Published October 27th, 2017 @ 4:52 pm EDT by Paul

REVIEW: Vault 202 by Project: Escape (Marietta, GA)


4/5 Claws

Challenge: 8.5
Awe: 7.5
Care: 9
Theme: 8.5
Team: 6.5
Signature Color: Sky Blue


Vault 202 is based on the Fallout video game series and the claustrophobic, dark-snark propaganda against extreme deprivation translates well.  In terms of its tone, Fallout keeps its suggestive charge through its tension between the cynical gallows-humor of the propaganda and cringe-worthy naivete of its NPCs, underlying the seriousness of… well, Nukes.  Grounding their universe in irradiated earth keeps it absurd, and absurdity is tonally hard to pull off.  There has to be an overall futility that can be suspended by a more immediate predicament; ‘we all live in Hell, but we have to forget about that right now, because a bomb might go off.’

When that kind of a story becomes 3D and live action, such as in Vault 202, the best way to convey it is not to try.  Propaganda posters and the radioactive break-room-art style of the Vault Boy himself appear as much in the puzzles as in the decor.  The layout of the room prepares you for it; it’s not that it’s all clean and elegant like the game of Go; it’s stark and distressed.  Several of the puzzles turn on the idea of ‘making do’ with almost nothing: you might learn of a result you have to achieve, where the solution is to imagine how close you could get to that goal if you had to settle for much, much less, and then finding a way to get there instead.  My room buddy didn’t appreciate that so much; it seemed like a less valid kind of puzzle design.  I found it more than valid, innovative because the room does tell you, overtly (though only once) that if you don’t have what you obviously need, you may have to improvise.  That should be the very essence of a Fallout room, right?  I actually got so used to that, I found a solution to one puzzle without even using the clue that was hidden in another part of the room–and I like it better without the clue.  It made me feel like I was a _lot_ smarter than I am.

And that’s the potential this room has: the design philosophy behind the puzzles is one that can make players feel very, very smart.  This is apt; Fallout is about outsmarting, not just the enemy, not just nature-turned-hostile, but also surviving the brutal, idiotic attempts of your own country to provide for you.

There’s no reason it should lose points for originality just because it was inspired by a video game.  It’s one of those translations that might have more art value than the original (but I’m not a video game critic.)  There’s a kind of good taste–it doesn’t try to bring everything across, but it does render certain icons–the two-headed bear on the New California state flag, the jarring optimism of the mascot, and, most of all, the fact that you can trust the menace of the bomb to be honest with you but you can never trust your own culture: it lies more than the enemy.

I’m not sure I can get behind absolutely every one of its puzzles–sometimes it feels like there wasn’t a way to determine what kind of arbitrary decision was made about what went with what in a given puzzle–but in its best moments, whenever you’re at a loss, you can just cop the same snyde attitude of the brand itself, and let it Jiminy Cricket you back on track.  That’s probably the most unique thing about it, that kind of nuke-mutated conscience (altered, damaged, still-smiling!) that helps us laugh when the world is lying to us for absolutely no good reason.  In its best moments, it’s an example of a room that trains the mind toward techniques that would be helpful in real life.  Not in the aftermath of a bomb, that’d kill us all, but during all the times in life when we ought to have everything we need… which is all the time, because we never do.  Fortunately, life isn’t like an escape room very often… but when it is, it’s like this one.  


“Apparently I would be completely useless should I wind up living through the apocalypse.  I mean, I imagine most professional game designers would be; I can’t really believe that there would be much need for new games while we’re all killing each other for drinking water.  But at least now, my suspicion has been confirmed thanks to Vault 202.  Though Michael tends to portray me as some kind of grumbling ogre when I get frustrated [Editor: Paul actually resembles more of a caveman in these moments], my frustration in this room didn’t stem from the challenges or any other aspect of the room itself; what was actually starting to get to me was my own inflexibility.

In some respects, a game designer is a bit similar to a locksmith: when we create a lock (or puzzle, in this case) we tend to construct it in such a way that the key required to open it has a very specifically shaped key (or solution.)  Holding true to its theme, Vault 202‘s challenges presented me with something new: my expectation for what the solution to some of the puzzles was based entirely on what the various instructions told me they should be, but in a setting where resources were kept deliberately scarce to further the story, the pieces that “should” have been there were, in fact, deliberately absent.  The difficulty for me, as a player, was in accepting the fact that the actual solution to the puzzles required me to take stock of what was actually at hand and come as close as possible to the solution I was told to expect.  While Project Escape did a fantastic job of playing with my expectations in this way, emotionally the effect felt like I was smashing a lock open with a hammer or a ‘big enough’ rock instead of finding the correct.

I don’t fault the proprietors for this at all.  In fact, I commend them for it!  They created a way to set themselves apart from other escape room venues (or even their own other rooms) by doing something new, unexpected and innovative.  While it might be a little bit avante guard for some players, it is an example of exactly the kind of ‘bar raising’

1395 South Marietta Pkw SE
Building 200, Suite 202
Marietta, Ga 30067

(844) 372-2731

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