A set of e-mail-based games that provide a pleasant distraction for a quarter of an hour each month. Impressive, especially since they’re entirely free to play.
|Rating:||★★★★ (Highly recommended)|
|Hints taken:||Average of 1 per game|
|Time:||Average of 11m55 per game|
|URL:||Escape the Mailbox|
Front & Briefing
I can’t remember how I was directed to Access Escape, but I subscribed to their monthly mailing list in October 2020 when it started up. I started playing their free “Escape the Mailbox” mini-games in February, so this is a review of the four most recent games (You’ve got Ghost Mail, Carnival of Curiosities, A Shuttle Shambles, and The Loco Love Tester) which I feel have given me a good sense of the series of a whole.
Getting started on any game is easy; just reply to the initial mailing list e-mail with “start” at the top of the message whenever you want, and get ready to start hitting refresh on your inbox!
Each mini-game has a basic setup and narrative, which forms a rough framework for each of the puzzles. The e-mails are all plain text and most of the games take the form of some kind of conversation, for instance via text message with a friend, or sending responses to a computer’s challenges.
The writing is fairly functional, without a huge amount of flair, essentially just there to set up the next puzzle. I would have liked a bit more interactive-fiction-style storytelling, and I think this could be done in a way that subtly hinted at some of the puzzles (the code for the final puzzle in You’ve got Ghost Mail springs to mind, which otherwise needed a realisation that I don’t think a lot of people would easily jump to), but this is a matter of personal preference, and for people who just like solving puzzles, it’s perfectly adequate, if occasionally in need of a proof-reader.
The system that Access Escape are using works quite well, essentially looking for the correct answer in your e-mail reply, and either replying with the next puzzle if you get it right, or suggesting you try again or ask for a clue if you don’t. The puzzle are linear (you get one at a time), though don’t particularly build upon each other; I’m not sure if this is a limitation of the e-mail platform or just the style the creators have picked.
While it’s usually obvious what you need to reply with, I’ve occasionally got it wrong, and it would be nice if the game anticipated that a little and replied with a clarification, or made it clearer in the puzzle-setting e-mail.
Being online, the creators have embraced the idea that it’s easy to google for things, so unlike in-person escape rooms, there is some outside knowledge required, and they assume it’s something you can google. While this is mostly true, I’ve found that in some cases they require you to find a particular google result, or perhaps have some knowledge of the subject area to aid you. I had to give up on one puzzle in A Shuttle Shambles that asked for a scientific fact that actually varies over time, and none of the obvious answers on Wikipedia seemed to be the version of the fact they had in mind!
Occasionally the need to google takes over a bit. For one puzzle in Carnival of Curiosities, I found myself needing to search for a dozen or so items to cross-reference a hint in the initial puzzle setup in order to solve it, unless I was missing a different, more obvious, way to solve it.
Overall though, they’re enjoyable little mini-puzzles. I’ve often had to bring up a text editor (or even a spreadsheet for a grid!) to do some working out in (a sheet of paper would work too), and some of the solutions have been inventive in ways that I’d consider excellent even in an in-person room.
Replying to any message with the word “clue” gets you a response with a pre-defined hint, and most of the clues I’ve got get increasingly more specific the more times you repeat your call for help, until they just hand you the answer if you need it. There’s no logic to determine if your previous guesses were on the right track or not, so often you will sometimes need to skip through a couple of hints before you get to something useful.
Overall they have judged the content of the clues well, and I haven’t often had to take more than one (if any) in any game.
Some of the games have a sense of progression supplied by the narrative, but there’s no indication of how many puzzles there are in advance, or when you’re on the final puzzle. But for fifteen-minute mini-games, I think that’s fine.
Shortly after finishing the last puzzle, you get a nice congratulatory e-mail, which contains your time, links to share on social media, and links to previous games in the series if you want to jump to those.
I really like that they’re able to tell you your time, as it adds a sense of urgency to the solving without imposing a time limit, and means you get to compare your time with friends afterwards. Just keep refreshing your inbox and hope your wifi doesn’t go down!