Date completed: January 2018 (4 players). We survived!
Creativity: 9.5; Difficulty: 7.5; Atmosphere: 10; Fun: 9.5.
- 2-4 players (we recommend 4)
- 70 minute room
- Fluent English
- Acute senses
- Full mobility
As advertised in the Dimensis website, when players venture into Deep Space, they may find themselves having to deal with inexplicable spaceship malfunctions, a friendly onboard AI, and trying to survive while something else makes its way onto the ship. Earlier this year, four of us ventured on board the Ishtar VII to explore a new star system.
One of our players had already tried the game before and indicated that there were several endings for Deep Space. Intrigued by this, I wondered whether we would be able to get the ‘perfect’ ending. Instead, what we found was that this game operates within nuanced moral grey zones and that there were no real ‘right’ choices, only consequences which determined our chances of survival. Houston, we had so many problems!
When we embarked on the Ishtar VII, we were given a relatively quick briefing on the mission, the spaceship and instructions on how to interact with the onboard AI Columbus. Less like the ominous HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey and more like the friendly GERTY from Moon, at least initially, Columbus was a constant feature in the game. It was not just a gimmick and stood out in many ways. Firstly, interaction with the AI was necessary to understand the situation and receive updates, and it was different to interacting with a gamemaster. Secondly, the responses to our questions actually felt interactive as the answers Columbus provided were in context of what was happening in the game. Columbus speaks fluent English and had no trouble ‘hearing’ Pá, who has a bit of an accent. The opposite was not so true: as Columbus sometimes used complex vocabulary and could sound muffled, Pá took a while to get used to him (other non-native English speakers might encounter the same issue).
The setting of Deep Space, although small, was detailed and very believable. We found equipment, storage and parts that made sense in that environment. As we began to learn more about the situation we were thrust into, from the AI and from our exploration of the ship, events started to happen. Our team quickly embraced action. Some tasks depended on logic, some were very mechanical – it indeed felt like we were on a mission to keep our ship functioning. We sometimes worked together and sometimes by ourselves. But what was curious, and quite special, is that some problems required decisions in order to be dealt with – and Deep Space actually explores player’s choice and agency.
Early in my military career, I became aware of the concept from behavioral science where ‘when you have a hammer, you treat everything like a nail’. This is very much an underlying idea in escape rooms. If you have puzzles, you solve them to get out. It’s not even a choice really. It’s what you must do. But what if there was real choice of not doing certain things? What if those choices then had consequences?
Deep Space is not strictly speaking an escape room and the element of agency really caught us by surprise. This is something more familiar in paper or computer based RPGs (think Mass Effect) and less so in escape games, but it is probably the most interesting characteristic of Deep Space. We foresaw zero-sum challenges requiring prioritisation and teamwork (which there were, mostly requiring logic, search and dexterity). However, we were very taken by the level of interaction and genuine choice afforded to players in what was essentially a closed environment. We did not expect a complex game which would test responses to moral predicaments under stress. We did not expect to see a player satisfied with a solution and other horrified due to the same thing.
As the setting suggested, the quick decision problems and spatial-logic puzzles revolved mostly around science fiction tropes. There were plenty of references to the genre. Having that familiarity to sci-fi storytelling assisted us in many ways, but also worked to our detriment in others. We were too quick in solving things, in some instances, to fully understand the ramifications of our actions. When you have a hammer…
In our play through, we actually tried to adopt a more curious and scientific perspective but ended up taking the ‘hammer’ approach by accident. This had serious implications for the development of our story and our interaction with the AI. Coming back to this aspect of the game, the personality of Columbus actually changed dependent on our choices. Some changes were more obvious than others. All left us questioning ‘is it HAL 9000 time? Will the thing turn against us? Or are we missing something subtle?’
Without spoiling anything, our end game was fierce and required us to quickly solve a situation which relied on players being observant to what was in the spaceship, and quickly utilise different aspects of technology when certain situations arose. We had to pay attention to how the AI was reacting with our moves (yup, it perceives where you go and everything you touch) and understanding the implications of those responses. It was all very consistent. At the climax of it, the four of us were scattered around the spaceship, each taking care of a different task (or part of a task), hoping the others would also succeed. It was intense. ‘We survived’ is all we can say.
After the game, we managed to have a chat with the young designer of Deep Space, Michael Armstrong. He has a knack for incorporating narrative into gameplay and his ideas for game design go well beyond having strong thematic settings. When Michael explained the different endings and how they could develop, it was obvious he carefully crafted many possible subtexts behind it all. During our tram trip back into the city, we discussed it and reflected on our actions during the game. One of our friends (the one who had played it previously with a different ending) contemplated what other choices did we have, especially when safety and risk were such crucial factors. Again, due to personal experiences and my time serving overseas, I explained that a compromise in short term safety can sometimes have long term positive effects, especially when dealing with unfamiliar cultural/environmental contexts. Sometimes, you just have to put the hammer back into the box and look for a different tool. Both Pá and I felt that some of our approaches to real life were reflected in our gameplay. A game so engaging that gets us thinking that deep after it ends? Rare thing indeed.
Out of the room
Service: The gamemaster who welcomed us to Dimensis before sending us into the spaceship did a concise briefing and we were free to leave our belongings outside of the room, in the reception area.
Communication: You talk to Columbus the entire game, and there isn’t exactly a hint system, because you cannot go ‘wrong’ – whatever you decide to do will have a consequence. If in doubt, you ask Columbus and he will probably guide you towards a solution. He was impressively responsive. But would you trust a machine?
Surroundings: Dimensis is located in Brunswick and quite easily accessible by tram from Melbourne CBD (took us approximately 30min). There wasn’t exactly a storefront for the venue when we went there at the time and it is located in a back alley. When you go there, keep a copy of Dimensis’ phone number somewhere and give them a call if you have trouble finding the proper entrance.