the start of the game, players feel like they’ve been kidnapped and pushed into this escape school.

“Tonally, it’s just kind of quirky,” Howe says, adding that he was relieved to have avoided escape room tropes “by the numbers” and had an underlying narrative. “I love games that are a bit offbeat. It challenged my preconceptions of what an escape game should be.”

But to fully understand what makes escape academy unique, you have to get a sense of the kind of escape room type experiences that Bushnell and Salyh had created in real life. There was a bit of luck involved. Bushnell’s brother, Brent, happens to be one of the managers of downtown’s Two Bit Circus, a modern, carnival-themed arcade with an emphasis on on group games. Two Bit’s escape rooms are dubbed “story rooms” because they’re not so much about finding a way out as finding out how an alternate world works – think operating on a puppet where the organs look like candy and blood, we are told, comes from unicorns.

Before Two Bit opened in 2018, Bushnell was helping the team with one of his story rooms. Salyh learned that Two Bit was looking for an escape room designer. He had spent the past few years trying to get an escape-room-in-a-box concept off the ground, but it never materialized. “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 catch: Salyh had never actually 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 places players on a spaceship deck going haywire. There are lots of mini-games, lots of shouting, and lots of racing between stations to avoid disaster. Video game enthusiasts may see a similarity to the mobile hit Space team, which Bushnell cites as an influence. The Space squad The partnership led to the two creating Coin Crew but also solidified their love for a particular brand of escape room.

“I think an escape room is kind of like a point-and-click adventure game, where there are all these parallel lines where you’re solving things at the same time,” Bushnell explains. “One of the things that has allowed us to go digital is that an escape room is completely tied to the theme of the room. Like in our computer lab level, most of the puzzles are about computer science and are about it. Our art The classroom is all about perception puzzles I don’t think there is a specific type of escape room puzzle The best escape rooms are the ones where you take this piece and say “How can 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, guests tend to try to touch everything, open everything, and pull everything off the walls. Escape rooms should be built to last. But that mindset can quickly lead to being overwhelmed in digital space, frantically moving a cursor around trying to touch virtually everything on the screen.

escape academy made an effort to accommodate this player habit. Most objects on a desk or wall are clickable, but the game is very straightforward in spelling out when an item is merely an environmental detail versus something that can be fully interacted with.

“It’s very thoughtful,” Bushnell says. “It’s like, ‘Don’t focus on that. Focus on that. It’s just a pun. There’s no reference to the puzzle.’ When we sat down and thought about what didn’t make us feel good, I realized that I had never had a red herring where I 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 an actual game-inspired escape room. White smiles and hints that the idea has crossed their minds. mind, but for now the iam8bit team is not taking the lead. Gibson first says they hope to redefine what an escape game can be, and part of that will require surprising those who think they know what an escape game entails.

“The common thing that we get told over and over and over again is, ‘Wow, that was way better than I expected,'” Gibson says. “That’s one of the biggest compliments you can give, really. Because we underpromote and overdeliver in every way possible. That’s what you expect from a theme park. That’s what what you expect from a concert. It’s what you expect from anything.”

Under-promoting and over-delivering isn’t the most conventional of slogans, but it befits a game that comes across as a modest collection of puzzles and ends up being full of surprises. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service

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