A car crash has put war veteran Robert Spear into a coma. While doctors and family crowd around his hospital bed trying to spark something within him, I’m trapped in his subconscious.
I’m there along with two of my friends and a smattering of Robert’s fragmented memories: star charts, family photos, toy dinosaurs and an old telephone exchange board on which my friends and I are tasked with re-connecting the pieces of Robert’s identity. In a space that looks like a childhood bedroom, I peer under furniture, inspect photos and look for hidden messages in the wallpaper. I pick up a plastic toy dinosaur. Is this a thing, I wonder?
Fractured: Remember Me is one of the latest escape rooms to hit Melbourne, located in a nondescript South Melbourne warehouse. Make the necessary connections and gather enough memories to kickstart comatose Robert’s brain and you’ll be released from the room.
I used to be sure that escape rooms weren’t my thing. They’re a mix of role-playing and puzzle-solving, both of which evoke a big shrug from me. But the humble escape game has evolved. Fractured, an abstract plunge into the subconscious, wrong-footed me.
“There are about 100 rooms in Melbourne now,” says Fractured designer Owen Spear. “We’ve had to keep it really cutting-edge to stay relevant.”
Expect period-accurate props, considered storytelling and a level of psychological detail and inventiveness I hadn’t expected from a puzzle game. And the abstract thinking encourages you to interact with a space in a way you wouldn’t normally.
I don’t want to give too much away. But in keeping with the premise, the puzzles operate on a kind of dream logic, using different parts of your brain to heal Robert’s. The story is experiential rather than direct. Spear concedes it’s incredibly hard to tell a story through an escape room, so plot points are scattered sparingly throughout the game.
Spear first encountered escape rooms while living in Budapest. He soon came home to Melbourne to design his own, located in a room out the back of his mum’s house. When Disappearance launched in 2014, it was the first in Melbourne, and it quickly became hugely popular (it’s currently closed for renovations). Now there are about 30 different companies operating escape rooms here. Fractured is Spear’s eighth room, and his most difficult one to solve. Many of his older ones are still running, including a burlesque-themed room in Oakleigh and a mine rescue game in South Melbourne.
Unlike some escape rooms, Fractured isn’t just a bunch of puzzles. There are some unexplored depths here. There’s a picture of young Spear in the room, and a picture of his mother. The character whose head we’re wandering around in shares a name with Spear’s own father, who passed away when he was 14. It’s the abstract, personal aspects of the story that give this game its edge. It draws new connections that linger long after the locked door clicks open.
“I didn’t realise any of this until later when I was chatting to a psychologist friend, who said, ‘Man, you’re doing some weird psychological processing here’,” Spears tells me. “I should be paying you for therapy right now.”
It’s an odd turn of the tables, because Spear himself is a clinical psychologist who spends half his week as a couples therapist. His two roles seem miles apart, but they’re both essentially problem-solving jobs – although one involves unpacking problems for people, while the other involves creating them.
Fractured: Remember Me starts at $88 for two people and is recommended for two to six players. The game generally takes between 60 and 90 minutes to complete.
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on July 1, 2019. Some details may have changed since publication.