Category Archives: Blog

Announcing Escape the Book Club Killer by LockQuest

In a dank corner of a sooty industrial-era maternity ward comes a mysterious mewling: we’ve birthed a new baby, and now Untold Entertainment has a sister company called LockQuest.

LockQuest now open Escape the Book Club Killer real escape game toronto

LockQuest is my take on the real-life escape the room craze that has swept the globe. Inspired by online escape games and more recent fare like The Room on iOS, real escape games see you and your friends trapped in a room (in real life), where you have to collect clues and solve puzzles to find the front door key and get out.


Spoiler alert: there’s something important in the teapot.

Indoor Recess for Hogtown Residents

Ever since i played my first room escape game this past March, i knew i had to start my own company. Since then, Toronto has become a hotbed for escape games. By my account, Toronto is the most active escape game hub on the planet. You read that correctly: Toronto is now the world capital of escape games.

We have our 15-month-long winter to thank for that. A little-known piece of Toronto trivia is that Walt Disney actually scouted Vaughan, a suburb North of Toronto, as the site of a new theme park, but he ultimately decided that Toronto was too cold, and that the park could only operate seasonally. (Instead of Disney World North, we got Canada’s Wonderland. Small comfort.)


If old Walt had had his way, there’d be ears on that styrofoam mountain.

The great thing about live escape the room games is that they are played almost exclusively indoors. The only challenge for fun-seeking Torontonians is getting there!

Thankfully, LockQuest is directly across the street from the Summerhill subway station. In fact, we’re currently the only escape game in downtown Toronto that’s subway accessible. Every other game requires you to transfer to a bus or a streetcar or some sort of rickety Toronto Transit Commission ox-pulled wooden cart, which will no doubt be out of service whenever you try to take it, due to “signal problems.”


It’s okay, cuz they’re running shuttle oxen up Yonge Street all weekend.

Engagement-Style Escapism

What else sets us apart? Currently, there are two expressions of escape the room games: karaoke, and engagement. Karaoke-style places split their space up into a bunch of tiny little rooms, a la private room karaoke companies. You walk in off the street and select a themed room from a menu. Because they’re smaller, most rooms fit between 2-6 players (often snugly).

In an “engagement-style” escape the room experience, players order tickets online for a much larger, 12-player game. They arrive at the room at their appointment game time, and a dedicated staff greets them, and tailors the experience to those players. It feels much more like a theatre performance where you book in advance and mark the calendar with a big red circle, like they do in the movies. Then, you ride your bike through the hilly streets of a small seaside Oregon town to meet up with the rest of The Goonies while Cyndi Lauper sings the soundtrack, like they do in the movies.


This week only at LockQuest: do the truffle shuffle for special discounted tickets.

What’s the Story, Morning Glory?

Escape the Book Club Killer at LockQuest

The first game by LockQuest, Escape the Book Club Killer, aims to improve on the experiences i’ve had travelling around North America playing escape games. For one, we pay a lot of attention to story and character. Too many escape games dump you into a bizarrely decorated room (why’s that bicycle in here?) with no compelling reason to escape other than “the door’s locked.” Cool. How did i get here? Who locked me in? Why are the means of my escape scattered around the room in a tightly-knit logic puzzle format?


The first digit of that combo lock code is the number of submarines in the living room. But uh … why?

In Escape the Book Club Killer, all these questions and more are answered in the course of the game. You’ve responded to an invite by a friend-of-a-friend to attend this book club. You don’t know the guy who’s running it, but you’re adventurous, so why not? When you show up, your host seems a little unhinged, and the book he wants you to read – a sleazy pulp novel – is entirely inappropriate for polite company. In short order, he tells you he’ll be back in an hour, and the door locks behind him …. from the outside.

LockQuest Escape the Book Club Killer bed

Wanna make escape game players nervous? Put a bed in the room.

The House Always Wins

The more escape games my friends and i play, the more frustrated we become by the outcome. Too many companies brag about their low escape rates, and will do anything – to the point of being unhelpful and lying to players about the rules – to protect that precious win/lose ratio. After one escape game staffer told us not to touch the lights (when turning off the lights was crucial to solving a puzzle), we lost the game in frustration. The boss apologized mildly, and told us his host-in-training didn’t correct himself because that would have revealed the solution to a puzzle. “Besides,” the host chimed in, “It’s my job to make sure you guys don’t win!”

Oh reeeeeally.


Then it’s my job to never, ever give you any more of my money.

Listen: i don’t pay 30 bucks for an escape game experience that stacks Vegas odds against me so that i feel angry and cheated by the end of the evening. Carefully hosted escape games should be a dialogue between players with differing abilities, and hosts who care only that guests have a great time. The best outcome in any game is that the players have a blast; we’re not so protective of our game design or our egos that we’ll let it stand in the way of our players’ enjoyment!

Are You Still Reading This?

Come play Escape the Book Club Killer at LockQuest. We’ll go to Hell and back to make sure you have a great time. And if you’re observant, communicative, and logical, you just might escape Hell yourself.

Spellirium Finds Fans at Wordplay

i was delighted to be invited to take part in the WordPlay festival this past weekend, which celebrated the intersection of video games and literature.

The afternoon-long festival was held at the Toronto Reference Library, and was organized by Jim Munroe of the Hand Eye Society. Of course, i was there repping Spellirium, Untold’s “comedy trashpunk adventure game” in full game-promoting regalia.

Photo by Stephen Reese. Conjuctivitis by Poofingers McEyeballpoker.

My Spellirium shill get-up is meant to be vaguely reminiscent of the game’s Vendor character, who you don’t actually meet until you’re a solid hour and a half into it, so connection is lost on most people.

Also lost on most people (thankfully) was the fact that i had been sick as balls all week, and barely managed to drag myself with one arm up the street to the library. i slumped home after the festival to continue hallucinating and writhing around on my bed in a cold sweat with an increasingly alarming case of pinkeye.

Yours truly, a mere four hours later. Ask me about Spellirium.

Word Nerds: Assemble

i’ve been telling myself for many years that while Spellirium may not be everyone’s cup of tea, those who like it will drain the cup to its dregs. My theory bore out at PAX Prime this past summer, and again at the Wordplay festival as eager players sat down and were immediately engrossed by the game’s storytelling, humour, and leisurely-paced gameplay. i wasn’t exactly riding a stopwatch, but i would estimate that the average play time throughout the afternoon was a very impressive 30 minutes (!)

Spellirium favours no age. This kid rocked the game harder than most adult players.

It was delightful to be in a room where games like the interactive fiction title Lost Pig were being showcased, and where story-based games like Kentucky Route Zero were inexplicably being played on the Oculus Rift (we gave it a shot with Spellirium, but it didn’t pan out). i actually got into conversations with people about Twine, Inform7, Andrew Plotkin, and my recent purchase of a bluetooth keyboard for my iPad so that i could play IF games.

Birds of a feather flock together, and it was wonderful to have a place for us to flock. i hope we see more events like WordPlay in the future.


Unhappy Meal

Every summer, my family and i rent a cottage (camp/cabin/lakehouse), and for the past few years we’ve stopped off at the Lick’s in Barrie on our trip home.

Lick’s is a Canadian gourmet burger chain in decline. At its heyday, its flagship store in the Beaches, a wealthy Toronto neighbourhood, served up big, juicy and expensive “homeburgers” to large crowds of customers. The counter was packed with fairly cheery teens who sang from a list of scripted chants and cheers about fast food, many of which were patterned on 60’s doo-wop tunes.

The beginning of the end, i think, was when i visited a Pickering location in the mid-90’s. i brought my friend there because i said it was a neat experience, and i really sold him on the fact that the staff sang your order. When we got there, the place was deserted. The fairly cheery teens behind the counter had been replaced with desperately displeased wage slaves, and when i asked why they weren’t singing, the surly kid who took my order said “we only sing when the franchise owner is around. Siddown and eat your burger.”

Note: not a Lick’s employee, but the sentiment is the same.

Tabling the Motion

i regularly suffer from short term memory loss when it comes to bad restaurant experiences, so once or twice a year or so, i would return to Lick’s, including this most recent excursion coming home from the cottage. i politely asked the distinctly uncheery teen behind the counter if she could wipe down the filth-encrusted table by the window where my kids were sitting. She was right in the middle of the apparently more important task of binder-clipping paper liners to trays. At first, she passed the buck and asked one of her managers to clean the table (but he was up to his elbows flipping burgers, and peevishly deflected the duty right back at her). She then took 7 more cutsomers’ orders. i asked her two or three more times to clean the table. Fifteen minutes after i had made my initial request, she finally came out into the dining room to start cleaning tables … and began with not my table.

You had one job.

The grill crew wasn’t singing, the table was dirty, and the food was expensive and lousy. But it was the restaurant’s answer to the McDonald’s Happy Meal box to store my kids’ food that won the day. i saved it so that i could write this blog post three months later.

Designers Work Free on Tuesdays

The money that Lick’s saves in hiring its winning employees apparently extends even to its graphic design and marketing personnel. Whichever bright bulb had created the misspelled signs posted around the restaurant was likely behind this abomination, the Lick’s kids meal box:

Lick’s – We’d like you to come up with some sort of fun mascot for the kids meal box – some laughy, daffy character that will really delight children and make them plead with their parents to bring them back to Lick’s so they can enjoy time together again. This character will imprint itself on our young customers’ minds, so that when they’re older, they’ll remember the joy they associated with going to Lick’s as a child, and they’ll want to return.

Graphic Designer – You’re only paying me minimum wage.

Lick’s – Fuck it. Just put a clown on the box.

Ooh – and make it pose like a Playboy centrefold.

Lick’s – Make it a fun-time, good-natured party clown who plays light-hearted pranks and rallies children to an enjoyable time at the restaurant?

Graphic Designer – Minimum wage.

Lick’s – Okay. Just use a clown from an early-90’s-era Microsoft Word clip art package.

Graphic Designer – Should he be standing upright with his arms spread in jubilation?

Lick’s – No. Make him hunched over like he’s masturbating in the shower.

You want some Lick’s special Gukā„¢ sauce on that?

Lick’s – And we need games and puzzles on the box. Some fun activities that the kids can complete with crayons, to keep them busy while mom and dad enjoy their meal. Maybe even something educational? Can you come up with, maybe, some sort of word puzzle or spot-the-difference picture for the kids to enjoy?

Graphic Designer – For $10.25 an hour? i still have a few assignments to complete for class tomorrow.

Lick’s – Fine. Do your best.

That oughta keep the little bastards busy for fifteen seconds.

Lick’s – What else? Maybe you could put, like, a connect-the-dots puzzle on the box?

Graphic Designer – I don’t know. I don’t really want to finish this project. I’m not into it.

Lick’s – Come on. You’re almost done. Just do the connect-the-dots puzzle.

Graphic Designer – I don’t know if I CAN. Can I level with you? I’ve been feeling really depressed lately.

Lick’s – Just push past it. We need to finish this box.

Graphic Designer – I mean REALLY depressed. Clinical, even. I feel like I can’t go on.

Lick’s – Don’t do this. We need you to finish this box.

Graphic Designer – I … I’ve even had thoughts of ending it all. I think I want to kill myself.


Graphic Designer – OKAY, FINE!!!


The flagship Beaches Lick’s store has shut down in the wake of a condo development. They vowed to build a new location in October, but there’s no sign of it.

After leaving the Barrie Lick’s disgusted with my experience, i wrote an angry complaint letter to head office. It’s been three months, and i haven’t heard back.

The Quest for Honest Feedback

Over the past few days, i’ve had a few colleagues run me through quick play-throughs of their mobile games. Maybe you’ve been there? A fresh-faced developer looks at you with his big doe-eyes, inclines his head, and asks plaintively “can i show you my game?”

Oh … crap.

Your butt muscles clench. What can you say? “No?” It’s not usually practical to make an excuse and bolt for the door. Face it: you’re going to have to play his game. And you hope to God it’s good.

It’s Not Good

When the game isn’t good, you say it’s good anyway. Why? Because you just can’t possible look into those dewy Disney bunny eyes and crush this poor developer’s dream. He’s worked hard on this game, you can tell. Probably spent a lot of time – and perhaps a lot of money – on it. And anyway, games are so subjective, right? Someone’s bound to like it. So you look at him and say, somewhat non-committally, “yeah. Yeah. It’s … it’s good.” And perhaps, while in the depths of your treachery, you may even add “i like it.”

You think you are doing this because you are a good person, and because the developers’ feelings matter more than honest feedback. In reality, you are doing this because you are a dirtbag.

Truth Is Love

There is nothing more poisonous to a developer than falsely positive feedback. If you’re developing a terrible (or lacklustre, or uninteresting) game, but your passion has blinded you to its shortcomings, the encouragement you field from players and colleagues will only hurt your cause. It’s like asking people “hey! What do you think of my shark-feeding skills?” and the people all say “yeah. Yeah. It’s … it’s good. i think you should stick your arm even further into that shark’s mouth. You’re not quite there yet. Keep going.”

We’re gonna need a bigger game.

The result is that the developer keeps feeding the dangerous shark until he gets his arm bitten off at the shoulder, he wanders away from the shark in disinterest, or he grows old with the shark and eventually dies, never having ventured to feed another, perhaps nicer animal. (And at this, my metaphor crumbles spectacularly.)

The Snowflake Factor

When a game has obvious flaws, why are we so reticent to give constructive criticism? It’s because we’re all rare and precious individualist snowflakes, and the emotional pain of failure (and the ego-bruising that it entails) is the worst affront we can possibly suffer. We would never want to inflict that pain on other people – the stinging truth that our creation is mediocre and uninteresting, or just not very special.

Because we’re all so thin-skinned … because spirited debate is now viewed as distasteful, and criticism is now chalked up to “one’s own opinion” and easily disregarded … we need to get craftier about the way we solicit feedback from people. Here’s what i’ve recently suggested to the colleagues who asked me to play their games (i haven’t tested this myself, but i’m very interested to know if it works):

Do not present the game as your game. Present it as your friend’s game. Say “my buddy’s making this game, and he asked me what i thought of it. i know him too well to give him good, impersonal feedback. Could you take a look?”

The potential problem is that for some people, the Snowflake Factor may even extend to arm’s length. You may not get honest feedback on your game, because the player doesn’t want to hurt your imaginary developer friend’s feelings. FFS. That’s okay: i got this.

Present your game like this: “Hey. My friend is making this game, and he wants me to invest in it. He says i’ll get a cut of the game’s profits when it’s released if i give him some money to finish it. Can you play the game and tell me what you think?”

You’ll never change into a real developer at this rate.

The Snowflake Factor is now working in your favour. The player’s need to protect your feelings, since you’re standing right in front of him, now overrides his need to protect your imaginary arm’s-length friend’s feelings. With this tall tale in place, you will likely get the constructive feedback you need. And if the player asks if he, too, can invest in the game, you’ll know you’ve got something good on your hands.

In this age of developer delicacy and easily-bruised fruit, tactics like these are crucial to soliciting honest opinions from people who should know better.

Seventh Time’s a Charm for Spellirium at PAX 2013

It was a tremendous(ly tiring) pleasure to exhibit Spellirium for one day only (Friday! FRIDAY! Friday) in the PAX Prime Indie MEGABOOTH this past weekend. i wasn’t sure whether i could handle a Big Boy Booth, so i was happy to be included in the Minibooth, which i described to passers-by as the turducken of PAX booths. The games in the Minibooth were on display for two days at a time, most commonly – and then, like precious and beautiful rainbow toots, they were gone. (Many thanks to MEGABOOTH matron Kelly Wallick and all the Minibooth sponsors – Sony, Microsoft, Google, Intel, Mad Catz and Sound Blaster!)

Photo by Rick Dorey

If At First You Don’t Succeed (Because You Totally Suck…)

This was the seventh time Spellirium has been exhibited to the public:

  1. TCAF 2010
  2. Digifest First Person Show 2011
  3. GDC Play 2012
  4. GDC Play 2013
  5. Bit Bazaar 2013
  6. ConBravo 2013
  7. PAX Prime 2013

Along the way, i made a number of mistakes that i corrected, and i honed my presentation with each show. By the time i reached PAX, i was firing on all cylinders. Here are the errors i made from points A to B:

The Problem: Boring-Looking Gameplay

Spellirium is a lot of fun for word nerds, but certain types of games just don’t show well at conventions, where a million screens and flashing lights are competing for attention. Since the game is pretty static and requires concentration and thought (heaven forbid!), putting Spellirium on a big screen places the game at a disadvantage.

The Solution

The answer was to create an eye-catching and fast-moving trailer for Spellirium, and to loop it on the big screen, while players try out the game on a smaller laptop while sitting plaintively at the table.

The Problem: The iPad Can’t Loop

i’m not a huge Apple fan, largely due to the shackles the company puts on its devices and software. As of this writing, the iPad can’t loop video. i spent at least two shows pressing the PLAY button every minute and ten seconds like a chump.

The Solution

Luckily – and predictably – there’s an app for that. i use LOOPYLOOPY from Osamu Design to save myself from having to check in with the device as if i’m stuck in the LOST hatch.

Oh, fek. The convention centre is going to explode again, isn’t it?

The Problem: Shushes

When every other booth is blasting fresh jams, even an eye-catching trailer won’t cut it.

The Solution

Much to the chagrin of my neighbouring exhibitors, i have to crank the volume on the teevee to blast Blackbird Raum’s Honey in the Hair, the backing track to Spellirium’s trailer, in order to complete my attract mode. i love the song to bits and pieces, but by now, i’ve probably heard it more often than the band themselves … 1:10 on repeat for days on end. Anything for my art.


i love you guys, but … DAMN.

The Problem: Shy Salesmanship

The easiest way to make money is to ask for it. If people aren’t aware there’s something to buy, they’re quite unlikely to buy it.

The Solution

Make an attractive sign with a price on it and feature it prominently. At PAX, the $15 price tag for the Spellirium alpha was front-and-center on the inside lid of my cigar box.

The Problem: It’s Hard to Sell Air

In City Slickers, Billy Crystal’s character has an existential crisis when he realizes that as an ad salesman for a radio station, he sells nothing. At a conference, it’s much easier to sell people a tangible thing that they can hold and cuddle, instead of a cold unfeeling game code on a card or sticker.

Spellirium codes are contained within this baby cow. Please take one.

The Solution

i rolled my game codes up and stuck them into cool little glass bottles with corks, and then attached Spellirium labels to them with ribbon. The red ribbon denotes a PC code, while white denotes Mac. The paper inside contains fulfilment instructions, and a support address in case anything goes sideways. At PAX, i vended these codes from the little cigar box on my chest. They drew a lot of interest, and we nearly sold out of them.

The Problem: Homeless People are Scary

At ConBravo, i decided to dress up like one of the characters in Spellirium. The game has a “trashpunk” aesthetic, and villagers dress up in garbage, so i decided to follow suit. i had a bubble wrap vest with an extension cord for a belt, two bike tires criss-crossed on my chest and a soda bottle hat. Not knowing anything about the game, no one knew what i was trying to accomplish, and i didn’t look like anyone you’d want to have a conversation with.

Also, plastic costume components on a sweaty fat guy are never a good plan.

The Solution

The mom n’ pop apron/cigar box/boater hat combination that i wore to PAX was friendly and relatable. It was clear that i was trying to sell something, so people who approached me were prepared to hear my pitch. And what i was selling was probably something fun, like ice cream, candy or bread. This all worked in my favour.

i really want to build that popcorn cart at some point.

The costume was meant to be reminiscent of the Vendor character from Spellirium. In the future, it might be nice to add a few metallic trashpunk elements to the get-up, but the outfit worked so well at PAX that i don’t even think it needs tweaking.

The Problem: Spellirium Still Isn’t Finished

Uh … yeah. i’m going to stop blogging and get right on that.