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When Your Friends Become the Story: A Narrative Beginning

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A screenshot from Ellen: The Game

Here's Dexter Woltman with a window into the student assignment that helped him get a job in the game industry.

Before I was hired on as junior writer/designer here at Brunette Games, I was a student in Lisa Brunette’s class at Webster University. It was a narrative writing class, of course, and one that specialized in video games. Over the course of the semester, Lisa had taught us all sorts of useful practices and tips. When it came time for our final, we students were given a choice. We could either write the script for a game, or turn in an entire game we made ourselves. I did the latter, and it’s part of what led to my involvement with Brunette Games. 

Anyone who has known me for long knows that I’ve always had a habit of writing stories about my friends. In high school, it was short stories and books about friends. In college, it evolved into a different format... first movie scripts, and then games about my friends. Writing about friends is actually a great practice for any writer. It allows you to draw upon pre-established, deep, complex characters, and craft a narrative around them. It helps writers realize the complexity that comes into each character, and how every little quirk is just part of a larger whole. Once a writer understands that, it makes it easier to craft original, equally complex characters. I’ve been practicing my craft this way for a lot of years now, and I’m not even the only one on my campus who does it. 

When it came to Lisa’s final assignment, I decided to create my own game using a software called RPG Maker MV. Coincidentally, during that same semester, it was my roommate Ellen’s birthday. To celebrate the birthday of one of my closest friends, I decided to make my game about her, which is the beginning of how Ellen: The Game came to be.

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Ellen: The Game proved to be a successful venture for me. Clocking in at about three to four hours of game time, it was an enjoyable story about my friends and me living inside an actual video game. It also took itself very literally. In the game, my narrative counterpart had created the game world for Ellen, only for the characters to lose control of it to a mysterious villain. Not only did Ellen and my friends love it, but Lisa Brunette did, too, and that helped pave the way for me to eventually join Brunette Games. 

Ellen: The Game also taught me a lot about game development as a whole. To start, it’s so much more than just writing a story. RPG Maker MV does a lot of the heavy lifting for creators, but there’s still a lot of programming and development that goes into the creation process. There are maps to account for, resources, limitations, items, et cetera. All of that had to be funneled into narrative. Just about everything a game needed, I had to create on my own. And when RPG Maker MV couldn’t match my preferences, I had to look to external sources for coding and plug-in management. It was a lengthy process, but also an enjoyable one.

Throughout the entire development process on Ellen: The Game, there were two things I learned that stuck out to me the most. The first was the value of honest feedback. As much as my friends loved the game, nothing is perfect. Bosses were too hard, the level cap was small, and the non-manual save system was limiting. The second thing that stuck out to me was narrative planning. When it came to Ellen: The Game, I thought of it more as a minor, personal project. A lot of the story was sort of made up as I went along, including the ultimate villain reveal, which happened to be a vacuum cleaner named Fuego. I knew that in the future, I had to plan out these narratives more thoroughly. I had to know exactly where I wanted my characters to be, and when I wanted my characters to be there. And that is exactly the mindset I carried into Paradise: The Sequel.

I began creating Paradise: The Sequel the summer after I finished Brunette’s class. A much more ambitious project, it was the next step on the road that eventually came to be the New Dork Trilogy, New Dork City being a primary location in the games that features hundreds of Ellen duplicates as its citizens. This time, I was much more prepared. I learned from my experiences with Ellen: The Game and came into the project with a full narrative outline, as well as with all the feedback I received from my first venture. Bosses were easier, the level cap was doubled, and now players could save on the fly. The story itself was also more ambitious, bringing the characters from the first game into the “Trash Bin” of the original game world. It ultimately led to a split narrative, with an important choice that brought players to one of two entirely different final chapters.

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The player makes an important choice in Paradise: The Sequel

Paradise: The Sequel was a hallmark of my personal projects. It gave me a great experience with game and narrative development. By the end, it was about eight hours of adventure, if players included both endings, as well as the different post-stories attached to each one. By the time I was done with it, I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to finish the story and go out with a bang, which is exactly why I began developing Parallel: The Finale.

Parallel: The Finale has been my most ambitious project yet. Nine months in, and I’m still not finished with it. The story follows a large time jump and takes the characters to a parallel universe, doubling the cast with parallel counterparts. The narrative is also much deeper, now having characters deal with losses and personal developments. By this point, I had perfected the characterizations of my friends, and now I wanted to show how I could change them. I’ve also taken what I’ve learned from my time at Brunette Games, doubling down on narrative and emphasizing the value of teamwork by bringing in friends to help with character designs, narrative feedback, and custom animations.

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The player enters New Dork City in Parallel: The Finale

What started out as a hobby grew into an academic project. What grew as an academic project led to a position, one that I can continually learn new things from that enhance my writing skills. Filled with passion and commitment, the New Dork Trilogy has been an incredibly momentous project for me. It’s something I will likely never forget. And now, as I evolve to new, exciting things, it’s very likely Parallel: The Finale will be the last story I ever write about my friends. As sad as I am to see that go, it’s almost like a final send-off for me as I graduate college, something that will drive me into the next era of adulthood. Ellen: The Game started a new chapter of my story, but it certainly didn’t end it.


The Council: An Unappealing Game You Should Be Playing

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Tamsen Reed here with a review/narrative design analysis.

“It’s a really good game if you can ignore the visuals. And the voice acting. Plus, the dialogue is bad, too.”

My complex love affair with narrative role-playing game The Council has become something of a joke among my peers and friends. I’ll admit that my protestations may sound somewhat ridiculous.

Maybe it’s not a strong endorsement for The Council, an episodic RPG from Bordeaux-based Big Bad Wolf Studio. I don’t believe in misleading people. There’s a LOT you have to ignore in order to enjoy it. This game evokes so many mixed emotions that I can’t truly be sure if I hate it or if I love it.

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The PC is confronted by Cardinal Piaggi right as he enters the mansion. We can’t use the Diversion or Science dialogue options, as we haven’t unlocked them yet.

Yet, The Council succeeds because of its innovative use of RPG elements in a narrative-focused game. It makes for arguably a more interesting experience than is offered by most point-and-click adventures or Telltale Games. You play as Louis de Richet, a multitalented secret society member. As Louis, you navigate a 3D environment to solve puzzles and explore a mysterious island in the midst of a political meeting to find your missing mother.

Louis de Richet has a great many possible skills and talents, which are separated into three skill trees. Near the beginning of the game, you select one of the skill trees as your class: Diplomat, Occultist, or Detective. This gives you a baseline set of skills to start out with. As you complete chapters, the game alerts you to your successes, your failures, and ultimate paths you could’ve chosen. Each chapter earns you experience points that allow you to level up skills.

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Near the beginning of the game, you choose your occupation. This unlocks an entire tree of skills for you to draw on as Louis de Richet.

These skills prove quite useful in the main gameplay, where you manipulate political figures and investigate your surroundings in order to locate your missing mother. Each NPC has immunities and vulnerabilities to different skills. For example, in conversations with Napoleon Bonaparte, he may be immune to the Conviction and Politics skills, while he might be exploited by using Etiquette. The skills you select affect which dialogue options are available to you.  

Frequently, a character might approach you in a Confrontation—a high-stakes battle of wits where you have a limited number of mistakes you can make. In these player-vs.-NPC encounters, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your opponents is vital. If you choose incorrectly and fail the confrontation, the consequences are tangible and, sometimes, quite harsh.  

Your skills also may assist you in uncovering clues and solving puzzles around the island. If you get stuck and need a hint, you can spend some of your limited effort points (which replenish at the end of each chapter) in order to use de Richet’s experience to give you, the player, some helpful information.

It is a game with high expectations when it comes to the player's intellectual capabilities. The only way to succeed is to thoroughly explore your environments and to think critically about the clues you uncover—though, for a game with such difficult puzzles, sometimes understanding its dialogue poses even more of a challenge.

I imagine that, in its native French language, the dialogue reads wonderfully. In the English version, there’s a laundry list of issues, the biggest of which is just awkward and clunky text that is frequently phrased in a stilted manner. A lot of the biggest offenders of this type seem to figure in Louis’s internal monologue, where he has such thoughts as:

“I absolutely need to find you, Mother”

“And if I can believe my vision, you don’t have much of a place in her heart”

“For crying out loud, why did you hide supplies in the middle of nowhere, Mother?”

Another issue is text that did not seem to be localized in any way, shape, or form. Localization, for anyone who may not know, is the process of editing text to make it more natural and logical for native speakers. It’s frequently text that’s been translated into English from other languages; however, localization may also occur if you have text native to the UK that you’d like to present to U.S. players. It’s an important process, seeing as unfamiliar and confusing slang may be immersion-breaking.

Another issue in The Council is the anachronistic language. It’s scattered throughout the game and tends to undermine the historical feel. Now, writing period pieces can be extremely difficult, and there is definitely room for some light anachronism, in my opinion. It disrupts the player’s immersion when, in a story that takes place in the 18th century, the main character says, “Pull yourself together, man.” Unfortunately, the quality of the voice acting sometimes draws even more attention to awkward phrasing and anachronisms.

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Throughout the game, you get to choose which path to follow. These choices carry quite a bit of weight, and most of the paths diverge quite drastically.

The tragic part is that most of the side characters are voiced reasonably well. The accents are fine, the dialogue seems believable, and the voice actors themselves seem to have changed the text in order to speak more naturally (which is evident in mismatches between the subtitles and the voice acting).

The main character is not handled quite as skillfully. For some reason, the choice was made to use an American actor who does not put on any sort of accent for his character (a Frenchman, born in Paris). It’s not just that they cast someone with an American accent… They cast a man who speaks in a whiney, Californian form of iambic pentameter. It’s what I’d imagine a production of Hamlet to be like if a casting director ever made the grave mistake of putting Hayden Christensen in the title role.

In my gaming experience, I’ve found that convincing acting can make up for mediocre dialogue. Wonderful writing can distract from a so-so performance. But to have awkward writing paired with unconvincing acting? Ouch.

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Gregory Holm, just one character who exemplifies the strange (and creepy) animation used throughout the game.

It’s an absolute tragedy that a game with such an intriguing story and incredibly innovative mechanics is so unappealing to two of the senses. Nonetheless, I would heartily recommend this game to anyone with a vested interest in how narrative games are evolving and what they’ll look like in the future. Playing it has been a valuable experience, and, despite its writing flaws, the game has a logical flow and tells a very compelling, original story.

In short, the animation style may be uncomfortable, the dialogue could use additional localization to sound more passable to native speakers, and the voice acting sometimes makes me want to use steel wool as earplugs…

… but it’s also incredibly well-designed from a gameplay standpoint. With puzzles that truly challenge the player, sleek UI and menus, and a leveling system that affects how your player tackles verbal confrontations, this game is simply one that should not be ignored.


Announcing: Anthony Valterra's Heralded Return to Games

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It seems to be a truism here at Brunette Games that the only thing that's constant is change. In that spirit, I bring you another announcement: Anthony Valterra is joining the Brunette Games team. 

Anthony brings to the team more than 20 years' experience in brand and grant management. He has stewarded federal, state, and local grants of as much as $10M-plus, with a track record of success evident in above-average outcomes across his career. His game industry experience includes business management for Wizards of the Coast's Dungeons & Dragons and Avalon Hill lines. He was also the founder of Valar Project, publisher of role-playing game products. He primarily serves our client Robot Sea Monster Games as their director of client communications, as well as directing business for Brunette Games. Because if there's one thing Anthony has, it's direction.

What's incredibly cool about this announcement is that Anthony gets to return to games after a decade-long hiatus, in which he racked up all those wins as a grant manager. The two experiences together will make him formidable in any boss battle.

Of course, for those of you who know us, the other obviously cool thing here is that Anthony joining Brunette Games makes this a family business, as he is also my husband. We make an awesome team in so many other aspects of our lives together. We're pretty much unbeatable as the king and queen of games.

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Anthony gets SO MANY COMPLIMENTS on this sweatshirt. Seriously.

You can now find Anthony on our team page, but here are some questions I asked him to answer for you, by way of introduction.

Tell us about your experience in the game industry. You've done a lot of different things, and you're well-known in certain circles.

I've had the pleasure of working in both the traditional (board and dice) game industry and the electronic game industry. My very first job is one that most people in the game industry can relate to - working in a virtual sweatshop. I knew enough Photoshop to work on a production line for an interactive sports product. It was a contract gig with a very short deadline. In order to complete it, we had to hot-seat the work (one team would sleep while the other worked, and then we would trade places). We got the project done.

Two years later, I went in for an interview at Wizards of the Coast, and there, on my future boss's desk, was that same sports product. Life is funny that way. Years later, when I left Wizards of the Coast, I made an attempt at running my own companies - Valar Project and Portal East. Valar Project put out 2003's bestselling Dungeon & Dragons-compatible book. But Portal East made more money, by brokering print and manufacturing for game companies out of China. I then worked for a 3D-asset design studio called Lamplighter. Lamplighter created 3D characters and other assets for games, including assets for BioShock.

How have you applied your knowledge of game theory to the world of grant management?

I was quite surprised to find that there are a number of parallels between playing games and managing a grant. Both have a set of rules, sometimes very arcane, using unique terms and often written very poorly. Both have "win conditions" and assets or "meeples." And both require you to work and compete against other people who are also trying to use the rules to reach their win condition. And like the best modern games, the rules can change as you proceed. Frankly, running a grant can be quite maddening, if you don't see it as a game!

What excites you most about returning to the game industry?

The game industry is notorious for being a difficult environment. It suffers from social issues, financial issues, and political issues. And it is my first love. I played D&D as a kid, and the love of gaming has stayed with me my whole life. It may be a crazy world, but it is where I feel at home.

What do you see down the road for mobile game development?

There might be a brand new thing coming that I don’t know about, but if I were going to bet on something, it would be augmented reality. I think Pokemon: Go was an initial foray, and in the coming years, we will see some truly innovative, story-driven, augmented reality games.

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Please join me in welcoming Anthony to the Brunette Games team.


New Release: 'Lily's Garden' for Tactile Entertainment

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Last spring, I flew to Copenhagen for a whirlwind week of concept brainstorming with the top-notch team at Tactile Entertainment. The seeds of that work have now come to full fruition: Lily's Garden.

Here's the official game description:

Get your hands dirty in Lily’s Garden, our new FREE puzzle game! Help Lily restore her great-aunt’s garden to its former glory and rediscover her roots. Dig into a story full of twists and turns as Lily interacts with a cast of colorful characters. Plant the seed of romance with her handsome neighbor Luke, and keep her rake of an ex-boyfriend Blaine off her turf. Match and collect flowers in hundreds of unique puzzle levels to earn stars and grow your garden!

And the trailer:

While for business reasons I didn't stay on to write the game text for Tactile, I'm amazed by how much we accomplished in that whirlwind week, as is evident in the release version of the game.

What really impresses me about Tactile is that they prioritize both quality and emotional content in their games. Lily's Garden is only one example. What brought me out to Denmark last year despite a busy game studio and a full-time teaching gig was their dedication to the craft of game development, which you can see in their Bee Brilliant and Cookie Cats series of games. The team was terrific to work with, too, and if I have one regret about the insane 2018 I experienced in transitioning Brunette Games into a fully staffed studio, it's that I didn't get to see Lily's Garden all the way through to the launch finish line. But it's immensely satisfying to see the Brunette Games influence at work anyway. Even more satisfying is simply to play yet another awesome game from this talented team of Danes.

Here are some behind-the-scenes shots from my trip last spring. 

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Some of the Tactile gang in an after-work toast. The cozy, light-filled office definitely encourages folks to stick around...

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For most of the week, we were holed up in a conference room, brainstorming on a whiteboard. The great thing about this stage is that anything goes. The last thing you want to do when brainstorming is shut down any idea, no matter how seemingly nutty it is. You never know where something will take you.

I loved the views through the office windows. The light in Copenhagen, with the grey, wintry weather and combination of water, sky, and rain, reminded me a lot of Seattle.

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When Tactile first contacted me in early 2018, I played and fell in love with their Bee Brilliant games, getting serious heart eyes for the bee babies in the game. You can find plush toy versions of the BBs tucked in spots throughout the offices. Just typing this puts the bee baby theme song back in my head, in a good way.

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The other crush I developed on this one-week work trip was for Copenhagen itself. I sorely wished I'd had time to explore, but it was hard enough to sneak away during spring break from teaching. What I did see on my walks and bike rides left me wanting more.

The architecture is olde worlde magnificent. The city's recorded origins are in the 12th century, but archeologists have unearthed settlements dating as far back as 1020.

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As someone who's drawn to water but currently finds herself very much landlocked in the Midwest, I couldn't get enough of Nyhavn, a 17th-century waterfront that is one of the most picturesque I've ever seen.

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The citizens of Copenhagen are renowned for their embrace of the bicycle, with as many as 75% of city dwellers biking throughout the year as a form of transportation. One of my most memorable experiences was biking across town in the middle of snow flurries to meet with Tactile's CEO, Asbjoern Soendergaard. That's the moment I truly felt like a Dane.

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I hope one day to get to return to this incredibly captivating city. Until then, I'll play Lily's Garden, and remember my time at Tactile fondly. 

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From Game to Movie: A Review of 'Escape Room'

Ever since 1993’s live-action Super Mario Bros. movie, the trend of turning video games into movies has only grown stronger. In the past couple decades, gamers have seen many of their most cherished games make it to the big screen. The last few years alone have seen the Assassin’s Creed and Tomb Raider series arrive in theaters. Even now, gamers are expected to see both Sonic the Hedgehog and Pokémon get live-action adaptions in 2019. Yet, throughout all these adaptations, one genre that always seems to work is horror. Whether it’s the two-part Silent Hill movie series, or the six installment Resident Evil series, movies based off horror games seem to have staying power. And one thing that helps keep this trend interesting is that this horror movie treatment isn’t always limited to video games. Right now, escape rooms have become a growing trend as a type of physical adventure game, and it was only a matter of time before audiences saw it taking to the big screen as well.

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My name is Dexter Woltman. Not only am I Junior Writer/Designer here at Brunette Games, but I’m also an employee at Escape STL, a company that creates and operates escape room games. Essentially, escape rooms are games that see players locked in a confined space where they must work together to solve a series of puzzles and escape a room before the timer runs out. Much like most video games, escape rooms always have a story. Players are in there for a reason, and if they don’t get out in time, their lives are at stake. But what if these stakes were real? Director Adam Robitel tries to answer that question with Escape Room, a 2019 psychological thriller that pits six adventurous strangers in an escape room where the matter of life and death is a very real concern. As an employee at an actual escape room, I can say this film is both logically insane and satisfyingly enjoyable.

In the film, the six players enter the escape room much like any other group I’ve personally seen come through one of my rooms. They’re all there to play a game, and ultimately, they hope to win it. The six players in the movie are told they’ll receive $10,000 each for winning, which is already a much higher incentive than anyone would actually get for completing a regular escape room. The catch? This escape room has deadly consequences, but of course the players don’t know that going in. These players are also complete strangers to one another, having never met before being put in the room together. This introductory aspect of the team initially comes off as a bit odd. Typically, escape rooms are for groups of friends or families. It’s for people who want to have fun. Personally, I’ve never seen someone who wanted to be locked in a room entirely with strangers, but I’ve also never seen someone being offered $10,000 to do it. 

Leading the film are stars Taylor Russell and Logan Miller, playing the respective roles of Zoey Davis and Ben Miller. They’re joined by fellow cast members Deborah Ann Woll, Tyler Labine, Jay Ellis, and Nik Dodani, together forming the team of six players. Ben and Zoey are the first characters the audience is introduced to. Zoey is a socially inept college student. She’s a genius, but also too shy to speak out. Meanwhile there’s Ben, a young man struggling to make a living in a grocery market. While both actors give convincing performances, it’s Zoey who proves time and time again that her oddities are merely part of a larger, brilliant whole. Rarely do we get to see young women of color leading these types of films, and Taylor Russell never fails to go all-in with every scene. There’s also much to see with the supporting cast, with Deborah Ann Woll giving a noteworthy performance as a veteran struggling with ongoing PTSD.

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Deborah Ann Wolf awaits the beginning of the game. Official trailer image.

 The film certainly has interesting characters, but where it often falls short is with these characters’ interactions with one another. Right at the beginning, the only one of them that has ever even done an escape room is Nik Dodani’s character, Danny. Not only has he done an escape room before, but he’s done over 90 of them, making him quite the expert. His character acts as a vehicle for introducing the rules and logistics of an escape room, especially seeing as how an employee lecturing them on the rules, something I frequently have to do, just isn’t very immersive to the movie-going experience. However, despite being the only member of the team with any experience, most of the other characters just make fun of him. They think he’s weird, and they’re rather mean to him. One would think that if $10,000 were actually on the line, people would listen to the only person that’s done one of these things before. There’s also the matter of the two leads, Taylor Russell and Logan Miller. Separate, they're intriguing, but together, the characters just don’t make sense. There’s no real chemistry between them, and it makes their trust for one another seem uninspired.

What is inspired, however, are the games themselves. Escape Room takes its players through a series of several rooms. Most modern escape rooms actually have more than one room, but this movie takes it to a new extreme. Honestly, it makes real escape rooms look almost dull in comparison. Each room is brilliantly designed. Not only are they diverse, but they contain truly unique concepts you wouldn’t see anywhere else. Although this film certainly pays homage to such horror franchises as Saw and Hostel, albeit with considerable less gore, its concept takes it places no other film can go. The puzzles are also fresh, bringing unique ways of thinking to every challenge. Truly, it’s just a fun movie to watch. Even in areas where it lacks depth, it makes up for it with spectacles and action pieces that continue to carry the film forward.

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The players enter a new room. Official trailer image.

Another highlight of the movie is its sense of danger. At first, none of the characters know that their actions might have lethal consequences. Even in the first room, what seems like danger they try to brush off as just an effect. However, when the first character dies, the reactions of the rest of the cast are truly intriguing. For the first time, these characters are aware of the danger. At that split-second moment, everything changes for them inside, and the actors portray it wonderfully. 

In contrast, however, sometimes the danger is also almost distracting. As far as actual plot goes, this film doesn’t have much. It’s really just people trying to escape rooms, and that’s about it. The film spends so much time with its dangerous set pieces, it fails to develop an ongoing narrative. Even the Saw movies, which also feature people going from room to room, always features a secondary story that correlates with its main games. Sure, in Escape Room, certain characters develop in certain ways, but it doesn’t really pay off as well as one might hope. It doesn’t help that the film seems to kill off its more likable characters first, leaving its less likable characters to carry it through the end. By the time the players actually do reach the final room, it’s hard to really care about what happens to some of them. This is only weighed down even further as the film suffers through its final act. Almost as if it wasn’t sure what it wanted to do with its finale, when the actual escape room ends, the film just seems to stagger, jumping around, as if the show creators weren't sure how to wrap it up. It also feels like the movie ends 10 minutes too late as it tries to stuff what could have been two hours worth of conspiracies into just a few scenes. So while it’s an entertaining ride, it doesn’t hold a lot of substance.

With a movie like this, there are also expected deviations from its source material. Its source material being actual escape rooms, that is. To start, it’s definitely a lot more extreme. While watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of the wild costs it would have actually taken to make each room. And when one of the rooms practically destroys itself, I leaned over to the person next to me and told her how much of a nightmare it would be to reset it before the next group. From an employee’s perspective, this movie is downright impossible. But from a movie-watching perspective, it’s quite the thrill ride. After all, the film does still stick to the core of what makes an escape room what it is. There are puzzles, players, a locked door, and hidden means of escaping. One core aspect of escape rooms that might seem to have changed, however, is the timer. Escape rooms typically always have a ticking clock on the wall. It lets players know how much time they have to escape  before it’s a mission failure. In the movie, however, the ongoing timer is noticeably absent. Yet, in an intriguing move, the movie replaces the actual timer with a timer that’s a bit more creative. Instead of a clock ticking down on the wall, each room has its own type of environmental timer. Whether it’s increasingly dangerous heat or an escaping gas, the players still always feel a sense of urgency. Even if there’s not a real timer on the wall, the players will still fail if they doddle for too long. It’s a move that strays from its roots, but keeps the film more fun.

Overall, Escape Room is an enjoyable ride. It takes a modern trend and evolves it into a theatrical set piece. While the story itself is lacking, it’s hard to expect anything too deep from this type of film. The movie certainly lives up to its promise of displaying an extreme escape room with death as an actual consequence. And, even if some of the character choices are dull or difficult to accept, Taylor Russell does a great job at keeping the audience engaged. The creators stayed true to the concept of an escape room, all while pumping the film with scenes meant to spike adrenaline and thrills. While this film may not leave a lasting impact on its audiences, it's sure to keep them entertained for a couple of hours. And with this kind of concept, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see a sequel in the near future.

 Escape Room is now playing in theaters.

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