Think you’ve got what it takes to be the fastest escape room team on the internet? Paruzal Games is hosting the Great Escape Tournament, competing to play through four virtual escape room games for bragging rights.
First, some details about the tournament: registration is open now through March 12, and the tournament itself will take place in four rounds. The first round will have a three-week window to play, and then teams will be put into a bracket for the next three rounds, which will be open for a week each. The cost is $200 per team (the games are played over Zoom and you can have any team size), and even if you don’t move forward in the brackets, you’ll still be able to play all four games. (Note that if you’ve already played any of the titles, then your team can’t win the tournament, though you can still participate if you want.)
Next, what is a “live-hosted online escape room,” anyway?
So glad you asked! Paruzal invited us to try out one of their games, “Pizza Makes Anything Possible,” so we could see what it’s like. Our team was Paul Benson, Matt Blum, and myself. The games are run over Zoom, and a game master hosts the session. You schedule a time slot in advance for an hour and 15 minutes—that gives you time to get an introduction, with an hour to complete the game. When the meeting starts, you’re presented with a splash page (like the one below) showing the title of the game.
Our game happened to be hosted by James Warner, the owner of Paruzal, so we were able to ask him a little more about the company and its games. All of the games so far were written by his wife Elyssa, and the idea started off as games drawn and written down on paper that they would make for each other to play as gifts. They decided to turn it into an online venture to share their games with the rest of the world, and when the pandemic hit last March and brick-and-mortar escape rooms needed to close their doors, they decided to flip the switch early to give puzzle fans the chance to keep playing. Paruzal has been successful, and the Warners have added to their ranks, with about 6 gamemasters on staff and some starting to write games for the company as well. The tournament is to celebrate their birthday.
James set the scene for us with a description: your boss Kirby has gone on vacation and left you in charge of the pizza place, but you didn’t really get a lot of information ahead of time. When you show up to work, you find yourself in a a bit of a conundrum: you have an hour to get the pizza shop ready for customers, but … you can’t even get into the shop at first, let alone prepare the pizzas! What follows is a series of puzzles that requires some investigation and (at least for us) a bit of experimentation.
The way the game works, the gamemaster shares their screen with your group and describes what you see. Your team says what they want to do: want a closer look at the soda fountain? Just say so. Want to put pizza dough in the sink or crawl into the pizza oven? Tell the gamemaster, and they’ll let you know if it works. In some cases, you’ll get another illustration showing a close-up view of certain scenes or objects, but in others the gamemaster just provides a description or adds some scribbles on the screen, pointing out where you find something or labeling things for you.
Playing the game reminded me a little of the online point-and-click Flash games that I played a lot a few years ago. You get to look around a scene and get descriptions, you can pick up items and try to combine them with other things, but it’s also a series of static images rather than a real-time animation of your actions. I know that some brick-and-mortar escape rooms have shifted to virtual by having a staff member physically move through a room with a camera, and you direct their actions. Paruzal’s games are a little more like a computer game, though with a live human brain running the show so you don’t get weird errors because you used the wrong syntax or didn’t click on the exact right spot. It worked pretty well, and the gamemaster can also give you hints if you want them, or nudge you in a direction if you’re taking too long on a particular puzzle (which we did in at least one situation). I really enjoyed the illustrations, too—they’re a lot lovelier to look at than the computer-generated environments that many of the point-and-click games used, and give a lot of personality to the game. (The games have different illustrators, and the pizza parlor was illustrated by Yokaona.)
Paruzal even makes custom games, in case you want to create an experience for a particular group or a special event. For instance, the “Sneaking Backstage” game was originally designed for a Bruce Springsteen fan group, and has a lot of Easter eggs hidden in the game—they’re not required to complete the game, but are there for fans to discover. If you commission a custom game, you can request a theme and what sorts of things you want to include, and they’ll run the game for your event and give your group exclusive access to it for a limited time. Later, it will be added to their roster of games that anyone can play.
If you’ve missed playing escape room games during the pandemic, or you just want a chance to play through one with friends who aren’t nearby, you should check out Paruzal and see if any of their escape rooms strike your fancy. Or, enter your team in the Great Escape Tournament and match wits with other groups to find out if you’re the fastest escape room team on the internet!