22 national teams qualified from their countries’ qualifying campaigns, with two other wild card teams made up of solvers from around the world arising from other competitions on the Red Bull Mind Gamers site. These 24 teams, in total, were split up into two sections of 12 depending upon their arrival date in Hungary, which in turn depended upon how far they had had to come. Each section of 12 played an identical semi-final game on the same day, either Thursday or Friday. All 24 teams were brought to a studio on Saturday where the results of the semi-finals were announced, with the best teams taking part in a final. Excerpts of the semi-finals and the final itself were broadcast in a live show on Red Bull TV, still available on demand, and the faster team in the final won the championship, along with a trip to the US and a delightful physical-puzzle trophy.
The rest of this post is a reflection on, and will contain spoilers for, the TV show.
The semi-final and final were relatively high-concept, with a strong element of story running through it, being heavily based on the Mind Gamers movie, by deliberate design. The first problem here is that the movie was intended to come out before the finals took place, but the movie’s release was postponed until afterwards. While the show tried its hardest to convey the salient points of the movie, much of what was broadcast only really made sense in the context of parts of the story, which were not really communicated clearly to the viewing audience. They were communicated more clearly to the players at the time, not least by the use of annotated video clips; perhaps including the parts of the video clips within the broadcast would have made this clearer, by the “show, don’t tell” principle.
The quantum logic theme was used to hint the theme of quantum entanglement. To that end, a couple of puzzles in the semi-final used the principle of complementary colours, using the traditional RYB colour model, which was strongly hinted at in diagrams in a research paper given to the players on arrival, but was not made completely explicit, especially to those for whom English was not their first language. (Teams whose players had colour perception issues struggled in practice with these puzzles.)
The semi-final involved teams playing short rooms in sequence: in short, they were a virtual reality maze, a laser maze, an intuition-testing grid-following puzzle set in a great-looking vortex tunnel, a physical puzzle that appeared to be a laser maze but proved to be the opposite, a large-scale parity puzzle with balance elements, a split-team muted communication challenge and a large-scale physical pipe jigsaw. I’m going to refer you to the really interesting three-part (and counting) write-up at Really Fun from Mark, who was part of the United Kingdom team, and the counterpart write-up from Ken of The Logic Escapes Me and Exit Games UK.
The United Kingdom team finished an extremely respectable fifth out of 12 in their semi-final, especially taking into account that colour perception issues affected the team relatively badly, the team was one of the few for whom one of the sensors on the parity puzzle had inadvertently been jiggled (technical term) so that it was not reflecting the intended behaviour and the fact that one team member had suffered an allergy attack brought on by having been served cross-contaminated food, not just affecting their performance alone but also the state of mind of the team at large. (The UK team members who are publishing their blogs are being noble and not mentioning that, for fear that it comes across as sour grapes at not having won, but I think it’s relevant.) The winning team from that semi-final was Slovenia. They went on to face the team from Ukraine who won the other semi-final.
The final involved the two teams playing head-to-head over the course of four short puzzles (a rolling ball teamwork challenge, a physical puzzle orientation maze, a light-based disc orientation test and a cable jigsaw) followed by an unexpectedly co-operative challenge. This co-operative challenge advanced the plotline and illustrated the teams performing one of the pivotal heroic turning-point actions of the story, though it did not come across clearly on screen.
Afterwards, there was a return to the vortex tunnel for a sequel puzzle to the one from the semi-final, using different information to the first one, and the teams’ performances relative to each other were used to the better-performing team the head-start advantage of a considerably decreased workload in the final puzzle… which returned to a format used in the national qualifying competition months ago, but with greater difficulty! The Slovenian team repeatedly pipped the Ukraine team on the four head-to-head puzzles and thus earned the head-start in the final; while the Ukraine team nearly caught up, they only managed to overturn about three-quarters of the two-puzzle deficit, and the Slovenian team finished to win the championship!
As a TV show, it came across very well the second time you watched it and knew to pay particular attention to the story, but it came across as quite a hot mess the first time round, and I doubt many people will have given it a second chance. It looked and sounded gorgeous; the sets were as high-tech as you would hope. As a technical achievement, it’s also first class; the quantity and quality of video editing involved is scary, impressive and befits a major marketing organisation with a very wide variety of interests.
The show was hosted by Alex Zane and Liv Boeree. Alex Zane did not come across as especially credible, and the show did not play to Liv Boeree’s strengths. It was noteworthy (though probably shouldn’t be surprising) how well extremely accomplished puzzle solvers from around the world spoke English, in a way that reinforces how privileged first-language English speakers are. (It was funny to hear other teams swear liberally using good old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon curses!) Tania Sachdev did come across as credible and having a point of view worth sharing, Dr. Scott Nicholson bore the heavy load very well in terms of trying to make sense of it all and the cameo by Ernő Rubik was an excellent touch.
It was difficult to follow what was going on in the show much of the time; I felt that I had to sit back and let it wash over me. For someone with more than a little interest in the field to be struggling in this regard may be a very bad sign. It was pretty clear that there was a huge clash of motivations and requirements between Dr. Nicholson’s original design, what the Fox in a Box team were able to realise and what Red Bull needed the show to be, and the overall result ended up falling between stools. As exciting as it was for the show to be live, it was evident that Red Bull don’t really have experience in televising game shows, particularly puzzly ones. The definition of game show is almost as thorny and hand-wave-y as the definition of escape room, but this felt like it had the game show nature to me. (I regard this as a good thing.) Very few shows as ambitious as this are live – and the show probably only actually had to be live by a requirement of Facebook Live, one of Red Bull TV’s major distribution routes.
A case in point was the vortex tunnel puzzle in the final. Two excellent teams each spent over ten minutes on it without finding the solution. This is a fascinating result from the perspective of the broad-minded viewer (anything that can happen on live TV will do, and it reflects the purity of the game) and arguably just plain dull TV, twice, from the perspective of the more marginal viewer. It has been suggested that while very clear instructions were prepared for the teams, they may not have been conveyed accurately, bearing in mind that both teams had English only as a second language. Both teams were extremely nervous, especially as frustrations rose over time, and both teams placed far too much attention on certain props in the room that were there as a guide rather than as part of the puzzle as such. It didn’t matter at all in terms of affecting the result, but I don’t think it made for great viewing.
There are plenty of sayings along the line of “Perfect is the enemy of good“. This clearly was very far from perfect. It also had much to commend it, and overall was one of the most exciting and thought-provoking steps forward in the developing global history of the escape game genre. Many thanks to everyone who worked on the project for letting us join in the fun, and very many thanks to Red Bull for funding it.